It’s International Literacy Day, which makes me want to take a moment to consider how incredible the acts of reading and writing actually are. Most of us in industrialised nations take them for granted, but the creation and use of writing systems is one of the main reasons humans have been so successful as a species, and I think anyone who really loves books will recognise that there’s something genuinely magical about how little black symbols on a page can create whole universes inside your head.
Many ancient civilisations recognised this, and most pantheons have a deity responsible for the creation of writing. My favourite of these is Seshat, a goddess of Ancient Egypt who’s relatively unknown (I thought I was pretty well-versed in Ancient Egyptian mythology, but I only discovered Seshat this year). Seshat invented writing, making her the patroness not only of writing, but also reading, record-keeping, mathematics, and architecture and building; she was the deity who recorded the lives of mortals – records which were consulted when the souls of the dead arrived for judgement – especially the successes and failures of the Pharaohs, down to how much treasure an individual Pharaoh took in battle. She was in charge of the rituals that surrounded the laying of a building’s foundations – including the one performed by the Pharaoh whenever a site was being prepared for a new temple – and of the surveying that took place every year after the Nile flooded (when all kinds of physical boundaries needed to be drawn up again).
Seshat is the only female figure depicted in the act of writing in all of Ancient Egyptian art. Her depictions are actually really interesting, because she’s always shown with a seven-pointed star above her head, a symbol of divine perfection, and as dressed with a leopard skin over her robe – a sign of supreme authority. Because Ancient Egyptians believed in wearing the skin of a defeated enemy, Seshat’s leopard-skin might mean that she was protected from, or had power over, leopards – a pretty big deal when leopards were (and are!) incredibly dangerous predators.
Of even more interest to me is her role as Celestial Librarian. As Mistress of the House of Books (one of her epithets), Seshat was the patron of all libraries on earth. Her priesthood was responsible for storing books, especially books of magic, and Seshat herself was the keeper of the library of the gods. She was the one who made writers immortal, by ensuring that a copy of every book ever written made it into the divine library.
A library containing every book ever written – doesn’t that sound like the most amazing place? That’s where I want to spend my afterlife!
Writing was considered a sacred art by the Ancient Egyptians. It wasn’t just a way to record things; it was also a way to bring certain events or things into being. The Egyptianologist Rosalie Davids said
The main purpose of writing was not decorative and it was not originally intended for literary or commercial use. Its most important function was to provide a means by which certain concepts or events could be brought into existence. The Egyptians believed that if something were committed to writing it could be repeatedly ‘made to happen’ by means of magic.Rosalie Davids, Handbook to Life in Ancient Egypt
So writing was literally an act of magic, making Seshat a very powerful and influential goddess indeed.
Basically, I think she’s really cool, and someone of interest to all us readers writers, and bloggers! And I’m going to try and take some time today to be grateful and joyful that I can read and write – and that there are so many wonderful things to read in the world.
Happy International Literacy Day!