CYRIL, HIS BROTHER METHODIUS, AND THE SLAVIC ALPHABET

Did you ever wonder why some Slavic countries, from Bulgaria to Russia, do not use the Roman alphabet, but instead forms of the Cyrillic alphabet? It all has to do with the two brothers represented in this icon, Kirill and Mefodiy, or as they are more commonly known in the West, Cyril and Methodius.

(Courtesy of Jacksonsauction.com)

(Courtesy of Jacksonsauction.com)

Methodius is shown at left, holding the Gospels open to the text of John 1:1. In modern Russian Cyrillic it is:

В начале бе Слово, и Слово бе к Богу, и Бог бе [Слово]”
V nachalye bye Slovo i Slovo bye k Bogu i Bog bye [Slovo ]
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and God was [the Word].

Notice, however, that the icon text uses the old letter ѣ (pronounced “ye”) where modern Russian uses е; also that in the word Slovo, the second o in the icon text is written with the old Ѡ character borrowed from the Greek Omega. In fact the Cyrillic alphabet is heavily based on the forms of the Greek alphabet, as one might expect, given that Russian Orthodoxy originated in Byzantine Greek Orthodoxy.

Cyril holds a scroll bearing the Cyrillic alphabet named for him:

kirjacks

Technically, the original Cyrillic alphabet is that now known as Glagolitic, which differs considerably from later Cyrillic. Nonetheless, the non-Roman alphabet used by some Slavic countries even today had its roots in Cyril’s Glagolitic form, as altered by successors of Cyril and Methodius near the end of the 9th century. The visual difference between the later Cyrillic alphabet and the Glagolitic form is so striking that the name “Cyrillic” given to the later form is more in recognition of his historic role in developing an alphabet for Slavic than for what he actually devised.

Cyril and Methodius are known for their preaching of Christianity in Great Moravia, which in the 9th century comprised parts of what are today the Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Austria. The ruler Rastislav (later Saint Rastislav), in an effort to avoid the influence of the Franco-German Carolingians, appealed to Rome for missionaries for Moravia, but Rome refused. So Rastislav turned instead to the Byzantine Empire, which resulted in the sending of Cyril and Methodius. With the approval of the Pope, they taught in Slavic rather than Latin, which caused considerable friction among German monks and clerics, who tried to get the preaching and writing in Slavic stopped, but without success.

One can see from this that religion and politics were heavily mixed together at this time. Also, that though the two branches of Christianity, the Greek and the Latin, had not yet separated in the Great Schism of 1054, nonetheless there were already signs of differences and dissension to which political interests added their part. The preaching of Cyril and Methodius added a third element to this — Slavic Christianity, which led eventually to the Russian notion of Moscow as the “Third Rome” after the fall of the Byzantine Empire in 1453, following which Greek Orthodoxy dwindled in importance as Russian Orthodoxy continued its massive rise.

In any case, Cyril and Methodius, being pre-Schism saints, are now highly honored both in Eastern Orthodoxy (particularly in its Russian form) and in Roman Catholic Christianity. What was formerly Great Moravia eventually became primarily Roman Catholic, though by the 19th century there were also Uniates who followed the Eastern Orthodox ritual (“Greek Catholics”/Byzantine Rite) while accepting the Pope as their head, as well as some Eastern Orthodox and quite a number of Protestants.

Here is another icon of the two.  Kirill’s book shows letters of the Cyrillic alphabet:

(Courtesy of Jacksonsauction.com)

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