Sacred Alphabets

Gregory DiPippo

The whole world knows today as the feast of St Valentine, a fairly obscure 3rd-century Roman martyr of whose life and death nothing is known for certain. It is a matter of great uncertainty and much speculation how his feast day came to be associated with rituals of romance and courtship. On the liturgical calendar of the Novus Ordo, he was replaced by Ss Cyril and Methodius, the evangelizers of the Slavs, since today is the anniversary of the death of the former, which took place in Rome in 869. Methodius continued the work of preaching the Gospel in central Europe, until his death on April 6, 885.

(Ss Cyril and Methodius, by the Polish painter Jan Matejko, 1885. Cyril was the youngest of the seven brothers in his family, and is here represented as considerably younger than his brother Methodius, as he indicates a book written in the alphabet attributed to him. Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.)

Cyril and Methodius are said to have been two among seven brothers, born in the Greek city of Thessalonica, and were originally called Constantine and Michael; they changed their names, as was customary, upon entering monastic life. Cyril became well known as a professor of philosophy in the Byzantine capital, while Methodius became the abbot of his monastery, and an important figure in governmental affairs. In 860, Cyril was first sent to preach the Gospel among the Khazars, whose territory was mostly in the modern state of Ukraine. Around the year 862, they were both sent into central Europe as missionaries by the Byzantine Patriarch Photius and Emperor Michael III at the request of the king of Moravia, which corresponds roughly to the modern states of the Czech Republic and Slovakia. This would be the principal field of their labors, which also, however, extended into Pannonia (modern Hungary), and other surrounding areas.

As part of their evangelizing work, the two brothers translated the Greek Bible and the Byzantine liturgy, which is very much more complex than the Roman liturgy, and rhetorically far more elaborate, into a newly created literary idiom based on one of the Slavic dialects. This idiom is today called “Old Church Slavonic”, the first of the Church’s sacred languages to be created specifically for liturgical use. Together with it, they invented a new alphabet, since Slavic languages contain many sounds for which neither Latin nor Greek has an appropriate letter.

This was not, however, the alphabet which is today called Cyrillic, but rather a very different script which is now known as Glagolitic, from the Slavic verb “glagoljati – to speak”. Scholars debate whether the brothers took their inspiration for these letters from Greek cursive scripts and scribal ligatures, Hebrew, Armenian (to which it certainly bears some resemblance), or a combination of these.

(A page of a Gospel book of the 10th or 11th century, written in the Glagolitic alphabet. Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.)  

Although it was the first Slavic alphabet, over the course of the Middle Ages, the Glagolitic script fell almost completely out of use, and was replaced by the Cyrillic alphabet, which is much closer to the Greek. This latter was also invented by two Saints, who were called Clement of Ochrid and Naum, both of them disciples of Cyril and Methodius, and participants in their mission in Moravia. It is now used not only by the Eastern Slavs (Bulgarians, Ukrainians, Russians, etc.), but also by dozens of cultures within the vast territories conquered by the Russian Empire, including many whose languages are not Slavic, or even Indo-European. Among them are several languages of the Uralic family, to which Finnish and Hungarian also belong, as well as various languages in the Caucasus, some of the Turkic, Iranian and Indo-Aryan languages of central Asia, and Mongolian.

It is an interesting phenomenon that many cultures have traditionally treated not only languages, but also alphabets, as sacred, and the use of the Glagolitic and Cyrillic alphabets, or failure to use them, provides one of the best examples of this. The western Slavic peoples such as the Poles and Czechs use the liturgy of the Roman Rite, which is celebrated in Latin, and therefore write their own languages with the Latin alphabet, even though the Cyrillic would represent them more easily. (Polish, for example, takes four letters, SZCZ, to write a sound for which Cyrillic languages use one, щ.) On the contrary, the Romanians originally wrote their language, which derives from Latin, with the Cyrillic alphabet, because they celebrated the liturgy in Church Slavonic.

Church Slavonic itself has a similar custom, retaining some of the graphic customs of the Greek alphabet with which the sacred liturgy of the Byzantine Rite was originally written, even though they have no significance for the language. Greek names are often spelled with Greek letters that are not otherwise used in Slavonic, and these same letters are also used to represent numbers. Words that begin with a vowel are written with a spiritus lenis, even though the language has no contrasting spiritus asper. Long vowels are often marked with a circumflex, even though there is only one kind of accent, and monosyllabic words are often accented as they are in Greek.

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