Mythology about books and writing
March 5, 2013 9:14 PM   Subscribe

I'm looking for myths/stories about books and writing. Not - and this is where I'm running into trouble with google - top ten lists about cafe productivity and self-publishing; I mean more like a hero whittling a pen from the boughs of Yggdrasil and then stealing ink from the Kraken, with the goal of writing down the secrets of Enki in order to embarrass him and get him to pay the 5 goats owed. Or whatever. Any location/time is fine! Can be short, can be long.
posted by curious nu to Society & Culture (20 answers total) 22 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: Does the Mead of Poetry in Norse mythology count, or is that more about oral tradition?
posted by Charlemagne In Sweatpants at 9:44 PM on March 5, 2013

How about God's hand writing on Belshazzar's wall in Daniel 5 or the writing of the Ten Commandments?
posted by Charlemagne In Sweatpants at 9:51 PM on March 5, 2013

How about The Secret of Kells?
posted by pickypicky at 10:07 PM on March 5, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Well in Hinduism, one of the longest epic poems in the world, the Mahabharata, was supposedly composed by the sage Vyasa, and he was told that the only worthy scribe would be the elephant-headed god Ganesha. So he asked the god for the honor, and Ganesha agreed, so long as Vyasa never stopped speaking, because Ganesha would leave as soon as his pen stopped writing. Vyasa agreed, so long as Ganesha didn't write down anything he didn't fully understand. So Ganesha broke off one of his elephant tusks to use as a pen and began writing, and Vyasa did his best to compose really complex and poetic epic stanzas that would make Ganesha pause, so that Vyasa could mentally compose the next verse before Ganesha caught up.

Did you mean myths like that?
posted by vetala at 10:34 PM on March 5, 2013 [6 favorites]

The Sibylline Books, maybe?
posted by trip and a half at 12:32 AM on March 6, 2013

Best answer: Odin hung himself on Yggdrasil for nine days to learn the secrets of The Runes that were formed by its roots.
posted by KingEdRa at 12:37 AM on March 6, 2013 [1 favorite]

Vellum by Hal Duncan might fit the bill.

Don't worry about spoilers from reading the wiki article, it's written in a particularly hard to make head or tail of way that's really more the point than the plot itself. I wouldn't say it's love it or hate it, more get through it and be surprised that it came together quite well in the end, or hate it. I've still not summoned the energy to read the sequel, Ink, yet.
posted by protorp at 12:52 AM on March 6, 2013

Best answer: The Cathach or "Battler" is an Irish manuscript from around 600 AD which was thought to protect troops in battle. "Before a battle it was customary for a chosen monk/holy man (usually attached to the McGroarty clan, and someone who was sinless) to wear the Cathach in its cumdach around his neck and then walk three times around the troops of O’Donnell."

The battle of Cúl Dreimhne in AD 561 is said to have been was fought over a copyright dispute. Saint Columba/Colmcille secretly copied a manuscript and started a rebellion when he was told that the copy belonged to the owner of the original (the infamous ruling of "to every cow its calf, to every book its copy".
posted by Azara at 1:26 AM on March 6, 2013

Best answer: There's the Egyptian god Thoth, who invented hieroglyphs. At different times in Egyptian history you also find the the Pyramid Texts, the Coffin Texts, and the Book of the Dead, spells to help you through the tests of the Underworld.
posted by jetlagaddict at 4:59 AM on March 6, 2013

Best answer: Does it have to be writing in letters? Philomela wove her story into a tapestry.
posted by BibiRose at 5:23 AM on March 6, 2013

Do these have to be long-known folk-tradition legends, or are newfangled stories and novels ok? Because if the latter, I contribute Myst and Inkheart.
posted by gakiko at 7:46 AM on March 6, 2013

Response by poster: Yeah, specifically looking for things of yore, not modern novels/stories. (I just realized I put /stories up there in the post where I meant to put /legends; sorry!)
posted by curious nu at 9:34 AM on March 6, 2013 [1 favorite]

One of the many plots in China Meiville's Kraken is very similar to your example. Kraken ink is very special and used to write special things that change the world.
posted by rebent at 9:35 AM on March 6, 2013

Best answer: Some places to start looking/figures to read about:

Ogma was a Scottish/Celtic god who invented a runic alphabet. Another Irish/Celtic goddess, Brighid, is said to be a patroness of poetry; she sort of got "adopted" by the Catholic church and turns up as St. Brigid, and some of the things about St. Brigid's biography lead the mind down some interesting mythological paths.

Wenchang Wang was a Taoist god of literature.

Saraswati is a Hindi goddess of literature.

Nidaba was a Sumerian goddess and scribe, and Sumerian writings often conclude with a prayer to her.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 10:27 AM on March 6, 2013

Best answer: Gilgamesh opens and closes (in some versions) with the title hero writing down the story of his travels as a way to ensure the immortality of his civilization. The way the myth was taught to me (and I teach it now) is that writing is the better alternative to the physical immortality that Gilgamesh tried and failed to achieve.
posted by bibliowench at 10:35 AM on March 6, 2013

Best answer: Here's another vote for Ogma. He devised the Ogham alphabet. Many of the megalithic standing stones in the Celtic lands (particularly Ireland) still bear ancient Ogham inscriptions to this day. See this and this and this.

Ogma may be related to the Gaulish deity Ogmios.
You will encounter some variations in the spelling of his name in your search; look out for Ogma, Oghma, Ogmios, and Ogmia.
posted by chatelaine at 12:49 PM on March 6, 2013

Response by poster: If anyone can give me search tips on how to look for this stuff myself, I'd appreciate that too. I'd be fine wandering through a big database of book/writing legends if I could find such a thing!
posted by curious nu at 8:06 PM on March 7, 2013

Another for the list-- Hermes:

"Others say that Mercurius [Hermes] invented them from the flight of cranes, which, when they fly, form letters - W E Z F..."

Unfortunately I can't quite help with a single source of book and/or writing legends; most cultures seem to have some god being blamed for writing of some kind, so you can try working through it on a cultural level-- it's interesting that no one's mentioned Central or South American legends, though I imagine there are similar threads, so to speak.
posted by jetlagaddict at 8:14 PM on March 7, 2013

There's Blake's introduction to the Songs of Innocence:

Piping down the valleys wild,
Piping songs of pleasant glee,
On a cloud I saw a child,
And he laughing said to me:

"Pipe a song about a Lamb!"
So I piped with merry cheer.
"Piper, pipe that song again;"
So I piped: he wept to hear.

"Drop thy pipe, thy happy pipe;
Sing thy songs of happy cheer!"
So I sung the same again,
While he wept with joy to hear.

"Piper, sit thee down and write
In a book, that all may read."
So he vanished from my sight,

And I plucked a hollow reed,
And I made a rural pen,
And I stained the water clear,
And I wrote my happy songs
Every child may joy to hear.
posted by low_horrible_immoral at 3:36 AM on March 8, 2013

If anyone can give me search tips on how to look for this stuff myself, I'd appreciate that too.

I am embarrassed to admit that the list I found you, I found simply by going to Wikipedia and looking at their List of Knowledge Deities and pulling out the ones that expressly said something about writing.

A good armchair head start I'd suggest for you, though, would be to check out each of the Wiki Pages on the list - and check their "References" section. If it's a book, track down the book; if it's a web page, check out the web page. And then check out the references for those sources.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 6:14 AM on March 8, 2013

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