I've long been curious how far back beliefs in the supernatural go.
From what we know about ancient religions and mythologies, belief in something that transcends ordinary human experience seems nearly ubiquitous. I suppose that without adequate scientific model to explain natural phenomena, nor even the tools to study them, deciding that it must be supernatural forces at work is natural enough. What puzzles me, though, is how detailed some of those beliefs are. The ancient Norse didn't just say that there was some powerful guy up there causing thunder somehow; they said it was Thor throwing a giant hammer called "Mjölnir" that was forged by the dwarves Brokk and Sindri, but while they were forging it a fly bit Sindri on the forehead and made him stop pumping the bellows (the fly was Loki in disguise, trying to fuck things up as usual), so the hammer came out with a handle that was too short.
So I guess our belief in the supernatural is not the only thing that goes back a long way. So does our penchant for telling elaborate stories.
A recent analysis of a 3,500 year old Babylonian artifact that had been gathering dust in the British Museum has shown that our belief not only in gods but in ghosts has a long history. The tablet came to the attention of Irving Finkel, one of the world's authorities on cuneiform and ancient languages of the Mesopotamian region. And when Finkel took a look at the tablet, he realized the previous translation had been incomplete and at least partly incorrect. The text is about how to get rid of a ghost -- and the front of it has the faint outlines of a male ghost being led at the end of a rope by a woman.
The gist of the text is that the way to deal with a haunting is to give the ghost what (s)he wants. In this case, the ghost is horny and wants some female companionship. How exactly the owners of the haunted house would talk a (living) woman into being the ghost's lover is an open question."It’s obviously a male ghost and he’s miserable," Finkel explained. "You can imagine a tall, thin, bearded ghost hanging about the house did get on people’s nerves. The final analysis was that what this ghost needed was a lover... You can’t help but imagine what happened before. 'Oh God, Uncle Henry’s back.' Maybe Uncle Henry’s lost three wives. Something that everybody knew was the way to get rid of the old bugger was to marry him off... It’s a kind of explicit message. There’s very high-quality writing there and immaculate draughtsmanship. That somebody thinks they can get rid of a ghost by giving them a bedfellow is quite comic."
Some of the most enduring mysteries of linguistics (and archaeology) are written languages for which we have no dictionary -- no knowledge of the symbol-to-phoneme (or symbol-to-syllable, or symbol-to-concept) correspondences.
One of the most famous cases where that seemingly intractable problem was solved was the near-miraculous decipherment of the Linear B script of Crete by Alice Kober and Michael Ventris, but it bears keeping in mind that this wasn't the first time this kind of thing was accomplished. In the early years of the nineteenth century, this was the situation with the Egyptian hieroglyphics -- until the code was cracked using the famous Rosetta Stone, by the dual efforts of Thomas Young of England and Jean-François Champollion of France.
This herculean, but ultimately successful, task is the subject of the fascinating book The Writing of the Gods: The Race to Decode the Rosetta Stone, by Edward Dolnick. Dolnick doesn't just focus on the linguistic details, but tells the engrossing story of the rivalry between Young and Champollion, ending with Champollion beating Young to the solution -- and then dying of a stroke at the age of 41. It's a story not only of a puzzle, but of two powerful and passionate personalities. If you're an aficionado of languages, history, or Egypt, you definitely need to put this one on your to-read list.
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