Parables of inscription: Some notes on narratives of the origin of writing

David Lurie*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

2 Citations (Scopus)


The story of the god Thoth and King Ammon in Plato’s Phaedrus is perhaps the most familiar example of a script-origin narrative, but such accounts also exist from ancient China (such as Xu Shen’s postface to the Shuowen jiezi) and Mesopotamia (the poem “Enmerkar and the Lord of Aratta”). There are also rich and provocative ancient discussions of what it means to “borrow” or “adapt” writing from an adjacent (often more powerful) civilization, including a set of related narratives in eighth-century Japanese chronicles about Korean scribes importing Sinitic writing. Such premodern sources can be profitably juxtaposed with modern discussions of colonial and ethnological encounters with literacy, such as frequently quoted and requoted stories of “natives” taken aback at the power of writing, or Claude Lévi-Strauss’s famous “Writing Lesson” (from his 1955 book Tristes Tropiques). This article considers the persistent anachronism that marks such accounts. Whether premodern or modern, it seems they inevitably become parables or allegories of the powers of writing at the time of their composition, rather than plausible reconstructions of its earliest stages. What lies behind this difficulty in writing the history of writing?.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)32-49
Number of pages18
JournalHistory and Theory
Issue number4
Publication statusPublished - 2018 Dec
Externally publishedYes


  • Ethnography
  • Historiography
  • Inscription
  • Literacy
  • Writing

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • History
  • Philosophy


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