By Sebastien Hayez. Published November 23, 2022
Gods of Type
Blaze Type has been designing typefaces shaped in mythology since its launch. Whether the references be Biblical (Apoc, Inferi, Armag), Nordic (Surt, Sigurd), mythological (Arges), the fonts published by Blaze Type exploit references linked to universes where the divine cohabits with the profane in a perfect osmosis or within a sacred war.
The demonic or angelic figures of our ancient beliefs, whose role as intermediaries established a link between the real and divine worlds, are supplanted by digital figures, linking the real and virtual worlds. If an archaeologist discovers our civilization in a few millennia, the superheroes of our comic books or our big screens will appear as our contemporary deities.
So it would not be absurd to ask which gods and goddesses are attached to our typefaces? But to answer this question, we can already trace the history of the deities associated with writing in the major religions. This is an opportunity to highlight the human beliefs linked to writing, as well as their evolution over the centuries and across the world.
West: polytheism and writing
Beliefs have no beginning. Their histories begin with man, while the most influential religions are also those related to the text. Writing is, among the different factors of expansion, the one that also allows us to study these ancient mythologies. Also, the deities linked to writing exist from the beginning of antiquity.
Mesopotamia, Sumer, Babylon
The Mesopotamians are considered to be the first people of the Neolithic period, since they were the first to master agriculture, the domestication of livestock, and also writing. Haya is among the oldest gods in the Mesopotamian pantheon. Associated with scribes, but also with grain and agriculture, he thus establishes a close link between writing and stock accounting. This intermediary position is also illustrated by his role as bailiff, guarding access to the gates.
His wife Ninimma is also linked to courtiers and scribes, as well as to children and their education. It would be tempting to establish a link between writing and pedagogy since cuneiform tablets are known to be the size of children's hands and to reproduce writing exercises.
Sumer is one of the Mesopotamian civilisations. It is not surprising to see in the figure of Nisaba (or Nidaba) an echo of Haya and his wife, since she too is associated with grain and writing, and this in the most ancient texts discovered.
"My noble sister, the holy Nisaba, has received the measuring rod and keeps the lazulite standard at her side; she spreads the great powers, sets the boundaries, marks the limits, she has become the secretary of the country... "
His reign is decadent when Sumer is supplanted by Babylon and the figure of Nabu, god of wisdom, minister of Marduk, then co-regent at his side of the Babylonian pantheon. Nabu and his wife Tashmeton are the inventors of writing.
"The god Nabu, the scribe of the universe, has given me a gift of his wisdom [...], I have learned the knowledge that the wise Adapa brought to mankind; the hidden treasures of the scribes' knowledge [...], I have been initiated into the omens of heaven and earth [....], I have solved the complicated divisions and multiplications that defy understanding [...] and I know how to decipher the inscribed stones from before the Flood that are hermetic, dark and confusing."
Later, Nabu would influence the figure of Tir, present in Iranian and Armenian beliefs, who in turn influenced Greek mythology in the form of Mercury.
Egypt, the second great ancient civilization, inherited the discoveries of the Mesopotamians: agriculture, animal husbandry, but also diplomatic practices, notably with the use of seals. Thoth, the god with the face of an ibis, represents divine intelligence and embodies the word. Under the figure of the moon, he is also the god of healers and magicians, that is to say of divine practices reserved for the initiated. As such, he is also master of all the arts, of speech, of the sciences of numbers and signs. At the crossroads of disciplines, he is also the god of writing and notes, as a scribe, the results of the weighing of the soul of the deceased. More than a creative god, he embodies the word of the creative god.
Her female counterpart in the Egyptian pantheon is Seshat, goddess of wisdom, knowledge and writing. But it is the latter role of scribe that characterizes her more, since her name means "she who scrivens" and she was also called "Mistress of the House of Books".
Tahmuras is the third Shah of the Pichidian dynasty according to Iranian mythology. After making the deevs (demonic creatures) his slaves through magic and strength, they taught him the art of more than thirty different scripts. However, he is also the inventor of looms, good fodder management as well as the domestication of chickens, hunting dogs and falcons.
Before the appearance of Islam, Tuareg mythology offers us Amerolqis, a giant with remarkable intelligence whose role is to initiate man to knowledge that was not intended for him. It is the archetypal manifestation of traditional social life: music, poetry and writing as an artistic practice.
The Greco-Roman pantheon is so rich in symbols and stories that it is difficult to trace a single origin for the figures associated with writing.
Hermes is probably the most popular of the Olympian gods as he is their messenger and the closest to man. God of trade, thieves and orators, he is also the guardian of roads and crossroads, god of travelers. He brings luck and is said to be the inventor of weights and measures. Certain hermetic beliefs make Hermes Trismegistus a Greco-Roman assimilation of Toth, since among their symbols, that of the psychopomp associated with the moon and the inventor of writing are common.
In the mythologies of the northern Arabian Peninsula, Al-Kutbay is the counterpart of Hermes Trismegistus and thus also represents the god of writing.
Mercury, a Roman figure corresponding to Hermes, is said to have invented the alphabet, inspired by the shape of cranes in flight.
Cadmus, a Phoenician hero whose lineage can be traced back to Zeus, is said to be the inventor of the Phoenician alphabet, the precursor of the Greek alphabet. The original myth is interesting: At Athena's behest, Cadmus marked out the limits of the future city and sowed dragons' teeth. From these sown teeth, soldiers were born who fought against each other until only five remained. Cadmus drew a sign on the sand for each soldier who had died and survived to remember them. By putting these signs together, Cadmus could tell his story and invent writing.
Among the humans, one hero stands out alongside Hercules: Palamedes, the inventor of numbers and eleven letters of the Greek alphabet.
Io draws the history of writing in mythology according to Geoffroy Tory (1480-1533). Surprised by Hera at the side of her husband Zeus, she finds herself transformed by him into a heifer. Offered at Hera's request, she finds herself captive but manages to be recognised by her own father by tracing her name with her hoof: a line for the iota and a curve for the omicron (substituted for the omega). Thanks to these two basic graphic signs, the whole of the ductus of the Greek and Roman alphabets is composed.
Writing is not only a system of signs, it is also an artistic practice and the different forms of creative writing are well represented in the Greek pantheon. The Muses represent the arts, and some of them have objects that clearly show their links with writing. Calliope, the muse of epic poetry, has a tablet and a stylus as her attributes. Clio, the muse of history, carries books and scrolls of parchment. The other literary forms, erotic poetry, lyric poetry, tragedy, hymns or comedies, are detached from the written medium.
Initially known as the nymph Carna, Janus gave her the power to open doors and protect children. She then became Cardea, goddess of door hinges. Her name is the origin of the etymology of kerning, establishing her as the goddess of this laborious task.
Norse and Celtic Mythology
Odin is, like the mythologies of the Mediterranean basin, the god of the dead, of knowledge, but, according to the poetic Edda, the inventor of the runes, the alphabet of the Germanic-Nordic peoples.
Other deities may be involved, such as Saga or Brigid associated with sagas or poetry, but the association with the written form is not attested.
In Irish and Scottish mythology, the god Ogma (Ogmios among the Gallic Celts) is the inventor of oghams, the Gaelic script. His name refers to engraving, i.e. the method of tracing these signs in wood or stone.
West: monotheism and text
Since Antiquity, the West has reappropriated the great founding myths of its culture over the centuries. However, the most important development in Antiquity is the transition from polytheistic religions to monotheistic cults. The text is thus placed at the center of the narrative, both as a vector of tradition and as a support for the divine word. While polytheism places the invention of writing in a divine, if not heroic, figure, monotheism anchors the text as a divine revelation: the text is sacred but not the writing.
The Book of Exodus gives us the story of the creation of the Hebrew script.
"Twenty-two letters he engraved and sculpted, by them he created the soul of every creature and the soul of every word. He weighed them, fixed them on a wheel with 231 gates and set them in motion in different combinations. And the wheel turns forwards and backwards... The aleph was associated with all the other letters and all the other letters were associated with the aleph. The bèt was associated with all the letters and all the other letters were associated with the bèt."
Among the Jewish people, God traces the characters of the Tables of the Law with a finger of fire. But after Moses' anger at the idolatry of the faithful, he broke the Tables and decided to rewrite them under divine dictation, according to his memories of the divine writing.
Thus, Judaism illustrates the particular links to texts that Christianity pursues.
Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John are thus very frequently depicted in the midst of writing their Gospels.
The saints of Christianism, by their actions, words or lives in general, are recognised by the faithful as figures with a close link to the divine. As such, each saint is recognised as the protector of a certain social category, be it a status or a profession. In the end, we are quite close to ancient polytheism in this case.
Saint John of Porte Latine, celebrated on 6 May, is the patron saint of printers and typographers: initially associated with winegrowers and coopers, the invention of the printing press, modeled on the winegrowers' press, made him the protector of the graphic industries.
Other figures coexist around the professions of the text. Saint Francis de Sales, patron saint of writers, was also the first to try to reach the faithful with his printed texts. Saint John Bosco is the patron saint of publishers, while Saint Jerome protects translators.
East: polytheism and writing
Eastern cultures differ radically from those of the West. Without being able to provide an exhaustive analysis of the various myths, several figures stand out in this vast panorama.
Brahma, the creative god in Hindu mythology, is considered to be the inventor of writing. He is depicted long before our era as holding written palm leaves in his hand. However, it is more the spoken word that is the essence of this sharing with the human world, since many different writing systems still coexist on the Indian continent.
Chitragupta is the god assigned to record human deeds and to punish its perpetrators or to gratify them through their karmas. As such, he is associated with writing and books. But it is probably Ganesha, the elephant-headed deity, who should be invoked if a writer seeks help from his patron deity.
Fuxi is a cultural hero of Chinese mythology and legend. Placed among the most important divine figures alongside his sister and wife Nüwa, he is the creator of humanity, the inventor of music, hunting and fishing, domestication and cooking, but above all of the eight trigrams that represent the principles of fundamental reality. Without being a scripture in the strict sense of the word, it is a system of cosmological divination allowing the representation of ideas. Even before the advent of writing, Shennong succeeded Fuxi as the "Great Ancestor", and as such was responsible for a system of notation using knots and strings.
More specifically, it is to Cang Jie, an imperial minister whose four eyes allow him to see the secrets of heaven and earth, that one must turn to find the mythical figure who invented Chinese characters. "When Cang Jie invented the characters, Heaven rained millet and the evil spirits cried in the night.
Wenchang Wang, on the other hand, is a Taoist deity in Chinese mythology associated with culture and literature. Thus, if the invention of the writing system is the discovery of a human, the invention of an ideographic system for divinatory purposes or literature is a divine matter. This proves that the pragmatic aspect of writing is relegated to the artistic or cultural aspect.
In Japan, Shinto is the oldest religion of the archipelago. Several creatures live side by side within it, but one vengeful ghost stands out in the person of Goryō, a spectre from the aristocratic class. During the Heian era (794 to 1185) he became the tutelary god of calligraphy, poetry and martyrdom.
Native American mythologies
Itzamma is one of the most important creative deities of the Maya. Depicted as an old man with sunken cheeks and a busted profile, Itzamma is the god of Heaven, Night and Day, but also the one who teaches medicine to healers. The Maya consider him to be the inventor of writing and books, and he is also responsible for religious ceremonies. In the Mayan pantheon, other deities share a role with writing. This is the case of the god of corn, protector of scribes and writing.
The Aztec pantheon includes many divine figures. But one of the most important is the feathered serpent god Quetzalcoatl, who was responsible for the invention of calendars and books. He is also the protector of goldsmiths and craftsmen.