The Hidden Language of Graphic Signs: Cryptic Writing and Meaningful Marks

Throughout history, scripts have become established by communicating language and meaning as transparently as possible to literate readers. But, of course, scripts have an aesthetic dimension, too, which both enhances their appeal and distracts readers from their meaning – as expressed in calligraphy, monograms, and signatures.

Sometimes, graphic signs are deliberately modified and configured to hide their meaning. This aspect of scripts is the subject of an original and erudite collection of articles, arising from two academic conferences in 2016. It ranges from the complexities of ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs and Maya glyphs to the deliberately enigmatic Italian Renaissance ‘pseudoscripts’ lurking in the paintings of Filippo Lippi and the current sacred clay objects known as rezos (from the Spanish for ‘prayer’) in the Quechua-speaking communities of modern Bolivia. Inevitably, there are omissions, perhaps most surprisingly Aztec hieroglyphs and Inca khipu (knotted cords). Nevertheless, the book’s editors – classicist John Bodel and Mayanist Stephen Houston – are to be congratulated on assembling experts to produce a ‘first’ in this relatively neglected field.

Their accessible introduction begins with steganography, which means ‘covered writing’ according to its Greek derivation. This is illustrated with an intriguing photograph of a damaged ancient Roman epitaph: a stone slab from the 2nd to 3rd century AD, discovered in the Vatican necropolis in Rome, showing two fishes flanking an anchor above a Latin inscription including a female name, Licinia Amias. The fish images refer to the ancient Greek word for ‘fish’ written above them: IΧΘΥϹ, or IΧΘΥΣ. This word was often used as a cryptic acronym meaning ‘Jesus Christ, Son of God, Saviour’. So the deceased woman may have been a Christian, part of a persecuted minority at this time in Rome, whose family insured themselves by writing the common Roman inscription ‘D M’ (‘to the departed spirits’) above IΧΘΥϹ, to suggest their adherence to traditional Roman religion.

Other kinds of hidden writing involve: form, as seen in the ‘stunning illegibility’ of Latin initials in the medieval Book of Kells, and in full-figure Maya glyphs, which at first glance appear to be pictures, not inscriptions; placement, exemplified by a tattoo on the inner lower lip; and scale, illustrated by a Japanese scroll apparently composed of brushwork but eventually deciphered as quotations, written in minute hand, from Buddhist sutras. Then there is the ‘bird script’ of ancient China, in which meaningless bird characters are playfully inserted for cognoscenti. As Wang Haicheng remarks in his China chapter: ‘The compulsion to read does not allow the literate mind to rest until it has matched a graphic configuration with a lexical item stored in the brain.’ The designer of the bird script ‘wanted to tease his readers and delight them with his ingenuity’.

Review by Andrew Robinson.
The Hidden Language of Graphic Signs: Cryptic Writing and Meaningful Marks, Edited by John Bodel and Stephen Houston, Cambridge University Press, £75, Hardback, ISBN 978-1108 840613.