Alvin Boyd Kuhn on the Origin of the Alphabet

This item is the first of several in which we are looking in-depth at authors used by Tom Harpur's Pagan Christ. The first, Alvin Boyd Kuhn, is the most recent, and used the prior two -- Gerald Massey and Godfrey Higgins -- as sources. He is also the only American author of the trio. In looking at these authors we not only intend to undermine their credibility, but Harpur's as well for making use of them.

For our first selection, we have chosen a shorter piece by Kuhn with the unpromising title, The Esoteric Structure of the Alphabet. The purpose of this work was to alledegly uncover a sort of "crypticism" that laid behind the letters of the English alphabet, apparently hidden there by "Sages" to "safeguard precious cosmic and anthropogenic truth from desecration by the 'rabble.'" Why these "Sages" didn't hide these "precious truths" by simply not instilling them in the alphabet at all is not explained, but Kuhn assures us that the "cryptic organic form was the structural principle determining the arrangement of the alphabet."

The case begins with this sort of thing:

The capital letter A, for instance, is obviously the cardinal letter I, the symbol of primordial unity (since it is also the number 1), split apart from the top into the creative duality of spirit and matter, the cross-bar indicating the interrelation which dynamically subsists between them. The U (V) symbolizes, exactly as it is drawn, the descent of spirit into matter and its return above. The W pluralizes it, and we find, not strangely, the W to be the letter that pluralizes words in the Egyptian hieroglyphics.

Unsubstantive explanations like these are the bread and butter of Kuhn's presentations; full of things that are said to be "obviously" true, which are not in the least obvious, nor supported by any sort of scholarship. nor any sort of evidence, such as literary or archaeological evidence. Indeed, why not say that the capital letter A is "obviously" the cardinal letter D, with the bar moved up, signifying that spirit and matter slowly climb the evolutionary ladder together? Or why even relate it to spirit and matter? Why not say that A is "obviously" a metaphor for the two paths walked by men (good vs evil) with the bar signifying the ability to move between the two paths? Why not say that A is "obviously" the peak of a mountain, representing godhood, and the bar represents that we can climb to godhood if only we learn our ABCs?

There is no evidence whatsoever that A is this (it in fact comes from a symbol for an ox -- aleph is a Semitic word for "ox" -- and the two legs are the ox's two horns), or that I is a symbol of "promordial unity" (the origin symbol for I was a hand); this is merely an arbitrary designation.

Moreover, Kuhn does not even account for the different apperances of letters thorughout history. Some have stayed the same through various evolutions; but not all. "A" for example in the Phoenician alphabet, from which ours is derived, looked like an A today, but turned on its side, and with the bar extending outward from the slanted sides. Does this not change the possible metaphor? According to the link below (I have checked others with similar results, or with results that are even less helpful for Kuhn, such as here) the original I in Phoenician had two little wings extending from its upper left, and one wing from the lower right. So much for being the "symbol of primordial unity." U and V, and W, all came from a single symbol that looked like a Y with a rounded cup, and in fact, it was not until the Middle Ages that "the V form began to split into the two newer forms, U and W." (See article here.)

The part about an Egyptian plural is correct, but the use of it is a purely Anglicanized transliteration; the original Egyptian language, of course, never used such a symbol but used hieroglphys with no resemblance to our modern letters. Kuhn advances these theories with absolutely no concern for their internal consistency or evidence.

It gets worse, as Kuhn alleges that O, meaning infinity for its roundness, combined with IA, gave the name IAO, a Gnostic name for God that signified divinity. He then says:

And so even Revelation has it: "I (am the) A (and the) O, the beginning and the end, the first and the last,"--IAO.

This is perhaps the most peculiar conclusion of the set, as a look at the passage in Greek -- Revelation 22:13 -- shows that "I" is actually the Greek word eis, formed of three letters that look closest in our letters to an E, a lower case Y, and a W -- nothing like an I as we know it. The A is exactly like ours, but the O is an omega -- not an omicron, which does look like our O. Omega however looks like our O with the bottom sliced off, and two wings out from each side of the bottom. And so there is no "IAO in Rev. 22:13 to speak of. (As an aside, O came from a symbol which was a human eye.)

And so it is that creative explanations get made, such as now, this one:

It is possibly true that literation started with the utilization of the two simplest elements of written symbolism, the vertical line I and the circle O. At any rate it is to be shown here that nearly all divine names in antiquity were built up from and upon these two. For the Egyptians of remote past time had combined the two in the form of what is almost certainly the most ancient of cross symbols, the crux ansata, ansated cross, called by them the A N K H (more recently spelled E N K H), an O topping an I with a horizontal line at the point of contact.

Of course, since O and I in the needed forms did not exist in the Egyptian language, this is simply false. And ideas of what the ankh represented nowhere match Kuhn's claim that it refers to "the endless existence of that which is the indestructible primordial matter" and "the emanation of creative mind, or spirit power, from the heart of the great sea of first matter plunging downward." (For a survey of views, see here.)

After further exposition built on this contrivance, we come to a claim that the two parts of the ankh, and I and an O, form "the first divine word and name in all literature, IO." Of course not one shred of documentation is offered in support of this; not one reference to an ancient work, or modern scholarly work, that affirms that IO was indeed the "first divine word" (much less any explanation, again, of how this obtained in Egyptian, which did not yet have these symbols in its alphabet).

Kuhn links it as well to "typological numerology" and "the cardinal base of all mathematics, the number 10." Apparently Kuhn has no concern for that Arabic numbers as we know them did not emerge until the 16th century; before that, number systems varied, but of course the Romans signified 10 with what to us is an X; the Greeks meanwhile used letters to signify numbers. In Egyptian 10 looked like an upside down U or V -- nothing at all like an IO.

The disturbing question to be asked is, was Kuhn aware of this, and did he cover it up? Or was he truly unaware of what ancient letters and numbers looked like? He stands aghast at the wonder that "[m]odern study seems not to have recognized this close connection" but it never occurs to him that the reason it has not been "recognized" is because it is false.

Uncritical use of sources continues, as Kuhn appeals as an authority to the "Zohar" -- a Jewish work of forgery (see here) of no critical value to speak of. It is not an ancient work as Kuhn says. He follows with yet more creative readings without substantiation (as in, the seven vowel sounds "express the fact that every cycle of creation runs through seven sub-cycles") and then we get to a section in which he claims that many modern words derive from the word "ankh" (including, by some undocumented linguistic step, words that also have a "ng" in them).

One of this is the word anchor, he says, but he provides no linguistic evidence for evolution from ankh (which, in any event, is translitered as nh from Egyptian, not "nk" or "ng"). Nor is such a connection shown for any word Kuhn offers. However, even if we allow that he is correct -- it is of course possible that some or all of these words, or some part of them, derive from a common linguistic root -- worse ensures when Kuhn says:

Next comes one that carries an impressive significance in the study, the common verb to know, in Greek gnosco, German kennen, English ken. What constitutes the knowing act? The joining together of two things, consciousness and an object of consciousness, for there must be something apart from consciousness to be known. So Greeks called knowledge the Gnosis.

The declaration of knowing as "joining of two things" is entirely arbitrary. Indeed, knowledge sets are eminently divisible into more than two parts; if I learn to fly a plane, do I learn one thing (flying a plane) or do I learn hundreds (how to use each specific control, etc.)? Hence the claim that represented here is "the 'ankhing' together of spirit and matter" is a contrivance.

One would hope for something sensible to emerge in all of this, but it never does, and if anything, gets worse:

But a most surprising Hebrew derivation from A N K H is the first-personal pronoun, I. It is in fact the A N K H itself unchanged except for the inconsequential insertion of two minor vowels o and i, making it ANOKHI. This is amazingly significant, since it reveals the identity of the innermost soul-being of man, the I ego, with the primal cosmic mind. That consciousness in man which enables him to think and say "I" is indeed a unit element of that same cosmic mind.

What follows is further analysis derived from this point (with Massey as a "great scholar of ancient occult knowledge" cited -- not a linguist, of course), but by itself is enough. Kuhn has again arbitrary mixed together matters of Hebrew, Egyptian, and modern English, never mind that their characters are completely different -- as if the Hebrews had taken the Egyptian word and inserted English characters into it. And ancient Hebrew could hardly have inserted vowels in the first place, since it had none.

To make matters worse for Kuhn, a search of various sites reveals that some transliterate the Hebrew word as anochi, or anokiy; and there is a shorter version, ani, which replaced the former mode, which came to be regarded as pretentious. To go on then to connect this to the modern English pronoun self-referent "I" is also false, as Kuhn does:

In the I-consciousness of a creature the central creative mind energy of the universe is nucleated in unity. And as the ruler of all life in every domain, it is in that function and capacity the king of life!

Yet if the Hebrew equivalent to "I" is anokhi, then the Hebrews would not insert the modern English "I" into "ankh" or any other word, but would insert the whole word "anokhi" into whatever word it was they wish to imply a sense of "I-consciousness".

At this point, the lack of value in Kuhn's methodology should be amply clear. This is not linguistic scholarship, but an occultic form of random connection-making. We thus at this point leave, we feel deservedly, a line by line analysis, and merely highlight some of the more peculiar views offered that remain.

The Greek for messenger, one who ties the sender with the recipient of a message, is angelos, from which is our angel. And messenger itself has the ng in it. Where two lines meet we have an angle. A nook suggests something in the A N K H meaning. Perhaps hundreds more words might be traced from this venerable but most significant origin in the A N K H. And the words themselves help us reestablish the fundamental elements in the composition and structure of the great ancient knowledge so well called the Gnosis.

It would probably not bother Kuhn one bit to know that the Greek word for "angle" was gonia; but for merely "occult" purposes, this is apparently good enough. This is all said to be found in the "great ancient knowledge" which conspired (against all scholarship) to create connections between completely different languages with completely different alphabetic systems. When needed, anything at all becomes a "symbol" or metaphor for anything else at all that creates a connection, no matter how tenuous, and what is symbolized is too often conveniently inaccessible to demonstration. Thus:

If one reflects on the remarkable physical phenomenon of a ray of white light passing through a triadic glass prism and casting the refracted rays upon a screen in the seven colors of the spectrum, one will have an instructive analogue of the number basis of the creation. Revelation symbolism evidently represents it as the Beast with seven heads and ten horns, the three horns in excess of the number of heads being presumably in the invisible noumenal worlds, the heavens of pure thought.

Presumably and invisible? How is that for proof? To say nothing of that Kuhn was clearly unaware that the "seven colors" merely represented the visible spectrum, not what was actually produced -- what about infrared, ultraviolet?

Moreover, as noted by an academic site now offline:

It should be noted that the method given above for approximating the wavelengths of various colors in the spectrum (Red, Orange, Y ellow, etc.) is very approximate and not quite accurate in some wavelength regions. Nevertheless, we will use this method when we are interested in only a rough idea of the wavelength of a given color, or the color corresponding to a given wavelength. It is interesting to note that there is no universally agreed-upon wavelength or range of wavelengths corresponding to each of the colors in the spectrum. It is of course also true that the perception of color of a specific wavelength can vary from person to person. In addition, as if that weren’t bad enough, the perception of color can vary with intensity—a wavelength that appears to be red at a low intensity (or brightness) may appear to be orange at a higher intensity.

So Kuhn here bases an argument on what amounts to a categorical convenience; the actual numbers of colors in the spectrum is much larger than 7.

Here as it happens is a place (maybe not the only one) where Kuhn makes claims about the Egyptian "IU" and the name "Jesus" which was answered by one of the experts Gasque consulted about Harpur:

Ron Leprohan, of the University of Toronto, pointed out that while sa means 'son' in ancient Egyptian and iu means 'to come,' Kuhn and Harpur have the syntax all wrong. In any event, the name Iusa simply does not exist in Egyptian. The name 'Jesus' is Greek, derived from a universally recognized Semitic name (Jeshu'a) borne by many people in the first century.

It is here as well that Kuhn refers to a character named "Iu-em-hotep" of whom we also found no evidence, other than Massey. The next point of our interest:

It is impossible to pass by this item of the turning of the I into the J (the two are essentially the same letter still in Latin) without calling attention to the astonishing significance of the fact in relation to one of the key words in the Biblical allegory of the soul's descent and return. In the Hebrew-Mosaic allegory in the Old Testament the place where God descended in a cloud to meet and commune with his children (Israel) was Mount Sinai. This name then must mean the lowest point to which the spirit-soul descends to meet matter, the pivot point round which it swings to begin its return to the heavens. This is diagrammed by the lower turn of the J. What must be our astonishment, then, to discover that this key name Sinai derives from the Egyptian word seni (senai), meaning "point of turning to return!" And where, in concrete reality, is that point located? Nowhere else than in the physical body of man! The physical body of man is the Mount Sinai of the Bible. And where else could God and man meet than in the body of his human child? An obscure point in scholarship has at last come forth to enlighten us on one of the most important features of our sacred Scriptures.

Not surprisingly, no source is given for the claim that "Sinai" derives from seni, and most suggest rather than the name comes from a Babylonian deity Sin. I found a forum where a linguist commented on this (now offline): Yes; this suggestion is popular, though I gather it is far from established. It's a trifle awkward seeing a Sumerian divine name in an area where Sumerian is not known ever to have been spoken, but apparently the name 'Sin' was used by several ancient peoples of the Near East, including the Arabs. I find no authority that makes the connection Kuhn does, though it is repeated on sites that refer to Massey.

A rabbi here says, Har Sinai - from the word sneh - "bush." This refers to the burning bush on Har Sinai. Also, Sinai is related to the word sinah - "hatred" and "rejection." By giving the Torah to human beings instead of to the angels, G-d thereby rejected the angels. Other academic sources agree with the connection to sneh (bush). None agree with a connection to Egyptian.

Then, we have the claim of implied connection between such things as "el" being Spanish for "the", and "El" being Hebrew for God; while "the" in English is the Greek prefix for theos or "god" in Greek. Needless to say there is not an ounce of linguistic scholarship offered for these sort of points; as before Kuhn relies on mere appearances in English, with no concern for etymology.

Here is a claim also of questionable worth:

If this seems like an arbitrary fancy, it also appears to be indubitably substantiated by the positive fact that in the main languages, from Sanskrit down to English, this letter A is the universal prefix which gives to all words with which it is conjoined the negative meaning. It can be translated invariably by the word "not." In Greek it is called "alpha privative," the letter that deprives a word of its positive meaning, making it negative. A-theist, a-gnostic, a-symmetrical, a-moral, a-mnesia, a-pathetic, a-tom (not cuttable), even the Greek word for "truth," a-letheia, (that which is not forgotten), and a host of others attest the negative force of A.

While it is true that this alpha privative is found in Greek (from whence it made its way into English, via certain words) there is no indication that it is used in any other language besides Latin. I find so far only one hint that it appears in Sanskrit, and that in one word, anatman, where it is an an-, not just an a, though there are undoubtedly more such words with the same prefix in Sanskrit.

A helpful reader gave me further data on this, explaining the true origin of this commonality and also refuting Kuhn's claim:

The original Proto-Indo-European negative prefix was n-, meaning a syllabic N. An adjective like *mrtos "mortal" would be negated as *nmrtos "immortal". In the various Indo-European languages, syllabic N developed differently. In Germanic it became un- (as in English), in Latin it became in- (often im-, il-, ir- by assimilation), and in both Greek and Sanskrit it developed twofold: an- when a vowel came after, a- when a consonant. So Greek has "agnosis" as against "anarchos", and Sanskrit has "avidya" ("lack of knowledge") against "anatman" ("without soul").

Therefore a negative prefix is universal to most Indo-European languages, but as a(n)- it appears only in Greek and Sanskrit.

The reader provided these references:

  • Sihler, Andrew L, New Comparative Grammar of Greek and Latin, Oxford University Press 1995, pp. 105-6.
  • Palmer, Leonard R, The Greek Langugage, Faber and Faber, London 1980, p. 217.
  • Buck, Carl Darling, Comparative Grammar of Greek and Latin, University of Chicago Press 1933, p. 105.

    I think it is enough to close on this point, for by now, Kuhn's methodology is obvious, and it is better to move as we can to his topics of more relevance to us, having to do with Biblical studies. Here encapsultes the arrogance that characterizes Kuhn, as well as Harpur, in claiming that the Bible is merely an accounting of his esoteric myth of creation:

    It seems worthy of remark that not in twenty centuries has the easy esoteric unraveling of this simple and evident cryptogram come through to the intelligence of any scholar. How a Hebrew exegetist could long miss it is not comprehensible.

    Let the proclamation to have superior insight to so much in scholarship, speak for itself.