The Greek Alphabet arose – in reality it was a sophisticated adaptation – from the lettering system used by the Phoenician culture, which at the time was the unrivalled economic and maritime power of the Mediterranean basin. The new Greek Alphabet in turn gave rise to the Cyrillic, Gothic, Coptic and Latin alphabets and was converted into the most sophisticated writing apparatus ever known. By including vowels as well as consonants, this purely phonetic alphabet became the basis of all modern Western alphabets, including our own. The power to write, record and codify a culture’s history, language, laws and arts simply can not be underestimated. The ability to store these codified works for future scholars, students and generations took on even greater importance. Knowledge was no longer dependent on the spoken word laboriously passed down through generations, fragile and being prone to being lost in a single generation or a single epidemic. There is a strong parallel here to the art forms and traditional tribal tattooing and other artistic and cultural practices of many indigenous peoples around the world today. In cultures where artistic practices were handed down orally as opposed to being written, a culture’s knowledge base could be lost in a single generation. Libraries, monasteries, and other places where painstakingly handwritten scrolls were stored became famous all over the known world – perhaps the foremost example being the famous library at Alexandria which was considered one of the Wonders of the Ancient World. The printing press, it has been argued, may well be the most significant advancement in human culture in the past two thousand years. Right up there with fire and the wheel!
The Greek Alphabet emerged about the time the ancient Olympic Games first came into play, about 700 BC. This Greek Alphabet distinguished itself from other alphabets by becoming the first writing system with a separate symbol for every sound, including vowels along with the consonants. It has upper and lower case, the lower more frequently used. Originally, the Greek Alphabet was written right to left, but later was reversed and has remained so, ever since.
There were two main variants of the Greek Alphabet, one which became the Latin alphabet, while the other is the Greek we see today. Through the ages, the Greek Alphabet was used by scholars, mathematicians, scientists and astronomers, who used certain letters for symbols in their work and research. Physics uses the letter λ (lambda) for example to mean ‘wavelength’, while the Greek letter ω (omega) represents ‘ohms’, a measure of electrical resistance. Computer users will be familiar with the symbol σ (sigma) appearing in the toolbar of Microsoft Excel, which represents a ‘sum’.
These letters-as-symbols have, over time, entered the general lexicon. Everyone knows, for instance, that π (pi) represents the ratio of the circumference of a circle to its diameter: 3.14159265. (Where were you in Grade 5?)
Whether you were – or are – a member of a Greek Fraternity or not, there are few among us who are unfamiliar with Alpha, Beta, Delta, Gamma and Epsilon; — and the list goes on all the way to Omega.
In the late 18th century, university students were steeped in the Classics and were familiar with Greek and Latin, indeed a classic liberal arts education in the Humanities included studying both Greek and Latin literary classics in their original language! An educated man – or the rare woman – would have been conversant with Homer’s Odyssey in the original Greek. As such, university students being as romantic and as steeped in poetry then as they are now, they took certain Greek letters to identify their secret societies within universities and colleges.
The Greek Alphabet letters came to represent a particular fraternity within the place of learning. Many of these societies, particularly in North America were created in order to discuss topics beyond the conservative curriculum. These Greek-letter societies, with their love of learning, adopted codes of high ethical conduct, secret rituals, oaths, and membership badges. Fraternities – and later Sororities for women – are still very much alive in colleges and universities today, all proudly sporting the particular letters of the Greek Alphabet of their society.
Whether or not you know the origin of ‘alpha’, ‘omega’, ‘sigma’ or ‘zeta’, or even care an ‘iota’, it’s still Greek to all of us.
And among the brothers of many fraternities and the sisters of many sororities, getting a tattoo of your Fraternity or Sorority is as much a rite of passage and a ritual as the “secret handshake” that identifies fellow members.