Guest Post: Anthony Alcock – The Mysteries of the Greek Alphabet

Note A.S.: This is the first part of Dr. Anthony Alcock’s translation of an intriguing text, the Mysteries of the Greek Alphabet. This text is preserved in a single Copto-Arabic paper manuscript in the Bodleian Library, Oxford. Here is a photograph of the manuscript (sorry for the low quality). The text has survived also in Greek (see the edition in C. Bandt, Der Traktat “Vom Mysterium der Buchstaben”: Kritischer Text mit Einführung, Übersetzung und Anmerkungen (Texte und Untersuchungen, 162; Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 2007). See the abstract of this book here


The following is an English translation of a 14th cent. Sahidic Coptic text that was published (with translation and notes) by Adolphe Hebbelynck in Le Muséon vol. 19 (1900) in three sections: pp. 5-36, 105-136 and 259-300 and in vol. 20 (1901) in two sections: pp. 5-33 and 369-415, together with 3 plates. This translation will also appear in 5 parts, following Hebbelynck’s arrangement.

My translation is based solely on the Coptic text published by Hebbelynck. Since he does not provide an Arabic version, I rely on Hebbelynck’s notes, supplied to him by the well-known scholar of Christian Arabic, Jacques Forget. Forget dismissed the Arabic text as poor, faulty and sometimes difficult to understand.

The text is in the Bodleian Library at Oxford, where it bears the designation Huntington 393. The catalogue entry says that it is a codex bombycinus (silk paper) of 118 folios and was written by Atasios in 1109 AM (1393 AD). It was brought back to the West by Robert Huntington, a 17th cent. Anglican cleric who was chaplain to the Levant Company at Aleppo for eleven years and who collected much written material while he was there, and passed either by sale or donation to the Bodleian towards the end of the 17th cent. Huntington had the singular privilege of being able to inform the Greek Orthodox Archbishop of Mount Sinai, Johannes Lascaris, that there was such a thing as the Church of England.

Among the many scholars to have studied Huntington 393 was E. Amélineau, who pointed out that the name of the writer was not atase but apa seba. The question then presented itself: was this Sabas, who founded several monasteries in Palestine in the 5th cent. ? Hebbelynck believes that the Coptic is a translation from someone whose first language might have been Hebrew or Syriac, but he does not say why. On p. 12 of the text the writer refers to himself as xecnos ‘gentile’. Part Four of the text mentions the Arabic alphabet, which would make a 5th-6th cent. composition date more or less impossible. However, this part may be a later addition to an earlier composition.

There was always a playful element in the pictogram writing of earlier stages of Egyptian able to convey multiple meanings, as for example with the relatively common word imj-r3 ‘overseer’. The literal meaning of the phrase is ‘what is in the mouth’, which made it possible for Egyptians to ‘economize’ the writing by using the sign for ‘tongue’. This playfulness was extended in the Ptolemaic period (when the Pharaohs were of non-Egyptian origin), where subtle modifications of words and names were used by Egyptian intellectuals to convey multiple messages, e.g. the phrase mj r’ ‘like Re (sun god) could be written using the sign for ‘cat’ (mj) with the sun disk on its head, producing the message that the sun god could also be perceived as a feline creature. This in turn could be an allusion to one of the Eye of Re stories in a New Kingdom (c. 1550-1085 BC) text known as the Book of the Heavenly Cow, in which Re unleashes Sakhmet, the lioness goddess, against humanity for their disobedience. The ability to express more than one meaning visually may be one of the reasons why Egyptians never abandoned pictograms when writing texts intended largely for public display in what they themselves called mdw ntr ‘divine words’ (hieroglyphs).

Letter mysticism is of course known in the letters of Pachomius, of which there are Coptic Greek and Latin versions. The Latin text was made by Jerome, who reports in his Preface to the Rules of Pachomius (Pat. Lat. 23 p.65) that Pachomius had learned the mysticae linguae scientiam, along with several others, from an angel so that they could communicate with each other without fear of being understood by others.

A relatively modern variant of this sort of numerological mysticism tells of a young soldier who used a pack of playing cards as his ‘bible, prayer book and almanac’: the ace is One God, the deuce the Father and Son, the three the Trinity, etc. The earliest known reference to it is from 1762 and, though it is without title, it is often known as The Soldier’s Bible, Prayer Book and Almanac. Such was the enduring popularity of the tale that it was ‘rewritten’ in 1948 in the USA and recorded by several popular music stars.

The page numbers in brackets are those of the manuscript.


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12 Responses to Guest Post: Anthony Alcock – The Mysteries of the Greek Alphabet

  1. Pingback: “The Mysteries of the Greek Alphabet” – part 1 of Coptic text now online at Roger Pearse

  2. dianabuja says:

    Most interesting. As for multiple meanings of hieroglyphics in later (Ptolmaic era), I would like to know the references.

  3. dianabuja says:

    Ah, well, I see there is a reference to Simpson’s Ancient Eg. Lit, which I’ll check out.

  4. Pingback: Guest Post: Anthony Alcock – The Mysteries of the Greek Alphabet (Part 2) | Alin Suciu

  5. Diane says:

    A comment to Anthony Alcock on Athe letters. I agree with you that there is a correspondence between at least one very early set of images on card and the system described here. Some fifteen years ago, I researched the origin of one set allegedly made for the court of France and found that they had probably originated among a pre-Islamic people accomplished in calculations of the lunar almanac. Interestingly, and contrary to the usual European accounts of such cards, they appear to me to refer, also, to a system of pre-classical astronomy in which the focus is not the zodiac, but the time-keeping and navigational stars.

    To this, the content of ‘Mysteries…’ offers a natural complement – most opportunely since I am in the process of editing up my old essays for publication.

    Happy to provide more details if this should be of interest. Alin is welcome to provide you with contact details.

  6. Pingback: Guest Post: Anthony Alcock – The Mysteries of the Greek Alphabet (Part 3) | Alin Suciu

  7. anni says:

    The text of the treatise is very intriguing. I would be interested to know if dr.Anthony Alcock’s translation is published in some scientific source.

    • Anthony Alcock says:

      It is not a work of scholarship, merely a reasonably faithful English translation of the text I found in Hebbelynck’s articles. I have added a few notes where I felt these to be appropriate. The work is not to be judged by the rigorous statndards that normally apply to scholarship.

      • anni says:

        Thank you very much for your reply. I find the English text very helpful as a supplement to Brandt’s and Hebbelynck’s, since I’m reading it with greater ease. I’ve done some research on the symbolic interpretation of glagolitic signs recently and I find some elements of this treatise and its specific interpretation of the alphabet very close to the concept of Slavic alphabets. There is a similar treatise in Slavic /IXth.c/, quite concise, but showing the same polemic.

  8. Nathalie Bosson says:

    Dear Alin (if I may),
    This text is just fascinating, indeed, and I would like to inform you that Sydney H. Aufrère, Abdellatif Idrissi and myself are going to publish the bilingual manuscript Huntington 393 in the collection “Sources chrétiennes” soon, with the Coptic and Arabic text(s) [for the one publish by Hebbelynck has many mistakes!] and a French translation. It will be accompanied by a study of the most striking linguistic peculiarities.
    Nathalie Bosson

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