Let me tell you a story of the forgotten wisdom of the ancients, preserved in secret libraries of elder ages and deciphered by visionary sages, let me tell you about men who became gods and gods who became men. Let me tell you the strange mythology linking the origins of the Phoenician alphabet with the birth of the Western occult tradition.
The origins of writing systems are fascinating, but sometimes it can be just as interesting to lay the reality to one side and look at where the people of the ancient world thought their writing systems came from. My colleague Natalia has been doing this with her series of blog-posts looking at myths about writing. Here, though, I want to look in a bit more depth at the stories told about the development of the Phoenician alphabet.
Because they get a bit weird.
The Phoenician alphabet has always held a slightly enigmatic place in the history of writing. Even in antiquity it was acknowledged that it was the Phoenicians who had brought the alphabet to Europe. Even after they had adapted the Phoenician alphabet to their own purposes, the Greeks continued to call their writing system ‘phoinikeia grammata’ – Phoenician letters. But beyond identifying Phoenician as the model and inspiration for the Greek alphabet, both ancient and early modern scholars showed remarkably little interest in asking where the Phoenicians themselves got writing from. It wasn’t until the discovery of the Proto-Canaanite and Proto-Sinaitic in the early 20th century that the early history of Phoenician writing began to come to light.
There is one exception to this: Philo of Byblos, a historian and grammarian living in first- to second-century AD Roman Lebanon. We only have fragments of Philo’s work, quoted by the third- and fourth-century Christian bishop Eusebios of Caesarea, but several of the bits we have deal with the history of writing and in particular the legacy of the divine scribe Taautos.
‘Sanchuniathon, who was a man of much learning and great curiosity, and desirous of knowing the earliest history of all nations from the creation of the world, searched out with great care the history of Taautos, knowing that of all men under the sun Taautos was the first who thought of the invention of letters, and began the writing of records: and he laid the foundation, as it were, of his history, by beginning with him, whom the Egyptians called Thouth, and the Alexandrians Thoth, translated by the Greeks into Hermes.’
‘From Misor was born Taautos, who invented the first written alphabet; the Egyptians called him Thouth, the Alexandrians Thoth, and the Greeks Hermes.’
‘Taautos, whom the Egyptians call Thouth, excelled in wisdom among the Phoenicians, and was the first to rescue the worship of the gods from the ignorance of the vulgar, and arrange it in the order of intelligent experience. Many generations after him a god Sourmoubelos and Thuro, whose name was changed to Eusarthis, brought to light the theology of Taautos which had been hidden and overshadowed, by allegories.’
‘The god Taautos imitated the features of the gods who were his companions, Kronos, and Dagon, and the rest, and gave form to the sacred glyphs of the letters.’
‘All these stories Thabion, who was the very first hierophant of all the Phoenicians from the beginning, allegorized and mixed up with the physical and cosmological phenomena, and delivered to the prophets who celebrated the orgies and inaugurated the mysteries: and they, purposing to increase their vain pretensions from every source, handed them on to their successors and to their foreign visitors: one of these was Eisirios the inventor of the three letters, brother of Chna the first who had his name changed to Phoenix.’
There’s a lot to unpack here. Let’s start with the figure of Sanchuniathon. He was allegedly a Beiruti historian, said Eusebios and another of his sources, Porphyry, to have lived ‘before the Trojan War’ and ‘near the time of Moses’ and to have worked from even more ancient sources found in temple archives and given to him by priests. We have no independent evidence of his existence – or indeed of any Phoenician historiography dating to the Bronze Age – and there’s reason to be sceptical. The story presented here of an ancient scholar seeking out and discovering ancient texts in a strange language and of divine provenance in mysterious sanctuaries is a bit of a staple in fringe theories and the more outlandish branches of research. Indeed, there’s a close parallel in the work of another scholar who strongly influenced Philo, Euhemeros.
Living in the fourth century BC, Euhemeros was interested in mythology, and believed that it represented a distortion and exaggeration of real history. As a fan of distortion and exaggeration, he presented a lot of his work in the form of a romance, a highly fictionalised account of his travels and unlikely discoveries. These included, for example, his visit to the mysterious island of Panchaia, off the Arabian coast. There, in a temple of ‘Triphylian Zeus’, he allegedly discovered a golden stele inscribed with ancient Panchaean writing recounting the truth about Ouranos, Kronos and Zeus. There’s a strong vein of euhemerism running through the work of Philo and Eusebios so it’s not surprising that he might also have borrowed the older writer’s romanticised depiction of receiving his revelations from an exotic and colourful ancient source.
What about these texts by Taautos that Sanchuniathon is said to have drawn from? Many Near Eastern cities maintained historical records during the Bronze Age, even if only in the fairly bare-bones form of annals. We have an allusion to them existing in Phoenicia in the Egyptian account of Wen-Amon, but none of the documents themselves have survived to the present day. The clay tablets found in Bronze Age Ugarit don’t include historical material (though we can’t rule out these kinds of documents having existed on perishable materials), but they do include cultic, ritual and mythological texts. This ‘literary’ material was particularly focused around the sanctuaries of Baʿal and Dagan. So it’s not implausible that Phoenician sanctuaries might have preserved textual material that could have been consulted. What’s more suspicious is the connection with Taautos/Thoth.
In ancient Egypt, Thoth was indeed a divine scribe, particularly serving Osiris (Philo’s reference to Eisirios is generally thought to be a corruption of Osiris), and was associated with the invention of hieroglyphs (‘sacred glyphs’, just like those referred to by Philo). Bronze Age Phoenicia had strong links with Egypt, even using hieroglyphs themselves on occasion, but the idea of there being texts in Phoenicia thought to have been written by Thoth doesn’t really fit with what we know of Egypt at that time. There’s no evidence that in the pharaonic period any Egyptian literary corpus existed which was attributed to Thoth, or that in Egyptian mythology Thoth was said to have written any literary compositions.
If the Bronze Age credentials for these texts look a bit shaky, we can do a lot better in the Hellenistic period a thousand years later, in the final centuries BC. As Egypt came within the Greek world and fell under the control of the Ptolemies, there was a certain amount of syncretism between Egyptian Thoth and Greek Hermes, as we see in Philo’s repeated glosses on the name of Taautos. Among some groups, this gave rise to a new figure or series of figures – Hermes Trismegistos – ‘Thrice-great Hermes’.
Hermes Trismegistos is a fascinating and elusive character whose appeal has endured for a surprisingly long time. Combining aspects of Thoth, Hermes and even Moses, he appears as a scribe of the gods, master of knowledge – especially the obscure and arcane – and a powerful magician. His exact nature is shadowy: sometimes an immortal god, sometimes a series of mortal men, passing on their name and secret wisdom down the generations. Most importantly, he’s strongly associated with the production of literary works – by the second and third centuries BC there existed an entire ‘corpus hermeticum’ of Egypto-Greek wisdom literature dealing with philosophy, cosmology, alchemy, astrology and much else. This esoteric Hellenistic god-sage fits very well with Philo’s Taautos – indeed, Philo gives us one of our earliest attestations of the ‘Trismegistos’ epithet.
Philo’s accounts of how writing came to Phoenicia are not so much the product of ancient Bronze Age wisdom, then, as Hellenistic cultural syncretism and an emerging esoteric tradition. As such, this mythology and the beliefs associated with it have had a remarkable afterlife. Hermeticism survived through into the Middle Age and gained popularity in the Renaissance as the preserve of alchemists and occultists. From there it became foundational to the western esoteric tradition, as well as influencing some branches of Islamic thought. Even in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, occult societies such as the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn have drawn on these traditions and consider themselves to be following the wisdom and ideas first laid down by Hermes Trismegistos in antiquity.
So, is there anything factual in Philo of Byblos? Does his account have any relationship to the realities of how the Phoenician alphabet developed? Well, it turns out he was probably right to see a relationship between the Phoenician alphabet and Egypt. The Proto-Sinaitic inscriptions found at Serabiṭ el-Khedem by Flinders Petrie and more recently at the Wadi el-Hol in Egypt strongly suggest that early linear alphabetic writing was inspired by – and borrowed signs from – Egyptian hieroglyphic and hieratic writing, being produced by Levantine soldiers and miners working in Egypt. It’s unlikely Philo knew anything about that, though he would probably have been aware of the strong cultural influence of Egypt on the Levant.
Perhaps more intriguing is Philo’s reference to Eisirios being a successor to Taautos and the inventor of ‘the three letters’. Some scholars have found this rather striking in light of the discovery of Ugaritic cuneiform alphabet. This seems to have been developed some time after the linear alphabet of Proto-Sinaitic and may have taken some inspiration from the linear characters as well as the general consonantal alphabetic principle. From surviving abecedaries, it seems that an original Ugaritic repertoire was at some point supplemented by three additional signs which were appended on to the end of the alphabet – two vocalic signs and a variant of ‘s’ used mainly for spelling Hurrian names. So, is Philo preserving some distorted memory of this alphabetic supplementation? Well, maybe. It’s impossible to prove. We don’t even know for sure that Philo’s phrase is certainly to be translated ‘three letters’ rather than, say ‘three texts’ or similar.
Rather than playing the euhemerist game of trying to pick out nuggets of truth among the distortions and mythology, we should recognise Philo’s account for what it is – evidence of how writing systems can often become associated with ideas of magic and hidden knowledge. Particularly to the uninitiated, writing can look a lot like magic. It’s something you need training in, features strange glyphs encoding knowledge which is hidden and secret to the uninitiated, and is often learned by chanting out the names of the signs. It’s unsurprising that abecedaries in particular sometimes seem to carry magical and ritual connotations. We may even see this in the one magic word everyone knows. The etymology of abracadabra is highly uncertain, but it has been pointed out that it does look rather like ABCD with vowel-sounds inserted between them and an ending tacked on.
This has been a long post, but it shows some of the strange places research into writing systems can go and some of the considerations when interpreting much later historical sources. Despite all this, Philo of Byblos remains one of our only written sources for a number of aspects of Phoenician culture, including religion and mythology. He can’t be overlooked, but we must also be aware that ancient writers can be as susceptible as modern ones to getting caught up in fringe theories and esoteric ideas. Despite what Philo himself may have believed, the antiquity of a source is no guarantee of its truth.
S. Ribichini 1991 – ‘Taautos et l’invention de l’écriture chez Philon de Byblos’ in Baurain, Bonnet & Krings (eds.) – Phoinikeia Grammata. Lire et écrire en Mediterranée, 201-213.