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SPADING UP ANCIENT WORDS ©1984 by Erich A. von Fange


All would agree that the ideal alphabet would have one and only one letter for each speech sound, with perhaps a few concessions made for common compound sounds to be represented by a single symbol. For example, the long "i" sound in English is clearly a combination of two separate vowel sounds, and we would find it awkward to use two symbols to represent that familiar sound today. Accepting the genius of the invention of the alphabet, it is more than a little strange that no alphabet in common use in the world has ever reached this goal (Sturtevant, 1947, p. 24). It is of course somewhat arbitrary which sounds uttered by the human voice are to be recognized and dignified with a symbol. Yet strangely, all alphabets omit symbols for some common vocal sounds, and all contain redundant letters, that is, letters that represent sounds already provided for by other symbols. We can illustrate the idea of redundant letters by looking at ways one might spell out the sound of -ks as in "marks." One might spell it -CS as in lilacs, or -X as in box or -Q's, -CKS, -KES, or -CHS. On the surface this may appear simply as another case of human stupidity or as a consequence of borrowing from different languages. Those who have attempted to reform the alphabet for the best of reasons have all failed. Our alphabet seems to be tamper-proof. We know that ancient Egypt had an alphabet of 24 symbols and chose not to develop its communication system by this means. The Chinese also in the most ancient times had an alphabet but elected to develop its present complex system instead. From these odd facts one can only conclude that some other very compelling factor entered into the formation of the ancient alphabet (Encyclopedia Britannica, 15th ed., Macrop., 1:627).

According to Moran (1969, p. 13, 28), religion is the only imaginable organizing principle behind the alphabet. Although some kinds of worship may well have sprung up independently, e.g., sun worship, the slaughter of a bull at the time of the spring equinox on both the altars of Ur and in the Valley of the Man in China shows common roots in a common culture. The 12 signs of the zodiac (the twelve constellations), the 12 months known throughout the ancient world of Europe, Asia, and North Africa point to a common source. The 52-year cycle was used both in the Orient and in pre-Columbian American cultures with 13 days of houses in a quarter. Lunar and solar calendars were brought into correspondence by the cycle of 52. The 52-card deck with 13 cards to a suit faithfully reproduces ancient calendrical knowledge. Even the Joker serves a calendrical function for leap years. The twelve signs of the solar zodiac may be in some way derived from the lunar zodiac of 27-28 signs. The relationship of the two is very unclear, but many of the same stars are involved in both sets of signs. From this well of astronomical and astrological knowledge, the alphabet was drawn.

To establish the source for the alphabet, one must show its great antiquity, wide diffusion, and some powerful cohesive principle outside itself in order to hold the signs in established order despite circumstances, time, and geography.

Gustavus Seyffarth, a 19th century scholar and rival of Champollion on the decipherment of Egyptian hieroglyphics, served for a time in the 1850's on the faculty of Concordia Theological Seminary, St. Louis, Missouri. He understood two things clearly in our context which he expressed in his many writings. He was one of the first to grasp the idea that much actual history was concealed in myth and legend. Further he realized the overwhelming importance of the heavens in the life and culture of ancient man. Although Seyffarth is wrong in some of his conclusions, and though some of his work is necessarily conjectural, his voluminous works deserve careful study and reworking. He saw the connection between the alphabet and the skies about 150 years before this principle was rediscovered by Moran and Kelley (1969). Seyffarth states:

It is said and believed that our alphabet was invented by Cadmus in 1500 B.C., but this cannot be considered a historical fact. In the New Testament we read of a book that was written by Enoch 900 years prior to the Deluge. Pliny said that man always had literature. The Vedas and Avesta tell us that prior to the Deluge sacred books existed and that, in consequence of their loss, the human race became so wicked that the Creator resolved to destroy it.

The Koran (Sura 57) mentions that Noah was the author of a book... It is true that Cadmus invented the alphabet, but Cadmus means "ancestor," i.e., Noah. Cadmus was, like the latter, the first planter of the vineyard.

All these and similar traditions concur in demonstrating that the alphabet existed prior to the Deluge... The Noachian alphabet was a representation of the zodiac.

Seyffarth held that our alphabet is a reproduction of the zodiac with the constellation of the planets at a point in time of 3446 B.C., Septuagint chronology, apparently at the end of the Flood, probably according to the observation of Noah himself. Seyffarth translates Phoenician, Chinese, Chaldean, Greek, and Roman myths which clearly related the formulation of the alphabet to the zodiac (Seyffarth, 1886, p. 53-54).

An idea explored by both Seyffarth and Wadler much later focuses on the peculiar placement of the vowels in the alphabet. There is no logical sense in their location in our present alphabet, nor in any other alphabet where they are included: Abcd Efgh Ijklmn Opqrst Uv(W)x(Y)z. Wadler noted that the ancients associated the vowels as follows with the "7" planets: ao-Sun. i-Moon, a-Mars, e-Mercury, o-Jupiter, aw-Venus, oo-Saturn (Wadler, 1948. p. 103). Thus the intriguing notion has arisen that vowels and unneeded letters in some ancient alphabets may represent the position of the planets among the houses of the lunar zodiac, that is, the consonants, at a critical point in human history. Perhaps one reason Seyffarth's discussions have not been studied seriously is the common belief that any use of the concept of the zodiac involves astrology. In the ancient world there was no necessary connection. The above discussion is in no way connected with what we understand today as astrology. Unfortunately, Seyffarth was less than clear on just which alphabet he had in mind in ancient times that included vowels and apparently "useless" letters to indicate the location of the planets within the lunar zodiac at a crucial moment in history.

Moran's theory is that the alphabet was derived from 28-30 lunar signs, and that some of the signs are the actual appearance of a given constellation. Moran argues that the lunar zodiac is older than the solar zodiac. In support of his theory, he notes that there are startling correspondences between the lunar and the alphabetical signs (Moran, 1969, p. xiv-xviii).