Towards a Greek Kabbalah: Symbolism of the Greek Letters

From before, a letter has four parts: a name, a glyph, a sound, and a meaning.  The first three were discussed last time, along with a basic set of meditations to get us familiar with the first three of these parts.  We didn’t discuss the final part of the letters, however, which is the meaning of the letters.  Unlike the name, glyph, and sound for a letter, of which there tends to be only one of each, there are many layers of meaning for each letter: numerical, astrological, divine, oracular, Phoenician, Greek, and more.  This is what makes the divination system of grammatomancy so powerful, in that a whole world of knowledge can be unlocked with a single letter.  So, even though the meaning of a letter is the fourth part, there are many parts to the meaning of a letter.

What are some of those meanings?  Honestly, if I had to indicate all the meanings of the letters, this blog post would become a whole blog in and of itself, so I’ll simply list a few sets of meanings along with links or links to books for further reading, though my ebook on grammatomancy lists many of them:

  1. Numerical:  my page on isopsephy and gematria, Kieran Barry’s The Greek Qabalah
  2. Astrological: my page on stoicheia, Agrippa’s table of letters (book I, chapter 74, though I reverse how he arranges the planets to the Greek vowels)
  3. Oracular: Apollonius Sophistes’ Greek Alphabet Oracle
  4. Divine: a post linking the Greek gods to the letters for purposes of a lunar grammatomantic ritual calendar

Honestly, with all that down, we already have a wealth of knowledge at our fingertips, but there’s another way to give meanings to the Greek letters: their original Phoenician names, and Greek words related to the letters.  Even the Greeks were aware, to an extent, of the Phoenician origin of their alphabet, which doesn’t diminish its importance in the least for our purposes.  After all, the Phoenician script was the origin of many of the world’s writing systems (especially if you buy the argument, as I do, that it formed the origin of the Brahmic script in India, which connects it even to the Far Eastern Korean).  The diagram below shows Phoenician in the center column, Hebrew to the right of Phoenician and Arabic to the right of that, and Greek to the left of Phoenician and Latin to the left of that.  Letters of different scripts in the same color boxes show the origin of the letter, while arrows show derivations of other letters.

Origins of Letters from Phoenician

 

Phoenician script has 22 letters, the same 22 as modern Hebrew; there’s a 1-to-1 mapping between those two scripts.  The Ionian Greek script, however, got rid of three of the letters (digamma/waw, qoppa, san/sampi), added four (phi, khi, psi, omega), and moved the position of the derived form of Waw (which became Upsilon) further back in the alphabet.  Each of the Phoenician letters had their own name, many of which provided the names for their corresponding Greek letters.  These names referred to, in many cases, earlier Egyptian hieroglyphs or related words that provided a basis for what the letter looked like.  Many of these names were maintained in Greek, often in derived forms, such as Alpha from ʾĀlp, Bēta from Bet, Gamma from Gimel, and so forth.  For the Greek letters that have Phoenician origins, either in name of the letter or its form, their Phoenician meanings might include the following:

Letter Phoenician Meaning
Α ʾĀlp Ox
Β Bet House
Γ Gimel Throwing stick weapon, camel
Δ Dāleth Door
Ε He Window
Ζ Zayin Weapon, sword
Η Ḥeth Wall, courtyard, thread
Θ Ṭēth Wheel, good
Ι Yōdh Hand, finger
Κ Kaph Hand, palm of a hand
Λ Lāmedh Goad
Μ Mēm Water
Ν Nun Fish, serpent, whale
Ξ Simketh or Sāmekh Fish, tent peg, prop support
Ο ʿAyin Eye
Π Mouth
Ρ Rēš Head
Σ Form from Šin
Name from Simketh
Tooth
Τ Tāw Mark, cross
Υ Wāw Hook
Φ Form from Qōph Back of the head, sewing needle, eye of a needle, monkey
Χ
Ψ
Ω Form from Omicron

Of course, by the time the Ionian Greek script was adopted and spread throughout Greece, many of the letter forms were so far removed from their Phoenician counterparts (if any existed) that many of these meanings became meaningless or detached from the letters.  However, the Greeks themselves often found new symbolism for the names, often from a variety of sources.

  • Words or names that started with the letter itself
  • Images or concepts that bear a resemblance to the shape of the letter
  • Words that bear a strong resemblance or things that have a connection to the name of the letter
  • Assigning a letter to parts of the body, starting with Alpha at the head and going down to Mu at the feet, then starting again from Nu at the feet and going back up to Ōmega at the head (cf. the Body of Sophia)
Letter Meaning
Initial letter Graphical Importance Body
Α  Man, air, Apollo  Beginning, invention, source, God  Head
Β  King, help  Duality  Neck
Γ  Earth, birth  Shoulders and hands
Δ  God, ten  Breast
Ε  Build  Justice, Apollo  Diaphragm
Ζ  Life, Zeus  Back
Η  Hera  Belly
Θ  God, death, Mars  The world/universe  Thighs
Ι  Jesus, jot, single  Line, perfection, Rod of Moses  Knees
Κ  Lord, Caesar  Lower legs
Λ  Lion  Ratio, progression  Ankles
Μ  Mary, myriad  Middle  Feet
Ν  Feet
Ξ  Ankles
Ο  Circle, heaven  Lower legs
Π  Father, fire, five, Mars  Knees
Ρ  Thighs
Σ  Savior  Belly
Τ  Cross, crucifix  Back
Υ  Son  Moral choice, dilemma  Diaphragm
Φ  Voice, sound  Breast
Χ  Time, Christ  World soul, cross  Shoulders and hands
Ψ  Psyche, soul  Holy Spirit  Neck
Ω  Ocean, Orion  End  Head

You’ll note that I’ve started to include Abrahamic and Christian references; this is intentional, and not simply me copying entries blind from Kieran Barry’s “The Greek Qabalah”.  After all, as a Hermeticist, I’m not opposed to including Christian or Jewish references here (despite my trying to distance myself from Jewish kabbalah); rather, including them reaches back and allows for more access to much of Renaissance and Medieval development of Hermeticism as well as its classical and pagan origins.

So, where does all this leave us?  Between the graphical shapes and names of the letters, along with their oracular meanings, divine connections, numerical and isopsephic connections, and astrological or planetary or elemental connections, we have whole worlds of meaning for each of the letters.  These can all be incorporated into the meditations on the letters by visualizing or contemplating on them while intoning or repeating the letters.  The images and symbolism of the letters, coupled with their pronunciation, will further open up more doors in exploring the worlds and meanings of the letters and how they affect the world through their presence and, by their presence, the will and presence of the gods and God.

In fact, speaking of doors, let me share a method of scrying I like to use for deeply exploring a particular symbol.  Once the meanings and symbolism of the letters in all their complexity and layers have been learned and reviewed, and after meditating briefly to calm and clear the mind but before leaving the meditative state, I visualize a doorway with a particular symbol inscribed on it.  In our case, that symbol would be one of the letters of the Greek alphabet.  Knock on the door, mentally intoning the letter itself, and open it up.  Everything inside is a representation and symbol connected to that original symbol; explore the world, perhaps calling on the genius or spirit of the symbol to guide you or to send you a guide, or calling on your own HGA or personal tutelary spirit to guide you through it.  Explore the world as deeply as you care to, and when you’ve decided you’ve had enough, take the same route back through the world, passing by all the things you passed by before, and exit the same way you came.  Close the door, clear the mind again, and exit the meditative state.  I’ve used this skill to great efficacy before, notably on my meditations on the geomantic figures and the elemental archangelic kings, and it can be adapted to any number of symbols.  Using this method with the Greek letters can increase one’s deeper knowledge of them by exploring the deeper symbolism and worlds behind the letters which wouldn’t be apparent from simply reading up on their symbolism, and can indicate other symbols not listed above as well as connections to other letters that might not be apparent.  Further, the technique can be augmented by having it take place in one’s astral temple, or astrally projecting into the world itself.

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About polyphanes
I'm a software developer and Hermetic occultist living near Washington, DC, USA. I claim that I'm youthful, dashing, daring, and other things. I make things and chant stuff, and periodically write about them.

5 Responses to Towards a Greek Kabbalah: Symbolism of the Greek Letters

  1. Jim says:

    What is this character? I know very little about this subject, but had a waking dream about a language I didn’t know. There were so many and it felt as if it was of importance. Unfortunately, I only remember these two distinctly: Σ and the “green” one that looks like a backward F with a “tail” on the bottom, opposite. Sorry. I have no experience whatsoever in this subject. I did a quick search looking for characters that were similar to what I saw. Any advice (including go away), would be welcome. Thanks for your time.

    • polyphanes says:

      It’s hard to say what you saw, especially since you yourself don’t remember the image very clearly. The “backward F with a ‘tail'” reminds me of the letter Yod from the Phoenician script (see this link). Without knowing what it was you saw, how you felt, under what circumstances you saw this, I really don’t know what to say.

      • Jim says:

        It was very close to Yohd (from the link provided). It was a highly unusual and, honestly, powerful dream for me. The letters were appearing so fast, I couldn’t keep up, but a statement was left. My inquiry was more a stab in the dark than anything. Perhaps it will make sense to me in the future…perhaps not. Thanks again for your time. Very, very well done site.

  2. Pingback: Meditation Exercise on the Tetractys | The Digital Ambler

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