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And a pox on your dog! A brief history of book curses.

Posted Monday, January 16, 2012, at 10:11 AM

In the course of doing some homework related to library history, I came across information about early efforts to prevent loss of library materials to insects and theft. I have to confess, they gave me a chuckle and I thought that perhaps some of our dear readers would enjoy the information, also.

Ancient Egyptians: the dung beetle was considered the protector of the written word. That is how the scarab(just a fancy name for the dung beetle)and its image came to be associated with name and title seals. Why dung beetles were in charge of written materials, I'll never know. Perhaps tabloid journalism has older roots than previously thought.

Ancient Babylon: Nabu was the patron god of clay tablets. (I have to confess, Nabu immediately made me think of Naboo, home of Queen Amidala of Star Wars fame. Coincidence or a stealthy bit of symbolism on the part of George Lucas, for those who are knowledgeable enough to get it? You decide.) Anyway, Nabu was the god of wisdom and writing; was the patron of scribes, librarians, and archivists. Originally, all of these professions were associated with the priesthood. Nabu also decided the fate of each person. You didn't want to cross Nabu. His image is currently inscribed on the John Adams Building of the Library of Congress.

Hindu belief: Ganesh is the elephant-headed god of learning. He knows all and forgets nothing. He is credited with inventing the Sanskrit alphabet and broke off his tusk to make the first writing utensil. He is the patron of libraries, librarians, and book sellers.

The Arabic world: The idea here is to go straight to the source of potential book damage. "Kabi:Kaj" means King of the Cockroaches. The idea was that if the King of the Cockroaches was asked to protect a manuscript, lesser insects would not dare to touch it. In Syria, a work was often dedicated in writing to the King of the Cockroaches, so that all the other bugs were clear about who was in charge. Inscriptions to the King of Cockroaches include, "Save the paper, do not eat!" and "Save this book from the worms!"

Christian world: I always knew there was a reason that I loved tales about ancient scribes and saints. They really were a creative group! I'm not going to list the various saints and their heroic acts related to books and libraries here; I want to concentrate on the curses. Yes, the curses. They are marvelous. So here's the scoop: In some Christian monasteries, prayers and curses were placed in the books for protection. Here are some of my favorites:

"For him that stealeth a book from this library, may it change into a serpent in his hand and rend him."

"May you be struck with palsy and all your members blasted" (Would certainly make it easier to identify thieves in the library, wouldn't it?)

"May bookworms gnaw your entrails and the flames of hell consume you forever." (My personal favorite. Death by bookworm seems rather....just, does it not?)

And finally, the curse in rhyme: "Christ's curse upon the crook who takes away this book."

Of course, all of these things happened in a time when books were so precious that they were not removed from the repository in which they resided. Thankfully, that is not the case today. And really, why would anyone want to steal books from Spencer Public Library? We encourage you to take them! For free! Just please bring them back because they don't belong to us, they belong to every taxpaying citizen in the city and county. Remember kindergarten? Everybody shares. Much better than internal consumption by bookworms.

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