A Word About Words…

“In the beginning, G-d created the Heavens and the Earth.” (Genesis 1:1)

Much has been made of our fascination with the written word and created image whether it appears on architecture, parchment, broadside or bound in book form. We are taught to understand that with iconic or alphabetic symbols, our subtle thoughts and ideas which reflect our development as a species, can be shared while acquiring powers of their own to influence others and by extension, their cultures. Images ranging from the most ancient cave paintings to public sculpture and political cartoons have provoked an array of emotions, political and civil actions that have in turn inspired a long cycle of written responses.

But how, exactly, does this happen? And could the perceived power of written words and images fuel a certain primitive fear of them, driving us to selectively ban books or art in schools to reflect current political doctrine or mores? Can absorbing the written thoughts and ideas or imaginative images of others really alter our mundane realities? In a sense, yes, if only to affect our perception of them.

Historically, written words and images were always considered powerful, from the earliest cave paintings to the development of written languages. When artisans were commissioned to carve, incise or paint them on stone, bits of wood, metal or clay amulets, the owners held great store in their power to afford personal protection and manifest wishes. In various cultures throughout the Middle East, prayers, blessings or magical incantations were written on the inside of clay bowls as a way to influence supernatural forces to protect a household, encourage fertility or promote healing from illness while some of these objects were imbued with curses or negative wishes* that were intended to vanquish enemies or bring about social and/or political change.

Incantation Bowl-Babylon
Hebrew Protective Birth Amulet
Mezuzah: Hebrew Doorpost Amulet

Rationalists dismiss such ideas and practices as magical thinking, pure fantasy. After all, aren’t words merely static marks on a two or three dimensional surface? Physically, of course they are, and yet…

How do our minds extract and engage their power? Reading and listening to public speech invites them to inhabit and work through us to reveal and accomplish what their creator intended. Despite their seeming static quality, they quietly captivate our synapses like viral entities. They provoke images, questions, connect ideas, arouse memories and activate emotions all in service to their author(s); all without leaving their walls or pages!

Several essays appear in this blog that address the interactions between words and images and their effect on the reader and viewer:

https://imaginarius13.wordpress.com/2010/07/08/from-parashah-mattot-words-of-worlds/

https://imaginarius13.wordpress.com/2016/01/07/can-art-be-lost-in-translation/

https://imaginarius13.wordpress.com/2014/02/16/a-blessing-for-peace-protection/

While these ideas are certainly not new, I intended this essay as a timely reminder for 2021 that words and images can be powerful, intertwined tools to use in altering existing realities and create perceptions of new ones. What’s not always obvious is that as often as they are employed altruistically, their subtle use can easily become weaponized for malicious intent. Globally, in the past few years we have seen ample evidence of their use in corporate and political misinformation campaigns and hate screeds promoted on social media, in print and by news organizations that have been allowed unlimited freedom to express their often harmful biases.

With benevolence or malevolence aforethought, the choice of words and images offered for public consumption is always ours and always will be. But the legacy our words create beyond our lifetimes may not always be.

Illustrations©2020 Ilene Winn-Lederer

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