25 March, 2007

The E at Delphi

In the pronaos (vestibule) of the ancient Oracle of Delphi, so it is said, were three inscriptions on the walls. The first of these, and the most famous, read Gnothi seauton—'Know thyself'—while the second read Meden agan—'Nothing in excess'. The third was merely the letter E: a capital epsilon. Plutarch's essay on the meaning of the E, in which various thinkers propose different explanations, is our only literary source for the object. Not much is clear about the E; in fact, it is even suggested that there are three of them:
That this account is not beside the mark may be recognized by any one who has heard the officials of the temple naming the golden "E" as that of Livia the wife of Cæsar, the brazen one as that of the Athenians, whereas the original and oldest letter, which is of wood, is to this day called that "Of the Wise Men", as having been offered of all in common, not of any one of them.
In addition to Plutarch's essay, modern archaeologists have found a similar image on bronze coins of the period, such as this one:

The quest for the meaning of the E acquires an epic significance in Plutarch's essay: 'Our kind Apollo, in the oracles which he gives his consultants, seems to solve the problems of life and to find a remedy, while problems of the intellect he actually suggests and propounds to the born love of wisdom in the soul, thus implanting an appetite which leads to truth.' The wonder occasioned by enigmas like the Delphic E is thus for Plutarch the impetus to philosophical wisdom.

There are six solutions proposed in the dialogue. The first is offered by Lamprias, Plutarch's brother, who thinks that because E is the fifth letter in the Greek alphabet, it stands for the five original sages of Greece—Solon, Bion, Thales, Pittacus and Chilon. The second solution is proposed by an unnamed figure, who cites the opinion of a Chaldaean (Babylonian) astrologer, that the E, being the second vowel out of seven in the Greek alphabet, stands for the second planet out of seven, that is to say, the Sun, which pertains to Apollo. Nicander offers the third solution, which he claims is the local one, namely that the letter epsilon—EI in Greek—is also the word for 'if' (ei), and represents the word with which questioners address the oracle: 'If they shall conquer; If they shall marry', etc. The fourth solution, voiced by Theon, is a version of the third: the EI or 'if' represents syllogistic reasoning, which is the basis of man's intellect. The fifth solution satirises Pythagorean number-mysticism: Eustrophus claims that E, being the fifth letter, represents simply the number five, to which he attributes mystical properties—the five senses, the five divisions of the soul, Plato's five solids, Homer's five worlds, and so on. The sixth, 'correct' solution is provided by Ammonius, Plutarch's own teacher—he returns to EI, but with the meaning 'Thou art' instead of 'if'. The statement 'Thou art' is addressed to Apollo, and signifies that of all things, Apollo (taken as the Neoplatonic One, with an etymology of a-pollos, 'not many') is the only being that fully is, whereas all other beings are merely in flux.


Just as with Atlantis, modern interest in the E, despite the scanty evidence for it, has not abated. Several scholarly articles have been devoted to interpretations of its meaning, none accepting any of Plutarch's solutions. William Nickerson Bates ('The E of the Temple at Delphi', American Journal of Archaeology, 1925) notes that Plutarch clearly has no idea of the E's true meaning, and that furthermore, given that Plutarch was a priest at Delphi around 100 AD, the E must have been very old, and its meaning long lost, even to the initiated. Bates mentions the discovery of an omphalos-stone at Delphi, dated to the 7th century BC, with the following inscription:

This, he claims, following F. Courby, reads E ΓA (E GA), or E ΓAΣ (E GAS)—the latter syllables being an archaic form of Greek ge, 'earth'. It is implied that before the cult of Apollo, the Earth herself was worshipped at Delphi. This suggestion is supported by Parke and Wormell's classic 1956 history of the oracle, which adduces the various myths about Apollo's invasion of Delphi. Bates traces the cult at Delphi back further, to the cult of the mother goddess at Crete, and goes on to compare the E to a similar figure from a Minoan coin of great antiquity. In Bates' view, the Minoan character was misinterpreted as an Attic E, the enigma ensuring its survival:
The historic Greeks had lost all knowledge of its origin or significance. To them it was Apollo's holy letter. The E of the temple of Delphi is thus an inheritance from prehistoric times, and another example of the conservatism in religious matters common in all ages.
A. Trevor Hodge ('The Mystery of Apollo's E at Delphi', American Journal of Archaeology, 1981) has a different view. By Hodge's time, Bates' theory has been 'exploded' by Bousquet's proof that the omphalos-stone is modern, and that the Delphic E thus has no relation to the inscription, E GA[S]. Hodge, however, still associates the E with the word GE, only he argues that the G was originally there, and later fell off accidentally:
Of an original ΓE at some very early period the Γ fell off the wall, soon to be forgotten and never to be replaced, reducing the inscription to unintelligibility and succeeding ages to bewilderment. . . it would not be surprising if the surviving but incomprehensible E was still cherished and indeed replaced in a spirit of faithful, if blind, piety.
The constant in these explanations, and others, is that the E was once a communicating sign, but then ceased to be. It became rather a fetish, something left over from before and venerated out of context. It acquired new meaning as a sign purely because the old meaning was no longer there—semotics, like Nature, abhors a vacuum. This notion of the remnant object keeps cropping up in my thought and reading—it is the essence, for example, of the 'unknown' winnowing oar—and I intend to return to it again soon. For now, though, I leave you with Nicolas Poussin's 1647 Ordination, which shows Christ handing Peter the keys to heaven, and in which, according to Anthony Blunt, can be discerned the very figure of Plutarch's E (indicated by a red arrow on this image). The significance of this association I leave to your judgement.


Tiago Tresoldi said...

Hello Conrad,

I have been a "reader in the shadows" of your blog since your post on Latin kisses; I just had never took the time to comment, as I probably never had something interesting enough to write.

I only want to thank you for your posts and encourage you to keep writing. I remember from my blogging experience that receiving comments was the biggest motivation to the writing; thus, be informed that you have one more reader which checks for updates daily. :)

Best regards from Brazil,

Tiago Tresoldi

John Cowan said...

/me shrugs.

"E" is such a simple graphical shape that I don't see any particular reason to think it was originally a letter at all.

Compare the Sacred Chao.

Anonymous said...

I don't understand. How can Earth ever have been ΓΕ with epsilon? Hadn’t the Greek always been ΓΗ with an eta (unless you count ΓΑΙΑ)?

Conrad H. Roth said...

Thanks Tiago; much appreciated.

John: that's what Bates thinks.

Mallamb: the sound (vowel) after the 'g' seems to have been quite variable in pre-classical Greek.

Anonymous said...

I should have said unless you count the various forms of ΓΑΙΑ, but I don't feel particularly motivated to research the extent of that variation myself. What evidence have you seen for such a reductive form as ΓΕ at such an early date? I know of some variations which are obviously versions of the γαια etymon short of the full smoothing to γη, or which just show the dialectal variance with η or apparently involve a monophthongization to an open ε such as both αι and Latin ae underwent later on (though the orthography had by then become ossified in Greek and the quantity distinction was lost in both languages), but nothing so truncated as γε. I still don’t understand how Hodge can be so cavalier.

(The preview made me scrap my polyphonc font tags. A pity. They usually work.)

Languagehat said...

Hadn’t the Greek always been ΓΗ with an eta

No. Eta is a later development; H originally meant h, just as in the Phoenician alphabet it was borrowed from, and E served for both long and short e. But the Ionic dialect lost initial h, so it repurposed the letter to represent long e. You can see a comparison between the Old Attic alphabet and the Ionic one here.

Languagehat said...

In other words, this misses the point:

the sound (vowel) after the 'g' seems to have been quite variable in pre-classical Greek

The vowel was long a in some dialects and long e in others, but it was always long.

Anonymous said...

Exactly. It was always long. Never mind how it was spelt.

H originally meant h, just as in the Phoenician alphabet it was borrowed from, and E served for both long and short e. But the Ionic dialect lost initial h, so it repurposed the letter to represent long e.

I know THAT. And Ive already said that I should have said "the various forms of gaia". Didn’t that incline you to give me the benefit of the doubt for “Hadn’t the Greek always been ΓΗ with an eta (unless you count ΓΑΙΑ)?”? Wasn’t it obvious that that was another bit of shorthand? Of course I should have said Classical Greek had mostly been ΓΗ with an eta, reflecting the fact that any monophthong must always have been long, in deference to the etymon gaia.

I always give people the benefit of the doubt, and I lose patience with posting from time to time because one has to be so effing explicit.

Thanks for the link. I plan to check it out. I do not promise to give it the benefit of the doubt, whether it is your posting or not!

Anonymous said...

The question remains. Is an unadorned (i.e. to be effing explicit, naked, un-length-marked, non-diphthongal, non-case-marked) ΓΕ attested AT ALL? I really do crave enlightenment from you experts on this.

Anonymous said...

With the wisdom of hindsight of how postings are timed on this site (Calif, give or take a few degrees of latitude?), perhaps I should explain that ‘effing’ is a very mild expletive in Brit. Perhaps I should have said ‘painfully explicit’. Apologies if anyone is pained. I know I am by some of the more egregious obscenities which are apparently thought mild in other dialects and languages.

Conrad H. Roth said...

OK, I stand corrected! Glad to have two experts here... Mallamb: Hodge is expanding on a previous article, which I haven't read (and isn't online): Berman and Losada, 'The Mysterious E at Delphi', ZPE 1975, 115-117. This seems to argue for a GE monogram, with a gamma and epsilon superimposed, but I don't know the evidence for E as opposed to eta.

Anonymous said...

This was a lovely little survey Conrad. I enjoyed it.

Conrad H. Roth said...

Thanks, Teju.

Anonymous said...

a GE monogram, with a gamma and epsilon superimposed

Now you’re talking! And there wouldn’t need to be any evidence for E as opposed to eta: the element in the monogram might be neither, the other element might not be Γ, or it might be a literal mono-gram, with no analytical elements at all. To paraphrase Quine, an unindividuated totality of hieroglyph on the hoof, and a literal hiero-glyph at that!

Back to Batesics, I think.

Erik said...

Thank you for this intersting essay. The E-question looks like the G-question in freemasonry: nobody knows exactly what G represents but its use is widespread, and many suggestions for its one and only or original meaning have been made. Maybe it's better to let it be like that.

Anonymous said...

Superb piece, Conrad. This was a bit of esoterica I hadn't happened across before. (Incidentally, the Poussin ties this all nicely into Holy Blood, Holy Grail lunacy.)

" . . . semotics, like Nature, abhors a vacuum."

Oh, very nice!

Conrad H. Roth said...

Thanks, Erik; I haven't heard of the 'G' enigma, I'll look into it.


"ties this all nicely into Holy Blood, Holy Grail lunacy"

I'm not familiar with HBHG (though I know roughly what it is). Do they talk about Poussin, or were you just referring to the Christian connection?

Anonymous said...

Foucault's Pendulum draws extensively on HBHG, though I don't think he actually mentions it by name. Less felicitously, it was raided more or less entire by Dan Brown for The DaVinci Code. (I couldn't bring myself to read this latter, though, as Angels and Demons was so incompetent.)

The authors of HBHG use Poussin's painting "Les Bergers d'Arcadie" as an early strand in their web of conspiracy. The painting depicts a tomb with the inscription "ET IN ARCADIA EGO", which is an anagram of "I TEGO ARCANA DEI". (They translate this as "Begone! I conceal the secrets of God!")

Conrad H. Roth said...

Yeah, Eco sure likes his pop-occultism. Shea and Wilson might have sued for Pendulum's debts to the Illuminatus Trilogy. Still, the Poussin reference sounds like run-of-the-mill arcanism. What next, the Embarkation for Cythera and Tarot cards?

Anonymous said...

Well, sure. But pop occultism is always tastiest with a glaze of shallow, faux scholarship.

Anonymous said...

Erik: The E-question looks like the G-question in freemasonry

It seems that we've been drawn to the same conclusion. Two days ago I wanted to leave a comment here to suggest that the Γ which fell off the wall may have been stolen by antique freemasons whose successors nowadays don't know what to do with their remnant G (which has not even been turned into some sort of G spot I believe). When one has a look at what they can say about it, it is hard not to think that it is not "a fetish, something left over from before and venerated out of context." For example this:
- The Letter "G" is a symbol of Geometry and, also, of Deity.
- The letter "G" conveys to the minds of the Brethren, at the same time, the idea of God and of Geometry.
- The symbolical letter "G" is a perpetual condemnation of profanity, impiety, and vice.
- blablabla...

Anonymous said...

Well it would be, wouldn’t it? Because of course it IS the venerable mono-grammatic hiero-glyph in its unindividuated totality, ‘stolen’, at least virtually, either from the Oracle of Delphi before the dereliction of the feckless priestesses, or from whoever they themselves had got it from in its pristine state, and remisinterpreted by the alternatively derelict Masons.

Anonymous said...

In the quest for truth & knowledge, I believe that often one risks getting caught up in the concreteness of words, language & meaning in historical value. In the light of intellect & reason, we must also ackowledge the nature of simplicity, and that 'illumination' can, in its ever 'in-flux' of multi-dimensional awareness & realization, present us with the most plain explanation of something that can also be overly complex in our attempts to examine & define. And, in conclusion, all theories of what the E stand for can be relevant & true. Therefore, my contribution after contemplation of the E in my own life & pursuit of self knowledge is this: that E stands for 'equinimity,' considering that it is offered along with the ideals of 'knowing thyself' & 'nothing in excess.' In the endless list of correspondence of E, it can also represent the 'enigma,' which is ever present in this quest of illumination. At my current understanding, I believe that 'balance', which is a constant observance & trial, is the best explanation for E. E = Equinimity = composure & balance of temper. This makes sense coupled with the theory that striving for moderation in all things, including moderation itself, will lead one to the desired state.

Conrad H. Roth said...

Harmony, I like your theory about 'equinimity'. It's a clever coinage: do I take it you derive the word from equi- (equal) and inimicus (enemy), ie. with the sense of 'equally opposed to all things'?

o said...

Hello Conrad,
nice article. I have to meditate in it and I might use some of it in my blog on Delphi (delphi-greece.blogspot.com). Have a look if you want to.


Sage said...

I would agree that simplicity is often overlooked.
We like to think that the Oracle of Delphi is only a woman sitting on a tripod getting high off of gaseous fumes. Which is all well and good for fantasy movies.
There is a statue of Nike erected at Delos as well...why would it be here, at an oracle of Apollo?
Scholars suggest that the 'takeover' of the Oracle by Apollo suggests an actual takeover of the area by Dorian Greeks...which may very well be actual.
The intent of mythology is to record a people's cultural identity...their 'religion' basically.
As we look backward onto the lives of the Greeks, we speculate about what their daily lives were like. And we often get caught up in our own speculation...forgetting that its 'guessing'.
An 'oracle'...predicts the future. And this is 'easily' done without the gaseous fumes of a cave. I can predict the future, and so can you. In our modern day we turn on our magic box and ask our oracle the 'future'...we check the weather on Channel 4 or 10; a meteorologist is reading 'radar' images. Before that, we used the Farmer's Almanac...which based its predictions on the patterns of the stars and planetary bodies.
One can 'predict' the events of the future, by 'interpreting omens'...if you know how.
Sailors use clouds and stars to predict weather, still to this day.
There is plenty of evidence to support that the Greeks used practical knowledge gained from sky-watching; eg. when Pleaides rises, rainy season is coming. When Sirius rises, the dog-days of summer have arrived. This is the 'art of prediction'.
I would propose that the Oracle of Delphi, relied upon the stars for prediction. I would go further to say the Oracle of Delphi, relied upon the constellation of Delphinus for prediction.
Delphinus still survives with a 'memory' of its previous use: we describe the constellation of Delphinus as a messenger of Poseidon, who was able to convince Amphitrite to become his Queen of the Sea. For this deed, he was immortalized in the heavens.
The Oracle of Delphi, and the statue of Nike:
In mythology, Styx brought her children (titan-born) to the 'House of Zeus', as she chose the side of Zeus in the Titanomachy: war between the Olympians and the Titans. She chose the side of Zeus, because she foresaw the Olympians as the 'new world order'. Zeus took her children in, and made them sentinels to his throne. These children were Nike and her four siblings. Nike, being very loyal to Zeus, he appointed as his charioteer. Note here that throughout Greek mythos, it is Nike only who has the ability to drive the chariot of Zeus, besides Zeus...even Zeus' son Phaethon who stole the chariot, lost control of it.
Nike and her siblings are described as 'loyal'...'never leaving the house of Zeus, faithfully and dutifully guarding the throne'.
This is the language of another ancient prediction tool...the 'jargon' of astrology. Houses and thrones, thrones implying 'seats'...astrology measuring time and using 'seats' of 'hours'...like the 'seat' of the 'first day of the week'.
Astrology, measures the locations of planets and stars in the sky.
The Oracle of Delphi is sacred to Apollo...who battled the Python for it, and paid a penance for doing so, as the Python is the youngest Titan child of Gaia, who was being born DURING the Titanomachy. This could be the only reason for the statue of Nike: "Victory" or "Triumph". But-
When one reads the hymns to Apollo, we learn that Zeus-Apollo battled the Python with faithful Nike at his side...requiring even further assistance from Cadmus.
We also learn of Apollo's birth. Born as the younger twin of Leto and Zeus. Leto is cursed to wander during her pregnancy with the Twins,(and thereafter as well) and not allowed to give birth on land or sea. In order to 'solve' this problem, Leto finds the 'island of Delos', a 'floating island' which qualifies as neither land nor sea. Some myths say that Artemis was born on another island. Leto births Artemis as 'if she is revealing another aspect of herself'...no pain at birth and no difficulty..and then Artemis is said to assist her mother with the birth of her brother Apollo. The birth of Apollo was an intense and complicated labor. It took 9 days and 9 nights to birth Apollo, and when he was finally being born, Leto had to have the support of a palm tree, either to grasp or lean upon. As Leto was cursed to wander, she was not able to 'stay' and care for her children, adopting them out basically. And Artemis and Apollo were raised by various characters in various versions of the myth. It is one of these characters which 'gave him' the Lyre and dominion to the Oracle.
In the myths of Apollo, the Lyre is sacred. It is said that Apollo flies north on a swan to the Hypberboreas every 'year' leaving the Oracle to Dionysus (in later versions).
If the Oracle is in fact, relying on stars, in a region of the sky, we can find a swan and a lyre constellation. We find this in the modern 'summer triangle'. Cygnus, is the swan. Lyra is the 'lyre'...and the Alpha stars of Cygnus, Lyra, and Aquila create the 'summer triangle'. This is the region of the sky where we can find the Milky Way in grandeur.
This is also the region of the sky that we can find Delphinus. A constellation made up of 5 stars, in this shape '4'. A sort of 'flagpole', imagined to be a 'dolphin' jumping out of the waters...for this is the 'coastline' to the 'heavenly seas' region of the sky, which I do believe qualifies as neither land nor sea.
There is a 'practical joke' known among astronomers regarding two of the stars in Delphinus: Two of the stars are found to be named Sualocin and Rotanev...which is explained to us: the head of the Palermo observatory of the time these stars assumed this name, was Niccoli Caccitore, and is presumed that he used the Latinized version of his name, spelled backward, to name these stars after himself. Huge practical joke...haha. He is considered the first successful fellow to have named stars after himself. Latinized and spelled forward, the stars are named Nicoloaus Venator.
I don't think this is a practical joke. I think this a preservation of important knowing. If one translates the name Nicolaus, we learn it means: Victory of the people. If we look for Latin words or names relative to 'venator' we get meanings like 'of Venice'. Venice is a 'floating city'. Which recalls the 'floating island of Delos'.
The 'E' is the 'fifth vowel'...and is used 'Pythagoreously' to coin a term...to indicate 'five', and 'fifth element'. This refers to the concept of four directions have a 'hidden' or 'occult' element...a 'zero' concept. Four directions and a center, are actually five. Four elements and spirit, etc...no matter what you want to compare it to...its a 'zero' concept, and implies 'center'. There are 'five' stars in Delphinus...Four grouped closer together, which could be said to be 4 pillars that stablized the island of Delos after the birth of Apollo...or it could be the Four siblings of Nike, who guard the 'throne' of Zeus. The 'seat' of an hour, or of a day, is also a 'zero' concept...a 'place' for the number to 'sit'. It becomes its 'hidden' element. Recall, that Nike is the charioteer of Zeus...and never leaves his 'house', an astrological term for the 'home' of a 'planet' or 'luminary' when interpreting a chart. 'House' means 'place of abode'. We can find a 'house' in a pentagram, sacred to Pythagoreans...the pentagon in the center is the 'house'.
I would propose that Epsilon Delphinus is 'Nike'...the charioteer. Epsilon Delphi is thousands of light years further from Earth than the other four stars.
The placement of Delphinus the constellation is such that it 'flags' the location just between Sagitarrius and Scorpio in the Zodiac...and if one does some 'googling' you will find that this is where the center of our galaxy be found.
This can be explained away as 'coincidences' and 'nonsense' I'm sure...for it is speculation...just like speculating about the gaseous fumes in the cave.
In Poulssin's Ordinance painting, the 'E' is placed high above the rest of the characters in the scene...'flagging' the location of perhaps a specific character?
I will tell you that AEgypt had a constellation known as the 'Kneeler'...and the constellation Hercules was reportedly previously unknown to the Greeks...only his name surviving as 'The Kneeling One'.
The E is upon a 'pillar'...which is the tallest in the scene, perhaps an 'axis mundii' or hint at one?
I also think that Leto represents the Moon...an archaic name for the Goddess of the Moon, who is replaced by Artemis, her daughter. Waxing to full and waning...seems as though the moon is growing pregnant...and continues to 'wander' after the 'rest'. I will also tell you that the 'Draconic' or 'nodal' cycle of the Moon is approximately 18.6 years, 1/2 a cycle being approximately 9.3...and it took 9 days and 9 nights to birth Apollo. Each Draconic cycle is marked by what is termed a 'Lunar Standstill'...where the moon appears to barely skim the horizon, 'resting' momentarily.
The 'E' is a 'profound' E...and whether Plutarch conciously knew or not? who knows? Poulssin somehow seems to 'know' more than he lets on.
Again...all speculation.

Sage said...

Perhaps, the entire constellation of Delphinus IS Nike, considering this art work. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Palmette
See the picture of Nike at the Altar.

Conrad H. Roth said...

Yes, Sage, thank you for your pearls here.

stonebearer said...

about the G it was formerly an e in the triangle there is scarce info stating that e is the all seeing eye too, which is why it was replaced by a G to hide knowledge and to make it more godly. You just have to look at olde english to know how crazy they were for e the stone masons(were'nt workers of stone but worshippers of a stone) a,e,ae even @ could have come from my stone. also if ever a letter can represent an oracle, human head or cyclops e is it (possibly a 3rd eye meaning there too) only prob is why the capital version is so popular unless the E's your on about have been put there at a time later when they used the capital more on its own. e also a spiral and it used to have a line from the eye to which denotes breath speech air so on. i was wandering if the oracle was supposedly part of the omphalos? i have a stone which although eroded still has man made engraving upon it as well as a natural mark of a white stone in both forms of lowercase e encircled by a perfect eclipse set in an iron stone( very hard, heavy and can be confused with a meteor) that i believe is the famous ben ben, omphalos, grail stone, philosopher's..., iluminated stone of the wise and the others, I'm currently collecting info for a book I'm writing oh and it seems to be quite a weapon too (rock of offense) there are theory's stating they are all one and the same and i feel i can prove this though it is eroded i need an oil sample done on it as i believe it is the anointed one. any info on long necked white birds like swans, herons, white vultures, pheonix even doves(the dove that cracked a mountain in half) and snakes, cobras especially, ouroboros, dragons or flying winged snakes. sun, moon, eclipse morning star stuff reating to scred stones axis mundi i have it its just going to be hard to get people to listen. world eggs anything like that the info would be appreciated. edwardpaxton@live.com thanks if you do help me on my quest.

Dim Leed said...

I believe the Epsilon at Delphi represents the constellation Cassiopeia.
Besides it'shape, this circumpolar constellation is used, even today, as a clock and calendar by it's relation to the Celestial Pole and the Great Bear.
Around 1500 B.C Cassiopeia was directly overhead at Delphi on the day of the Summer Solstice.

Anonymous said...


If you are still interested in this topic, you may like to read:

Katharina Comoth, Hestia: Zur Bedeutung des mystischen E (Heidelberg, 1998).

It's an odd little booklet, curiously interesting, and, who knows, an unexpected answer to your question.


M. Huyghebaert