Friday, January 24, 2020

Tabula Rasa

The lower leaf is a 'tabula rasa' or blank tablet
The Latin Programme has just announced a competition for kids to write a story or poem under 500 words. You have until 24 April 2020 and the pieces can tackle any theme and take any form as long as they use the Latin phrase ‘tabula rasa’ as a starting point. First prize is £100 in book tokens with two £25 runners up. And I am one of the two judges! 

But what is a TABVLA RASA? 

In Roman times, a ‘tabula rasa’ was a clean writing tablet. 

The word ‘rasa’ is a participle from the verb ‘rado’, I shave or smooth. We get the word razor from it. 

The word ‘tabula’ means a board or plank. We get the word tablet from it. 

Romans often made writing tablets from small, thin wooden planks coated with beeswax. They would then inscribe letters in the wax, using a the sharp end of a stylus made of metal, bone or wood. By the way, we get the word stylus from Latin ‘stilus’, which means stick, stake or pointed instrument

When Romans wanted to erase the words they had written on a tablet, they would use the flat end of the stylus to smooth the wax. Some frescoes show a triangular-shaped spatula that could be warmed and then pulled across the wax to smooth it and make it blank. 

Spatula (far left) on a fresco from Pompeii via @LiberalDespot

So the most literal meaning of ‘tabula rasa’ is a smoothed or ‘shaved’ wax tablet. 

Lupus with wax tablet holder (2007)
In my Roman Mysteries, one of my characters can’t speak so he uses a wax tablet to communicate vital messages. 

Maybe your hero needs a tablet to communicate like Lupus.

The phrase ‘tabula rasa’ has a metaphorical meaning as used by philosophers such as Aristotle and John Locke: a blank mind. Locke believed babies were born with a totally blank mind and that the things that happened after their birth were etched into their brains forever. 

So ‘tabula rasa’ can also mean blank mind

Maybe your hero has amnesia.

stylus and scraper via Peter Lorimer
‘Tabula rasa’ can be applied to the type of slate on which Victorian schoolchildren wrote with chalk, like a mini blackboard. For this reason ‘tabula rasa’ can also mean a clean slate like when all your debts (the money you owe) or sins (things you’ve done wrone) are cancelled and you can ‘start fresh’. 

Maybe your hero has a chance to start fresh. 

Finally, a fun idea for a mystery or spy story based on the phrase ‘tabula rasa’ is an ancient method of delivering a secret message where you write a message on the wood tablet, then put the wax on top to hide it. That way the writing tablet looks blank but actually contains a hidden message. 

re-enactor writing on a replica tablet of beeswax coloured with soot
Maybe your hero must get a message to a rescuer. Or intercept a message from a spy. 

So there are lots of meanings of ‘tabula rasa’. You might even think of a new one. 

Just make sure you put that phrase somewhere in your entry! 

HERE is the link to the competition. And HERE is a link to some ideas for how to start your story... Good luck! I cant wait to read your entries. 

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