52 Weeks of Writing: Week 26—Signs, silence, and letters to supernatural agents

52 Weeks of Writing: Week 26—Signs, silence, and letters to supernatural agents
Photo by Bryan Goff / Unsplash


Technically speaking, this is halfway through my "52 Weeks of Doing Something That Might Be Writing" project. It's also the end of June and tomorrow is the start of Camp Nanowrimo.

Once again, I'm veering all over the place here. I am doing the summer Camp Nanowrimo, but I'm not working on the book I worked on in April. Instead, I'm going back to the book following Maali's life for the month.

Right now, though, I'm exhausted from two very busy, very intense weeks. I've done the thing I always do when I'm exhausted—I've fallen down a YouTube Drama Rabbit Hole. I had a plan to write intelligently about the origin and evolution of eyes, but I've run out of willpower so I'm following a particular drama.

When I was a kid, I'd cope with everything that happened to me by wondering whether they handled it in Amnar (or whatever my world was called at the time).

I don't think Amnari have YouTube so, by extension, they don't have YouTube drama, I suppose. But humans are human and will do human things. I'm sure there's Amnari drama.

Object Spotlight

In a bid to attempt to drag my head back to something sensible, let's talk about how people handled beef in the Ancient World. Curse tablets were amongst the first objects that drew me into studying ancient magic, especially from the perspective of objects themselves and the role they played.

Curse tablets come in a variety of forms. The earliest forms out of Greece were lists of names written on small lead sheets that were then rolled or folded and deposited somewhere, usually a well or other water source. Over time, these lists of names evolved into specific requests directed at deities, embellished with pictures and "magical characteres" or symbols.

John Gager produced a catalogue of the majority of curse tablets and types from Greece, Rome, and Egypt. Esther Eidinow has studied these examples and their evolution in Greece as a means of coping with judicial risk. They were often associated with cases held in court.

This is not unlike the scene in Devil's Advocate where Keanu Reeves visits a shamanic practitioner to guarantee a good outcome during a trial. I could do a whole deep dive on the fascinating association between twisting meat and a twisting lawyer's tongue.

Curse tablets were used in a variety of circumstances aside from intervening in a court case. Businesses could use them either to improve their income or curse their competition; some people used them to get revenge on an enemy on a more personal level.

These objects usually worked by conveying a message to a supernatural agent, usually a deity of some kind, to intervene on the writer's behalf. The best way to reach those supernatural agents was water, so large deposits of curse tablets have been found in wells and other water bodies. However, this wasn't essential. Those intended to curse a competitor in chariot races could be deposited at the racing track, for example.

Using curse tablets seems to have persisted for a long time and across cultures. In the last couple of months, I've had conversations with an academic studying Scandinavian runic plates from much later, which bear striking resemblances in terms of methods of manufacture and cultural underpinnings. Many of the ideas embedded in the materiality of magic, even ones as apparently specific as these, seem to be almost universal.

What I've Been Doing

I've been learning British Sign Language. It's something I've always wanted to do, and now I finally have time. I've experimented with a lot of languages, and even done a bit of American Sign before I found a course to learn BSL.

People keep asking me why I'm doing this. The first reason is that I'm fascinated by all languages and for a long time knew I wanted sign language to feature in Amnar. I just wasn't sure how to do it. I want to write a world that's inclusive, but I'd also seen my characters sign in my head.

The second reason is that I am fascinated by the materiality of language. All languages are material—something I'm going to come back to in future posts for my materiality of magic series on Tuesdays—but sign languages are the most visibly material.

I have a sort-of secret third reason, to do with being autistic. Since I started learning sign, I've found it much easier and less stressful to follow sign rather than spoken speech. When the sounds stop and all I have to do is use my eyes to follow hands and expressions. I can stop thinking about my reactions.

Read of the Week

I've been reading books for review this week, but for pleasure I've been addicted to exurb1a's Geometry for Ocelots. It's written almost like a mythological text, with these odd comic moments that add some extra spice. I'll be back to go into the books for review when they're up.

Podcast of the Week

For the last eight weeks, I've been addicted to Charlie Webster's series, Scamanda, about Amanda C Riley. She kept a blog for seven years, claiming to have cancer; she was only recently found guilty of fraud.

I've been trying not to spend so much time listening to true crime podcasts, but this did pique my interest and it hasn't disappointed. Except, I think, for the question I keep coming back to and that I suspect will never be answered: Why?

It seems to take as much work to maintain a scam like this in terms of research, writing, and acting, as doing an actual job. Aside from the effort, I also spend so much time being curious of others' motivations.

This Week in Science

One of the papers I worked on this week was attempting to develop a system to monitor small airborne vehicles. This got me thinking about the problem of air traffic control for dragons. Amnar does have air traffic control for dragons, but it made me think in more depth about the consequences of that.

Orcas are still attacking boats in the Atlantic; there's also a heatwave out there. Kyle Hill's Office Hours covered the former, his explanation for it being that orcas learn and replicate behaviour because they're smart. Also, more aliens. The whole of 4theWords Camp Nano adventure is aliens. There's no escape.

The fallout from the Titan OceanGate submarine incident is ongoing. Every time something big like this happens, people suddenly become more familiar with a very niche area of science on a highly superficial level. In the late 1990s, it was metatarsals after David Beckham got injured.

Now everybody knows that if there's one thing you don't do, it's build a submersible out of carbon fibre. It all feels gruesome to me, from the strange way we, as a society, seemed to think this was going to play out like a movie with a last-minute rescue, to the desire to go and look at what is basically the graveyard of several thousand people who died in the worst way.

Again, people's motivations both fascinate and elude me.