To read Greek icon inscriptions, one must learn the Greek alphabet, which is easy and requires only a little time. The sound of the letter is more important to the reader of icons than its name. Here is the Greek alphabet with its sounds (approximations). For some letters I give the “old” generally-accepted pronunciation as well as the “new” modern Greek pronunciation, which one may ignore unless one is learning modern Greek.
Αα = A as in ah
Ββ = B Old: B as in boy; New: V as in very
Γγ = G Old: G as in go; New: G as in go, sometimes Y as in yard
Δδ = D Old: D as in dark; New: Th as in this
Εε = E as in epic
Ζζ = Z as in zone
Ηη = E Old: e as in epic; New: Ee as in peel
Θθ = Th as in thick
Ιι = I ee as in meet
Κκ + K as in kin
Λλ = L as in lamp
Μμ = M as in mill
Νν = N as in no
Ξξ = X as in dixie
Οο = O Old: O as in not; New: O as in post
Ππ = P as in past
Ρρ = R as in (Spanish) Rosa
Σσς S as in sack. σ is used within a word, σ as the last letter of a word
(Σ is commonly written as C on old icons)
Ττ = T as in time
Υυ = Y Old: German umlaut ü as in über ; New: ee as in peel
Φφ Ph as in phone
Χχ = Ch as in (German) Bach
Ψψ = Ps as in tips
Ωω = O as in pole
Ω as a capital letter is often written as a large ω on old icons.
Those are the basic letters. It is important to note that what looks like an apostrophe in English, when used in Greek over a vowel, indicates that the vowel is to be pronounced (old system) with an “h” before it. All you really need to know of Greek accent marks is found in the words ὀ φίλοσ, ho philos, meaning “the friend.” The apostrophe-like accent above the o gives it the added “h” sound, and the accent above the i in philos indicates that the first syllable is stressed. Modern Greek ignores the rough breathing, but in writing about icon inscriptions it is usually kept in transliteration. I will generally omit the rough breathing and accent marks in discussing here.
Those who want to go beyond that brief introduction to the Greek alphabet will find plenty of information elsewhere on the Internet.
What one does not often find elsewhere is information on the peculiarities of Greek icon inscriptions. Among these is the practice of abbreviation, generally indicated by a long, curving horizontal line over the word that looks somewhat like an extended tilde (~) in Spanish. That tells us letters have been omitted in writing. The other important peculiarity is ligature — the joining of letters that are not ordinarily joined. One letter may be attached to the next, for example an A may be joined to an N, or a T may be placed atop an o, etc. The alert student will quickly become accustomed to these.
Now we can move on to actual inscriptions.
The most common word in Greek inscriptions is ΑΓΙΟΣ – HAGIOS, meaning “holy.” It is the Greek word used for “saint.” So an inscription above the head of a saint that reads Ο ΑΓΙΟΣ ΟΝΟΥΦΡΙΟΣ — HO HAGIOS ONOUPHRIOS — means literally THE HOLY ONOUPHRIOS, which we can just shorten in translation to “Saint ONOUPHRIOS.” Often when Greek saints’ names are put into English the Latin form is used, so you may see this name translated as “Saint Onuphrius.” — the “-os” Greek ending often changes to the “-us” Latin ending. The “ou” combination is pronounced like “oo” in “moon.” And remember that on old icons, the letter Σ –“s” — is generally written as C, as in the last letter of the name of Saint Onouphrios on the icon at the bottom of this posting.
Things change only slighty when a saint is female. The “HO” becomes “HE,” as in Η ΑΓΙΑ ΔΡΟΣΙΣ — HE HAGIA DROSIS — THE HOLY DROSIS –“Saint Drosis.” So HO HAGIOS is used for a male saint, HE HAGIA for a female saint.
Another useful word to add to your beginning vocabulary is ΤΟΥ — TOU — which means “of” or “of the” in Greek. So an inscription like Η ΦΙΛΟΞΕΝΙΑ ΤΟΥ ΑΒΡΑΑΜ –HE PHILOXENIA TOU ABRAAM — contains two words you already know. The first is Η, the feminine word for “the.” The second is “TOY” meaning of. So if I tell you that Philoxenia means “hospitality” and Abraam is just the Greek form of Abraham, you know immediately that this inscription reads “The Hospitality of Abraham,” which is the Greek name for the icon type the Russians call “The Old Testament Trinity,” the appearance of the three Angels to the Patriarch Abraham in the book of Genesis. And you may wish to know that in the word Philoxenia, the accent is on the last “i.”
That is enough for right now. In the near future I will add more on the essential Greek icon inscriptions you need to know to gain a knowledge of the basics of reading Greek icons.