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Introduction of the book

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Alphabets of Life

The alphabet is often described as a European achievement linked with languages of the Mediterranean: Phoenician, Aramaic, Hebrew, Greek, Latin.[2] In this view, Semitic languages (c. 1,400 B.C.), are the source of the alphabet. This study explores a much larger picture that includes all of Eurasia. It explores the origins of alphabets and characters in terms of five world languages. Three of these alphabets are Indo-European, Aryan, with first systematic systems going back to at least 6,500 B.C. (figure 1), and antecedents in pre-history.  

Figure 1a-b. Ancient Armenian (c. 6,500 B.C.)[1] and c-d. Chechen Alphabets (c. 4,500 B.C.)

An introduction outlines how the 6,910 documented languages[3] entail an estimated 2,200 written languages, classed in 13 language families. Of these, Indo-European languages (444 living languages) include Cyrillic, Sanskrit, Latin. Sanskrit plays a special role because it influences at least eight other language families. A leitmotif of the book is to show that alphabet letters, now considered abstract signs, began as cosmograms and elements to explain stories of the skies, creation and life. The full book contains 12 chapters and 11 appendices: 866 pp. of text and 815 pp. of illustrations.

Chapter 1 and appendix 1 examine marks, signs and symbols associated with the first three stages of writing. In Russia, these include Slavic petrogylphs, tamgas, glyphs, runes. They marked eternal cycles, primal forces and marked key moments of the annual cycle: solstices and equinoxes. Some of these became letters. Often parts or subsets became letters. They also became linked with early calendars. This Slavic runic tradition (figure 2) becomes a first strand in our story (chapters 1, 4).  A second strand is by sea (chapter 7). A third strand is by land (chapter 8). Details of these routes are further explored in Appendix 8. 

Sanskrit (chapter 2) is the first documented, systematic approach linking sounds in the mouth with letters. It introduced eight divisions of the alphabet, and matrices of letters. Letters are linked with principles and elements in nature (tattvas). Letters are also linked with energy points in the body (chakras), with the mansions (nakshatras) of the moon and zodiac signs (rasis) of the sun. This approach becomes a starting point for chakra figures, temples, sacred cities and sacred landscapes. 

Sanskrit is much more than a simple ordering of letters and sounds that we write, read, speak and hear: it provides a system for bringing order to the cosmos. Chapter 3 shows how this integration involves breathing and yoga, which become an important factor in the structuring of early alphabets.

Scandinavian runes (chapter 4) are linked with movements of the human body in a form of runic yoga that has roots in Bulgaria, Turkey and the Russian Federation. Scandivanian runes typically use 9 sticks or glory twigs in a relatively informal system. Slavic runes are inspired by a series of matrices and grids, which become models for runes and alphabets.

Early cultures typically linked letters of the alphabet with their astronomy and cosmology: e.g. stars, constellations, zodiac signs (of the sun), mansions (of the moon), planets. These arrangements are linked with stories of the skies (chapter 5, cf. appendix 2). 

Figure 3. Examples of Ancient Slavic runes and letters

In Sanskrit, letters which are initially connected with creation and return in the metaphyical world, become a starting point for ordering the physical world and lead both to sacred geography and cosmology (chapter 6), which then inspires building programmes of sacred structures in various cultures.    

Chapters 3-6 explored consequences of Sanskrit within India. Chapter 7 explores its impact on alphabets beyond India and focusses on a second strand of transmission by sea via the Spice Routes which spreads across South East Asia, to the Phillipines, China and Japan.  Chapter 8 explores how the Spice Routes by sea also influenced early Chaldean, Ethiopian, Abyssinian and Egyptian alphabets and may offer clues to the origins of Hebrew letters.

Chapter 9 focusses on a third strand of transmission: by land via the Silk Roads.The Aryan alphabet of Darius II (5th c. B.C.) marks a simplification of the complex Sanskrit alphabet. The basic a b g d (abjd) sequence of letters now associated with abjads, is found in India (Brahmanicum, Hanscretanum, Indicum), recurs in Sumerian, Assyrian, becomes formalized in Babylonian (babil alfabesi), and is then adopted by Chaldean, Ugarit, Phoenician, Hebrew. The rise of Western alphabets along the shores of the Mediterranean, is part of a larger phenomenon spanning from India, Bactria, to Middle Asia and Russia to Africa and Europe.

Alphabets entail vowels, consonants and semivowels. Vowels can occur first, last or in between. These three alternatives provide one way of classing alphabets (Chapter 10). Study of the 72 magical alphabets of the Virga Aurea shows that they entail four basic models. These offer a second way of classing alphabets, as do modules of letters and lengths of alphabets.

Chapter 11 explores links between letters, geometrical shapes and numbers.

Chapter 12 offers conclusions beginning with a resume of the earlier chapters. It then re-examines six essential features of alphabets mentioned in the introduction: identity, order, belief, (explaining) creation, life, templates. It ends with challenges, dangers and an epilogue. 

The book points to three general conclusions. First, there is a Slavic dimension to early alphabets that is far older than the Cyrillic of Saints Cyril and Methodius (9th c. A.D.). This Slavic strand appears to have been fully in place by 5,509 B.C. It began with 3-dimensional forms which were simplifed to 2-dimensionsal letters. Jerusalem, Athens, Rome and Istanbul have taken credit for a story in Slavic Eurasia that goes back long before they founded.

Second, basic European alignments of letters, planets, and zodiac signs, were established by the Chinese, Indians, Sumerians, Babylonians, Chaldeans, before 1500 B.C. More specifically, the underlying structures came from India, China, Russia and became fixed in what is now Iran and Iraq, rather than in Europe. 

Third, although the Church was aware of, studied and published 72 sacred alphabets, they printed abridged versions of longer alphabets. Hence, what was studied until the 18th century was only a tiny subset of the whole. Our awareness of a world with over 6,900 extant languages is less than a decade old. 

Appendices explore signs, stories of the sky, systems in the sky, weaving and decoration, figure-ground, evolution of alphabet trees, routes of transmission, abjads, Chaldea, Africa, and number symbolism.

Figure 3a-g. Slavic, h-j. Georgian, k. Armenian, l. Arabic, m. Mauritanian and n Tibetan  runes, letters.[4]

One set of examples illustrates how all this points to a new approach with respect to letters and glyphs (petrogylphs, marks, signs, tamgas, symbols). In the past, both letters and symbols were part of cyclical systems (e.g. figure 3a). In the old Slavic Alphabet, symbols and parts of symbols became cosmograms and letters (figure 3b-c). Earlier 3-dimensional movements and stories typically became 2-dimensional parts of symbols as letters (figure 3d-e). Gradually, they became seen as abstract signs and integrated into alphabets (figures f-m).

As the meaning of individual letter (buki) was forgotten and lost, the realm of meaning was transformed to combinations of letters as words. The meaning of words was codified in word dictionaries in individual languages. The meaning of symbols was codified in symbol dictionaries; the meaning of characters in oriental dictionaries (e.g. Chinese, Japanese, Korean). In the process, earlier connections between words, letters, symbols and characters have been obscured or forgotten.

Linking the meanings of characters, symbols, letters, words offers a new tool for bridging East and West. Rediscovering their role also offers a key to so-called lost symbols and lost codes that have become all the fashion. They confirm that the letters which we use daily have a long and rich history: a cumulative story of humanity that expresses the miracle of life itself.   

The history of letters began long before the history of letter writing and is common to the whole of the human condition. In the 19th century, Owen Jones wrote a Grammar of Ornament. We have dictionaries of literature, of symbols, of words. We need multilingual, etymological dictionaries of individual letters linked with individual symbols across cultures, databases that connect individual letters, glyphs, runes, symbols, tamgas, kunis, sounds with the physical world around us that show the meanings of letters and the metaphysical worlds reflected in sacred texts.

These dictionaries need to be global in scope, noting local variations and changing uses in time and space. The semantic web only connects truly formed truples; the vision of an Internet of things is merely about tagging objects. An internet of letters, runes and glyphs in this deeper sense linking to thoughts, images and symbols will reconnect us with the history of meanings, and with expressions of life. Omnilinks through omni-linked letters and words are more than a fancy variant of today’s hypertext. They hold a promise of keeping alive a quest for truth and meaning.

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