Sunday, June 13, 2021

A Conreligious Detail: Scripture as Circulating Letters

This text describes a practice of one of the Bryatesle-Dairwueh religions.

Consider a religion wherein the notion of scripture exists, but is significantly different from that of, say, Christianity or Islam.

One type of scripture that is, afaict, unique to Abrahamic religions, is the letter. Christianity has, in its "primary" volume of scripture a set of letters - the epistles. In Judaism, letters do not occur in the Bible, nor do they occur in the Quran in Islam, but in the ongoing process of halakha and sharia - decisions on questions of Jewish and Islamic law - responsa/fatwas from earlier authorities - historically often sent as letters - form an important part of the source material for the decisions. The Jewish and Muslim canon is sort of closed but in some sense, the responsa and fatwa literature is an open scriptural corpus, where new - as well as hypothetical - issues are being discussed and evaluated.

This idea takes that "religious mechanic" and puts some twists on it.

Let's now rather imagine that letters with a variety of religious content - spiritual claims, ethical advice, ritual advice, political advice, eschatological claims, prayers, hymns, stories - are in circulation, but that there's a tradition against copying them.

New letters sometimes enter into circulation, and are deemed as acceptable depending on how well they conform to the known letters of the community to which it first arrives. 

When a community receives a letter, there's a festive celebration - and when they send it on the way, there's a festive celebration.  Physical copies of letters naturally deteriorate over time. A deteriorated letter is not replaced by a copy. Other letters replace it. Some ideas will be lost, some ideas will change over time, some new ideas will enter. The loss of a letter to entropy also is the cause of ritual observances.

The letter and its paraphernalia

With the letter, a rather stylized wooden pole into which the symbols of the eight first congregations to receive and accept the letter are carved (exceptions with as many as twenty congregations may be found). If there is some theme that lends itself to a nice graphical representation, this may affect the ornamentations of the stick. Sometimes, the end of the pole is shaped as animal heads, human heads, implements of war or of agriculture, lamps or candleholders, hands showing culturally important gestures, and in at least a handful of examples human genitalia. The letter itself is inside a leather pouch attached by strings to the stick. 

The pouch may also contain letters about the letter - inquiring as to the veracity of the authorship, clarifying correspondences, etc. Sometimes, ritual objects or relics may be included.

What does it take to get a letter into circulation?

Upon being received at its first congregation, the local clergy - possibly with some input from congregants, and clergy nearby, the letter is taken into consideration. The reputation of the author and of the carrier are taken into account. Nearby congregations may be consulted - and short letters about the letter may be exchanged. When some time has passed, a decision is made, and the letter is - under festive forms - bound to the stylized wooden pole that has been prepared for it, and sent onward to some other congregation.

The next congregation will, after receiving it, arrange a festive occasion for reading the letter aloud. At this occasion, the symbol of the congregation is also carved into the accompanying pole.

A congregation (or rather, its leaders) may decide that it's undecided as to the validity of the letter. If so, it is sent onward without celebration. Onto the pole, a thread is tied with a specific type of knot. If they hold the letter to be invalid, a different type of knot is used.

When receiving a letter with either type of knot, if the congregation decides to uphold the letter as worth keeping in the religion, the congregation's symbol is carved into the pole, and one knot is removed. If deciding to reject the letter or to be undecided, a second knot of the relevant type is added. If the pole receives six undecided-type knots or three reject-type knots, the letter is destroyed in an unceremonious event. Most congregations also consider the reject-type knots to contribute to the undecided sum, so four undecided and two reject-knots would sum as six undecided knots and so warrant destroying it.

Once the letter has received more than five congregational marks and no knots remain, it basically is accepted. In some cases, there's been straggling knots all the way to the sixteenth congregation, but it's unusual to add more knots once the fifth congregation has accepted it. 

This procedure does seem to favor early support over late skepticism.

The reaction of the congregation - but even more so the reaction of the leaders of the congregation - affect whether the letter gets approved, rejected or just remains undecided on. Often, the groups that primarily are affected will have a bit more of a say - if most of the letter concerns women, the women will have some say. If it concerns slave-owners, they will have the first say.

If the letter affects two groups and their relationship, the group that has the most social clout will usually get to decide - so obviously, parents, slave-owners, husbands, land-owners, clergy and nobility are at an advantage.

End of Life

As the letter is worn out by time, a congregation will at some point upon receiving it conclude that it no longer is legible. The letter is then given similar rites as a dying human would receive. A month later, a funeral for the letter takes place, during which the letter is burned. Any relics included with it are either kept at the temple or buried. The pole is returned to its originating congregation, where it too is burned in a funeral-like service.


Often, the letters are sent to nearby congregations in a rather haphazard way. Clergy who meet other congregations' clergymen may make deals as to where to send letters over the next years. A certain randomness is inherent and seems to be desired by those who maintain the system. A small temple may have anywhere from zero to three letters in its possession at any time, a large, urban temple may have as many as twenty.

If a clergyman perceives that a certain issue is present in his congregation, he may ask surrounding clergymen to forward letters pertaining to that particular topic.

Effects on doctrine, rite and ethics

The corpus of letters in circulation is written over decades - some letters even being more than a century old - by several dozen writers over a land area corresponding to the size of the Ukraine. Naturally, there are contradictions within the corpus.

Since congregations do not keep their letters for very long, the memory of their contents also deteriorates, and teachings are slowly distorted. Thus, whenever a letter arrives and the festivities have subsided, there may be a somber day of correction, when the congregation repents for previously held mistaken beliefs that the letter corrects.

Not all letters have this effect, and in the presence of a contradicting letter, the two inconsistent beliefs will not always be held to require repentance - some congregations seem to favor newly arrived letters over letters that have been received in the recent past (and not yet been forwarded), others seem to give priority to the letter they have had the longest at the moment of reception. There are also congregations that seem to favor the oldest letter in such cases. This has also been discussed in letters, and a congregations decisions with regards to conflicting content may depend on the letters it has had over recent years.

Contradictions are inevitable. Ways of ritually resolving these issues exist, and seem to provide the congregations with a strong community-building mechanism, where the whole congregation takes part both in the same "mistake" (which would've been correct had the letter arrived in the other way around), and in the same "correction", which in turn may turn into a new mistake, and correction. The ritual grief over these errors also are used to teach a form of humility - humans will be mistaken, and must learn to live with this fact.


Certain abuses of the custom have occurred. It is not unusual that letters which make impopular demands are stolen and destroyed. Such demands include sexual abstinence, charity and kindness to the poor, kind treatment of slaves.

Another, less frequent type of abuse is forgery. Usually, this is combined with some kind of theft - going to the effort of fabricating the paraphernalia in addition to the letter itself is a bit of an effort.

At least one example where a letter containing the instruction that clergymen should consecrate marriages by having sex with the bride was forged by some clergymen in collusion.


I hope to include in this blog at some point some samples of the letters, especially in the languages of Dairwueh and Bryatesle. Many of the letters contain non-religious details as well, and a rather sweet example of this is this particular passage, which lead to the popularity of Armri as a female name, and regionally nearly made the name mandatory for any girls' whose father's name was Jeris:

I Jeris-at, xən-ir jera-lir xov-at Armri e-bəti-umuš side-əj.
/i je'ris-ət xə'ni:r jera'lir xovat
armri ebitjumuš s:idjəj /
Jeris, about.dat daughter.dat your.dat Armri call-irrealis_active_ptplc good-3sg

Jeris, your daughter Armri being-named would be good.
≃ Jeris, Armri would be a good name for your daughter.

Here, the author clearly knew the name of a member of the recipient congregation, and apparently that he was unsure about the name to give the child in case it was a daughter.

Secondary Effects

In areas where this religion has a sizeable presence, the empire often sponsor the letter-carrying activities, turning the religious organization into a proto-post office for the regional powers. Even in a significantly later, secularized time, the various postal organizations carry a certain heritage from this religion.


The circulating letter system is a method by which religious praxis and doxis is spread, maintained and developed over time. The system permits the religion to change rather drastically over time, and introduces a slight amount of democracy, albeit rather flawed, into the system. The system also creates an internal set of tensions and regional differences.

No comments:

Post a Comment