Towards a Greek Kabbalah: Mythology of the Greek Letters

If we’re to really get anywhere with this Greek kabbalah, or kampala, then we need to start from the basics.  And, as an engineer, for me the basics often consist of the tools I’m going to use in order to build myself up more.  Theory and theology are great and all, but it’s hard to read a book if you don’t know how to read.  I claim that, in pursuing the goal of creating a system of kampala, it’s important to start out from the basics if we want to start from first principles.  Put bluntly, if the universe is made from number as Pythagoras claims, than it’s possible to gain an understanding of the universe by means of number.  And, if Greek letters stand for numbers, then it’s likewise possible to understand the universe by means  of Greek letters.  Add to it, the number of numbers is, well, infinite (infinitely and uncountably infinite, to be exact), while the Greek letters are finite; yet, the Greek letters can represent all numbers.  Since we’re finite beings ourselves, it helps us to use a finite set of symbols to gain understanding, not least infinity itself.

So, the Greek alphabet.  I claim it’s a useful tool, and not just for the purposes of grammatomancy and isopsephy, either.  I won’t harp on those topics just yet, though, nor do I want to talk about what the letters are or how to pronounce them or how they developed from Phoenician or how they developed as numbers.  You can read all that on your own without much context or debate.  What I really want to talk about is the mythology behind the letters, where they came from in a divine sense according to what we already know.  According to Hyginus in his Fabulae, #277:

The Parcae, Clotho, Lachesis, and Atropos invented seven Greek letters – A B H T I Y.
Others say that Mercury invented them from the flight of cranes, which, when they fly, form letters.
Palamedes, too, son of Nauplius, invented eleven letters; Simonides, too, invented four letters – Ó E Z PH; Epicharmus of Sicily, two – P and PS.
The Greek letters Mercury is said to have brought to Egypt, and from Egypt Cadmus took them to Greece. Cadmus in exile from Arcadia, took them to Italy, and his mother Carmenta changed them to Latin to the number of 15.
Apollo on the lyre added the rest.

Thus, we have several groups of letters along with who invented them:

  • Moirai (7): Α, Β, Η, Τ, Ι, Υ, ?
  • Palamedes (11): Γ, Δ, Θ, Κ, Λ, Μ, Ν, Ξ, Ο, Ρ, Σ, Χ
  • Simonides (4): Ω, Ε, Ζ, Φ
  • Epicharmus of Sicily (2): Π, Ψ

The list is somewhat confusing, since the translation (and a Latin copy of Hyginus) give variations depending on the source of who invented what letters or how many.  The list above has the Moirai inventing seven letters but only listing six.  Something’s not adding up here, but that’s what crappy penmanship and scribery will get you over the centuries.  Besides, this is only one myth, and there are many; Herodotus in his Histories claims that Cadmus, a Phoenician prince, brought a Phoenician alphabet to the Greeks.  Herodotus and others note that ancient Greek (and this was ancient even for them) was written using identical letters to those of Phoenician scripts of the time, though over time the Greek alphabet had diverged and grown unique in its own use.  Other historians cast doubt on Herodotus, claiming the Greek script had a Euboean, Eretrian, or other Greek origin; others yet claimed that calling them “Phoenician letters” was a misnomer since, even if the Phoenicians brought them to Greece, they themselves got their letters from other nations, specifically Syria according to Diodorus Siculus.  As it would turn out, Herodotus was closest to the factual history of the matter.  This is why Hebrew and Greek share a common origin, because they both pull their alphabets from Phoenician, though their mythologies may say differently on the matter.

Unlike Egyptian or Hebrew mythology, the Greeks as a whole didn’t have that many myths for where their alphabet came from; either Cadmus the Phoenician gave it to Greece, or the Fates and Hermes contributed to the alphabet along with mortals.  That doesn’t change the fact that the Greeks had and appreciated their writing system, though, and if any mythological non-mortal origin must be traced to the letters, then it’s from two sources: the Moirai, goddesses of fate, as well as Hermes, communicator and messenger of the gods.  The Moirai were Klōthō, Lakhesis, and Atropos, the three white-robed goddesses who, respectively, spun the thread of life from her distaff onto her spindle to begin life, measured the thread to determine how long a life should be, and cut the thread of life to end it once it was fully measured out.  Their name itself refers to “part” or “lot”, similar to one’s fate or destiny or the allotment of length of life.  However, their collective name can be more broadly interpreted to refer to everything that fell as one’s lot in life: glory, happiness, grief, death, and the like, which are all unexpected and fall to chance and fate.  Sometimes, even, the three Moirai are represented as the single goddess Moira, who subsumes all their functions into an abstract concept, of whom Zeus is the occasional personification.  In terms of writing, however, that the Moirai developed several letters for our use indicates that the ability to write gives us the ability to understand and work with what falls to us; writing not only comes from the divine but allows us to learn more about them.

As for Hermes, well, what needs be said about him that many of us don’t already know?  He’s the communicator and messenger between the gods, traveling across all worlds doing their bidding, and especially from our world to the heavens to communicate our desires and prayers and sacrifices to the gods themselves. He’s the god of all communication and the post, and thus over writing and many of its related arts such as mathematics, science, engineering, programming, and so forth.  However, his association with this is not given in his Homeric hymn, but developed as a result of his function as messenger and courier.  The myths do associate him with divination through signs, such as birdflight and other chance omens, which themselves are messages.  In this light, letters are messages from the gods always telling us more about the world as well as of the gods themselves.  Letters, coming from the shapes of birds and other omens, all have their own messages to speak in addition to the message they spell out as a whole.

Unlike in Hebrew, where the world was literally created by means of the Hebrew script (which the Jews think God gave to mankind in exactly the same curvy square-script form they use today, which I find…odd), the Greeks had no such conception; there are plenty of other cosmogonies in Greek mythology, but none involve language per se or even as an important tool; abstract gods generate other gods either by themselves or in copulation with another.  Instead, the use of writing is a constant transaction between us and the cosmos; every letter of every message is significant in always communicating to us the will and desire of the gods, as well as correlating all the things in our life to what happens to and because of us.  This is a huge idea; this means that if the will of the gods are in their messages, and their messages are in the letters, then they are effectively within and staring at us from the letters.  As we write letters, we communicate the will of the gods by means of the things we write since they use each letter independently and in tandem with each other to communicate their will to the rest of the cosmos.  While the letters may not be the building blocks of the world, they are vital to its constant functioning and maintenance.

4 responses

  1. Pingback: There’s always an epilogue in Italy | The House of Vines

    • It doesn’t conflict, but I don’t see the connection, either. The Myth of Er also has seven singing out the notes of the cosmos, and this is widely interpreted to be the seven planets and/or seven vowels. Besides, the Three Moirai are also part of the Myth along with the Sirens, so I don’t think they should be confused.

      • I am not saying I personally would use the seven letters “invented” by the Moirai for the planets, but it occurs to me that since the Moirai are related to them. That the allocation of those as inventions of the Moirai might be a hangover from some tradition or thinker that tied those letters to the planets. The whole “and some say, and some say” reminds me of Agrippa or folkloric writers, where bits and extrapolations from different systems or times are put all together in the same place. I’m not suggesting to use the Myth of Er as a specific framework so much to link in the general idea of 3 Fates and the Spindle of Necessity as being involved in something that underlies the planets or their functions in some way as part of greek thinking.

        So with these factors I am leaning towards three Fates inventing seven letters as not being a coincidence. Again – not that I would personally use that attribution because I wouldn’t be able to have it make sense with the rest of the letters (hence I would also lean to using the seven vowels as the planets). But it might be a useful line of thought if some OTHER piece of knowledge could turn it into a coherent picture of how someone thought or might have used those seven letters with planetary attributions.

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