The Writing’s on the Wall

The signs are there that something bad is going to happen. Its meaning isn’t hard to figure out, and there’s a logic to it (writing on a wall is a pretty visible sign). But where does this expression come from?

It’s actually from the Bible, from the Book of Daniel in the Old Testament, to be specific. It features the story of Belshazzar’s feast. Belshazzar was a Babylonian king, and he was enjoying a particularly raucous, drunken affair, which included the debasement of sacred temple vessels by using them as goblets.

As always happens at such parties, during the evening a disembodied hand wrote the Aramaic mene mene tekel upharsin on a wall outside. Translating literally, this seemed fairly meaningless. It could mean two minas, a shekel, and two parts, or alternatively, numbered, weighed, divided.

Seeking further clarification, Belshazzar sent for the Jewish exile Daniel. Immediately, Daniel recognised that the message was a clever piece of wordplay. Based on the fact that each word could represent a coin, and the third could mean Persia, he interpreted it as follows (from the King James Bible):

And this the writing that was written, MENE, MENE, TEKEL, UPHARSIN. This the interpretation of the thing:
MENE; God hath numbered thy kingdom, and finished it.
TEKEL; Thou art weighed in the balances, and art found wanting.
PERES; Thy kingdom is divided, and given to the Medes and Persians.And this the writing that was written, MENE, MENE, TEKEL, UPHARSIN. This the interpretation of the thing:
MENE; God hath numbered thy kingdom, and finished it.
TEKEL; Thou art weighed in the balances, and art found wanting.
PERES; Thy kingdom is divided, and given to the Medes and Persians.

You can see how this phrase came into English with its current meaning (and found wanting too).

The interesting thing about this expression is how literal it is. Just think about how often you actual see writing on walls. Not just signs or posters, but graffiti too. Graffiti is particularly relevant, as so often it’s used to deliver social or political messages, or even warnings, like in the Book of Daniel.

In fact, graffiti seems to have been around since as long as writing. The oldest-discovered graffiti is in Ephesus in Turkey, and may have been an advertisement for prostitution. The writing on Belshazzar’s wall probably wouldn’t have seemed so strange then, apart from being written by a disembodied hand, of course.

4 thoughts on “The Writing’s on the Wall

  1. I was actually reading about graffiti yesterday! Nice coincidence. It was about how we’ve come to understand the pronunciation of older languages, such as Greek, through the preservation of their graffiti, which would have been written by a common hand and, therefore, often written phonetically. Thought it was rather interesting!

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s