While the history of the alphabet of a particular language may not be of interest to many, it was quite significant to the Greeks. Lots of ancient Greek records contain stories about how they got their alphabet. It was the subject of myth and legend. What exactly did these legends claim about the origin of the alphabet, though? And how do these claims compare with modern discoveries?
Where did the ancient Greeks think their alphabet came from?
The earliest known record of the origin of the Greek alphabet is from Herodotus. He claimed that a prince from Phoenicia named Cadmus, arrived in Greece. He introduced the Greeks to their alphabet, who then adapted it for their own linguistic purposes.
In other words, the Greek alphabet was believed to be an adaptation of the Phoenician alphabet. This was the claim of Herodotus, and the theory is repeated in various other ancient Greek records after him.
When was this supposed to have happened?
Although there was widespread agreement about the fact that the alphabet had been introduced to the Greeks by Cadmus, there were varying opinions about when exactly this was supposed to have happened. Herodotus placed Cadmus about 1,600 years before his own time, which would be approximately 2000 BCE. This is about eight hundred years earlier than Herodotus’ date for the Trojan War.
In contrast, most later records place Cadmus much closer to the Trojan War, thereby making him a contemporary of a poet named Linus. This Linus was the teacher of young Heracles, who was born about a hundred years prior to the Trojan War. Therefore, Cadmus must have been active between one and two centuries before the Trojan War.
Genealogical information is probably more useful than Herodotus’ estimate, which may well simply be an exaggeration. In any case, both Herodotus and the later Greek writers were in agreement that Cadmus lived before the Trojan War. This would mean that the Greek alphabet was introduced prior to that war as well.
Where did Cadmus come from?
Cadmus was supposedly a prince from Phoenicia, meaning that the Greek alphabet had a Phoenician origin. However, Greek records provide more information than this. Most records agreed that Cadmus was the son of a king of Phoenicia named Agenor. Agenor means brave or courageous in Greek, and it stems from two words, namely “agan,” which means ‘very much,’ and “anir,” meaning ‘man,’ according to Liddell and Scott’s Greek-English dictionary.
Ultimately, Agenor’s family was believed to be Greek in origin. Agenor himself was a descendant of Io, a princess from Argos who had escaped to Egypt. Some of Io’s descendants stayed in Egypt for several generations, much like Agenor’s family.
The fact that Agenor originally lived in Egypt before becoming the king of Phoenicia is found in records of writers such as Aeschylus (fifth century BCE), Hyginus (first century CE), and Pseudo-Apollodorus (c. 100 CE). These facts point to an interesting conclusion, although it is one which the ancient Greeks do not seem to have ever specifically mentioned themselves.
If the Greek alphabet came from Cadmus, but Cadmus’ family originated from Egypt prior to their moving to Phoenicia, then does that mean that the Greek alphabet originally came from Egypt before passing through Phoenicia?
What do modern discoveries reveal about the Greek alphabet?
Tthe ancient Greeks claimed that the Greek alphabet was introduced by Cadmus from Phoenicia at some point before the Trojan War. There is the possible implication that it had even been in Egypt before it arrived in Phoenicia. But what do modern discoveries reveal about the accuracy of these legends?
Firstly, scholars widely accept that the Greek alphabet stemmed from Phoenicia. Ancient inscriptions from Phoenicia (also called Canaan) can be compared with the earliest ancient Greek inscriptions. Their similarities then become obvious to such a degree that scholars agree they must be closely related.
Until today, the Phoenician inscriptions found predate the Greek inscriptions, so the Phoenician alphabet must have come first. Hence, although archaeology has not confirmed the existence of Cadmus specifically, it does confirm the legend that the Greek alphabet came from Phoenicia.
Secondly, scholars generally agree that this alphabet first came to Greece in the 9th or possibly even the 8th century BCE. It seems that 900 BCE is the absolute earliest time period acceptable by most scholars in terms of the arrival of the alphabet to the region.
This does not correlate to the claim that the alphabet was brought to Greece prior to the Trojan War if we base this calculation on the traditional date of that war, circa 1200 BCE. On the other hand, if we use the date indicated by one of the earliest sources for the date of the Trojan War, which is the 8th century BCE, then this would match claims of ancient records.
The Egyptian connection to the Greek alphabet
But what about the implication that the alphabet had originally come from Egypt? Modern discoveries have definitely backed up this claim.
The Phoenician alphabet evolved from a script known by scholars as the Proto-Sinaitic Script. This was a form of writing that has been found on inscriptions in Egypt, the Sinai Peninsula, and Phoenicia (which is generally referred to as Canaan in references pertaining to this time period). These inscriptions date from circa 1800 to 1500 BCE.
During that period, Egypt was extensively populated by Semitic peoples, particularly from the land of Canaan. The earliest Proto-Sinaitic inscriptions come from Egypt, with only the later ones being found in Canaan. Thus, it is evident that the alphabet must have come from Egypt and was then brought to Canaan. The design of the letters also confirms this, as they are clearly adaptations of Egyptian hieroglyphs.
Scholars now agree that the Proto-Sinaitic script was created by Semites living in Egypt. They adapted Egyptian hieroglyphs for their own use and language. They then brought this script back to their homeland, the land of Canaan, where it subsequently evolved into the Phoenician alphabet.
What this means, then, is that the Greek alphabet originally came from Egyptian hieroglyphs. Remarkable as this may seem, the Phoenician alphabet and the Proto-Sinaitic script provide clear evidence of such an origin. It could be that the legend of Cadmus’ family coming from Egypt is but a distant memory of this Egyptian origin.