A reader asked about a Greek inscription. It is on a 16th century fresco of the Old Testament Prophet Jonah from the Dionysiou Monastery on Mount Athos, painted by the Cretan Tzortzis. Somehow it feels very appropriate to talk about Jonah after an American presidential election that makes a great many of us feel as though we had been suddenly thrown into the sea and swallowed up by a monster.
Jonah, as almost everyone knows, is the fellow who was told by his god to go to the great city of Nineveh and prophesy there of the deity’s coming wrath. Jonah did not like the job he was given, so he took a ship at Joppa, going away from Nineveh toward Tarshish. While on this journey, a great storm arose. The sailors cast lots (an old form of divination) to determine what had brought the storm upon them, and the result was that the lot fell on Jonah. So to save themselves, the sailors tossed him into the stormy sea, where he was swallowed by what in Greek is called a κῆτος (ketos). Ketos was a rather vague word that applied to any sea monster or huge fish. Much later, people began to think of it as meaning a whale, which is why we usually speak of the tale of Jonah as “Jonah and the Whale.” Spending three days and nights in the belly of the sea monster, Jonah prayed to his god and repented for trying to run away. The sea monster vomited him up, and he went to Ninevah to tell them their city would be overthrown because of its wickedness.
The image of Jonah being vomited up by the sea monster is one of the few later icon images that can be found also as a common motif in the pre-icon art of the early Christians, where it was apparently used as a symbol of salvation and resurrection. It is found both in painted form (as in the catacombs) and in the round, as in this 3rd century example in marble:
Let’s take a look to see what can be made of the inscriptions on the fresco:
We see first that they are in Greek. And there are two of them, one in the upper right-hand corner, which we may reasonably suspect is the “title” inscription for the image. The other is on the scroll held by Jonah. And we all know that in icons, scrolls are the “cartoon bubbles” through which persons speak to the viewer.
Let’s look first at the upper right inscription. We see that as in most older Greek icon inscriptions, the words are not separated as they would be in modern writings.
It is divided into three lines, which we can place together and transliterate:
ΗΕΕΚΤΟΥΚΥ ΤΟΥCΑΝΑΔΟCΙC ΤΟΥΠΡΟΦΗΤΟΥΙωΝΑ
HEEKTOUKU TOUSANADOSIS TOUPROPHETOUIONA
If you have been reading past postings here on reading Greek inscriptions, you should recognize the words Ἡ — He — the feminine form of “the.” And you should recognize the word ΤΟΥ — tou — even though it is abbreviated, as “of the.” And you might recognize the similarity of the letters ΠΡΟΦΗΤΟΥ — prophetou — to our English word “prophet.” Notice that it begins with the joined letters Π (p) and Ρ (r). So let’s go on to divide the inscription into its individual words:
ΗΕ ΕΚ ΤΟΥ ΚΥΤΟΥC ΑΝΑΔΟCΙC ΤΟΥ ΠΡΟΦΗΤΟΥ ΙωΝΑ
HE EK TOU KUTOUS ANADOSIS TOU PROPHETOU IONA
Literally translated, that is:
The (he) out (ek) of-the (tou) sea-monster (kutous=ketous) vomiting (anadosis) of-the (tou) prophet (prophetou) Jonah (Iona)
We can put it into normal English as:
“The Vomiting of the Prophet Jonah by the Sea Monster”
Or if we want to make it less blunt,
“The Sea Monster Expels the Prophet Jonah”
From previous postings here, you should now be familiar with every ligature in this and the following scroll inscription:
Transliterated, it is:
ΕΒΟΗCΑ ΕΝ ΘΛΙΨΕΙ ΜΟΥ ΠΡΟC Κ[ΥΡΙΟ]Ν ΤΟΝ Θ[ΕΟ]Ν ΜΟΥ Κ[ΑΙ] ΕΙCΗΚΟΥCΕ[Ν] ΜΟΥ
EBOESA EN THLIPSEI MOU PROS K[URIO]N TON TH[EO]N MOU K[AI] EISEKOUSE[N] MOU
There are some abbreviations, and I have supplied the missing letters in parentheses.
The inscription on the scroll is the words of Jonah as found in the Greek Septuagint version of the Old Testament, in Jonah 2:3:
Here is a rather long posting that will likely severely bore anyone who is not interested in learning to read Greek icon inscriptions. But it is a helpful posting for those peculiar souls who do want to learn that rather esoteric skill. In any case, it is something any serious student of icons should know.
A reader asked about inscriptions on icons of the post-resurrection appearance of Jesus to Mary Magdalene. That gave me a good excuse to talk a bit more about ligatures in Greek icon inscriptions. “Ligature,” in writing, is the linking or joining of letters together. When icon students first encounter ligatures, they find them mystifying and confusing, but really the principle is quite simple once one knows what to look for.
First, let’s take a look at the main portion of an example of such an icon type in this fresco from Mt. Athos:
Here is what Mary is saying to Jesus in the inscription:
Let’s look a little closer:
It begins with an abbreviation: ΚΕ. But notice the horizontal line above the two letters. Do you remember that such a line (sometimes curved, but still horizontal) indicates an abbreviation? Here, the two letters abbreviate ΚΥΡΙΕ (Kyrie). You may recall that ΚΥΡΙΟC (Kyrios) is the Greek word for “Lord.” KYRIE is just another form of it — the form used in addressing someone — in talking to them directly. So here KYRIE also means”Lord” (but see below).
Now in a previous “lesson,” I told you that when encountering unfamiliar inscriptions, one should look at the visual context, at what is in the image. And here the context is the biblical story of Mary talking to Jesus after his resurrection. So all we need ask is, where in that context does she address him as “Lord?” We must also remember that Kyrie is the standard respectful way for a woman to address a male in Greek — which is why the King James version of the Bible sometimes translates it as “Sir.” So again, where in this context does Mary address Jesus as “Lord” or “Sir?” We find it in the Gospel called “of John,” Chapter 20, verse 15:
Jesus says to her, Woman, why weep you? whom seek you? She, supposing him to be the gardener, says to him, Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.
The next step, of course, is to take a look at the same verse in a Greek New Testament, so that we can verify that we have chosen correctly:
Now, let’s compare that with the inscription on the icon:
Here’s where we run into the ligature issue. We already know that the first two letters, KE, abbbreviate KYRIE — “Lord”/”Sir.” that means, if we have the chosen the correct text, the next two letters should be EI in Greek. But in the actual icon inscription, the third symbol does not look like any recognizable letter at all. The reason is that it is a ligature, a joined letter. We find it it two places in the inscription:
The first occurance is somewhat marred by a crack in the painting surface, but the second, almost just below the first, is quite clear. It looks rather like the number nine. But the rounded part to the left is the “E” portion of the ligature, and the vertical line is the “I.” So we can be reasonably certain that we have the correct text, because the third and fourth letters in the inscription are EI, meaning “if.”
The next two Greek letters in the inscription look like CV:
C in Greek is “s” in English. And the V is actually just a way of writing the Greek letter Y, which in lower case is υ. So the word in Greek is CY, which we can transliterate as SY or sy. Sy is Greek for “you.”
Up to this point we have:
“Lord/Sir if you…”
The next word in the inscription is not complete:
It has one ligature, the fourth symbol. That is a combination of C and T in Greek. So it reads EBACTAC — Ebastas. But the word is shortened. It is really EBACTACAC — Ebastasas, meaning “carried off”
The next word is also missing its ending:
The first symbol is a ligature of a and u, so the three letters shown are aut, which if written in full would be auton, meaning “him.”
Next come these words, all pushed together, as is often common in Greek inscriptions:
The first letter is the ligature of e and i that we have already seen. With the next two letters, it makes the word ΕΙΠΕ — EIPE–, meaning “tell.” That is followed by the word MOI, meaning “me.” And the final word in the line has a common ligature of the letters O and Y, with the Y placed atop the O. So it is the word ΠΟΥ — POU –, meaning “where.”
So now we have:
“Lord/Sir, if you carried off him, tell me where…”
The first four letters are ΕΘΗΚ — ethek, but the writer has left off the ending. The whole word would be ΕΘΗΚΑC — ethekas — meaning “[you] have laid.” That is followed by the abbreviation for AUTON (AVT) that we have already seen, and so we know AUTON means “him.” The last four letters form the combined word KAΓω — KAGO –, and the two words put together to make it are ΚΑΙ ΕΓω, kai ego, meaning “and I.”
Adding that to what we already have, it gives us:
“Lord/Sir, if you carried off him tell me where you have laid him, and I...”
Then come the last words of Mary’s little speech:
Here the word AYTON — auton, which we saw earlier in its shortened form, is spelled out in full. You will recall it means “him.” Next comes a ligature, the letters A and P (R) joined, so the last word is ARω — ARO, meaning ” [I] will take away.”
So the inscription, in our rather literal translation so far, is
“Lord/Sir, if you carried off him tell me where you have laid him, and I him will take away.”
If we put that into more normal English order, we get,
“Sir, if you carried him off, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.”
Now keep in mind that you did not have to know the entire inscription to know what it was. You determined that from the first few words, seen in the context of the image shown — Mary kneeling before the resurrected Jesus. Then all you had to do was to find those few words in the Greek text of the New Testament where the story of Mary before the resurrected Jesus is told. Using that process enables one to recognize a great many inscriptions without knowing the entire vocabulary of the text at first glance.
We can see how useful that is if we look at another icon of the same type, also with a Greek inscription:
If we look at what Mary is saying to Jesus in this example, we find it to be:
It is very much the same as the inscription in the first example, with only slight differences in writing. And the one word separated at the bottom is easy. In Greek letters it is ΡΑΒΒΟΥΝΗ — RABBOUNI — an Aramaic word that means loosely “My Master/Teacher.” That, according to the Gospel called “of John,” was the exclamation of Mary to Jesus when she finally recognized him.
Just for completeness, let’s deal with the other inscriptions one is likely to find on icons of this type. First, there is the identifying inscription above Mary:
As you might guess, it just reads:
Η ΑΓΙΑ ΜΑΡΙΑ Η ΜΑΓΔΑΛΙΝΗ — HE HAGIA MARIA HE MAGDALINE
You probably noticed that the HAGIA is abbreviated. In the name “Mary,” the A and Ρ (R) are joined, and the HE (H) is linked to the M in Η ΜΑΓΔΑΛΙΝΗ — “the Magdalene.”
And of course the title as a whole means “THE HOLY MARY THE MAGDALENE.”
There is also an inscription found in this type that you should already recognize from a previous posting. For it, we will go back to this example in the first image:
The inscription is just above the empty grave of Jesus (with the graveclothes lying in it):
Ο ΑΓΙΟC ΤΑΦΟC — HO HAGIOS TAPHOS — “The Holy Sepulchre.”
Let’s also look back at that first image to see what Jesus is saying to Mary:
The IC at the top is of course just the standard abbreviation for “Jesus.” But the inscription below it has the words of Jesus to Mary Magdalene:
ΜΗ ΜΟΥ ΑΠΤΟΥ — ΜE MOU APTOU — “ME NOT TOUCH”
In normal English that is “TOUCH ME NOT,” or more modern, “DO NOT TOUCH ME.” That accounts for the common Latin title often given these images in the West, Noli Me Tangere, which is just the translation of Me Mou Aptou.
I hope you noticed that the letters ΜΗ are joined in a ligature, as are ΟΥ in the word ΜΟΥ, and there is another ligature joining the letters Π and Τ in ΑΠΤΟΥ.
Finally, let’s take a look at the title inscription of the whole image at the very top of the first example. It is cut off in the photo, but we can fill in what is missing:
Η ΜΕΤΑ ΤΗΝ ΕΓΕΡCΗΝ ΠΡΟC ΤΗ ΜΑΓΔΑΛΙΝΗ[Ν] ΜΑΡΙΑ ΤΟΥ ΣωΤΗΡΟΣ ΕΜΦΑΝΙΑ
HE META TEN EGERSEN PROS TE MAGDALINE[N] MARIA TOU SOTEROS EMPHANIA
The After the Resurrection to the Magdalene Mary of the Savior Appearance
In normal English,
“THE APPEARANCE OF THE SAVIOR TO MARY MAGDALENE AFTER THE RESURRECTION”
One will often find little variations in Greek spelling (as in ΕΓΕΡCΗΝ / ΕΓΕΡCΙΝ in the above example), but usually they are not severe enough to cause confusion.
You may also wish to know that this ME MOU APTOU icon type of Mary Magdalene and Jesus is another of those borrowings into Eastern Orthodox art from Western Catholic art, from the time when Venice controlled the island of Crete, and the icon painters there worked to supply both Greek Orthodox and Western Catholic markets for paintings. You may have also noticed that Mary Magdalene’s head is bare in these icons, which is a little unusual, given that most women have their heads covered in icons. But it is usual for Mary’s hair to be seen in this particular type, because the image was borrowed very closely from Western examples — and in the West, Mary Magdalene is often seen with head uncovered.
Today we will look at an early 13th century icon from the Monastery of St. Catherine at Mount Sinai:
Our concern will be with the text in the open Gospels:
It is (you probably recognize it) the most common Greek text for icons of the Pantokrator — that is, of Jesus shown as “The Almighty.”
At the beginning is a Greek cross. And it is followed by the unseparated words
ΕΓѠ ΕΙΜΙ — EGO EIMI — “I Am….”
Of course whenever you see that “I am” beginning on a Pantokrator Gospel inscription, you know it is most likely to be the most frequently-used text for Greek Pantokrator icons. Here it is in upper and lower case:
Ego eimi to phos tou kosmou ho akolouthon emoi ou me peripatese en te skotia, all[a] hexei to phos tes zoes
” I am the light of the world: he that follows me shall not walk in darkness, but shall have the light of life.”
Let’s take a look at the second line:
It reads: ΤΟ ΦѠC ΤΟΥ ΚΟC[-ΜΟΥ] TO PHOS TOUKOS[-MOU] (the –MOU is in the next line):
“The Light of the World.”
Look at the ligature in the word TO (neuter form of “the”): it puts the “T” atop the “O.” And look also at the ligature following PHOS: It is the word TOU, meaning “of the,” but it combines three letters: T, O, and U, all joined from top to bottom to form the word pronounced as “too.”
We can see the variations used in writing by looking at the second use of TO PHOS in the inscription:
The T is placed on top of the O to form the definite article TO (“the), and the Φ is placed atop the ω, followed to the right by C to form the word PHOS — “light.”
Let’s look at one more ligature, used twice on the right side of the page:
It joins T and H, forming the word TH (τη) —TE — pronounced “tay” in ancient Greek, “tee” in modern Greek. By itself, it is the dative form of “the,” as in EΝ ΤΗ ΣΚΟΤΙΑ — En te skotia — “in the darkness,” as in “shall not walk in [the] darkness.”
So you see, it takes only a little bit of study to read a great many inscriptions on Pantokrator icons, even one over seven centuries old, because they are so repetitive.
The Russians, however, use a different favorite inscription:
Прiиди́те ко мнѣ́ вси́ труждáющiися и обременéннiи, и áзъ упокóю вы́:
“Come unto me, all who labor and are heavy-laden, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28). And of course they use other texts as well, but that one is the most popular.
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:
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:
In transliteration it is:
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.