Talking to God
A short blog, the fruit of my efforts to beat insomnia with night-time reading entirely unrelated to my work.
So I’ve been reading Graeme Wood on supporters of ISIS, and after that Penelope Wilson on hieroglyphs, rather different kinds of book but I recommend both. What caught my attention in each of them was a linguistic phenomenon I find intriguing, the impulse people can feel to take language, this practical tool we use to navigate around our world, and transmute it into something more exalted: a medium for addressing the divine.
I didn’t know until I read Wood’s book that Muslims of the Salafi movement cultivate an archaic style of spoken Arabic, a form of the language reflecting their desire to emulate the very earliest generations of Islam, al salaf al salih, the pious forefathers. Rejecting contemporary forms of Arabic brings them closer to the Prophet and the Quran, closer to God’s revelation. Wood describes having his colloquial Arabic corrected by an Egyptian Salafist (p.33):
Ahmad took me to lunch at a chicken restaurant where we ate well and he, over my objection, paid the bill out of his student stipend. He corrected my Arabic over and over, studiously transposing the street dialect that came most easily to me with the high register favored by Salafis. Chicken was not firakh, but dajaj. Any time I pronounced the letter jim with a hard g, in the Egyptian way, he corrected it to the more classical j as in “Juliet”: “Jamal,” not “Gamal,” was the name of the dead Egyptian strongman Nasser. The letter qaf, instead of vanishing without a trace as in normal Egyptian speech, had to be pronounced deep in the throat, where the soft palate meets the tongue: qalam [pen], not alam. My language was getting purer, word by word and bite by bite.
Qalam gets one closer to the origin of the word in Greek kalamos, as it happens.
Still in Egypt, albeit a few centuries earlier, another thing I didn’t appreciate was how significant the “hiero-” (“sacred”) bit of “hieroglyphs” was. From Wilson (p.18) I learned that the Ancient Egyptian word for this pictorial writing was medu-netjer, meaning “words of god,” and that the primary function of hieroglyphic script was to enable communication between Egyptians and their deities. This wasn’t a different form of language, of course, so much as an esoteric way of representing that language (though if I understand rightly, hieroglyphs were also associated with an archaic and ossified form of the Egyptian language).
By way of illustration, Wilson memorably describes the different audiences targeted by the three texts on the Rosetta Stone (p.31):
Greek (for the ruling administration of the day), hieroglyphs (for the gods), and Demotic (for everyone else).
She also rather beautifully encourages us to imagine that the hieroglyphs accompanying images of human activity and speech covering tombs might become audible: “the tombs would be full of noise, and the chatter of hundreds of people” (p.46). Again, if I understand correctly, the things depicted are summoned into existence by being named in hieroglyphic form. The hieroglyphs secure from the gods an Afterlife for the dead person as rich as the life they have departed. For the dead, I suppose, the tomb with its images and hieroglyphs in effect is that wonderful new life.
I hope I’ve got that right, because a) I find it frankly and gloriously mind-blowing, and b) it’s the main motivation for this blog. And while the whole idea was to be reading stuff at bedtime that was unrelated to work, I couldn’t help thinking about Greco-Roman things, too.
If the Greeks and Romans had anything like hieroglyphics or Quranic Arabic, linguistic ways of communing with God, it might be the dactylic hexameter. This is a verse form, and as Paul Fussell wrote in his classic book on the matter, Poetic Meter and Poetic Form, one of the essential effects of couching language in verse, making prose poetry, is to raise its register (p.12):
meter, by distinguishing rhythmic from ordinary statement, objectifies that statement and impels it toward a significant formality and even ritualism.
But if all metre is a “ritual frame”, as Fussell calls it, for the language it encloses, there are more or less elevated kinds of metre, and in antiquity the highest form of communication was that done in dactylic hexameters. That included conveying the utterances of the gods. In fact it was believed that the hexameter was invented by the Pythian priestess at Delphi (Pausanias 10.5.7), to be the vehicle for the oracles that the god Apollo shared with humanity.
A more familiar function of the hexameter, though, is as the medium for another kind of divine narrative, epic poetry. This is poetry describing, typically, a heroic world of superior humans (the hexameter in antiquity was more commonly known as the “heroic” metre), but represents divine speech in at least two ways. First, part of the greatness of the heroes of epic was the ease with which they communed with gods, who aided them and appeared and spoke to them. The epic world is one governed by the gods, and in Homer and Virgil and other epic poets we often see the gods discussing among themselves how events on earth should unfold. Secondly, though, this made the task of the epic poet a daunting one, since they needed inspiration sufficient to be able to relate the deeds and words of the very highest beings. Conventionally epic poets would claim that their poem was itself divine speech. “Tell me of the man of many wiles, Muse,” is how Homer’s Odyssey begins, and “Sing of the anger of Achilles son of Peleus, goddess,” the Iliad.
“Speeches of the gods” could even be shorthand for epic poetry. In Odes 3.3 Horace closely imitated the epic poet Quintus Ennius, Virgil’s great predecessor at Rome, and a speech that Ennius gave to Juno in a Council of the Gods in the first book of his epic poem Annales. At the end of his poem Horace admits that in formal terms he’s seriously broken the rules, putting this epic material in one of his own lyric poems:
Non hoc iocosae conveniet lyrae;
quo, Musa, tendis? Desine pervicax
referre sermones deorum et
magna modis tenuare parvis.
This will not suit the light-hearted lyre!
Where are you heading, Muse? Cease in your wilfulness
to report the speeches of gods and
diminish great matters in small measures!
Why? Because the only proper habitat for gods and their awe-inspiring utterances is the heroic measure, the hexameter.
More to my godless taste, I have to admit, is Juvenal’s take on this whole issue. In his fourth satire Juvenal lays into the emperor Domitian, describing the measures taken by the tyrant to get a huge turbot cooked. The poem is a parody of an epic (which doesn’t survive) by Statius on Domitian’s military exploits in Germany; as with almost all Roman satire it is written, like epic, in hexameters, an outrageous act of misappropriation by satire which established it once and for all as epic’s disreputable twin.
At 34-6 Juvenal parodies the conventional epic evocation of the Muse, the plea for access to divine knowledge.
incipe, Calliope. licet et considere: non est
cantandum, res uera agitur. narrate, puellae
Pierides, prosit mihi uos dixisse puellas.
Begin, Calliope! And do please sit down: there’s no call
for singing, these are real events we’re dealing with. Tell the story, maidens
of Pieria, and may I profit from having referred to you as maidens.
Brutal stuff, but that’s satire. He summons the Muse Calliope (the Muse of epic, the grandest of them all), then makes a nasty joke about the Muses’ sexual morality. I’m more interested in the first line and a half, because in them Juvenal carries out an expert demolition of this divine medium. Incipe, Calliope is authentically epic, but as he tells Calliope to stop taking it so seriously the verse form collapses, too. Some brilliantly shabby versification follows: non est is a useless, unemphatic cadence to the line, and res uera agitur deliberately obscures by elision another important structural element of the heroic hexameter, its central caesura or pause.
A less technical way of putting it is that Juvenal starts line 34 in epic mode, as he should when a god is being addressed, but then collapses into all-too-human prose. I find the aspiration that we feel to speak the language of the gods fascinating, but I find Juvenal’s utter refusal to respect it most refreshing, too.