Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Blogging and The Transformative Power of the Written Word

An article in the Biblical Archaeology Review recently touted the power of the written word in ancient times, citing blessing and cursing inscriptions which became infused with divine energy, giving "material reality to one’s innermost thoughts and even the soul itself."

Many early inscriptions were used in religious rituals, reflecting the belief in the magical power of writing. For example:

  • The well-known Gezer Calendar, a series of notes about planting and harvesting that dates to the 10th century B.C., was probably written on soft limestone so that the writing could be scraped off in such a ritual, with the written words literally becoming a kind of magic fertilizer blessing the agricultural year.
  • A woman accused of adultery was made to consume “the water of bitterness,” a cloudy concoction infused with the washed-off ink from the words of a written curse. If the woman was innocent, the curse would have no effect; if she was guilty, the curse would cause her thighs to waste away and her belly to swell. (Num 5:11-28)
  • The role of the written word is particularly reflected in the Book of Deuteronomy, which commands the masses to write down the words of God, to read it and treasure it in their hearts, and to post the written word on the entrance to their homes.
  • When Ezekiel accepted his prophetic mission from God during a dreamlike trance, he ate a scroll inscribed with the words of the divine message (Ezekiel 2:9-3:11). Having ingested the words, Ezekiel and God’s message become one. Similar experiences were had by Jeremiah, Isaiah, and John.

Ancient Mesopotamian scribes pictured their gods as literate, and viewed language as a powerful tool to approach deity. Scott Noegel's book Nocturnal Ciphers, explains how language can unlock the meaning of symbolic dreams in the Mesopotamian, Egyptian, Canaanite, Israelite, Grecian, and the Rabbinic traditions. Noegel discusses the importance of complex, writing based, puns as ancient hermeneutical tools with magical properties both in Hebrew and the rest of the Near East. A book review by Robert Knuse explains:
"...the key to understanding the value and meaning of enigmatic dreams for the ancients is to realize that the interpretation of dream images was accomplished by wordplays and punning. Both dream reports and their interpretive meanings were recorded with puns in the literary texts. The same is true for the dream books, which were tools for interpretation. Hence, the meaning of any visual dream image was connected to a similar sounding word or expression, which forecast the future for the dreamer. Punning not only unfolded the meaning of dreams, but it gave the interpreter power over them and turned the interpretive experience into a magical performative ritual (thus negating the power or impurity caused by the enigmatic dream)... [Noegel] suggests that a truly deeper understanding of dreams in the ancient word can be provided by the appreciation of this phenomenon of mantic punning."

In our modern society, we use the written word indiscriminately. It is all over milk cartons, cereal boxes, and doodle pads by the phone. We are less able than the ancients to see the transformative power of writing. Still, the written word can have a powerful effect in our lives.

I like the idea of using written words in an almost magical sense. Psychologists have recognized, for example, the therapeutic effect of symbolic acts such as the rituals mentioned above. Sometimes it is suggested that one write his or her frustrations or impotent rage against an abuser, and burn the words, or bury them. We can also send up prayers, hopes or dreams on slips of paper tied to a balloon. And, as popularized on the silver screen, we can send our longings out into the world in words written in a message in a bottle and cast into the sea.
Participating in such actions gives material reality to our innermost thoughts so that we can deal with them physically.

Putting my chaotic sentiments down as words in a story or a poem, or even a blog post seems to purge my emotions and brings order to my disordered life. An article in Scientific American, Blogging, It's Good For You, backs this up. Because of the therapeutic and stress relieving benefits of writing, the article says, blogging might be seen as self-medication. Drives located in the limbic system may explain why some people blog compulsively. Blogging may also trigger dopamine release.

I know I have used my blogging as a way to transform my tumultuous thoughts into a tangible form. Blogging is a way to give form to difficult emotions and send them off, figuratively tied to a balloon or as a message in a bottle. I post my otherwise obscure dreams and the words that are divinely revealed to me on the doorframe of my home site. This is where I attempt to reconstruct myself as a thinking, reasoning being, rather than simply a mass of emotional trauma. I will scrape these words off the screen and fling them on their way as a magic fertilizer that I hope will bless and consecrate my meager and human desires.


S.Faux said...

Yes, blogging can be a kind of self-medication, as long as we do not over do it.

In any case, KEEP BLOGGING. Reading your posts are often a medication for me.

esodhiambo said...

I've been wondering how to get my thighs to waste away.

Keri Brooks said...

This is a great post. Sometimes I think it's easy to forget the power of the written word. Thanks for the reminder.

I find writing to be therapeutic as well. That's part of why I started blogging in the first place. I write short stories, too. At first it was just an exercise to improve my writing, but now I have stories that I can't not tell. It's a neat feeling to see what's inside me come out on a page, even if I never show it to anyone else.

J G-W said...


That text in Numbers blew my mind. I don't ever remember reading that. But there it is, essentially a magical/divination practice right in the pages of the Old Testament. We certainly don't talk about that text in Sunday School.

I also agree that it's not that the ancients were somehow naive and we've grown beyond that. Words have spiritual power. We acknowledge that every week in front of the Sacrament table, as the priests struggle to get every single word, down to the last article, correct.

I've had many experiences of dream interpretation, where the key to the correct interpretation lay in understanding a dream image as a pun. I think that's literally (no pun intended) how our brains work.