Perhaps the most succinct evidence for the potent magic of written letters is to be found in the ambiguous meaning of our common word “spell.” As the roman alphabet spread through oral Europe, the Old English word “spell,” which had meant simply to recite a story or tale, took on the new double meaning: on the one hand, it now meant to arrange, in the proper order, the written letters that constitute the name of a thing or a person; on the other, it signified a magic formula or charm. Yet these two meanings were not nearly as distinct as they have come to seem to us today. For to assemble the letters that make up the name of a thing, in the correct order, was precisely to effect a magic, to establish a new kind of influence over that entity, to summon it forth!
To spell, to correctly arrange the letters to form a name or a phrase, seemed thus at the same time to cast a spell, to exert a new and lasting power over the things spelled. Yet we can now realize that to learn to spell was also, and more profoundly, to step under the influence of the written letters ourselves, to cast a spell under our own senses. It was to exchange the wild and multiplicitous magic of an intelligent natural world for the more concentrated and refined magic of the written word.
As soon as I read this, I began wondering about Sequoyah, credited with inventing the Cherokee alphabet.
The many versions of his name suggest that the man was an enigma:
Sequoyah Sequoia Sikwayi Sogwali George Gist George Guess ᏍᏏᏉᏯ Ssiquoya ᏎᏉᏯ Se-quo-ya
Accounts of his life are as varied as his names. But, consistent with David Abram’s discussion of “spell” in both its meanings, it turns out that Sequoyah faced accusations of sorcery for his creation of written letters. Here are several different versions of the story:
Once, in the year 1809, the conversation in Sequoyah's shop turned on the ability of the white man to send messages from one to the other by means of "talking leaves." The majority considered it to be the work of sorcerers, others thought of it as a special gift, and some considered it mere imposture. Sequoyah had listened in silence, but at length remarked that he did not consider it a divine gift, an act of magic or mere imposture, but that the marks on the paper stood for words….
Sequoyah began work to create a system of writing for the Cherokee language. At first he sought to create a character for each word in the language. He spent a year on this effort, leaving his fields unplanted, so that his friends and neighbors thought he had lost his mind. His wife is said to have burnt his initial work, believing it to be witchcraft….
Despite ridicule by friends and family members, and accusations of insanity and practicing witchcraft, Sequoyah devoted the next decade of his life to creating "talking leaves" in his native tongue….
Assimilationist Cherokees accused Sequoyah of witchcraft, branded and mutilated him, and forged his name on treaties surrendering tribal land….
The Cherokee General Council convicted Sequoyah for witchcraft. The conviction was an excuse by the ruling leaders to set an example before the Cherokee people of the power of the New Order adopted from the white man’s Christian civilization program. Sequoyah was branded on the forehead and back. So was his wife. His fingers on both hands were cut off between the first and second joints, leaving the stubs and his thumbs. His ears were cropped off, the mark of a traitor to the Cherokee Nation in the southeast for anyone desiring, and encouraging removal of the people to the West….
Major Ridge was called on, as leader of the Lighthorse Patrol, to punish Sequoyah for practicing witchcraft, in trying to create the syllabary. The leaders of the tribe felt that this written language was the work of the devil, and to force him to stop, they ordered Major Ridge to remove the tops of Sequoya’s fingers. There is some question as to if this punishment was ever carried out.…