What do they mean? What do they mean?!?

The alphas that creep up throughout the famous bone tablets – often via very inventive ways such as hiding in the sail of a ship, which I’ve always taken to be a representation of the Black Ship of Dionysos, or as part of a sketch of a horse – make me curious.

I’ve considered the possibility that it’s an abbreviation for Apollon, who is featured on a bone tablet of his own excavated at nearby Berezan Island which is located at the intersection of the Black Sea and the river Borysthenes or the modern Dneiper (there’s also the thiasitai Boreikoi inscription from Olbia itself mentioning Apollon) – however the Olbian bone tablets are solidly within a Bacchic Orphic milieu, and this one obviously is not. (Though it’s possible its creator was an Orpheotelest, just working in a different strain of the tradition.) 

So I wondered if it was an allusion to a Dionysian allonym (other name) or epiklesis (descriptive title) such as Agrios (Wild), Antheus (Flowering), or Anthesterios (of the Festival of Flowers), which were all popular in the (mostly) Ionian apoikia (colonies) scattered throughout present-day Turkey, Ukraine and southern Muscovy.

I’ve pondered the possibility that the Α stood for Ἀριάδνη or even Αστεριος, which would have fascinating implications but isn’t terribly likely. Keeping with the bull-theme of the latter I also entertained the improbable but not impossible notion that it represented the Phoenician letter ʾālep (𐤀 meaning “ox”) which Dionysos’ grandfather Kadmos brought to Greece whilst searching for his sister Europa.

I also thought it might be something along the lines of the Ἄλφα καὶ Ωμέγα of Christian mysticism, particularly with the Pythagorean Orphic interest in isopsephy and other codes, riddles and puzzles, as well as the general orientation of Orphism towards the τέλος, which requires a beginning.

But I suspect that all of these speculations missed the mark. (Arrowheads, perhaps?) Clearly all the scholars are wrong too and they’re actually upside-down uppercase lambdes for Λυσιος, the Loosener or Releaser. 

Or something.

Truthfully, I haven’t a clue. But I find them enchanting nonetheless. (Aha! Definitely charaktêres then!)

According to the Starry Bull Alphabet Oracle alpha signifies:

Aeiro (άείρω) to lift, raise up, rise above.
Aigle (αἵγλη) radiance, glory, splendor.
Aparchê (άπαρχή) dues, first-fruits, preliminary offerings.
Aphiemi (άφίημι) discharge, loose, set free.
Aoton (ἅωτον) the flower of its kind, prime, fairest.

And comes with the following prescription:

Get up (άνεγείρω) at dawn, go to the highest place (άνίημι) you can and hang (άρταω) a star. Then count the number (άριθμός) of times you see stars throughout the day; if it is odd, your luck will shine (αἵγλη) through the [next] Kalends. If even, then make a batch of goat-shaped (αἴξ) cookies and offer them to the Winds (Ἄνεμοι) that they may snatch away (άρπάζω) your misfortune.

9 thoughts on “What do they mean? What do they mean?!?

  1. I don’t think the ʾālep idea is so improbable. I’ll bet that people retained for a long time an awareness that the alpha had originally been a bull’s head. Depending on how it’s drawn, an alpha can also look like a fish, for what that’s worth.


    1. And that knowledge was probably retained among the Ionian populations of Asia Minor even longer than in the Greek mainland since they were surrounded by the great old civilizations of the Middle and Near East, many of whom communicated via Semitic and related languages (when Greek and later Latin hadn’t replaced them as lingua francas.)

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  2. I was watching a children’s program: “Welcome to the Wonderful World of Chinese Characters.” It is a cartoon directed to Chinese children about the stories behind each character. (I call them Kanji, and yes the Japanese have stories for each that they teach grade school children.) Mr. Calligraphy who is a cartoon brush resembling a Chinese sage tells the children to ponder the characters to learn virtue, philosophy and the like. I do that with the Japanese Kanji (I read and write Japanese.).

    I guess this is a tangent to the post but pondering the stories of the letters and how they came to be — can be illuminating.


    1. Oh, I love that. Reminds me of this Byzantine scholar who wrote a treatise on the mystical significance of each letter of the Greek alphabet, tying them back to Biblical stories, values and symbols as well as the esoterica one normally expects from such literature. Made me want to write something similar from a polytheist or even a Starry Bull perspective, but I’ve got a backlog of projects even after the hymnal’s completed,


      1. There is a mystical significance to alphabets. I remember reading about how the Greek and later Roman letters are used in magic as they are. Of course there is Vimala Rogers who studied alphabets and come up with a new cursive one to replace the one taught in schools. Each stroke of each letter has a meaning and depth. I use her alphabet for practice meditation.

        So many projects, so little time.


  3. Oh. One more thing. – The Chinese have the Bone Script (Original), then the Bronze Script (refined characters), and the Seal Script (characters as they are today). Finally, now there is the Official Script for everyone to use.

    Japanese have simplified their Kanji to make literacy more available. I believe that ninth grade reading level is about 1000 Kanji. Anyway, the simplified forms do lose meaning in translation sort to speak.


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