The Greeks commemorate the advent of the alphabet in a myth that is worth rereading, for it preserves the meaning and power of the alphabet as a culture-creating and psychotropic-magical technology.
The myth is of Cadmus, a Prince of Tyre, who may correspond to an actual Phoenician adventurer of the period. Tyre is still a thriving city on the eastern Mediterranean coast of Lebanon, just north of the border of modern Israel. From roughly 1100-600 BCE it was the seat of the Phoenician empire.
Cadmus, according to the story, journeyed to Boeotia in Greece, looking for his sister. He came upon a well guarded by a fierce dragon. His companions tried to draw water from the well, but were attacked and killed by the dragon. Cadmus then fought and killed the dragon himself. Athena, the goddess of wisdom and learning, advised Cadmus to sow the dragon's teeth in the ground. These then miraculously sprouted from the ground as an army of "sown men." These artificial soldiers, these automata or golems, immediately began to fight ferociously and kill each other. When the massacre was over, only five remained standing. These five helped Cadmus build Thebes and conquer the tribes of Greece. According to Herodotus, Cadmus introduced literacy and incorporated the barbaric tribes into the Greek Empire.
This Greek myth of the co-origins of literacy and empire symbolizes the fertility of the feedback loop between alphabet and civilization. Letters, the key to wisdom, are a form of tamed dragon's teeth. They unleash ferocious, monstrous, aggressive cannibalizing forces. There is violence in them, which can be tamed and harnessed and even domesticated, but never eliminated.
The alphabet is a magic technology. These dragon's teeth/letters contain the magic of fertility and trans-substantiation. Teeth/letters grow magically into soldiers. The alphabet, as we see again when we reread the story of Moses in the court of Pharaoh, unleashes a new power in its users to convert one thing into another. The secret lies in the alphabet's magic ability of abstraction. This can become that because more information can be held more compactly and meaningfully in the head, and manipulated mentally. Pictographic writing is either literal - this is this - or else it is iconic: this stands for that (and only that). The alphabet endows its user with a mental plasticity that is impossible for pictography. Letters signal hidden connections and correspondences, tracing the roots of meaning that lie beneath the surface of language. To illiterates or to cultures still using pictography, the alphabet fulfills Clarke's Law: it must seem like a form of sorcery for the powers, the grammar and glamour, it grants to those who commandeer it.
Finally, the perfected alphabet is a martial instrument for regularizing culture. The dragon's teeth become soldiers whose violent drama is rehearsed by gladiators in the Roman Coliseum. In computer modeling, this sort of selection procedure is called a genetic algorithm: different bits of code are set loose in a puzzle or to work on a problem; the bits of code that remain are generally the best at finding a solution. The Cadmean soldiers represent the perfected Phoenician alphabet which, in the logic of the myth, is forged into a technology for the imposition of order and discipline, for effecting commerce, for monumental architecture - building Thebes - for creating an administrative structure and culture, and for waging war.
The myth of Cadmus preserves and compresses the radioactive core of meaning at the heart of the advent of the alphabet, especially its connection to the foundation of the Greek Empire, or the Empire of Greek. The alphabet helped to build the Greek Empire as surely as the Empire created and refined the alphabet by enabling new trans-substantiations of raw material into weapons and organization, in order to feed the growth of armies and consolidate lines of communication.
We see the first signs of empire arise with picture writing among the Sumerians in Mesopotamia. A hundred years before writing, a time-lapsed satellite movie of the region would reveal unaffiliated nomadic tribes or clans following cyclic patterns of complex motion across an area dotted with small fortress cities. A hundred years after the advent of writing, a time-lapse satellite movie of the same region would show a criss-cross grid of cultivation and irrigation and the rise of greatly expanded centers of empire and commerce. This would have been impossible before the advent of writing and is not explained solely by the beginning of agriculture, since a more Olympian conception and coordination across time and space was required to imagine, let alone execute, the vast terraforming projects of the Sumerians.
After all, without literacy, the physical limit of an empire is the distance a man can ride a horse in one day, which is equivalent to the distance a king can impose his will on his troops and people before the messenger sleeps on it and the message becomes contaminated by the dream. One of the first and most powerful effects of writing is the transmission of a ruler's will across space and time, extending his dominion or grasp. With writing, the king's minions can know his mind unambiguously.