for forty years
the sheets of white paper have
passed under my hands and I have tried
to improve their peaceful
emptiness putting down“Forty Years,” by Mary Oliver
little curls little shafts
of letters words
little flames leaping
Writing really is amazing. Somehow these squiggly lines convey information that has allowed humanity to rise out of the field and forest and to create a civilization that is reaching toward the stars.
Was there a first word written down by someone a long time ago? Was it on a cave wall? In the sand? On a piece of bark with a charcoal stick? Poked into a clay tablet?
And what was that word?
Was it the name of a beloved? Or an enemy cursed? Was it to remember to pick up an item on the way home? Or a word describing a moment the first writer never wanted to forget — a birth, a death, the first successful hunt, or a wedding night?
Maybe it was a word signifying a place, like “home.” Or ownership, like “Kelly’s”
I’d like to know what that word was and what it looked like. I’d like to meet the writer and thank him or her for giving humanity the means to remember and to tell stories and to be empowered to rise up.
Historically, there are a few things we DO know about marks and etches left by ancient humanity. But this is what has survived and been found. It’s probably not even close to the actual firsts.
Around thirty-thousand years ago, in a cave in Chauvet-Pont-d’Arc, France, a man or a woman put a hand on the wall and spray painted a negative image of it. As far as we know, this was the first time that a human used a blank space to say something about themselves—a mark suggesting, “? was here.” Sadly, we don’t know anything else about this person. Not even a name.
But we know what their hand looked like, and it’s just like ours.
We have to jump ahead to around 3000—2500 BCE to get something beyond an image. According to Yuval Noah Harari in his book, Sapiens, the Sumerians invented the first writing (cuneiform). And the oldest surviving scrap we have from this era didn’t come from a poet or a sage, but an accountant who recorded a barley sale that ended with the first known name in recorded history, “Kushim.” In fact, sales records are pretty much all we get for quite a while.
Eventually we get the oldest known written story–the Gilgamesh epic, with the most ancient piece of this poem dating around 2000 BCE (see picture above), though it obviously had existed in oral form for quite some time long before that.
What I find fascinating about this is that some person, a long, long, time ago, decided to take a blank slate of mud and use a wedge-shaped stick to tell a story. And in so doing, this person gave humanity the ability to create a shared narrative about themselves, which, according to Harari, paved the way for empires to be built. Humanity was no longer limited to shared experiences around a campfire that came from memory. Now, we could store vast and complex meta-narratives that got passed from one community to the next, giving large, geographical swaths a sense of connection.
No wonder in our fantasies we imagine words to have the power to cast spells. Because in a real sense, they do.
Think about it. Somehow, the squiggly lines you are now scanning convey information to you that originated in my mind. This has allowed me to open a window into my soul for you, and even though I have no idea who you are, we now share a connection.
So go ahead. Take a blank sheet of paper.
And a pen.
And inscribe squiggly lines until they become, “little flames leaping.”
In doing so you participate with the rest of humanity in an ancient ritual that has not only connected us to one another,
But also to God.