We expend our lives in a torpid emission of discourse. High on allegory, dripping in euphemism and saturated with simulacra. Every utterance is a periphrastic orgy of recycled hot air. Language, we revel in it like pigs in filth, and we abuse it like buffed tartan lancers in a Mel Gibson film. But language carries so much more than merely the message of communication—it is a portal to the lore of our species. It is in language that civilisations are forged and destroyed in the glowing embers of a fire; timeless, motionless, yet at the same time in a permanent state of flux and evolution.
But what if we stopped.
What if we all shut up for two precious, evanescent moments, would we cease to exist? Would the ‘sacred sentience’ intrinsic to our blueprint shut down and disintegrate?
I have spent years researching the marriage between man and God and the sacred writ that extolled their bond. From Christian scribes espousing the virtues of the written word to prehistoric shamans retreating into the darkness of caves, entering a trance state and painting images of their visions as they petition the spirits in a form of hunting magic, man has always found some pictographic way to represent his dialogue with unseen forces. In the Judeo-Christian tradition, God created the universe by a series of utterances that inaugurated the creation of the world. He then instructed Adam to name all things, “and whatsoever Adam called every living creature, that was the name thereof” (Genesis 2:19). Judeo-Christian theology is not the only system of belief to ascribe divine providence to language though.
The idea that language is somehow borne out of the gods and holds magical properties, some that are inextricably linked to creation and the fate of mankind, can be observed in countless spiritual traditions. In fact, it is one of the few motifs that features in most if not all the mythologies of the ancient world; from the transcendent life-begetting incantations of ancient Sumer to Odin’s self-sacrifice on Yggdrasil, the world tree, to gain the wisdom and oracular properties of the runes. The Assyrian and Babylonian deity Nabu, the celestial scribe of fate, is credited with the creation of language and was worshipped as a patron god of scribes. Nabu’s cult was ubiquitous in the ancient world; he was recognised by the Greeks as Apollo and by the Romans as Mercury. Thoth, the Egyptian god of scribes and sciences, is the undisputed master of language. He is the author of all knowledge and the scientific disciplines, and becomes the instrument that allows the demiurge to materialise his creation.
While ‘the divine word’ has been associated with mysticism since the dawn of civilisation, some languages have undoubtedly achieved a ‘holier’ reputation than others. There have been several examples throughout history of languages that have been used largely for ceremonial practices; as a means to converse with God(s) and glorify the divine architect of the universe by sacred rituals and incantations that were more often than not indecipherable and inaccessible to the common man. Indeed, since the majority of people were illiterate, particularly those inhabiting the ancient woodlands of Europe (cuneiform and hieroglyphs predate runes by 3000 years), it stands to reason that only the priesthood class were fortunate enough to enjoy ‘special relations’ with the gods and speak their divine language. Therefore, the reality of a ‘sacred tongue’ or a ‘magical script’, understood only by the very privileged, was a convenient way to control and manipulate not only the spiritual lives of the people—but their fortunes, too.
The early Christian missionaries worked to change that. In my humble opinion, if Christianity had one advantage over the pagan religions it was slowly replacing (and bastardising), it was literacy. No longer would there be a linguistic barrier between God and His children. Christianity was not the only religion espousing the virtues of the written word to the masses, however, Judaism had been doing that for hundreds of years already. But has language retained its religious flavour in the minds and hearts of modern adherents? Do we, as the so-called enlightened progenies of our forest-dwelling ancestors, have any particular affinity or reverence for sacred tongues?
I have always found it interesting to identify and reflect on the linguistic similarities in languages spoken in Mesopotamia and the Fertile Crescent by looking at religious worship, place and deity names. My research has taken me from the charming austerity of the British Library to Jerusalem’s Old City, where I’ve spoken to clerics of several denominations and had the privilege of exploring the archives of the Bible Lands Museum. I have spent hours poring over wall charts, dictionaries and crumbling tomes of ancient Near Eastern (ANE) narratives. One thing is clear. Language variance was pervasive throughout the ANE. Not only was it pervasive, but many of the languages had completely different linguistic origins. Some were isolates (like Sumerian; a modern example of a language isolate is Basque), Akkadian is Afro-Asiatic (like ancient Egyptian, Hebrew and Aramaic), and Hittite is Indo-European (like English).
Now here’s the fascinating part, in spite of these differences, when it came to religious and/or perceived sacred language usage, many of the words stem from a common linguistic ancestor, as illustrated in the following paragraph.
The Sumerian deity Inanna, goddess of love, fertility and sexuality, was worshipped throughout the ANE. There is evidence of her worship in the form of devotional text on cuneiform and figurines excavated all over the region, from Mesopotamia and the Levant to Egypt. Her name(s) in the languages of the region:
Akkadian/Assyrian/Babylonian AŠTARTE or IŠTAR
Canaanite/Hebrew ASHTERET עשתרת
Egyptian ASET (Isis)
It is clear that in spite of the different language families, there is a common linguistic root to her name. There are many examples of this; another is the Akkadian/Assyrian/Babylonian sun god Šamaš (pronounced shamash) and the word shemesh in Hebrew and al shams or shamsiyyah in Arabic, all meaning sun. How did the name of an ancient pagan god become the equivalent semantic idiom in two of the world’s greatest monotheist religions? And, when uttering the words shemesh or al shams, are we invoking Šamaš? Or rather the healing or destructive powers of the sun? According to the ancient Akkadians, that is precisely what we are doing. By uttering his name we are conjuring his presence.
For as long as I can remember, language and spirit have been inextricably linked in my mind. I am now in the possession of a minefield of ideas and abstractions itching to be written. Like a petulant child tugging at the apron of a frazzled mother, it will be a constant niggle and an open wound until paper is pressed and the blood runs clear.