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The Greek Alphabet

The Greek Alphabet

 "Yes, and numbers, too, chiefest of sciences, I invented for them (mankind), and the combining of letters, creative mother of the Muses' arts, with which to hold all things in memory." (Prometheus 1 to the OCEANIDS. Aeschylus, Prometheus Bound 459).

"Socrates: Writing, Phaedrus, has this strange quality, and is very like painting; for the creatures of painting stand like living beings, but if one asks them a question, they preserve a solemn silence. And so it is with written words; you might think they spoke as if they had intelligence, but if you question them, wishing to know about their sayings, they always say only one and the same thing." (Plato's Phaedrus 275d).

Prometheus might have invented the combining of letters for the benefit of mankind (as Aeschylus makes him say), but hardly out of love for that race. Rather he did it because of the revulsion he felt before the new ruler of Heaven. For Prometheus, being himself a divinity of a certain kind, could not have ignored how promptly humankind would put his gift at the service of fraud, slander and treachery, and for writing manuals to facilitate the occurrence of misfortunes and destructions of every kind. It is true that he also gave men the useful fire, but they would rather cook each other with it than burn the evil manuals they so diligently produce. Now, if Prometheus could not have ignored all that, then his own wit must have been severely flawed ... And so that faculty of Reason which he is said to have given mankind must necessarily be as faulty as his own, since nobody can teach a better reason than the one he possesses.

If we instead turn to the logographer Herodotus, "the father of history," we learn (5.58.1) that it was Cadmus who introduced the alphabet in Hellas when he came with his contingent of Phoenicians. The Greeks then adopted those Phoenician letters, and though later times changed the form of the signs, the Greeks still called the characters "Phoenician," which was—as Herodotus acknowledges—"quite fair" a compliment since the Phoenicians had brought them into Hellas. Who had given the letters to them? That, this author does not tell. But modern scholarship might be said to support the core of his account. For example, the Oxford Classical Dictionary says:

"The various forms of local alphabet current in early Greece were all ultimately derived from a Phoenician (Semitic) source, which must have reached the Aegean in the course of trade certainly by the second half of the eigth century ..." (sub voce ALPHABET).

Now the mythographer Hyginus says (Fabulae 277), by way of introduction, that the MOERAE invented seven Greek letters (of which only six are visible in his text): alpha, beta, eta, tau, iota, and upsilon. Then he refers to other sources which claim that Mercury (Hermes) conceived the letters by observing the flight of cranes which form letters when they fly. Then Hyginus says that Palamedes invented eleven letters, Simonides four (omega, epsilon, zeta, and phi), and Epicharmus of Sicily two (pi, and psi). He says further that Cadmus took the letters which he introduced in Hellas from Egypt, where Hermes had brought them.

However, according to Isidore of Seville (The Etymologies I.iii.4-6), the Egyptian letters were devised by Isis (Io) when she came from Hellas into Egypt. Cadmus, he says, brought to Hellas seventeen letters (alpha, beta, gamma, delta, epsilon, zeta, iota, kappa, lambda, mu, nu, omicron, pi, rho, sigma, tau, and phi). Later Palamedes added three more (eta, chi, and omega), and the lyricist Simonides three others (psi, xi, and theta).

With the combining of letters it is possible, as we learn from Prometheus, "to hold all things in memory." Also Herodotus writes his treatise "... in the hope of ... preserving from decay the remembrance of what men have done ..." (1.1.) For Herodotus, memory could be collective and external. Yet in the view of Plato memory is individual and therefore internal, as shown by the controverse in his Phaedrus where he represents the god Thamus, ruler of Egypt, saying to the inventor of writing, the god Theuth:

"This invention will produce forgetfulness in the minds of those who learn to use it, because they will not practice their memory. Their trust in writing, produced by external characters which are no part of themselves, will discourage the use of their own memory within them. You have invented an elixir not of memory, but of reminding; and you offer your pupils the appearance of wisdom, not true wisdom, for they will read many things without instruction and will therefore seem to know many things, when they are for the most part ignorant and hard to get along with, since they are not wise, but only appear wise." (Socrates tells the story in Plato's Phaedrus 275b).

Concerning the date of the transfer of the Semitic (Phoenician) alphabet to Greece, it appears that most scholars agree in the earlier part of the 8th century. But this view is not held by near-eastern scholars, particularly Joseph Naveh who has argued (AJA lxxvii, 1973, and Early History of the Alphabet) for an earlier transfer—at c. 1050 BC—being supported by Frank M. Cross (Semitic epigrapher at Harvard), and others. These scholars do not accept the argument ex silentio (that no Greek alphabetic texts from before c. 740 have been found), and build their case on the "forms" and "names used for the letters" (so A. W. Johnston's "Supplement" (1990) in The Local Scripts of Archaic Greece, by L. H. Jeffery, 1961/2001).

If the Greek tradition (that Cadmus and his Phoenicians introduced the alphabet in Hellas) were accepted as a true account, then the date of the transmission of the alphabet would have to be placed between 1400 and 1500 BC (when Cadmus must have lived). That would imply acknowledging that the two forms of writing—Linear B and the Greek alphabet—coexisted during a certain time until Linear B disappeared along with the Mycenaeans.