U is for Universe

By Danièle Cybulskie

Have you ever stared at something in nature and thought it looked like a letter of the alphabet? You’re not alone. People have been looking at the world with alphabetical eyes for thousands of years, and we can trace at least some of this tendency back to the Ancient Greeks.

Early Greek alphabet painted on the body of an Attic black-figure cup. Now on display at the National Archaeological Museum, Athens.

It’s well known that the Greeks were snobbish about their language. They even came up with the name “barbarian” to specify people who spoke what they thought of as much less classy languages. But there was much more to the Greeks’ love affair with language than just distinguishing between “us” and “them”: the way they made sense of the universe was directly tied up with their own alphabet.

According to Laurence de Looze in his book The Letter & The Cosmos: How the Alphabet Has Shaped the Western View of the World, the Greek word for letter – stoicheia – was adapted over time to include the tiny bits of matter that made up the universe; what we would think of as atoms. Aristotle uses both meanings of stoicheia to discuss how atoms shape the universe by comparing how they go together to form new things just as letters go together to form words. Cicero and Lucretius do the same. Considering how tiny bits go together to form a verbal representation of a thing led to considering whether or not these letters actually conjured the thing itself; that is, when we put letters together, are we actually somehow creating the thing itself? For his part, Socrates thought this was mainly nonsense – words are words, and things are things – but the analogy of distinct, meaningful component parts making a whole was persistent, with Plato referring to “the letters with which the universe is spelled out”.

Other Greek thinkers went much further into the rabbit hole, with Plutarch diving into the many possible meanings of the epsilon (E) carved at Delphi. Did it mean the number five, as it was fifth in the alphabet? Did it mean the number two, since it was the second vowel? Five and two are easily associated with Apollo, as they refer to music and the sun (respectively). Or did it mean the word “if” or the phrase “thou art”, as its synonyms might imply? Both of these might make sense with respect to Delphi’s oracle. No matter what the original engraver may have meant, as de Looze points out, the epsilon demonstrates the many different shades and meanings associated with each letter of the alphabet, something that the Greeks have passed down to us.

Whether or not you’re a person who sees letter shapes in trees, The Letter & The Cosmos is an interesting read for anyone interested in the story of Western letter forms and how they’ve influenced our thinking, from the Greeks and Romans to the present day.

Danièle Cybulskie is a guest editor, along with Sandra Alvarez, for Issue 12 of Ancient History Magazine.

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