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قراءة كتاب The Story of the Alphabet

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‏اللغة: English
The Story of the Alphabet

The Story of the Alphabet

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دار النشر: Project Gutenberg
الصفحة رقم: 6

said, however, jocularly, that he should like to know it himself, and for all the women to know it, that he might make love with less risk of discovery, and not so much chance of incurring the vengeance of their husbands." (Mariner's Tonga Islands, i. 116, ed. 1827.) The Smithsonian Reports, 1864, tell a story of an Indian who was sent by a missionary to a colleague with four loaves of bread, accompanied by a letter stating their number. The Indian ate one of the loaves, and was, of course, found out. He was sent on a similar errand and repeated the theft, but took the precaution to hide the letter under a stone while he was eating the bread, so that it might not see him!

Barbaric ideas fall into fundamentally-related groups, and the examples just given are connected with the widespread belief in the efficacy of written characters to work black or white magic, to effect cures, and otherwise act as charms—a belief largely derived from the legends which ascribe the origin of writing to the gods—legends themselves the product of Ignorance, the mother of Mystery. In an Assyrian inscription, Sardanapalus V. speaks of the cuneiform or wedge-shaped characters as a revelation to his royal ancestors from the god Nebo; among the Egyptians, Thoth was the scribe of the gods, and their oldest forms of writing were named "the divine." Chinese tradition ascribes the invention of writing to the dragon-faced, four-eyed sage Ts'ang Chien, who saw in the stars of heaven, the footprints of birds, and the marks on the back of the tortoise, the models on which he formed the written characters. At this invention "heaven caused showers of grain to descend from on high; the disembodied spirits wept in the darkness, and the dragons withdrew themselves from sight." On the altars raised to Ts'ang Chien throughout the Celestial Land, every scrap of fugitive paper which has writing on it is burned in his honour. In Hindu legend, Brahma, the supreme god of the Indian Trinity, gives knowledge of letters to men; and Nâgari, in which alphabet the sacred books are written, is spoken of as "belonging to the city of the gods." The handwriting of Brahma, legend further says, is seen in the serrated sutures of men's skulls; and as Yahweh or Jehovah wrote the "Ten Words" with his own finger, so Brahma inscribed the holy texts of the Veda on leaves of gold. The story of the culture-hero, Cadmus, introducing the alphabet from Phœnicia into Greece is well known; while in Irish legend, Ogmios, the Gaelish Hercules, is familiar as the inventor of writing. But perhaps less familiar is that in the Northern Saga which attributes the invention of runes to Odin:—

"Thought-runes shalt thou deal with If thou wilt be of all men Fairest-souled, wight and wisest. These are ded, These first cut, These first took to heart high Hropt." (Odin.)

Belief in the power of the spoken word, notably as a curse, has world-wide illustration; and not less is that in the power of the written word or of the pictorial symbol. Cabalistic formulæ and texts from sacred writings play a large part; the virtue in Jewish phylacteries and frontlets was believed to depend on the texts which they enclosed; the amulets worn by Abyssinians to avert the evil eye and ward off demons have the secret name of God chased on them; passages from the Koran are enclosed in bags and hung on Turkish and Arab horses to protect them against like maleficence; prayers to the Madonna are slipped into charm-cases to be worn by the Neapolitans; while not so many years back (indeed, so persistent are superstitions, that kindred practices obtain throughout Europe to this day) sick folk in the Highlands were fanned with the leaves of the Bible.


Fig. 1.—Magical Pictograph against Stings

In his instructive and entertaining book on Evolution in Art, Professor Haddon refers to a series of valuable observations on the use of picture-writing as a charm against diseases and stings of venomous animals, among the Semang tribes of East Malacca, made by Mr. H. Vaughan Stevens, and edited by Mr. A. Grünwedel. The women wear bamboo combs on which are drawn patterns of flowers or parts of flowers believed to be antidotes to fevers and other invisible diseases; for injuries and wounds such as those caused by a falling bough in the jungle, or the bite of a centipede, other means are employed. Among the magic-working devices incised in bamboo staves by the Semang magicians, Mr. Vaughan Stevens gives illustrations of one against the stings of scorpions and centipedes (Fig. 1), and of another against a skin disease (Fig. 2).

In the first-named there is depicted the figure of an Argus pheasant, the wheel-like patterns beneath which represent the eye-marks in the tail-feathers. On the left is an orange-coloured centipede, the head of which points to the tail of the pheasant. The dotted lines round the centipede are tracks which it leaves on a man's skin. On the other side of the Argus are two blue scorpions, the figures at the end of their tails representing a swelling in the flesh of the persons stung by them. The female of this kind of scorpion is more poisonous than the male, and is said to cause double stings, which are denoted by the two rows of dots in the top figure. "The significance of this bamboo is that as the Argus pheasant feeds on centipedes and scorpions, so its help is invoked against them by striking the bamboo against the ground."