In one place, long ago, they called him Nabû. In their tongue his name was a god’s name, and he was scribe of all the universe: the shifting sand of the desert, the slant of sun on limestone lamassus—those creatures carved by man to guard the gates of palaces, dwellings raised up into the sky so that a king might imagine himself a god. But a king is not a god, for a king is only a man, and a man does not have the power to spin out the web of a life past the point of breakage, as Nabû could. For Nabû was the keeper of the Tablets of Destiny, upon which he inscribed the fates assigned to men who were not gods, men who built palaces that crumbled apart, back into sand; men who were swallowed by the desert they tried to tame, who lived and who died, and through all this, Nabû kept writing. The stylus in his hand was never still.
King Ashurbanipal was the last of the great kings of Assyria. He did not know this, that he would be the last king of an empire that ruled the Middle East for centuries. Nabû did, for he was the scribe of everything and everyone, and he recorded the fate of every child and every king. But Ashurbanipal did not, and so he built a library in his city of Nineveh with the belief that it would stand triumphant for years and years, and he filled the shelves with thousands and thousands of cuneiform tablets, so that the stories of his people and the histories of his conquests would be remembered, safe on clay tablets in the cool dark of the library. When Ashurbanipal, last of the great kings, crushed a revolution in Babylon, the conquered city was ordered to copy out the texts from their own collections, and from their libraries. Babylonian scholars worked in the gloomy quiet of a city defeated, and prisoners-of-war copied words out onto tablets, the task disquieted by the dull clinks of their chains. King Ashurbanipal, standing in his library, surrounded by all that he had ordered written down, all the written learning of his universe, exclaimed: “the god Nabû, scribe of all the universe, bestowed on me as a gift the knowledge of his wisdom.” This too was written down, by a nameless scribe who died long ago.
Nabû knew, as Ashurbanipal did not, that the library the King had built was to be destroyed, for so it was written on the Tablets of Destiny. After Ashurbanipal’s death, the Babylonians, remembering the chains and the styluses, allied with the Medes and ravaged the city of Nineveh. In the library the sound of tablets being broken apart ricocheted against the walls. Words, severed from their sentences, flew into the shadows of the rooms, because clay is breakable, and Ashurbanipal was only a king and not a god. For thousands of years the tablets of Ashurbanipal’s library slept in pieces on the floor, the words of the Assyrian people and of the empires they conquered destined to erode slowly into the fine dust of clay.
Some nights, in the cool and quiet, King Ashurbanipal would cast his eyes up, up into the far corners of the celestial firmament that reigned over everything, even over him, the last great king of Assyria. No matter the height of the temples he raised into the sky, King Ashurbanipal knew that he would never build ziggurats high enough for the gods to notice.
Looking at the sky and the stars and trying not to think of the distance between him and them, King Ashurbanipal, just a man, imagined himself sitting amidst the gods: Ashur, Ishtar, Nabû. He wanted to live forever, the way the gods lived, not condemned to walk for a finite period on the grass and the dirt and the sand but to live bright and terrible forever in the heavy night and in the pinprick of stars. King Ashurbanipal wanted this, all this, but he knew that one day he would die, as Nabû knew, because Nabû was a god who knew the fates of the entire universe and recorded those fates on the Tablets of Destiny.
King Ashurbanipal, knowing and wanting and always dying, day after day, ordered the cataloguing of every star in the night sky: every constellation, every individual bright point against a black swath, every planet, which his people called “wandering stars” because they, too, had been nomads once. They knew what it was like to drift. King Ashurbanipal could not be immortal so instead he decided to write down every distance in the night sky, the distance between stars, the distance between planets, so that he might tame them, tame the sky, and tame the gods. King Ashurbanipal was bound to the earth, and the distance between him and the gods and the sky was too great to ever conquer, even for a king. So he bound the stars to clay tablets, and in the short strokes of cuneiform he named them so they might be tamed. Holding his star catalogues in his hand, King Ashurbanipal stood in his library and imagined that the distance between the eternal realm of the gods and him was really not that far at all: the thickness of a tablet, the soft weight of a stylus pressed into wet clay.
Every night as the world slipped into the seventeenth century, the century when Galileo saw the moons of Jupiter and Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock, Johann Bayer went to bed unknowingly dreaming the same dreams as a king, the last great king of Assyria. Johann was a lawyer from Bavaria, and by day he looped the law over and around his fingers, twisting it into the shapes of whatever he needed right and wrong to be. In the nighttime, alone, Johann looked up at the sky and the smattering of stars that lingered outside the reach of his own realm. He thought about binding the stars to his own set of rules, twisting them to the credos of a celestial law. A law, when it is written down, tames something.
Johann sifted through Ptolemy’s star catalogues, but they were incomplete and uncertain, the latter a trait that Johann did not see within himself. He spent careful hours writing and writing, wrestling the constellations of the evening onto a page, committing them to the laws of his hand. He became a celestial cartographer, charting a pathway through nighttimes, navigating by the positions of stars and how they linked up to form shapes and figures and gods that humans had projected onto the sky for thousands of years. Here, Orion, with his sword in his hand. There, twelve more constellations that Ptolemy had never written down. To Ptolemy, those stars were strangers, solitary and random. But Johann recorded them in his Uranometria as constellations, so that they might be known, and named. He could look up at the sky and see them in the groupings he had written, the law of his hand drawing shapes against the night. Johann’s atlas was the first to cover the entire celestial sphere, because all before him, the Babylonian astronomers or Ptolemy or Tycho Brahe or Alessandro Piccolomini, all those who had sought to do the same kind of refining of a wild wild sky, they had never been able to wrestle with it all. But Johann mapped the world, and wrote it all down in his book with the careful handwriting of one who believes in the law of all realms. He was a scribe, biblical, powerful, and just.
Sima Tan was the Grand Astrologer to the imperial court of the Han dynasty, slave of the skies. He was ordered to begin a monumental historical summary of ancient China and the world, but he died before it was finished, his name half-remembered. His son Sima Qian rose up into the title bestowed on his father, and the new Grand Astrologer wrote late into the night, trying to write down all the dynastic histories of China so that the Emperor might have them at his fingertips. The book was called the Records of the Grand Historian (Shiji), and two thousand five hundred years of Chinese history filled its pages when it was finished, from the age of the legendary Yellow Emperor to the reign of the Emperor Wudi of Han, the current Emperor. In the Records, Sima Qian bent and broke history because he was the scribe and could do so. History was not written as linear, but fragmented into edible pieces, smaller units of time that spilled over into each other.
The manuscript was written on bamboo slips that were collected together into bundles, which often repeated what the other was trying to say. When the bundles were collected together, the entire history of China written by a father and son would have weighed as much as a woman, or a slight man. History is heavy. Much later, the work was copied out onto silk, and the Emperor could have rubbed his own name against his face.
Sima Qian knelt and placed one of the bamboo slips of the finished Records in the hands of the Emperor Wudi. The Emperor read his own name, recorded. This was a process of tripling, in which the object of the desire, the mode of desire, and the desire consumed each other. The Emperor was full, for he knew that he would last in the moment beyond this one. He would live forever in a bamboo slip, in the bend of his name along a fold.
In the Records there is a brief account of Sima Qian. Quietly, hungrily, he wrote his own name and his history, so that the scribe might be more than a scribe. This is possibly the world’s first autobiography, which is the process by which a scribe consumes himself.
After the Records: Sima Qian sided with a friend who had surrendered to the enemy, and for this the Emperor had him castrated. But in the great history of China that he had written, Sima Qian is whole.
On February 1, 1998, a space probe named Voyager 1 became the farthest thing existing in space that humans had ever created; its distance from Earth unparalleled. On August 25, 2012, Voyager 1 crossed the heliopause, the solar region around the Sun that consists of wind and magnetic fields. Voyager 1 did not slow down in its travels through the eleven billion miles of the heliopause, did not take a moment to do what the name of the region seems to suggest. By the time it crossed the heliopause, Voyager 1 had been travelling alone in space for thirty-five years. Voyager 2 was launched two weeks before its partner, but it travelled more slowly, flying by Uranus and Neptune in the late eighties, planets that its partner will never see, far away in the realm of interstellar space.
The two Voyagers are out there still, hurtling through the darkest and deepest parts of night along their separate and solitary trajectories. Some of the scientists who built the probes, who dreamed of robots who could go where man could not, are long dead, their dreams caked in the posthumous. But dead or alive, the scientists who built the Voyagers believed in the power of transcendence, that even beyond the grave, beyond our time, our voices might be heard by extraterrestrial beings. Each Voyager carries a gold-plated copper phonograph record, the light of stars and suns and moons glinting off the golden rim. The scientists included a cartridge and a needle, and etched into the surface in careful writing instructions for how to play the message copied onto the record. The scientists who thought to speak across time were also scribes, recorders, and romantics.
On the record is a collection of images and sounds chosen to represent what Earth is like: the languages of ancient peoples and the languages we speak now; the anatomy of a body and the workings of a brain; an image of a breakfast, a caterpillar, a woman cooking dinner bent over the counter. When the record is played, maybe, one day, the strains of Bach and the still of Beethoven will be heard; the wails of a baby, born on Earth, years and years ago.
Maybe some day, eons from now, far beyond the heliopause, the Sun, and the atmosphere of our own earth, a golden disk a long way from home will be found, and something or someone or some being or some god will read the inscription on its surface, written by scientists who dreamed of being scribes and built robots who could see what we could not, and who we hurled into the sky with words we had once written down branded into its back: To the makers of music—all worlds, all times.
Maybe this message will reach the makers, and the gods will know all that we have written.
GABRIELLE HICK B’16 wishes she read cuneiform.