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ALPHABETS . This article concerns lore, mystical beliefs, and magical practices involving the alphabet and its letters in the civilizations and religious traditions that use them. The term alphabet generally refers to those scripts derived from the original Phoenician aleph-bet that have roughly one sign and only one sign for every phoneme, or at least, as in Phoenician, Hebrew, and Arabic, every consonant phoneme. Logographic writing such as Chinese, and syllabaries such as the Maya "glyphs" (largely deciphered in recent decades), Japanese katakana and hiragana, Indian devanāgarī, and the Ethiopian "geʾez" are therefore excluded from the following discussions, even though the last two derive ultimately from the Phoenician script. However, Near Eastern precursors of the alphabet, such as cuneiform and Egyptian hieroglyphics and their offshoots, will be discussed.

Origin of Writing

The beginnings of writing can be traced back to the fourth millennium bce and earlier in Mesopotamia and in Kurdistan, the Zagros Mountains, and the Iranian plateau to the east and north. Subsequently, the idea of writing (however different the forms it took in each area) spread eastward to the Indus Valley and China, and westward to Egypt, Anatolia, and Minoan Crete. Though the earliest uses of writing appear to have been economicthe recording of mundane trade transactionsit quickly became so central to civilized life that every aspect of human endeavor was written down, from the deeds of kings and priestly rituals to the most sacred myths of the people.

Myths of Origin

Myths soon evolved in literate cultures, attributing to gods or heroes the origin of writing and its transmission to human beings. In Mesopotamia, the cradle of writing, Nabu (Nebo)son of Marduk, king of the Babylonian pantheonwas credited with the invention of writing, which he used to record the fates of men. This notion of the function of writing, represented in the Book of Daniel 5:528 (cf. the English expressions hand of fate and handwriting on the wall ), is still alive today in the Middle East and the Balkans.

According to Egyptian mythology, the god hwtj (Thoth) discovered writing. This attribution is known to the West through Plato (Phaidros 274c) and was accepted even by the church, as proved by the floor mosaic in Siena Cathedral, which depicts Hermes Trismegistos (Thoth) giving writing to the Egyptians. Titles of this divinity include sš (scribe) and nb sš.w (lord of writing); he was naturally patron of scribes. Perhaps because the pictographic appearance of the hieroglyphic script (actually a consonantal system with some logograms) facilitated the belief that word and thing were essentially identical, writing was closely linked to magic in ancient Egypt, and Thoth was the god of sorcery as well. He was reputedly the author of the Hermetic corpus (first to third century ce), which influenced Christians, Jews, and Muslims alike in the Middle Ages and Renaissance.

The Bible (Ex. 31:18; 32:1516) has God himself inscribe the two stone Tablets of the Law that he gives to Moses with the "writing of God." If this is a memory of the Sinaitic script, possible ancestor of the Phoenician alphabet, Yahweh may figure here as the inventor of writing. Later, the Paleo-Hebrew script acquired sanctity; some scrolls from Qumran, though written in Square Aramaic letters, write the tetragammaton (YHWH ) in Paleo-Hebrew. Postbiblical Jewish tradition often refers to Adam or Enoch as discoverer of the alphabet, magic, alchemy, and astrology.

In the Qurʾān also, writing is provided a divine association. God begins his revelation when Gabriel orders Muammad to recite from writings the angel has brought down with him from heaven (sūrah 96): "Recite thou! For thy Lord is the most Beneficent, / who hath taught the use of the pen / Hath taught Man that which he knoweth not." Shanawānī (c. 1610 ce) specifically states that God created the alphabet and revealed it to Adam.

The Greeks generally did not attribute their alphabet to deities; most were aware of its foreign, and often of its specifically Phoenician, origin. Herodotos, perhaps following Hekataios, states that "the Phoenicians who came with Kadmos introduced the Greeks to many skills and, what is more, to the alphabet, which I believe had not previously existed among the Hellenes" (5.58). As for writing in general, some sought the source in Egypt: Antikleides names the early pharoah Menes (first dynasty) as heuretēs (discoverer), and Plato assigns to Thoth the same role. (Plato, who rebels against the materialism of the pre-Socratics, becomes, significantly, the first Greek to make a daimōn invent writing, though he tells his Egyptian tale to denigrate the invention and probably does not believe it himself.) Under Near Eastern or Egyptian influence, some Greeks attributed writing to the three Fates (cf. Nabu) or to Hermes (cf. Thoth), but these authors are Hellenistic or later.

In Norse tradition, Óðinn (Odin), King of the Godsknown as Woden to Angles and Saxons and Wotan to the Germansis the discoverer, though not the inventor, of the runic alphabet. The runes are endowed with supernatural power and Óðinn/Woden, like Mercury, Hermes, Thoth, and Nabu, is a god of magic. This is the reason Mercury's day (cf., French, mercredi, Spanish, miercoles ) in English is Wednesday, from Woden's day.

Christian traditions attribute a number of national alphabets to saints and missionaries. Wulfila (Ulfilas) devised a script for Gothic and used it for his translation of the Bible into that tongue. Saints Cyril and Methodios are usually credited with the creation of Cyrillic, named for the former, which they used for their rendering of the Scriptures into Slavonic, but some scholars believe that the saints actually designed Glagolithic, a rival early Slavonic script. Saint Mesrob Mašt'oç (Mesrop Mashdotz) invented not one, but three scripts: one for his native Armenian, still in use today; one for Georgian; and one for the extinct Alwan (Albanian), a Caucasian language once spoken in modern Azerbaijan.

Roots of Mystical Speculation

Mystical speculation on the alphabet and its letters stems principally from two sources. The first is the Near East and Egyptfor magic, mainly the latter. The second is the Pythagorean tradition of Magna Graecia, where the western Greeks tended to reject Ionian rationalism.

Pythagoras founded his religious-philosophical school at Krotona in southern Italy around 531 bce. The complex system he taught gave a central place to numbers (expressed either by dots or by letters of the alphabet); these he believed to underlie the phenomenal universe. Confirming him in this conviction was his discovery that the principal intervals of the musical scale could be expressed by arithmetic ratios. From him or his school probably derives the seven-note scale that is still used today and is still noted after the Greek fashion with letters (A, B, C, D, E, F, G ). Later thinkers connected the seven tones with the seven known "planets" (hence the expression music of the spheres ), the seven days of the week (named for the deified "planets"), and the seven vowels of the Greek alphabet (Α, Ε, Η, Ι, Ο, Υ, Ω ); all these came to play an important role in magic and mysticism.

Pythagoras strongly influenced Plato, who spent much time in Syracuse with the Pythagorean Archytas of Tarentum (Taranto). Plato popularized Pythagorean ideas such as mind-body dualism and reincarnation and prepared the intellectual ground for letter and number mysticism. A generation later, the conquests of Alexander brought the Pythagorean-Platonic strain in Greek thought face to face with the philosophies and religions of the East, rife with speculation concerning writing. The subsequent Hellenistic and Roman periods are the formative eras for letter mysticism of all kinds.

Letter Mysticism

Letter mysticism includes several kinds of speculations associated with the alphabet. These conjectures are associated with the shapes of the letters; the significance of the various vowels, consonants, and syllables as well as the enigmas connected to the alphabetic system as a whole. These include the number of letters in the alphabet; the nexus between the letters and the constellations; alphabetic numerology; and symbolic characteristics of the letters.

Shapes of letters

Speculation about the shapes of the letters has existed since very early times. In the Greek system Pythagoras himself is said to have used the upsilon (Υ) to symbolize the initially similar, but ultimately radically divergent, paths of virtuous and wicked lives. Proklos in his scholia on Plato's Timaios (3.225) therefore calls upsilon the gramma philosophōn (philosopher's letter); in the Middle Ages, "ad Pythagorae literae bivium pervenire" ("to come to the crossroads of Pythagoras's letter") became proverbial for "coming to a moral crux." Similarly, the psi (Ψ) on an Attic relief may represent the golden mean followed by the philosopher, who avoids extremes on either side.

Epsilon (Ε), if turned on its back (Ш), resembles a scale, and thus represents justice. This, too, may be ultimately Pythagorean, especially since Ε=5 in the Milesian system; it is midway between alpha (Α=1) and theta (Θ=9) and therefore signifies balance. With this may be connected the famous Delphic Ε about which Plutarch wrote an essay.

The early Christians, too, saw religious significance in the shapes of the Greek letters. Alpha (Α) and delta (Δ), each with three lines, represent the Trinity. Tau (Τ) is recognizable as the cross, as that inveterate skeptic Lucian (c. 117c. 180 ce) had already pointed out (Letters at Law 61). Theta (Θ) is the world (round with an equator). Thus Isidore of Seville (c. 560636) was combining Christian with Pythagorean symbolism when he declared that five letters are mystical: ΑΘΤΥΩ (for Ω, see below).

Such speculation is also found in Jewish tradition: in the Zohar (part of the Qabbalah), the letter he' (ה) is called heikhal ("palace, temple") because its shape suggests one.

Vowels and consonants

By the time of Alexander the Great (356323 bce), the Ionian alphabet, with its seven vowels, had spread throughout the Greek world. Athens had adopted it in 403402 bce. These vowels were soon the center of much mystical speculation, in good part because they numbered seven, which also designated the seven known "planets." Vowels were thought to possess enormous power and were used on Coptic and Greek papyri from Egypt to invoke the gods. Certain combinations of vowels were deemed so potent that they could create gods. The first, middle, and last characters in the vowel seriesΑ, Ι, Ωwere also the first three letters of ΑΙΩΝ. Moving iota into first position, we have ΙΑΩ, identified with Yahu, a short form of the all-powerful name Yahweh. The magical Eighth Book of Moses says that the name ΙΑΩ is so mighty that God came into existence from its echo. Fuller forms are ΙΑΕΩ, ΙΗΩΥΟ, and ΙΕΟΥΩΗΙ (this last has all seven vowels). One repeated formula is ΤΟΝ ΙΑΩ ΣΑΒΑΩΘ ΤΟΝ ΑΔΟΝΑΙ, where ΙΑΩ (Sabaoth, "hosts"), and ΑΔΟΝΑΙ (Adonai, "my lord"), are well-known epithets of Yahweh. ΣΑΒΑΩΘ was etymologized by vowel mystics as šäba' ʿōt (bad Hebrew for "seven letters," i.e., the seven in the Greek alphabet). Probably Α and Ω (Rev. 1:8f.) were meant as the first and last of all letters, though Clement of Alexandria (c. 150215) believed that the vowel series were meant. Given the importance of the number seven in the Book of Revelation, that most mystical of New Testament books, he may have been right.

The seven vowels often were equated with the seven planetary spheres; Clement added that the vowels are the sounds of the planets, hence the Α and Ω of Revelation. When Hyginus (Fabulae 277) attributed the invention of the vowels to the Fates, he was thinking of the planets' role in astrological determinations of individual fates.

The consonants play a much smaller role in magic and mysticism than do vowels. If the seven vowels in the Greek alphabet corresponded to seven planets, then perhaps the seventeen consonants represented the twelve signs of the zodiac plus the five elements. The names of the five elements, ΑΗΡ (air), ΥΔΩΡ (water), ΠΥΡ (fire), ΑΙΘΗΡ (ether), and ΓΗ (earth), were spelled with exactly five consonants (ΓΔΘΠΡ ) and five vowels (ΑΗΙΥΩ ). The twenty-four letters of the Greek alphabet were assigned in pairs to the twelve signs of the zodiac (Aries: ΑΝ ; Taurus: ΒΞ ; Gemini: ΓΟ ; etc.); these were then read as numerals and formed the basis for complex arithmetic and geometrical calculations of horoscopes.


On the walls of an archaic Etruscan tomb, an inscription (IG XIV 2420) lists letters of the Greek alphabet and under them, syllables consisting of a consonant plus a vowel: MA, MI, ME, MY, NA, etc. (Etruscan lacks O ). Some have seen this as an echo of Aegean syllabaries from the Bronze Age (e.g., Linear A, B), which were similarly of consonant-plus-vowel type; others consider the inscription to be a magical incantation. Certainly magic papyri from Hellenistic and Roman Egypt (e.g., Leiden Papyrus Y) such syllables as incantations: Α, ΒΑ, ΓΑ, and so forth; Ε, ΒΕ, ΓΕ, and so on. Marcellus Empiricus (10.70), a medical writer of the fourth and fifth centuries, recommends such a set of syllables (ΨΑ, ΨΕ, etc.) to stop bleeding. The Etruscans may have originated the magical use of syllables or inherited it from the Aegean syllabaries; Etruscan refugees from Roman conquest could have introduced them to Egypt. (Compare the Etruscan book of ritualsand perhaps magic formulasfound on the wrappings of the famous Zagreb Mummy.)

The whole alphabet

The number of letters in the alphabet was widely held to be significant. Early Christian writers, following Jewish originals, saw the twenty-two letters of the Hebrew alphabet as representing the twenty-two creations of God, the twenty-two books of the Old Testament, the twenty-two virtues of Christ, and the twenty-two thousand cattle of Solomon (1 Kgs. 8:63; 2 Chr. 18.5). The twenty-four letters of the Greek alphabet corresponded to the twenty-four hours of the day and night, which in turn are double the number of months in the year. Alexandrian scholars divided the Iliad and the Odyssey into twenty-four books each, with each represented by a Greek letter. It might seem far-fetched to link this with solar symbolism, but some have compared the 350 cattle of Helios, the sun god (Odyssey 12.127130) to the 365 days of the solar year. Alexander of Aphrodisias, commenting on Aristotle, suggests that the twenty-four letters express the total of the twelve signs of the zodiac, the eight spheres (seven planets plus Earth), and the four elements (excluding ether).

The close link between the alphabet and the cosmos is well illustrated by the semantic field of the Greek word stoicheion ; it means "element, sound, letter of the alphabet; astrological sign; proposition in geometry; number." The Latin equivalent, elementum, may derive from the letter names L, M, N plus the suffix -tum. Everything had a name and a number, so the universe was built of letters as well as physical elements. The alphabet contained all the letters necessary to spell and utter all the names, known or unknown, of all the deities in the universe, and thus to possess power over them.

Since the alphabet was endowed with such enormous power, its first and last letters could be thought of as containing and encapsulating that power. The Hebrew word חא (ot ) means both "sign, token, divine portent" and "letter of the alphabet"; significantly, it begins with alef, the first letter of the alphabet, and ends with taw, the last. The alphabet came to represent the whole universe, and ot came to signify "name of God" or "God." One magical papyrus (Leiden Papyrus 5) refers to ΑΩΘ, "before which every god falls down and every daimōn cringes"; ΑΩΘ transcribes חא, while also comprising the first letter of both Hebrew and Greek alphabets (Α/א ) plus the last of each (Ω and Θ=ח ). The statement "I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end" of Revelation 1:8, 21:6, and 22:13 should probably be understood in this light.

Gematria, or numerology

The word gematria, used to allude to the numerical significance of letters, comes from the Hebrew gemariyyah, or gimariyyah, derived from the Greek geōmetria (geometry), mirroring the origins of this occult discipline. Though there are cuneiform parallels, the use of alphabetic signs as numerals is a Greek invention. The archaic epichoric alphabet of Miletos had twenty-seven letters: the familiar twenty-four plus digamma, or wau (ς, representing /w/ ); qoppa (O̩, representing /q/ ); and sampi (Ϡ, or Ϯ, representing /ts/ ). It lent itself to serving as a numerical syatem, with ΑΘ standing for numerals 19, ΙO̩ for 1090, and ΡϠ for 100900. Other numbers were expressed by the additive principle ΙΑ =11, ΙΒ =12, ΡΝΖ =100+50+7=157; 1000=,Α, 2000=,Β, and so on (the strokes are later additions). This Milesian system became dominant in the Hellenistic period and was applied to the Hebrew, Coptic, and Arabic alphabets, even though it fit them less well because they did not have exactly twenty-seven letters.

With this additive principle, names and words could be read as numbers. The Pythagoreans argued that every man, animal, plant, and city had its mystical number (psēphos; pl. psēphoi ), which determined the course of its existence. It was a small step to identify this psēphos with the sum of the letter-numerals in that name or word. This system of arithmomancy spread rapidly in the Hellenistic period and plays a vital part in Egyptian and Jewish religious practice and later in Christianity and Islam.

The psēphoi played an important role in both religious and secular life. The Sibylline Oracles (8.148) predicted that Rome would last 948 years; this is the psēphos of ΡΩΜΗ. The great Gnostic aiōn Abraxas may owe the exact form of his name to its psēphos : 365. In the second and third centuries ce, Romans identified Mithra, the Persian god of light, with their Sol Invictus (Invincible Sun), patron deity of the army. Contributing to this syncretism is the psēphos of ΜΕΙΘΡΑΣ =365.

Even fragments of words were added up and considered to be significant. Apion of Alexandria (first century ce) thought that the first two letters of the Iliad, ΜΗ (ΝΙΝ) =48, represented the forty-eight total books of the Iliad and Odyssey together. The Gnostic Valentinus saw in the first two letters of Jesus' name, ΙΗ(ΣΟΥΣ)= 18, a reflection of the eighteen aiōnes, the emanations of Divinity central to Gnosticism. The Epistle to Barnabas (9.8) explains the 318 servants of Abraham (Gn. 14:14) as the ΙΗ =18 of the ΙΗΣΟΥΣ plus Τ (the Cross)=300.

The formulation of isopsēphoi (two or more words with the same numerological value) became a central numerological practice. It was believed that, should the psēphoi of two words be equal, the words themselves must have a similar significance. A favorite Byzantine isopsēphos was ΘΕΟΣ (God)=ΑΓΑΘΟΣ (good)=ΑΓΙΟΣ (holy)=284. Suetonius (69after 122 ce), author of The Lives of the Twelve Caesars, records a Roman political isopsēphos, ΝΕΡΩΝ=1005=ΙΔΙΑΝ ΜΗΤΕΡΑ ΑΠΕΚΤΕΙΝΕ (killed his own mother), directed against the matricide emperor Nero. A sexual isopsēphos was offered by the poet Straton (second century ce): ΠΡΩΚΤΟΣ (rectum)=1570=ΧΡΥΣΟΣ (gold).

To make more isopsēphoi, Jewish arithmomancers introduced elaborate variations. One gives each letter the sum of the Milesian values of the letters in its name (e.g., פלא =80+30+1=111). Another reckons אט =19, יע =19, and קת =14; therefore הוהי (Yahweh)=בוט (ob, "good")=17.

No numerological mystery has held more fascination than the "number of the beast" of the Christian apocalypse. Revelation 13:18 exhorts the wise to "calculate [psēphisatō ] the number of the beast, for it is the number of a man [arithmos anthrōpou ]." This can only mean that the number 666 (616 and 646 are manuscript variants) is the psēphos of a man's name. Revelation 17:9 shows that the beast is Rome (7 heads = 7 hills), so the man must be an emperor. ΓΑΙΟΣ ΚΑΙΣΑΡ (Gaius Caesar "Caligula," r. 3741 ce) fits 616 perfectly; and for 666 there are several candidates. Nero's name in Greek (ΝΕΡΩΝ ΚΑΙΣΑΡ =Nero Caesar, r. 5468) [mis]spelled in Hebrew רסק ןורנ, totals 666 ("Caesar" should be רסיק ). Titus (ΤΕΙΤΟΣ ) took Jerusalem in 70 ce, destroying the Temple; identify him as a Titan, and we have ΤΕΙΤΑΝ =666. Marcus Cocceius Nerva (r. 9698), first of the Five Good Emperors, seems an unlikely candidate for "the beast"unless he was considered Nero redivivus but Μ. ΝΕΡΟΥΑ and Κ(ΑΙΣΑΡ) Κ(ΟΚΚΕΙΟΣ) ΝΕΡΟΥΑ both =666. The equation ουλπιος (for Emperor Marcus Ulpius Traianus, r. 98117)=666 must be rejected; it depends on final small sigma (ς )=6, but neither ς nor ς =6 are attested before the high Middle Ages. The true solution to this riddle has not been established, though Μ. ΝΕΡΟΥΑ as Nero revived fits best with the traditional date for the composition of Revelations.

It is noteworthy that the psēphos of ΙΗΣΟΥΣ is 888=4 × 222; 666=3 × 222. While 222=2 × 111 (cf. alef=111 above), 3+4=7; three, four, and especially seven pervade Revelation. Thus the sum of the psēphoi of Christ and antichrist, divided by 222, equals seven.

Later Numerological Speculation

Numerological speculation has continued to this day. The Gnostic Marcus's complex system of numerology and other occult uses of the alphabet had wide influence in the Middle Ages, especially

among Jews and Muslims. In medieval Judaism numerology flourished, and the asidim cultivate it in present times as well. Numerology also played a prominent role in medieval Islam, as for example in the Haft Paykar of the Persian poet Niāmī. When used as numbers, the Arabic letters were arranged in the traditional order (Arabic ʾabjad ) familiar from Hebrew and Greek, and their values followed the Milesian system. The usual order of the Arabic alphabet is based on sound and letter shape. In the West, a different system was used (A =1, B =2 Y =25, Z =26), but psephological speculation thrived there, too. One whose destiny was influenced by it was Napoleon Bonaparte (17691821); long before he attained power, he discovered that BONAPART(E) =82=BOURBON and therefore believed that he would one day rule France.

Temurah, Acronyms, and Acrostics

The significance given to letters led to the devising of alphabetic ciphers; examples are temurah (simple substitution ciphers), acronyms, and acrostics.

A largely Jewish practice, temurah (exchange) is found in the Bible but was most highly developed by the Qabbalists. Letters of the alphabet are represented by other letters according to a definite scheme. The ʾatbaš (תא ) exchanges the first letter א for the last ח, the second for the penultimate ש, and so on. The results are significant: ך=ŠŠK, "oppressed," for לב=BBL (Babel) (Jer. 25:26), and ימק ל=LB QMY, "heart of my enemy," for םידכ=KSDYM, "Chaldaeans" (Jer. 51:1) are early and well-known examples. The variant ˒albam switches the first letter (א) with the twelfth (ל ), the second () with the thirteenth (מ ), and so on. Ziruf, or gilgul, involves anagrams of single words; there were, for example, twelve possible permutations (haviyyot) of הוהי, the tetragrammaton YHWH.

An acronym is a word each of whose letters is the first letter of another word; the words represented by the acronym usually form a title or phrase. Hellenistic Alexandrines thought the designations of the five districts of their city Α, Β, Γ, Δ, Ε (i.e., A, B, C, D, E, or 1, 2, 3, 4, 5) represented Α̱ ΛΕΞΑΝΔΡΟΣ Β̱ ΑΣΙΛΕΥΣ Γ̱ ΕΝΟΣ Δ̱ ΙΟΣ Ε̱ ΚΤΙΣΕΝ ("Alexander, king, [of the] race of Zeus, founded [it]"). Jews saw in the sobriquet of the great liberator Yehudah ha-Makkabi (Maccabee, from Aramaic makkabā, "hammer,")spelled MKBY an acronym of the phrase in Exodus 15: 11 "M̱i amokah a-elim, Y̱ahweh?" ("Who among the gods is like thee, Yahweh?"). The most famous acronym is the Greek word ΙΧΘΥ Σ (fish), standing for Ι̱ ΗΣΟΥΣ Χ̱ ΡΙΣΥΟΣ Θ̱ ΕΟΥ Υ̱ ΙΟΣ Σ̱ ΩΤΗΡ (Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior). This meaning is probably secondary; the original idea is a reference to Matthew 4:19: "I shall make you fishers of men."

Acrostics begin each line or verse of a poem with the successive letters of the alphabet. The oldest examples are in Jeremiah 14, but acrostic poems occur elsewhere in the Bible and are frequent in Jewish and Christian writings throughout late antiquity and the Middle Ages.

Islamic Speculation Involving Letters

Qurʾanic verses are often preceded by unexplained letters (e.g., ʾalif, lām, mīm, before sūrah 2), a phenomenon about which there has naturally been much speculation and to which mystical meaning has often been attached. The seven letters absent from sūrah 1 have special sanctity and are connected with the seven major names of God, seven angels, seven kings of the jinn, seven days of the week, and the seven planets. Shanawānī noted that both the Bible and the Qurʾān begin with the letter B. A mystical thirteenth-century ūfī text holds that all God's secrets are hidden in the Qurʾān, the entire meaning of which is contained in that letter, ب (bā=B), and specifically in the dot underneath it.

Offshoots of Islam carried such speculations further, particularly in Persia and Turkey. Fal Allāh of Astarābād (late fourteenth century), founder of the urūfī sect (from urūf, pl. of arf, "letter of the alphabet"), taught that God reveals himself to the world through the thirty-two letters of the Persian alphabet; the totality of these lettersand their numerical sumis God himself manifest. The Bektāshiyyah, a dervish order prominent in Ottoman Turkey, adopted urūfī letter mysticism as a basic tenet. In the nineteenth century, the founders of the Bahā˒ī faith gave an important place to alphabet mysticism and numerology.

The importance of the alphabet to mysticism and occult science may have weakened in modern times, but alphabets remain closely associated with religion. Roman Catholic bishops still trace the alphabet on church floors during consecration rites, and Jews and Muslims adorn their temples with writings from their scriptures. Until recently, non-Arab Muslim peoples all used the Arabic alphabet for their languages, no matter how badly it suited them phonetically. Similarly, Yiddish, originating in a Middle High German dialect, and Ladino Spanish are written in Hebrew letters because their speakers are Jewish. Slavic peoples use Latin letters where Roman Catholic Christianity took root, but Cyrillic, a development of Byzantine Greek script, in areas where Orthodoxy triumphed. In nations of the former Yugoslavia, the language formerly known as Serbo-Croatian is written in the Latin alphabet by Catholic Croats and called Croatian; in Cyrillic by Orthodox Serbs and called Serbian; and formerly in Arabic script, but today in Latin, by Bosnian Muslims and called Bosnian. Since the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991, although most Central Asian republics are replacing the Cyrillic script with the Latin, Tajikistan, the most strongly Muslim republic, announced plans to go back to the Arabo-Persian alphabet. Even in a secular age, the religious associations of writing are still apparent.

See Also

Astrology; Hermes Trismegistos; Names and Naming; Numbers, overview article.


Franz Dornseiff's Das Alphabet in Mystik und Magie (1922; Leipzig, 1975) remains the definitive work on the alphabet in mysticism and magic. Every aspect of the question is discussed in thorough and rational fashion. In addition to a corpus of abecedaria ("Corpus der ABCDenkmäler"), Dornseiff provides a section of "Additions and Corrections" that is rich in fascinating information. Dornseiff's book serves as the basis of most works on the topic. Alfred Bertholet's Die Macht der Schrift in Glauben und Aberglauben (Berlin, 1949) should also be consulted for its general treatment of the subject.

The origin of writing in the ancient Near East is treated by Denise Schmandt-Besserat in "The Earliest Precursor of Writing," Scientific American 238 (1978): 5059, and in "Reckoning before Writing," Archaeology 32 (MayJune 1979): 2231.

A lucid account of the Milesian system of alphabetic numerals is given in Herbert Weir Smyth's incomparable Greek Grammar (1916; rev. ed., Cambridge, Mass., 1956); pages 102104 and 347348 are especially helpful. Peter Friesenhahn's Hellenistische Wortzahlenmystik im Neuen Testament (1935; Amsterdam, 1979) is a thorough, although overenthusiastic, attempt to find psēphoi and isopsēphoi everywhere in the Greek text of the New Testament, using the system Α=1, Β=2, Ω=24, instead of the Milesian. Vincent Foster Hopper offers a competent exploration of numerical symbolism of the period, including gematria, in Medieval Number Symbolism (New York, 1938). For an example of current popular literature on numerology, look at Martin Gardner's The Incredible Dr. Matrix (New York, 1976), which is interesting but, unlike many works on the topic that repeat wild speculations with passionate conviction, does not take itself too seriously.

Concerning aspects of the alphabet in Judaism and Islam, articles in the Encyclopedia Judaica (Jerusalem, 1971) and the Encyclopedia of Islam, new ed. (Leiden, 1960) are very informative, especially Gershom Scholem's "Gematria" and Samuel Abba Horodezky's "Alphabet, Hebrew, in Midrash, Talmud, and Kabbalah" in the former and, to a lesser extent, G. Weil's "Abjad" in the latter. These encyclopedias are especially valuable to the English-speaking reader, for serious literature on religious and occult uses of the alphabet in that language is scarce. Georg Krotkoff illustrates the uses of letter and number mysticism in the Islamic Middle Ages in his analysis of the Haft Paykar by the Persian poet Niāmī in "Colour and Number in the Haft Paykar " in Logos Islamikos: Studia Islamica in honorem Georgii Michaelis Wickens (Toronto, 1984).

For Norse beliefs about the runes, see Lee M. Hollander, The Poetic Edda (Austin, Tex., 1999), especially the Sigrdrífumál, verses 622. Regarding the translator saints and their alphabets, consult the relevant sections of Hans Jensen, Sign, Symbol, and Script (New York, 1969). On the current status of alphabetsand other writing systemsin the world, a helpful guide is Kenneth Katzner, The Languages of the World (London and New York, 2002).

Jon-Christian Billigmeier (1987 and 2005)

Pamela J. Burnham (2005)

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