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Gaius Julius Hyginus & Robert Graves-The Mythical Origin Of The Greek Alphabet

Title page of the 1535 Edition of Hyginus’ ‘Fabulae’. SLUB Dresden.


Today’s sharing from the Blue House of HYGEIA is an excerpt from HYGINUS’s ‘Fabulae’, number 277, that tells about the mythical origin of the Greek Alphabet, followed by Robert Graves’ own commentary upon the same paragraph.

Hyginus comes through the Hackett 2007 Smith & Trzaskoma edition. Page 182. Latin original comes from SLUB Dresden Digital Sammlungen: ‘C. Iulii Hygini Augusti Liberti Fabularum Liber’. And finally, Robert Graves’s excerpts are from his groundbreaking and influential, ‘The White Goddess‘, here in the Farrar, Straus and Giroux 2013 paperback edition, edited by Grevel Lindop. Chapter XIII, ‘Palamedes and the Cranes’. All links in the source section below.


I-HYGINUS, English translation by Robert Scott Smith













II-HYGINUS, Original Latin
















III-Robert Graves’ commentary upon HYGINUS 277

…/…’The story about Mercury and the cranes occurs in the ‘Fables‘ of Caius Julius Hyginus who, according to the well-informed Suetonius, was a native of Spain, a freedman of the Emperor Augustus, the Curator of the Palatine Library, and a friend of the poet Ovid. Like Ovid, Hyginus ended his life in Imperial disfavour. If he is the learned author of the ‘Fables‘ attributed to him, they have since been abbreviated and botched by unlearned editors; yet they are admitted to contain ancient mythological matter of great importance, not found elsewhere. In his last Fable (277) Hyginus records:

1. that the Fates invented the seven letters: Alpha, [Omicron], Upsilon, Eta, Iota, Beta, and Tau. Or, alternatively, that Mercury invented them after watching the flight of cranes ‘which make letters as they fly‘.
2. that Palamedes, son of Nauplius, invented eleven others.
3. that Epicharmus of Sicily added Theta and Chi (or Psi and Pi).
4. that Simonides added Omega, Epsilon, Zeta and Psi (or Omega, Epsilon, Zeta and Phi).

There is no word here about Cadmus the Phoenician, who is usually credited with the invention of the Greek alphabet, the characters of which are indisputably borrowed from the Phoenician alphabet. The statement about Epicharmus reads nonsensically, unless ‘of Sicily’ is a stupid editorial gloss that has intruded into the text. Simonides was a well- known sixth-century B.C. Greek poet who used the Cadmean Greek alphabet and did introduce certain new characters into his manuscripts, later adopted throughout Greece; and Epicharmus of Sicily, the well- known writer of comedies who lived not long afterwards and was a member of the family of Asclepiads at Cos, evidently seemed to the editor of the ‘Fables‘ a likely co-worker with Simonides. The original legend, however, probably refers to another, far earlier, Epicharmus, an ancestor of the writer of comedies. The Asclepiads traced their descent to Apollo’s son Asclepius, or Aesculapius, the physician god of Delphi and Cos, and claimed to inherit valuable therapeutic secrets from him. Two Asclepiads are mentioned in the Iliad as having been physicians to the Greeks in the siege of Troy.

As for Palamedes, son of Nauplius, he is credited by Philostratus the Lemnian, and by the scholiast on Euripides’s ‘Orestes’, with the invention not only of the alphabet, but also of lighthouses, measures, scales, the disc, and the ‘art of posting sentinels’. He took part in the Trojan War as an ally of the Greeks and at his death was granted a hero-shrine on the Mysian coast of Asia Minor opposite Lesbos.

The Three Fates are a divided form of the Triple Goddess, and in Greek legend appear also as the Three Grey Ones and the Three Muses. Thus, the first two statements made by Hyginus account for the ‘thirteen letters‘ which, according to some authorities (Diodorus Siculus says) formed the ‘Pelasgian alphabet‘ before Cadmus increased them to sixteen. Diodorus evidently means thirteen consonants, not thirteen letters in all which would not have been sufficient. Other authorities held that there had been only twelve of them. Aristotle, at any rate gives the numbers of letters in the first Greek alphabet as thirteen consonants and five vowels and his list of letters corresponds exactly with the Beth-Luis-Nion, except that he gives Zeta for H-aspirate and Phi for F but, in the case of Phi, at least, early epigraphic evidence is against him. This is not the only reference to the Pelasgian alphabet. Eustathius, the Byzantine grammarian, quotes an ancient scholiast on ‘Iliad’, II, 841 to the effect that the Pelasgians were called Dioi (‘divine’) because they alone of all the Greeks preserved the use of letters after the Deluge—the Deluge meaning to the Greeks the one survived by Deucalion and Pyrrha. Pyrrha, ‘the red one’, is perhaps the Goddess-mother of the Puresati, or Pulesati, the Philistines.

The Lycians of Asia Minor are described by Herodotus as having come from Crete; so are their neighbours the Carians, who claimed to be kin to the Lydians and Mysians and spoke much the same barbaric, that is to say, non-Greek language. The Carians, formerly members of the Minoan Empire, had dominated the Aegean between the fall of Cnossos in 1400 B.C. and the Dorian invasion of 1050 B.C. Herodotus found the Lycians the least Grecianized of these four nations and recorded that they reckoned descent through the mother, not the father. Female independence of male tutelage and matrilinear descent were characteristic of all peoples of Cretan stock; and the same system survived in parts of Crete long after its con- quest by the Greeks. Firmicus Maternus reported it in the fourth century A-D. The Lydians retained another vestige of the system—girls habitually prostituted themselves before marriage, and then disposed of their earnings and their persons as they thought fit.

Palamedes, then, ruled over the Mysians, who were of Cretan stock, but he had a Greek father; his name means perhaps ‘Mindful of the Ancient One‘, and he assisted the Three Fates (the Three Muses) in the composition of the Greek alphabet. But it was well known to the ancients, as it is to us, that all the inventions credited to Palamedes originated in Crete. It follows that a Greek alphabet, based on a Cretan not a Phoenician model, was raised from five vowels and thirteen consonants to five vowels and fifteen consonants, by Epicharmus, an early Asclepiad.

But why did Hyginus not specify the eleven consonants of Palamedes, as he specified the original seven letters and the additions by Epicharmus and Simonides? We must first find out why he quotes Beta and Tau as the two consonants invented by the Three Fates at the same time as the five vowels.

Simonides, a native of Ceos, introduced into Athens, where he was domiciled, the double-consonants Psi and Xi, the distinction between the vowels Omicron and Omega (short and long O), and the distinction between the vowels Eta and Epsilon (long and short E). These changes were not, however, publicly adopted there until the archonship of Euclides (403 B.C.). To Eta, when thus distinguished from Epsilon, was allotted the character H, which had hitherto belonged to the aspirate H; and the aspirate H became merely a ‘rough breathing‘, a miniature decrescent moon, while its absence in a word beginning with a vowel was denoted by a ‘smooth breathing‘, a crescent moon. The Digamma F (which had a V sound) had disappeared as an Attic character long before the time of Simonides; and in many words was supplanted by the letter Phi, invented to represent the FF sound which had hitherto been spelt PH. But the Digamma was retained for some generations longer by the Aeolian Greeks and disappeared among the Dorians (the last to use it) during this same archonship of Euclides—at about the same time, in fact, as Gwydion and Amathaon won the Battle of the Trees in Britain.

This is a queer business. Though it is possible that the V sound had altogether dropped out of ordinary Greek speech and that therefore the Digamma F was an unnecessary letter, this is by no means certain; and the aspirate H was certainly still an integral part of the language. Why then was the aspirate supplanted by Eta? Why was a new character not found for the Eta sound? Why were the unnecessary double-consonants Psi, previously written Pi-Sigma, and Xi, previously written Kappa-Sigma, introduced at the same time? Only religious doctrine can have accounted for this awkward change.

One of the reasons is given in the same fable. Hyginus connects the four additional letters of Simonides with Apollo’s zither—’Apollo in cithaera ceteras literas adjecit‘. This means, I think, that each of the seven strings of the zither, originally Cretan but brought from Asia Minor to Greece about 6 7 6 B.C. by Terpander of Lesbos, now had a letter allotted to it, and that twenty-four, the new number of letters in the alphabet, had a sacred significance in the therapeutic music with which Apollo and his son Aesculapius were honoured in their island shrines. Simonides, it must be noted, belonged to a Cean bardic guild in the service of Dionysus who, according to Plutarch, a priest of Delphian Apollo, was ‘also at home in Delphi‘. Both Apollo and Dionysus, as we have seen, were gods of the solar year. So were Aesculapius and Hercules; and this was an age of religious amalgamation.

Hyginus says that the original thirteen-consonant alphabet was taken by Mercury into Egypt, brought back by Cadmus into Greece, and thence taken by Evander the Arcadian into Italy, where his mother Carmenta (die Muse) adapted them to the Latin alphabet of fifteen letters. He describes this Mercury as the same one who invented athletic games: in other words, he was a Cretan, or of Cretan stock. And Mercury in Egypt was Thoth, the God whose symbol was a crane-like white ibis, who invented writing and who also reformed the calendar. The story begins to make good historical sense. Hyginus has perhaps drawn it from an Etruscan source: for the Etruscans, or Tyrrhenians, were of Cretan stock, and held the crane in reverence. Cranes fly in V-formation and the characters of all early alphabets, nicked with a knife on the rind of boughs—as Hesiod wrote his poems—or on clay tablets, were naturally angular.

So Hyginus knew that the five vowels of the Arcadian alphabet belonged to an earlier religious system than the seven vowels of the Classical Greek alphabet, and that in Italy these five vowels were sacred to the Goddess Carmenta; also that in Italy a fifteen-consonant sacred alphabet was used some six centuries before the Greek twenty-four-letter ‘Dorian’ alphabet from which all Italian alphabets—Etruscan, Umbrian, Oscan, Faliscan and Latin—are known to derive. In this, Hyginus is supported by Pliny who states positively in his ‘Natural History’ that the first Latin alphabet was a Pelasgian one. He does not mention his authority but it was probably Gnaeus Gellius, the well-informed second-century B.C. historian, whom he quotes in the same passage as holding that Mercury first invented letters in Egypt and that Palamedes invented weights and measures. One must assume from the lack of inscriptional evidence in support of Hyginus’s record that this alphabet was confined, as the Beth-Luis-Nion originally was, to use in deaf-and-dumb signalling. About Carmenta we know from the historian Dionysus Periergetes that she gave oracles to Hercules and lived to the age of 110 years. 110 was a canonical number, the ideal age which every Egyptian wished to reach and the age at which, for example, the patriarch Joseph died. The 110 years were made up of twenty-two Etruscan lustra of five years each; and 110 years composed the ‘cycle’ taken over from the Etruscans by the Romans. At the end of each cycle they corrected irregularities in the solar calendar by intercalation and held Saecular Games.

The secret sense of 22 – sacred numbers were never chosen haphazardly— is that it is the measure of the circumference of the circle when the diameter is 7. This proportion, now known as pi, is no longer a religious secret; and is used today only as a rule-of-thumb formula, the real mathematical value of pi being a decimal figure which nobody has yet been able to work out because it goes on without ever ending, as 22/7 does, in a neat recurrent sequence. Seven lustra add up to thirty-five years, and thirty- five at Rome was the age at which a man was held to reach his prime and might be elected Consul. (The same age was fixed upon by a Classically- minded Convention as the earliest at which an American might be elected President of the United States.) The nymph Egeria, the oak-queen who instructed King Numa of Rome, was ‘the fourth Carmenta’. If the age of each Carmenta—or course of Sibylline priestesses—was 110 years, Numa reigned not earlier than 330 years after Evander’s arrival in Italy, the traditional date of which is some sixty years before the Fall of Troy, i.e., 1243B.C.

Evander was banished from Arcadia because he had killed his father; and this implies the supersession of the Triple Goddess, Carmenta or Thetis, by Olympian Zeus. Thetis was the Aeolian Greek name for Carmenta, at whose prompting Evander had struck the blow; and for a king to kill his rather (or kingly predecessor) at the prompting of his Goddess mother was common in Italy and Greece at that period. The traditional reason for Partholan’s Danaan invasion of Ireland and Brutus’s Dardanian invasion of Britain is the same: both were banished for parricide. The date, 1243 B.C., corresponds with that given by the later Greeks for the Achaean invasion, namely 1250 B.C. This was not the original invasion but, apparently, a southward movement, under Dorian pressure, of Achaeans settled in North-western Greece. The story of Pelias and Neleus, sons of Poseidon who dispossessed the Minyans of Iolcos in Thessaly and Pylos in the Western Peloponnese, refers to this invasion which resulted in the institution of Olympianism.

But has not the story of the invention of the pre-Cadmean alphabet of Palamedes, which was taken to Italy by Evander the Arcadian before the Dorian invasion of Greece, been lying concealed all this time in the confusingly iconotropic myth of Perseus and the Gorgon Medusa? Cannot the Palamedes story be recovered intact by the simple method of restoring the Perseus myth to iconographic form, and then re-interpreting the iconographs which compose it?’…/…

Robert Graves, picture by SHIELL. Source: Robert Graves Society.


More about HYGINUS: 🌿More about Robert Graves: 🌿 And : About the ‘White Goddess’ and its publishers: 🌿 Hyginus English translation:🌿Hyginus Dresden Digital: 🌿 Robert Scott Smith:
Gaius Julius Hyginus & Robert Graves-The Mythical Origin Of The Greek Alphabet

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