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The Words of a Scribe - The Wordsmith's Forge
The Writing & Other Projects of Elizabeth Barrette
The Words of a Scribe
A random phrase today reminded me of something I did long ago, that I think you'd enjoy hearing about.

When I was in high school, I went to a summer camp that recreated ancient lifeways. It was one of the coolest experiences I've ever had. Among the many fascinating things we did was working with clay and cuneiform.

First we went to the clay mine by the creek and dug the clay. There we learned how to recognize clay in its natural state. We spent hours hand-cleaning it to remove tiny pebbles and stems and other trash. Clay is silk-fine stuff, its particles the size of powder, wet and slippery. Imperfections leap out at your fingertips.

We made the usual things, pinch-pots and coils and slabs. We learned how to make an oil lamp by shaping a round shallow bowl and then folding in two edges to make a sort of point to hold the wick. Not squeezing in the sides to make a channel: it won't burn that way. You have to fold the edges from the top inwards. I also made the donii goddess figure that still graces my altar. She is simplistic in form but the veracity of her creation gives her much power.

Then out came the book of Sumerian liturgy, in original cuneiform, the likes of which I didn't see again for a decade or more until people started releasing the hymns of Inanna in commercial form. Old words for old ways, in a form of writing as old as civilization itself. There were dried reeds for us to cut into triangular styli. Official documents were written on large slabs, decorative ones on vases and beads ... an apprentice simply learns to copy lines on a palmful of clay pressed flat. It took some time to discover, or perhaps remember, the way of holding the stylus and the delicate motions of pressing the sharp tip into the soft wet clay to make the several particular types of mark combine into the specific shape of a given word. One word at a time, phrase by phrase, copying out the lines in praise of an ancient goddess.

We weren't allowed to settle for less than a perfect copy. Mistakes meant smoothing out the clay to start over. Only when the writing on the small round of clay matched the writing in the book was it approved for firing. But I loved it, the clever dense writing like the tracks of birds on the shore, so deep with meaning. So familiar, my hands wrapped their way around it in a summer afternoon, dancing their way across the clay the way the hymn danced across my heart. Words. Prayers. The water-laughter of reeds and the patience of clay.

Once my teacher paused at my shoulder, approved the piece I had just finished and said in his rumbling voice: "One day you may be a scribe, and the people will read your words."

And those words settled into my soul like bones, to be covered by the soft silt of memory and turned by time into fossils at the bedrock core of my identity.

The firing, too, was a complicated thing: the shallow firepit kiln had already been dug and could be reused, but we had to gather wood and pile it carefully with stones to make a sort of enclosure. The dried clay went inside: bowls, oil lamps, figurines, cuneiform and all. The fire burned all day and all night. Eventually we dug through the ashes, carefully unearthing our objects. They were colored the deep buff of baked clay, patched with soot-black and iron rust and other strange colors given by the heat and the minerals. Old magic from the dawn of time -- our first magic, fire, used to turn mud into stone. The wonder of it never really fades.

I have some of those things still. My hands recall the quick strange steps of reed over clay. When I see in another world a ceramic slab dented with half-circles and odd lines, I know it for writing. My shelves these days hold a few books on Sumerian culture and religion. Inanna walks softly through my inner spaces, her sandaled feet leaving a trail in the sands of my spirit. And there are no ruins here, only the bones of memory worn smooth by time and lives.

I was and will always be a scribe. Perhaps not in every life, but enough that it runs through my soul like a river from which fish are forever leaping to flash their silver sides in the sun. I could climb out of a starship onto a strange new world, and slip on the edge of an alien river ... and my fingers would touch the silken clay, and something in me would stir and remember. Words. Prayers. Of such things we all are made, pressed by the gods into the clay of time.

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14 comments or Leave a comment
From: (Anonymous) Date: July 6th, 2008 03:20 pm (UTC) (Link)
That is just beautiful. Thanks for posting. Do you think doing activities like that encouraged your interest in paganism?
ysabetwordsmith From: ysabetwordsmith Date: July 7th, 2008 12:33 am (UTC) (Link)


Things like this certainly helped develop my awareness of ancient religions and cultures, but I've studied them all my life. I've always had an interest in historic crafts and skills. Glimmers of memory led me to study some cultures in more depth. I think it was around high school when I really clicked with Sumer in particular. Ancient Greece, the Celts, and Native American stuff I grew up with. I discovered Afro-Caribbean traditions in college.
stonetalker From: stonetalker Date: July 6th, 2008 03:28 pm (UTC) (Link)

Record Keeping

Reading that gave me an epiphany.

It hit me like lightning that there is a difference between a 'scribe' and a 'record keeper'. A scribe predominantly 'wrote' things. A record keeper 'recorded' things. They might have written them, but also they might have done cave paintings, or painted a buffalo robe, or embroidered a tapestry, or beaded an egg, or simply sang songs and told stories.

Wow. "NOW" I understand.....
glitteringlynx From: glitteringlynx Date: July 6th, 2008 03:49 pm (UTC) (Link)

Re: Record Keeping

More accurately a scribe copied things. The scribe was necessary until the invention of the printing press. Until then, the only way to make a copy of a book was to re-write the text in another book.

Record-keepers would copy down current but new information such as expenses, names, etc. We still do record-keeping today. We have professionals such as registrars and accountants, but many people do it manually to keep track of things in their day to day lives.
ysabetwordsmith From: ysabetwordsmith Date: July 7th, 2008 12:30 am (UTC) (Link)

Re: Record Keeping

In Sumer a scribe could make things up or write things down. Much of what they did was record-keeping and copying, but they often wrote poetry too. Many of them were temple scribes and so also a kind of far-flung clergy ... not for leading rituals, but they composed and recorded a lot of the liturgy. It was a highly respected profession. Exact details varied by culture, over time. *chuckle* Writing itself emerged largely for tallying the contents of storehouses.
From: tinceiri Date: July 6th, 2008 03:41 pm (UTC) (Link)
I liked reading this. I have a much better idea as to how you view spirituality, now.
ysabetwordsmith From: ysabetwordsmith Date: July 7th, 2008 12:27 am (UTC) (Link)


Yes, this is a pretty good sample of my spirituality.
From: browngirl Date: July 6th, 2008 05:53 pm (UTC) (Link)
This was absolutely beautiful, and evocatively written. *is wowed*
ysabetwordsmith From: ysabetwordsmith Date: July 7th, 2008 12:39 am (UTC) (Link)
*bow, flourish* I'm glad you think so. When I start thinking about a particular language, it leaves a notable footprint on whatever I'm writing or saying at the time. Some of the imagery and the cadence of Sumerian came through there.

I have a t-shirt with a Sumerian riddle on it. I was actually able to solve it before I saw the answer on the back. I only know a few of the words, but I remember the associations and worldview. The riddle itself is printed in cuneiform with English translation.
wyld_dandelyon From: wyld_dandelyon Date: July 6th, 2008 09:46 pm (UTC) (Link)
I remember studying hieroglyphics in College. No sense of memory in that for me, but I love the idea of drawing words, of words as art, done beautifully.
ysabetwordsmith From: ysabetwordsmith Date: July 7th, 2008 12:36 am (UTC) (Link)
The Grey School of Wizardry has a class on hieroglyphs. I have a book or two on hieroglyphs myself. They are beautiful.
bodhifox From: bodhifox Date: July 6th, 2008 10:52 pm (UTC) (Link)
I liked this very, very much.
ysabetwordsmith From: ysabetwordsmith Date: July 7th, 2008 12:24 am (UTC) (Link)


I'm glad you liked it. This piece seems to have struck a chord with many people.
je_reviens From: je_reviens Date: July 7th, 2008 03:43 am (UTC) (Link)
Beautiful post.

For Christmas one year my ex gave me a silver goddess ring with a round garnet in it. On all the sides in relief are the names of the goddess in cuneiform. I love that ring. I've kept it longer than I kept the man.
14 comments or Leave a comment