The classical Greek alphabet, its order of letters, and their form, were borrowed from the Hebrew-Phoenician alphabet; alpha, beta, gamma, delta, are but Grecized aleph, beth, gimel, daleth of the Hebrew language.1

In early times Greek was also written from right to left, as Hebrew is still written today.

Cadmus, the legendary hero who came to Greece from Phoenicia and founded Thebes in Boeotia, is credited with the introduction of the Hebrew or “Phoenician” alphabet to the Greek language; in its Hellenized early form the alphabet is called Cadmeian. As Herodotus tells the story,

The Phoenicians who came with Cadmus . . . introduced into Greece, after their settlement in the country, a number of accomplishments, of which the most important was writing, an art till then, I think, unknown to the Greeks. At first they used the same characters as all the other Phoenicians, but as time went on, and they changed their language, they also changed the shape of their letters. At that period most of the Greeks in the neighborhood were Ionians; they were taught these letters by the Phoenicians and adopted them, with a few alterations, for their own use, continuing to refer to them as the Phoenician characters—as was only right, as the Phoenicians had introduced them.2

However, Cadmus, the founder of Thebes, preceded by several generations the Trojan War; on this the Greek tradition is unanimous. Tradition also has it that the Cadmeian alphabet originally consisted of sixteen letters and that four additional characters were introduced later, about the time of the Trojan War.3

The Theban cycle of legends deals with the time preceding the Trojan War. Thebes in Boeotia was outside of the Mycenaean dominion. No contingent from Thebes participated with the other Greek cities in the Trojan War for, according to tradition, Thebes as a city had been reduced shortly before the new war started. With the conventional date of the Trojan War in the beginning of the twelfth century, Cadmus needed to be placed in the fourteenth: his dynasty comprised several generations of rulers before the Epigoni conquered and ruined the Boeotian Thebes; some of the Epigoni later participated in the siege of Troy.

This order of events in the semi-historical, semi-legendary Greek past conflicts with the fact that the Cadmeian alphabet has not been found in Greece before about the middle of the eighth century. Furthermore, because of certain characteristics in their form, the earliest Cadmeian letters bear the best resemblance to the Hebrew-Phoenician letters of the ninth century—as exemplified by the Mesha stele.4

But in Greece no inscription in Cadmeian letters was found that could be attributed to even so early a time as the ninth century. Therefore among the classical epigraphists a protracted debate was waged between those who claimed a date in the ninth century as the time the Cadmeian alphabet was introduced into Greece and those who claimed the seventh century.5 Yet independently of the question whether the Cadmeian letters originated in the ninth or in the seventh century,

it is generally agreed that the fourteenth century is out of the question;6 but even should we follow the proponents of the earlier date—that of the mid-ninth century, we still would be at pains to harmonize dates so far apart as the ninth and fourteenth centuries, the date assigned to Cadmus. If the tradition about Cadmus, the originator of the Greek alphabet, has any historical value,7 and if Cadmus lived in the ninth century, his descendants, participants in the Trojan War, could not have flourished about -1200.


  1. Aleph means “ox” in Hebrew; beth means “house” etc. The corresponding letter names have no meaning in Greek.

  2. Herodotus, The Histories V. 58 (transl. by A. de Selincourt, 1954).

  3. [There were three traditions, each of which placed him at a different period—three, six or nine generations before the Trojan War. See R. B. Edwards, Kadmos, the Phoenician (Amsterdam, 1979), pp. 165f.—EMS]

  4. King Mesha of Moab was a contemporary of King Ahab of Samaria. See Ages in Chaos, vol. I, Sections, “Mesha’s Rebellion,” and “The ‘Great Indignation.’”

  5. At that time the Cadmeian alphabet had not been found in Greece before the seventh century. However, since this debate between Carpenter and Ullman, an inscription of the middle of the eighth century has come to light, the earliest known inscription in Greek employing the Cadmeian letters.

  6. Cf. the debate between Rhys Carpenter (“The Antiquity of the Greek Alphabet,” American Journal of Archaeology 37 [1933] pp. 8-29) and B. Ullman (“How Old is the Greek Alphabet?” in American Journal of Archaeology 38 [1934] pp. 359-381). Cf. P. Kyle McCarter Jr., The Antiquity of the Greek Alphabet and Early Phoenician Scripts (Ann Arbor, 1975). [Cf. also Carpenter’s reply: “The Greek Alphabet Again” in the same journal, vol. 42 (1938) pp. 58-69. While Carpenter defended a date ca. -700 for the adoption of the alphabet by the Greeks, Ullman argued for “the eleventh or twelfth century or even earlier as the time for the introduction of the alphabet into Greece.” A. Mentz (“Die Urgeschichte des Alphabets,” Rheinisches Museum für Philologie 85 [1936] pp. 347-366) judged Ullman’s proposed dates to be too low and suggested ca. -1400 as the date for the adoption of the alphabet, based on the Cadmus tradition. W. Dörpfeld, (Alt-Olympia II (Berlin, 1935) pp. 401-409), V. Berard Les Pheniciens et l’Odyssée (Paris, 1927-28) held similar views. Cf. also Livio C. Stecchini, “The Origin of the Alphabet,” The American Behavioral Scientist IV. 6 (February, 1961), pp. 2-7].

  7. [M. C. Astour has suggested (Hellenosemitica [Leiden, 1967] p. ) that Linear B, the administrative script of the Myceneans and Minoans, was what the later Greeks remembered as phoinikeia grammata, or “Phoenician letters,” introduced by Cadmus. There appears to be little justification for such a view since the Linear B script had, as far as is known, no connection to Phoenicia, whereas the Greek alphabet was directly adapted from the ninth-eighth century Hebrew-Phoenician script. Herodotus’ statement on the subject could not be less ambiguous. In the same book, Astour vigorously defends Cadmus’ Phoenician origin (pp. 147ff.) Cf. J. Rason, “La Cadmée, Knossos et le lineaire B,” Revue archeologique (1977) p. 79].