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HISTORY OF THE ALPHABET
Before commencing with the study of alphabetic symbolism, let us first briefly review the history of the invention of writing itself, and the evolution of the alphabet. Examining the origins of the alphabet will serve as a useful means to introduce the early history of the Greeks and other peoples and cultures relevant to our story. It will also provide us with a complete picture of the full range of ideas behind alphabetic symbols, right from their inception. This will, in turn, provide a useful backdrop against which to consider the range of their subsequent use.
Many examples of as-yet-undeciphered scripts dating from several thousands of years B.C.E., plainly independent in origin, have been found at several neolithic sites, such as Banpo in China, and Moenjodaro in Pakistan. In the oldest civilizations of the world, the earliest forms of writing were basically pictographic. The characters were ideograms or pictograms, ideas or objects each represented by a single stylized symbol. The earliest widespread and enduring example of such a system is found in the ancient civilization of Mesopotamia (modern Iraq), where writing first appeared around 3000 B.C.E. as a cuneiform or "wedge-shaped" script consisting of marks made by a reed stylus on clay tablets. Not long afterward, a basically similar system, known as hieroglyphics or "sacred pictures," arose in Egypt. These symbols then came to represent syllables, and were used in conjunction with other pictograms to denote the sound and meaning of various other words. A similar methodology lies behind Chinese characters and their composite pictophonetic radicals.
In Mycenaean Greece during the second millennium B.C.E., writing also consisted of pictographic scripts. The best-documented versions known to historians today are called Linear A and Linear B (see figure 1, page 2). These were based on the pictographic writing brought to Mycenae and other Greek cities by traders from the kingdom of Minos on the nearby central island of Crete, an island closely connected with early Mycenaean Greece. An example of early Minoan pictographic writing appears on the famous Phaistos disc from Crete, which, in spite of extensive research, remains undeciphered to this day. An account of the use of this type of writing is also preserved in Homer's Iliad, where Bellerophon is sent away bearing a letter from the king in symbols "on a folded tablet" containing a message that the bearer should be killed—an idea copied by Shakespeare in Hamlet. The Mycenaean Linear B script (1400-1200 B.C.E.) contained eighty-eight different phonetic signs, and was deciphered by Ventris and Chadwick only as recently as 1953 (see figure 2, page 4).
Such systems were obviously cumbersome, and there was much experimentation in the ancient Near East aimed at producing a simpler method of representing language in writing. The origin of the alphabet, in which each sound is denoted by a single sign, is generally attributed to the region forming the land bridge between the great cultures of Egypt and Mesopotamia. This area is also known to historians and archaeologists as the Fertile Crescent, and was home to the kingdoms of Phoenicia, Aram, and Israel. In addition to the land trade routes that passed through the region, maritime trade transformed coastal trading ports in this area into centers of great commercial activity. All available evidence suggests that it was in this part of the world that some person or persons, dissatisfied with the various cumbersome existing methods of transcribing words, first had the idea of representing each sound with one symbol only.
It is likely that the inventor of the first alphabet knew of and was influenced by the scripts and symbols then used for writing by surrounding cultures. The earliest example of a syllabic alphabet occurs in 1400 B.C.E. in the form of a 32-letter alphabet from the Phoenician coastal city of Ugarit (Ras Shamra), with the letters written in a cuneiform script, showing Mesopotamian influence (see figure 3, page 5). For many centuries, Egypt had maintained close ties with the coastal Phoenician cities, and Egyptian influence can also be seen in several letters (see figure 4). The Egyptian hieroglyphic for water (_), for example, was simplified in shape to become the Phoenician letter mem. Its wave-like shape is still visible in our own form of that letter, M. Likewise, the Phoenician letter O is traceable to the Egyptian hieroglyph for an eye; the letter Y can perhaps be traced to that of a prop. The Phoenician script was written from right to left, like hieroglyphics, as is still the practice in Arabic and Hebrew. It is not unlikely that some Phoenician symbols were also derived from the pictographic script used by the early Minoans, who were also engaged in regular trade with the coastal cities of the Levant.
The invention of the syllabic alphabet in the area of Phoenicia occurred just before the period in Greek history known as the Dark Age (1200-800 B.C.E.). This is the period of the Trojan War, recounted by Homer in the Iliad. Scholars generally agree that the Trojan War occurred around 1200 B.C.E., a time when mighty walled cities like King Agamemnon's Mycenae dotted mainland Greece. On the island of Crete, the kingdom of Minos thrived on maritime trade between the nations surrounding it, and its ships dominated the Aegean. Shortly after this period, however, it seems as if Greek history stops, and archaeologists find centuries of little else but destruction, as Greece's walled cities apparently fell to invaders and wars. When the Dark Age of Greece ended, the kingdoms of Mycenae and Minos had been reduced to mere myths, remembered only in legend and in heroic works like the songs of Homer.
After the collapse of Minoan culture and sea power, Phoenician vessels, originating from cities on the coast of present-day Lebanon, came to dominate the Mediterranean. A passage in the Odyssey records the Greeks' perception of their neighbors from across the sea: "Thither came the Phoenicians, mariners renowned, greedy merchant men, with countless gauds in a black ship."
The Phoenicians became famous traders, colonists and sailors, and even circumnavigated Africa around 600 B.C.E. on behalf of the Pharaoh Necoh. They carried their alphabet with them to most of the lands of the ancient world, while another form of the same parent North Semitic alphabet, Aramaic, spread eastward by land routes toward India. In this fashion, the 22-letter North Semitic alphabet became the source of almost every script used in the world today, except those of the Far East (see figure 5, page 8). Among the alphabetic scripts of the world that can be traced to this one original parent alphabet are Phoenician, Aramaic, Arabic, Hebrew, Greek, Coptic, Russian, Latin, Runes, Gothic, English, Mongol, Tibetan, Korean, and Sanskrit (see figure 6, page 10).
Some time around 850 B.C.E. when the Dark Age of Greece was drawing to a close, the Greeks, like other Mediterranean cultures, adopted the new alphabetic script from the Phoenicians. This was around the time of Homer and Hesiod, whose compositions are the earliest surviving works in Greek preserved with the aid of the new alphabet. This fact has even led to the suggestion that Homer's poems were actually the impetus and instrument for the adaptation and diffusion of the Phoenician alphabet throughout Greece. The pictographic writing used earlier in mainland Greece appears to have vanished from common use during the Dark Age, along with the cities that had used it. It is unlikely that any kind of literacy survived through the turmoil of Greece during this period.
Recently, Roger Woodard, in his work Greek Writing from Knossos to Homer, has used linguistic analysis to propose the theory that the Greek adaptation of the Phoenician consonantal alphabet took place in a bilingual setting on the island of Cyprus, where scribes were still using a syllabic script probably evolved from Minoan Linear A. Much academic debate still surrounds the date, location, and speed of the Greek adaptation of the Phoenician alphabet, but there is general consensus that the Greek historian, Herodotus, was essentially correct when he recorded in his Histories (written about 450 B.C.E.) that:
The Greeks were taught these letters by the Phoenicians and adopted them, with a few alterations, for their own use, continuing to refer to them as "Phoenician things" [phoinikeia]—as was only right, as the Phoenicians had introduced them.
Greek tradition, as recounted by Herodotus, went even further and attributed the alphabet to a specific Phoenician individual named Cadmus, the founder of Thebes. Hence the letters came to be known as Cadmean letters (kadmeia grammata). Other legends arose concerning the origin of the Greek alphabet, including a story that they were invented by Hermes, who allegedly saw a flight of cranes and decided that similar shapes could be used to represent sounds. Cranes fly in a V-like formation that readily evokes the angular characters of the early alphabets. Hermes' counterpart in Egypt was the god Thoth, called Hermes Trismegistus by the Greeks, whose symbol was the crane-like white ibis, and to whom was also attributed the invention of writing. Another version is recorded by the Roman writer Caius Julius Hyginus, who wrote that the Moirai, or Fates, invented the first seven letters (the vowels); Palamedes, son of Nauplius, later invented eleven more; Epicharmus of Sicily then added two; and Simonides of Ceos contributed a further four. Pliny wrote in his Natural History that Palamedes added four letters to the sixteen brought by Cadmus. These traditions indicate there may have been a specific individual named Palamedes who perfected the Greek alphabet by making changes to the Phoenician system.
The Phoenicians gave each of their letters names, some derived from their pictographic origin, others simply as a mnemonic or memory aid, similar to our modern nursery alphabets; A for apple, B for bee, and so on. Thus, the letter aleph in Phoenician means ox, beth means house, and gimel means a camel. In Greek, these foreign names had no meaning, and so they became slightly altered in pronunciation over time, so that aleph, beth, and gimel became alpha, beta, and gamma. The names of the first two letters give us our word alphabet, from alphabetum, a term first used by Tertullian (155-230 C.E.), one of the early Christian apologists generally known as the Church Fathers.
It was the Greeks who invented the first real alphabet in the form we now use in the West by adding something the Phoenician system lacked—a set of pure vowels. In the Semitic consonantal alphabet, each of the letters could represent several sounds, depending upon the vowel sound (e.g., ba, be, bi, bo, bu) that was later denoted by diacritical points or marks between the letters. By separating the syllable into two distinct parts, consonant and vowel, the Greeks fundamentally improved on the syllabic alphabet. They adapted a few Phoenician letters representing consonants they did not use to use as the vowel sounds.
A form of waw became the letter upsilon (Y). This was used to represent the vowel sound U, and added to the end of the alphabet after tau (T). The Greeks also invented new signs for the double consonants phi, chi, and psi ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], X, [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]), probably adapted from early forms of the letters theta and kappa, which they also added to the end of the alphabet. The Ionic form of the alphabet included separate characters for the long and short forms of the letters O and E, one of the changes attributed by some to Simonides of Ceos (556–467 B.C.E.), a well-known Greek poet who supposedly first introduced the new letters into his manuscripts. The Ionic dialect had no use for the Phoenician aspirant cheth (H), known as heta by many Greeks, and they therefore used this letter for the long form of E and called it eta. The O was opened at the bottom to produce [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], "big O" (o-mega), in contrast to the old "little O" (o-mikron), and this letter was also added to the end of the alphabet. In adopting the Phoenician alphabet, the Greeks also seem to have assigned the wrong names to the Phoenician sibilants: zayin, tzaddi, samekh, and shin. Other letters, such as digamma, qoppa, and sanpi, were dropped when their relative sounds were not used (see figure 7, page 12).
At first, the Greeks wrote from right to left, in the fashion of the Phoenicians. They soon began to write in the opposite direction, however, if this proved more convenient. Some ancient Greek vases show writing in both directions. In several carved stone inscriptions, each new line begins under the last letter of the line above and runs in the opposite direction. Occasionally, the letters even face the other way. Since this method recalled the way in which a field was plowed, with the ox-drawn plow turning at the end of each furrow, it was called "ox-turning" (boustrophedon). Eventually, the Greeks came to write uniformly in the fashion we now use, from left to right only. Writing from left to right made it easier for a right-handed person to avoid smudging and to see the most recently formed characters.
Numerous variations in letter pronunciation arose as the Phoenician alphabet was adapted for different Greek dialects. The Ionic alphabet of Miletus was officially adopted at Athens in 403 B.C.E., and eventually became the standard throughout the Greek world. Another development was the use of accent marks, introduced by Aristophanes of Byzantium in the middle of the third century B.C.E. to assist students in pronunciation. Lowercase forms of the Greek letters, or minuscules, were derived from the cursive style of writing, and are evidenced as early as the third century B.C.E.
Greek writing had an important offshoot in Egypt, called Coptic. Following Alexander the Great's conquest of Egypt in the fourth century B.C.E., the Macedonians ruled there for three centuries, until Cleopatra, the only one of her line who bothered to learn the Egyptian language, was defeated, along with Antony, by Roman forces at Actium in 31 B.C.E. While upper-class Egyptians, therefore, spoke and wrote in Greek, the lower classes used Coptic. Coptic based 25 of its 32 letters on the Greek alphabet and added an extra seven letters from demotic, a cursive form of hieroglyphics, used for the Egyptian language. Both words "Coptic" and "Egypt" share the same etymology, each derived from the Egyptian he-ku-Ptah, meaning "the house of the spirit of Ptah," the Egyptian creator god. The use of Coptic was much advanced by the spread of Christianity in Egypt, and an extensive body of Coptic Christian magical papyri, incorporating numerous examples of Greek Qabalah, has recently been published.
Another form on the Greek alphabet came to Rome. Colonists from the Greek island of Euboea carried their particular version of the alphabet to Italy, where it was adopted and modified by the resident Etruscans. This was, in turn, adopted later by their conquerors, the Romans, around the sixth century B.C.E. (see figure 8, page 15). The earliest Latin inscription, found on a brooch known as the Praeneste fibula (though some scholars regard it as a 19th-century forgery), is written from right to left, although another example from the sixth century B.C.E. is written boustrophedon. Like every race that received the alphabet, the Romans altered it to suit their own tongue. Of the twenty-six Etruscan letters, the Romans adopted twenty-one, while some letters for which they had no use were retained as numbers. After their conquest of Greece, the Romans added the letters Y and Z to assist in pronouncing Greek words. The Emperor Claudius, during his brief reign from 51 to 54 B.C.E., tried unsuccessfully to introduce three new letters, including an equivalent of the Greek letter psi, and another for the sound of our letter W.
It is from this Roman alphabet that our own is derived, the letters J, U, and W being later additions. W was added in Anglo-Saxon writings of the seventh century C.E., derived by doubling the letter V, a fact reflected in its name, "double-U," as well as by its shape. Both J and U became established during the 16th century; J was developed from I, and U from V. Thus the English alphabet evolved through the medium of the Greek, Etruscan, and then Roman adaptations. Ultimately however, it derived from the Phoenician script in use over 3,000 years ago.
THE ALPHABET AS NUMBER
By further extending the brilliant idea of the alphabet, the Greeks developed a symbolic system that employed the letters as number symbols. In the early history of all the great cultures of the ancient world, including Egypt and Mesopotamia, counting was accomplished by representing each unit with a single symbol repeated a set number of times. When this limit was reached, that set was replaced by a separate symbol. These symbols were then combined as required to express larger numbers. The division into sets and subsets was usually based on groups of ten (denary) to replicate counting on one's fingers. Some early Ugaritic, Aramaic, Arabic, and Phoenician inscriptions show numerals by means of such denary symbols; others spell out the numbers in full. This is true on the Moabite Stone, a famous early Semitic inscription from the ninth century B.C.E. commemorating the victory of King Moab over the Israelites (see figure 9, page 20). Likewise, numerals are always spelled out in full in the Old Testament.
Excerpted from THE GREEK QABALAH by Kieren Barry. Copyright © 1999 Kieren Barry. Excerpted by permission of Samuel Weiser, Inc..
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List of Illustrations and Tables
ONE History of the Alphabet
TWO The Alphabet as Number
FOUR The Vowels and the Planets
FIVE The Consonants, the Elements, and the Zodiac
SIX Symbolism of Individual Letters
SEVEN Oracles and Invocations
EIGHT The Gnostics.
NINE The Romans
TEN The Christians
ELEVEN The Neoplatonists
TWELVE The Jews
THIRTEEN Greek Qabalistic Exegesis
APPENDIX I Tables of Correspondences
APPENDIX II Dictionary of Isopsephy
APPENDIX III Ancient Authors Cited
Index of Numbers
About the Author
Posted November 17, 2011