Greek writing; Borrowed or Original?

In this article we speculate on the origin of writing in Greece, according to claims from the ancient Greeks themselves, as they are described in a fragment from “Scholiastes to Dionysius of Thrace, (183 1)”.

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In ancient Greek: «Των στοιχείων ευρετήν άλλοι τε και Έφορος εν δευτέρω Κάδμον φασίν. Οι δε ουχ ευρετήν, της δε Φοινίκων ευρέσεως προς ημάς διάκτορον γεγενήσθαι, ως και Ηρόδοτος εν ταις Ιστορίαις και Αριστοτέλης ιστορεί. Φασί γαρ ότι Φοίνικες μεν εύρον τα στοιχεία, Κάδμος δε ήγαγεν αυτά εις την Ελλάδα. Πυθόδωρος δε [ως] εν τω Περί στοιχείων και Φίλλις ο Δήλιος εν τω Περί Χρόνων προ Κάδμου Δαναόν μετακομίσαι αυτά φασίν. Επιμαρτυρούσι τούτοις και οι Μιλησιακοί συγγραφείς Αναξίμανδρος και Διονύσιος και Εκαταίος, ους και Απολλόδωρος εν Νεών καταλόγω παρατίθεται. Ένιοι δε Μουσαίον ευρετήν λέγουσι τον Μητίονος και Στερόπης κατ’ Ορφέα γενόμενον. Αντικλείδης δ’ ο Αθηναίος Αιγυπτίοις την εύρεσιν ανατίθησι. Δωσιάδης δε εν Κρήτη φησίν ευρηκέναι εν τω ομωνύμω δράματι. Στησίχορος δε εν δευτέρω Ορεστείας και Ευριπίδης τον Παλαμήδην φησίν ευρηκέναι. Μνασέας δε Ερμήν. Άλλοι δε άλλον»

In English: «As inventor of the characters/letters, among them Ephorus (4th century BC) in his second book, various (writers) consider Kadmos (or Cadmus). Others do not consider him as inventor but rather as bearer of this Phoenician device, as Herodotus (5th century BC) says in his Histories and so does Aristoteles (in his writings) (4th century BC). They claim that the Phoenicians invented the characters/letters and that Kadmos brought them to Greece. On the other hand, Pythodorus (?) in his work Περί στοιχείων (About characters/letters) and Phillis from Delos (?) in his work titled Περί χρόνων προ Κάδμου (About the years before Kadmos) claim that they were brought to Greece by Danaus. The writers of the Miletian school, Anaximander (6th century BC), Dionysius (2nd century BC), Hecataeus (6th century BC), identify with this opinion; Apollodorus (2nd century BC) refers to them in his work Νεών κατάλογος (Catalogue of ships). Some others deliver Musaeus, the son of Metion and Sterope who was born at the times of Orpheus, as the inventor of characters/letters. Anticleides of Athens (3rd century BC) attributes the invention to the Egyptians, while Dosiades (3rd century BC) claims that they were invented in Crete. Aeschylus (6th-5th century BC) in his drama of the same title says that the characters/letters were devised by Prometheus, while Stesichorus (7th-6th century BC) in the second part of his work Ορέστεια (Of/About Horestes) and Euripides (5th century BC) say that they were found by Palamedes. Mnaseus (3rd century BC) attributes them to Hermes, and other (writers) to others»

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Herodotus was the first to write about a ‘foreign’ origin of the Greek characters/letters. Obviously, the latter writers who claim the same based their assumption on him. On the other hand though, it must be noted that according to Greek Mythology, Kadmos and the first Phoenicians (not the ‘historical time’ Phoenicians) were also considered of Greek genous.

About the Egyptian origin of the characters/letters one must point out two things:

First, according to Greek Mythology, Egypt (before the Pharaoh’s) had been a Greek kingdom at some point. To be accurate, a Kingdom where the population was a combination of indigenous people and Greeks. Greeks were also described as the ruling class. Danaus (Δαναός) was the brother of Aegyptus (Αίγυπτος), both children of Belus (Βήλος), who all had Epaphus (Έπαφος) as their ancestor. There is a reference in Apollodorus’ ‘Library’ that a family of Scientists from Rhodes, the Heliades (Ηλιάδαι) have forseen the coming Cataclysm (probably the last big one) and migrated to Egypt in order to save their lives, and there they built Heliopolis (after their family name). Reasonably, this suggests very good relationship with Egypt and its leaders at the time. They don’t just let you build a whole new city in a foreign land! We can also combine information from ‘The Suppliants‘ of Aeschylus, where the ‘dark-skinned’ women from Egypt, the Danaids, arriving at Argos are, eventually, recognised as being of Greek genous, despite their different external appearance. We can also add information from Manetho the Egyptian, who in his work “Aegyptiaca” clearly refers to Greeks governing Egypt in very ancient times (‘gods and demi-gods’ era). Hence, concluding this first note, it cannot be excluded that writing was devised from Danaus in Egypt and then transmitted to other Greeks, but instead of being a ‘foreign’ invention, it rather seems as a Greek invention made in a ‘foreign’ land.

Second, it must be noted that Egyptians of the ‘historical times’ never invented characters/letters or anything like an ‘alphabet’ or even ‘linear syllabic writing’. These Egyptians were using hieroglyphs. The first Egyptian aplhabetical writing, using Greek letters, comes from the Hellenistic era.

Then, we are provided with the information that ‘others’ (curiously, there isn’t any name mentioned as ‘source’) claim that characters/letters were created by Musaeus, a pupil of Orpheus. The absence of names most probably indicates that this is a ‘Mythological‘ reference. Orpheus seems to have lived in very ancient times, probably before the Cataclysm, as himself claims in his ‘Lithics’ that he has been a pupil of Apollon (we will not analyze here to avoid possible confusions, but the reader must be informed that the various names of the ‘gods’ were referring to many different people that have lived in the past. For example, there are eight different people recorded with the name Hercules, almost hundred with the name of Zeus, and this goes on. Helpful may be the information that the word ‘god’ – ‘θεός’ was attributed to some of the living leaders of men in Homer’s writings)

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About the possible Cretan origin of the characters/letters, one cannot really say anything with certainty. What we surely know though is that the Minoan civilization used writing of linear form and apparently some hieroglyphs, too. Writing that we know from Archeological findings that it had expanded across the Aegean Sea, up to the North (Island of Samothraki). But still, we are not talking about characters/letters here. Additionally, Minoan Crete was devastated by the volcano erruption in Thera long before alphabetical writing expands in every corner of the Greek world. Analogous comments we can make for the Myceneans, who replaced the Minoans in power, even in Crete itself. They too had linear writing, they too expanded it almost everywhere in the Greek world, but we know nothing so far about their possible involvement in alphabetic writing.

The reference to Palamedes as inventor of characters/letters could be considered as ‘reasonable’. Mythology describes Palamedes as having participated in the Trojan War, and killed there. It is a more ‘historical’ person, closer to the historical use of alphabetic writing. There is a possibility that he invented the original system and others evolved it much later on. A ‘lost and found’ case probably or an isolated scene from the broader one of a culturally changing world of the Eastern Mediterranean during the 2nd to 1st millenia BC.

The cases of Prometheus and Hermes obviously refer to Mythological times, i.e. times before the (last?) Cataclysm or around it. Prometheus is actually referring to the very  first civilized period of Men in the whole Human History. No body knows when this really took place. The case of Hermes is a bit different. In the Homeric Hymn of Hermes (we will post an analysis on this in the near future), what we have there described is a…civilized cave man. On the other hand, some other Hermes (we repeat that the same names of the ‘gods’ are attributed to various people in Mythology-History) who lived in Egypt was famous for his wisdom and knowledge and was given the name ‘Trismegistus‘ (three times great). We cannot speak at all with certainty about these information, but we can’t also omit them.

The text ends by informing us that there were even more theories about the origin of the characters/letters. This shows the great confusion on the subject already from Antiquity.

From another ancient text, Hyginus‘ “Fabulae”, we learn:

“§ 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 — Omega 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.”

Clearly, Hyginus refers to the letters as if they were an invention of various personalities of the Greek World in the course of Time, and not taken/borrowed from foreigners.

We exhort the reader to have a look at the following links:

https://novoscriptorium.com/2019/07/05/the-settlement-of-dispilio-kastoria-greece-writing-in-neolithic-greece/

https://novoscriptorium.com/2018/03/28/how-old-is-the-greek-language-and-its-writing/

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Our opinion is that there is no ‘absolute certainty’ about the origin of characters/letters, and therefore we disagree with the majority of experts who have already concluded a specific theory (how?). It is another thing to have some basic theory to build on and a completely different thing to teach something as ‘dogma’. True research never stops and cannot be dogmatic in any way.

Research-Analysis for NovoScriptorium: Isidoros Aggelos

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