LIGATURES IN GREEK ICON INSCRIPTIONS

Today’s post is going to be very boring for all except those few who want to learn more about reading icon inscriptions. Though it may seem a dull topic to many, it is essential to the real student of icons. Inscriptions commonly tell us who a saint in an icon is, which is a great and important aid, given that so many saints are very generic in appearance.

Let’s take another little step in the reading of Greek inscriptions by looking at a short and rather messily-written example that nonetheless has something to teach us. It does not have all the accent marks, but for our purposes at the moment it will do:

gk2u

What can we learn from it? Well, first of all, we can see that Greek icon inscriptions use ligatures, meaning the joining of one letter to another, instead of having all the letters clearly separate. Second, we can see that words are often divided into parts, instead of being written all together.

The above example reads in modern Greek font:

Ο ΑΓΙ
ΟΣ

ΠΕΤΡΟΣ
Ο ΑΘΩ
ΝΙΤΗΣ

In transliteration it is:

[H]O [H]AGI

OS

PETROS

[H]O

ATHO

NITIS

Note that in the word [H]AGIOs, the “i” is tucked under the bar of the “g”, and in its -os ending, the “s” is written as a little cedilla-like attachment at the bottom of the “o” Keep in mind that in the modern Greek font, the letter “S” is Σ, but in all but late Greek icon inscriptions it is written as C (or as ς or one of its variants when ending a word).

In the name PETROS (Peter), the “r” is attached to the right side of the “t,” so that the vertical line does duty for both letters. and again the -os ending in PETROS has the final “s” added to the base of the O.

Next comes the secondary part of the title, which usually describes what a saint was or what location he is associated with. In this case it is the latter. The inscription tells us that this is Peter [H]O ATHONITIS, meaning Peter the ATHONITE. “Athonite” here refers to Mt. Athos, the mountain monastic community on the Greek coast, the most famous monastic region in Greek Orthodoxy for many centuries, which still exists today.

Notice how the letter making the second “i” sound (in modern Greek) is attached to the right of the letter “T,” and the final letter “S” is written in an extended form. There are lots of variations in the writing of “s” in Greek icon inscriptions. Note also that in the modern Greek font, the Ω form is used for the letter Omega, but in icon inscriptions the form that looks more like an English W is commonly used for the same letter.

It is not difficult to learn to read standard basic Greek icon title inscriptions. The keys are first, of course, to learn the Greek alphabet along with the sounds of the letters; it does not matter if you learn classical or modern Greek pronunciation, as long as you know the letters. The second is to learn to recognize the ligatures, the ways in which letters are joined to one another; and the third key is to learn to recognize the many variations in writing a given letter.

None of this is difficult, and it can be done very quickly, given a minimum of time and study. But the rewards it gives in learning to read icon titles are tremendous, assuming that what one wants to do is to identify and understand icons.

By the way, if you wonder why I sometimes put the letter “H” in brackets, like this [H], it is because in old Greek some words had an “H” sound at the beginning that was written as an accent mark above the letter rather than being written as a separate letter. But in modern Greek, this “H” sound is dropped.

That is why the words HO HAGIOS — “[THE] SAINT” are pronounced as written here in old Greek, with the “H” at the beginning of each, but in modern Greek they are pronounced O AYOS, with the “H” sounds dropped and the “G” becoming a kind of “Y” sound. Some people prefer the old pronunciation in learning inscriptions, some the new. It does not matter which you use, as long as you know the letters and can understand the meaning of the words they form.

Even though this little lesson is very short, it may seem complicated to you, but this matter of learning to read Greek inscriptions is really quite simple. The initial and major step is to learn the Greek alphabet, because without that nothing can be done. Again, that is something requiring only a minimum of time and effort, and then one may progress as rapidly as one wishes.

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