The Oldest ABC's: The Ugarit Cuneiform Alphabet 
By Richard Flavin 

     The technology of writing reached its greatest level of efficiency with the invention of the phonemic alphabet utilizing the acrophonic or "top sound" principle sometime in the early second millennium BC, probably during the Hyksos period c. 1730-1570 BC.  Epigraphers cherish the short inscriptions in Early Canaanite from Palestine and Sinai, attributed to the eighteenth or seventeenth century BC, as invaluable examples of alphabet usage, but it's with the hundreds of inscribed clay tablets from Ugarit (modern Ras esh Shamra, the "Fennel Head"), Syria c. 1500-1250 BC, our appreciation of the alphabet is fully realized. 

     In 1928 the French ruled the Levant States (roughly today's Syria and Lebanon) by a mandate from The League of Nations.  One day, quite by chance, an Arab peasant happened upon an ancient tomb.  By the following year, word and rumor had spread concerning the find and an expedition was undertaken by the French to investigate.  In 1929, after only a few weeks of digging, a temple was discovered and inside were clay tablets -- archives -- written in a previously unknown cuneiform script. 

     Cuneiform or "wedge-shaped" writing was the ancient script of the Sumerians and invented sometime shortly before 3100 BC.  Prof. Denise Schmandt-Besserat of the University of Texas at Austin has traced the development of cuneiform writing back through its various stages to a system of accounting associated with the beginnings of agriculture as demonstrated at Mureybet, Syria c. 8000 BC.  Her arguments are engaging and thought provoking, are increasingly being accepted by scholars, and may eventually contribute to the origin of writing in general. 

     The Sumerian method of writing, i.e. cuneiform, enjoyed a long and useful history before yielding to the alphabet during the third-first century BC.  Though the Sumerians first used cuneiform, many others including Babylonians, Assyrians, Elamites, Kassites, Hittites, Mitanni, Hurrians, Urartu, and Persians adapted the cuneiform writing system and made it their own. 

     Along the north Syrian coast the highly advanced and mercantile Kingdom of Ugarit reached its greatest degree of prosperity in the fifteenth and fourteenth centuries BC.  The people of Ugarit spoke a Semitic language called Ugaritic, which is closely related to classical Hebrew and Phoenician.  It was for expressing Ugaritic that the unparalleled 30-32 signed cuneiform alphabet was developed. 

     This singular adoption of the alphabet, preserved in the archives of Ugarit, has greatly expanded our knowledge of Semitic cult and custom, and has provided Bible scholars with much information on the background for many Old Testament stories, events, characters, and epithets.  The extant examples of the Ugarit cuneiform alphabet provides us with insights into Semitic literature, history, and other, though perceived as mundane, areas which nonetheless substantially contribute to our further understanding of ancient daily-life, contractual agreements, personal missives, etc.  The inscribed clay tablets from Ras Shamra have indeed proved to be priceless -- if only we could adequately thank and compensate that Syrian peasant or perhaps his descendants! 

     Those who study the origin, development, and diffusion of the alphabet (once referred to as alphabetologists, a term which has since passed into disuse) have often cited religion as the overwhelming factor in both the spread of the alphabet and its amazing, orderly continuity; that is, meaning the nearly exact repetition of the original Semitic structuring or arrangement of the individual letters which constitute the alphabet.  However, to further explore the religion mechanism for the diffusion of the alphabet, I would suggest that insofar as religion is often an ambiguous term, basic components such as ritual (and often literary) narratives and traditional calendars must be included in any serious discussion to ensure a balanced comprehension of the problem.  The Ugarit cuneiform alphabet may perhaps assist us in understanding the motivations of others for retaining the original Semitic orderliness of the letter arrangement--our ABC's. 

     The late Prof. Cyrus H. Gordon worked and published extensively on Ugarit studies since the late nineteen thirties and some of his books and papers are widely acknowledged classics in their field.  Working from his exceptional background in Ugaritic, Prof. Gordon identified a lunar zodiac in the order of the letters of the Ugarit cuneiform alphabet.  Following the work of Hugh Moran and David Kelley in their The Alphabet and the Ancient Calendar Signs, Prof. Gordon sensed a calendary reason behind the number of and the illusory random ordering of the letters of the alphabet.  Because of the difficulties attached to proving such a hypothesis, Prof. Gordon's identification of a lunar zodiac in the letters of the Ugarit cuneiform alphabet has not yet met with general acceptance. 

     A lunar zodiac refers to various (though uncannily similar) ancient calendars which regulated time by noting which stars, planets, and constellations appeared in the night sky simultaneously with a specific (usually new or full) phase of the moon, thus identifying set hallmarks of the natural year.  Though not broadly known, perhaps because of academic restraint, aloofness, or the admitted uneasiness over the exact functions of the zodiacs, i.e. how the things worked, lunar zodiacs have languished in public obscurity and are little known outside of select domains of study. 

     Ancient peoples perceived the full lunar cycle or synodic month as 27-28-29 days in length, depending on actual visual verification and not complex, arithmetical calculations (needed to arrive at the true period length of 29 days, 12 hours, 44 minutes, and 2.8 seconds).  Lunar zodiacs also seem to have in common a 27-28-29 and sometimes, as at Ugarit, a 30 share division usually referred to as stations, houses, or mansions. 

     A major problem in understanding the precise functioning of the lunar zodiacs is they were apparently designed for monthly and not daily notations -- the daily shift of evening stars, planets, and constellations being too slight for successful calendrics.  Therefore, a monthly calendar makes good sense, but the 27-30 share division common to both the full lunar cycle and the lunar zodiacs represents an unclear working relationship between the two.  Still, a daily application of the lunar zodiacs, as evidenced by the Chinese calendar and to a certain extent by the diagonal calendar divisions (or decans) of the ancient Egyptians, should not be ruled out as a valid system solely on the grounds of being unintelligible to the investigators of today. 

     Etiological and narrative mnemonics have often been mentioned in conjunction with calendar technologies, including the lunar zodiacs.  A mnemonic system attached to the order and names of the letters of the alphabet has been suggested, but no single, comprehensive model has ever taken hold in the realm of academic acceptance. 

     A cursory examination of the letter-names of the alphabet reveals lists of animals, practical items, and body-parts.  Several of the letter-names have constellation analogs which directs our attention to possible preliterate traditions of calendrics.  Some scholars now support models which allow for a preliterate, prehistoric, and thus pre-civilization tradition of calendar signs having influence on the physical shapes of certain letters of the alphabet and the characters of other writing systems. 

     Prof. Gordon's identification of a lunar zodiac in the Ugarit cuneiform alphabet pushes forward our appreciation of the manifold functions of the alphabet.  However, the mnemonic element of the letter-names of the alphabet should not necessarily be relegated to a secondary attribute (after the acrophonic technology).  Academics and alphabetologists have long suspected an associated bardic or narrative memory-device in the letter-names of the alphabet which assists in the recitation of some (as yet) unverifiable myth, story, etiology, or tradition.  So far, it has been personal folly to attempt the reconstruction of this alphabet mnemonic. 

     Today mnemonics are an accepted part of education -- the mnemonic for the order of star-spectral luminosity is: Oh - Be - A - Fine - Girl - Kiss - Me - Right - Now - Susan; from hottest surface temperature to the least; O, B, A, F, G, K, M, R, N, and S.  Mnemonics are integral learning aids. 

A Ugarit abecedary discovered in 1948.  See photo credit below.

     The 1948 recovery at Ugarit of an abecedary (a sequential collection of the letters of the alphabet) is often regarded as an exercise example from the efforts of an apprentice scribe.  A significant difficulty with this interpretation, as well as other ancient abecedaries, is the apparent disregard for a potential mnemonic contained in the order of the letter-names of the alphabet.  The acrostics in Lamentations 1-4, Proverbs 31, 10-31, Psalms 25 (though the qoph is absent), 34, 111, 112, etc. are late, yet exceptional testimonies to tradition mnemonics as contained in the order of the letter-names of the alphabet.  Clearly the phonemic alphabet provided more than just a simple way of writing a name. 

     Dr. Moran writes in The Alphabet and The Ancient Calendar Signs "It would seem to be of some significance and worthy of further investigation, therefore, that the first letter of the alphabet is the Greek alpha, the Hebrew aleph, a bull, not the ordinary word for bull, but a special ancient word used for sacred cattle, corresponding to the Assyrian word alpu, a bull.  Scanning down through the other letters of the Hebrew alphabet having names with recognized meanings in the Hebrew, we find that they also deal with ideas in current astrology: a house, a hand, an eye, a fish, a serpent; while strangely enough the last of all in the Hebrew is taw, a mark, a sacred symbol; the Aramaic tor, oryx or ox; the Arabic thaur; the Greek tauros; the Latin taurus; and the Germanic thor, the thunderer.  Two bulls?  The first and last letter of the alphabet a bull?  One is reminded of Alam and Alad, the two bulls of the Sumerians, one on the right hand and the other on the left of the gate of the temple; of alpha and omega, the beginning and the end, which is repeated with such impressive resonance in the Book of Revelation."  Academics have unjustly slighted the erudite contributions of Dr. Moran. 

     Prof. Gordon demonstrates in his Homer and Bible and The Common Background of Greek and Hebrew Civilizations a shared milieu whereby associative myth spread throughout the Bronze Age eastern Mediterranean cultures.  Was a myth/story/order technology contained and shown by the letter-names of the alphabet, and corroborated by the recovery of abecedaries at Ugarit?  Probably, though an exact identification of which myth/story/order technology, or a combination of them all, has not been successfully established. 

     Recently, Manfried Dietrich and Oswald Loretz in Die Keilalphabete ["The Cuneiform Alphabet"] supported the thesis of a calendar-sign relationship to the Ugarit alphabet advanced by A. Bausani in his L' alfabeto come calendario arcaico ["The Alphabet As An Archaic Calendar"]. 

     Bausani, like Gordon, argues convincingly for an alignment between the standard thirty letters of the Ugarit cuneiform alphabet and a lunar zodiac.  Both scholars recognize the redundant S tacked on the end of the Ugarit cuneiform alphabet and share a belief in the superfluous nature of the letter, attributing its placement to rounding out the necessary allocations required for a functional lunar zodiac. 

     The unique alphabet from Ugarit certainly contains wonders exceeding simple spelling.  What precise technologies, such as a calendary lunar zodiac, or a mnemonic-etiology serving an eastern Mediterranean myth/story remains to be satisfactorily proven.  Perhaps it's simply a matter of time -- a concept the inventor(s) of the alphabet were surely familiar with. 

     In the December 1992 issue of Bible Review, Frank Moore Cross continues the nineteenth century view the alphabet is of Egyptian origin.  In much the same fashion as Samuel Eliot Morison used his Harvard position to declare with condescension his opposition to the possibility of pre-Columbian visits to the New World from the Old, Prof. Cross steadfastly holds the antiquated opinion the inventor(s) of the alphabet borrowed signs from Egyptian hieroglyphics, though absolutely rejecting their individual meanings and phonemic functions.  Prof. Cross promised to "go epigraphic," adding, "I would like to do a major synthetic work... And I think here I do have something special to transmit."  Apparently Prof. Cross's "something special" was not included in his Bible Review account as to the origin of the alphabet, and the public will to wait for a synthetic work which hopefully will acknowledge the solid work of Moran, Gordon, and Bausani. 

     Our oldest extant ABC's, or abecedaries, from the Bronze Age kingdom of Ugarit have the potential for much more than being interpreted as the scribbles, exercises, or lessons of young writers.  We may already possess the keys to doors we have not yet identified. 

Suggested Bibliography 

Cyrus H. Gordon: 
Ugaritic Grammar, 1940, Pontificium Institutum Biblicum, Rome. 
The Living Past, 1941, John Day, Van Rees Press, New York. 
Ugaritic Literature, 1949, Pontificium Institutum Biblicum, Rome. 
Ugaritic Manual, 1955, Pontificium Institutum Biblicum, Rome. 
"Homer and Bible," 1955, Hebrew Union College Annual 26, pp. 43-108. 
The Common Background of Greek and Hebrew Civilizations, 1962/1965, Norton Library, New York (previously published as Before the Bible, Harper & Row, New York). 
"The Accidental Invention of the Phonemic Alphabet," 1970, Journal Of Near Eastern Studies Vol. 29 #3, pp. 193-197.  (I thank Prof. Gordon for sending me a copy of his very important paper while this article was in preparation.) 
Before Columbus, 1971, Crown, New York. 
"Vergil and the Bible World," 1971, The Gratz College Anniversary Volume, Philadelphia: Gratz College. 
"Poetic Legends and Myths from Ugarit," 1977, Berytus #25, pp. 5-133. 
Forgotten Scripts, 1982, Basic Books, New York (revised and enlarged version, previously published 1968, now containing Gordon's work on Minoan and Eteocretan). 

For a comprehensive bibliography of Prof. Cyrus H. Gordon, see The Bible World: Essays in Honor of Cyrus H. Gordon, edited by G. Rendsburg, R. Adler, Milton Arfa, and N. H. Winter, 1980, KTAV Publishing House Inc. and The Institute of Hebrew Culture and Education of New York University, New York.

A memorial Flavin's Corner column, 4-6-01 "Another Farewell," is available online here.

David Diringer:
The Alphabet: A Key To The History Of Mankind, 1948, Philosophical Library, New York (and two later editions). 
Writing, 1962, Praeger, New York. 
A History Of The Alphabet Throughout The Ages And In All Lands (with F. Diringer), 1978, Gresham, England. 

Hugh A. Moran and David H. Kelley: 
The Alphabet and The Ancient Calendar Signs, 1953/1969 Daily Press, Palto Alto, California (with an introduction by David Diringer). 

Manfried Dietrich and Oswald Loretz:
Die Keilalphabete -- Die phonizisch-kanaanaischen und altarabischen Alphabete in Ugarit, 1988, UGARIT-Verlag, Münster, pp. 72-73 (in German). 

Alessandro Bausani: 
"L' alfabeto come calendario arcaico," 1978, Oriens Antiquus 17, pp. 131-146 (in Italian). 

For further information on antiquated alphabet theories: 
The Origin and Progress of Letters, W. Massey, 1763, London. 
Essai sur la propagation de l' alphabet phènicien dans l' ancien monde, F. Lenormant, 1872-1873/1875, 2 vols., Paris (in French -- contains the view that Egypt was the starting place of the alphabet). 
The Alphabet: an Account of the Origin and Development of Letters, I. Taylor, 1883, 2nd ed. 1899, 2 vols., London. 
The Story of the Alphabet, E. Clodd, 1900, London; also 1907, 1912, 1938, New York, and (in Italian) 1903 and 1924, Turin. 
"Frank Moore Cross An Interview III: How the Alphabet Democratized Civilization," Frank Moore Cross and Hershal Shanks, Bible Review Vol. 8 #6, The Biblical Archaeology Society, Washington D. C. 

For further information on Moran's citation of Alam and Alad, the bull "colossi" of the Sumerians: 
Chinese and Sumerian, C. J. Ball, 1913, Oxford University Press, London, p. 38. 

aladlammû, dALAD.dLAMMA.MES, in The Assyrian Dictionary of The Oriental Institute of The University of Chicago, 1964, Oriental Institute, Chicago, Illinois, USA and J. J. Augustin Verlags-buchhandlung, Gluckstadt, Germany, Vol. 1, A part one, pp. 286-287 (lists extant inscriptions attesting to the popularity of the "bull colossi"). 

LAMMA/LAMMASSU, §3 Association with entrances, Reallexikon der Assyriologie und Vorderasiatischen Archaologie, 1983, Walter de Gruyter, Berlin and New York, pp. 448-449 (this section in English--describes the various uses of the "bull colossi," but more importantly, ties them with Elamite "temple guardians"). 

Elsewhere, John Allegro has connected the Sumerian dLAMMA (lamassu), properly a protective demon, fem. lamastu, demon of child-birth, nursing, etc., lilitu, the Biblical Lilith, Adam's first wife. 

Photo credit: 
I wish to thank Suleiman Sarra, Cultural Affairs, Embassy Of The Syrian Arab Republic for the photograph (by M. Deitrich) of the Ugarit abecedary. 

© 1994, 2006 R. D. Flavin

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