Category Archives: Prayer

What Do Hair Salons Have to Do with Prayer, Magic, and the Development of Literacy?

It turns out, the first complete sentence ever written by a human (at least, as of what we know now) concerned hair.

New archaeological evidence — discovered in Israel in 2016 and analyzed recently — confirms that “the oldest instance of a sentence written using the alphabet is on an inscription on an ancient ivory comb” — and it highlighted head lice.

Some 3,700 years ago, a wealthy man in Tel Lachish, an ancient Canaanite city in the foothills of central Israel, wrote seven words in the Phoenician (or Canaanite) alphabet that can be translated roughly as: “May this tusk root out the lice of the hair and beard.”

The ancient author was not being paranoid: “A tooth of the comb was actually discovered to possess the tough outer shell of a head louse.” 

From analyzing technical components of the writing, the brilliant archaeologists who discovered this amazing find (Daniel Vainstub et al.) believe that the comb was produced not long after the earliest forms of the Phoenician alphabet was created. Given that the Phoenician alphabet eventually served as the foundation of what became the Latin, Greek, Arabic, Hebrew, and Cyrillic alphabets, dare we speculate that modern Western writing systems have their origins in efforts to control the natural world via supernatural means?

Another interesting point suggested by this find: The author inscribed his wish on ivory from an elephant’s tusk that would likely have come from Egypt. This provenance suggests that the comb’s owner was wealthy enough to buy a luxury item imported from a distance.

Four contemporary implications I take away from this fascinating research:

  • then as now, attention to hair responds to an elemental human need
  • then as now, income inequality allowed a minority of elites to gain access to rarities inaccessible to most
  • then as now, riches didn’t inure humans from pest-based afflictions
  • then as now, prayer — as a particular, verbal form of magic — was a tempting solution to all sorts of life’s troubles, including itchy head bugs.

I was never very good at archaeology (don’t ask), but I love learning what intrepid archaeologists uncover.

Curious about how the scholars managed to decode the faintly visible scrawls? Read the details of their impressive methods here.

Digital Deities?

A new study by economist Seth Stephens-Davidowitz tells us that Internet searches for “God” are way down. He notes that this is true even in cases of catastrophe:

Stephens-Davidowitz “looked at the war in Ukraine, the civil war in Syria, the tsunami in Japan, and the 2014 Israel-Gaza conflict. In every instance, in the affected country, searches for news increased by between 90 and 280 percent. The top religious searches, be they the ‘Bible,’ ‘Quran,’ ‘God,’ ‘Allah’ or ‘prayer,’ tended to drop or stay about the same.”

I’m pleased to see that his search term for “God” wasn’t limited to English, and the “Bible” wasn’t the only sacred text he Googled. Of course, the world has many more religious traditions than Christianity and Islam, and many more gods than the postulated monotheistic one, so the cultural biases embedded in the relatively narrow search terms he sought remain a methodological restriction.

But Stephens-Davidowitz himself recognizes another methodological restriction that is even more interesting, and far less correct-able:

“Does this mean that when tragedies strike, people focus on getting information and spend little time praying? I have to believe this is a limitation of search data, that actual prayers rise during tragedies, and that searches just do not capture this behavior. If nothing else, it is a puzzle, as everything I thought I knew about the world and search data led me to expect the opposite.”

Clearly, Internet browsing doesn’t reveal everything. Facebook and Instagram may have cajoled us to put a lot more of our inner lives and previously private thoughts into a public space, but they haven’t cajoled us to publicize ALL those thoughts. Until engineers create a way to probe our silent ruminations and blast them onto a (digital?) billboard, some things still remain sacred–and only we may still know what those are.

We may have produced a visual way to represent a quiet thought in the form of a “thought bubble.” But we still don’t know the contents of anyone’s “thought bubble” but our own.
Thought Bubble
Still, the sociology of Internet browsing histories offers a fascinating source of data for what it DOES reveal.