The Armenian alphabet before Mesrop Mashtots

Armenian alphabet by Jan Luyken

What was the Armenian alphabet before Mesrop Mashtots? There are a lot of medieval records that testify that the Armenian alphabet was (re)invented in 405 AD. I say (re)invented because a lot of evidence speaks in favor of the idea that there was an Armenian script before Mesrop Mashtots (commonly known as the “inventor” of our alphabet). Since the evidence is scarce, this question is still open for debate. I find this super curious, so let’s review some of the contemplations on this topic.

So, what was the Armenian alphabet before Mesrop Mashtots?

Scientific evidence suggests that some form of Armenian script existed before Mesrop Mashtots. Various medieval authors note the existence of a pre-Christian Armenian alphabet. The scriptures mention that Mashtots’ mission was to recover the Armenian letters, not to invent them.

I will not overburden you with historical details. Rather I will give you an overview of some sources that tell that the pre-Christian Armenian alphabet in fact existed. Some of these discoveries were new for me when I started looking into this topic. So, if you think you learned from this post too, let me know. Just ping me on Twitter or Instagram with #ArmeniaTravelTips

Evidence that supports the existence of the Armenian alphabet before Mesrop Mashtots

First of all, I want to give due credit to Peopleofar, because the author has done a great job writing “Tracing the oldest Armenian script”, giving really valuable insights on the topic. I also found important information in the works of Hamlet Martirosyan, a true expert in Armenian studies. So, don’t you even think to accuse me of plagiarism. 🙂 I’m just bringing you the condensed version of the info that proper scholars developed.

Although the scholarly world considers the date of the creation of the Armenian alphabet to be the 5th century, there is plenty of evidence for the existence of an ancient Armenian alphabet(s) predating that time.

Statues of the Armenian alphabet
Statues of the Armenian alphabet (Source: Rita Willaert on Wikimedia Commons)

Hikos alphabet in Armenia

Here is an interesting fact! There is something called Hykos alphabet. Modern studies indicate that the Hikos alphabet is one of the most ancient alphabets of the world. An Armenian scholar Hamlet Martirosyan writes about it in his work called “Contemporary theory of the origin of alphabets”.

You can find the script of the Hikos alphabet on the rocks of Syunik, the southernmost province of present-day Armenia. So, it’s been used in our lands many centuries before Christianity reached us. It’s estimated that the symbols of the Hikos alphabet found in Syunik date back to a long period starting from the Stone age. This starts long prior to 4000 BCE and lasts up until the Medieval era.

According to Hamlet Martirosyan, people called these scripts “Itsagir” in Armenian, which translates as “goat-writing”. I assume that’s because most symbols resemble figures of goats. What’s key here though, is that since we call it “writing” in our language, it means that our ancestors saw these symbols as a script, and not just as some random images of goats.

Traces of Armenian script in Greek sources

Philo of Alexandria, who lived in the 1st century, mentioned the Armenian alphabet in his work. He says in his writing that a scholar translated the work of the Greek philosopher and historian Metrodorus of Scepsis “into Armenian”. But this wouldn’t be possible if we didn’t have our own script prior to the 5th century.

There is another mention of an Armenian script in the works of Hippolytus of Rome (2nd – 3rd century). The theologist wrote that Armenians were among those nations that “have their distinct alphabet”. To me, this is just mind-blowing evidence. And I can’t quite comprehend why the Armenian government doesn’t invest enough into unpacking the history of our script fully.

Mention of the Armenian script in Moses of Chorene’s work

Here is another curious piece of evidence. A prominent Armenian historian, Moses of Chorene, who lived in the 5th century, wrote that he read a certain work of a pre-Christian Armenian priest. He claimed that this Armenian book was translated into Syriac (Aramaic) and later also into Greek.

Some suggest that this means that the Syriac and Greek alphabets were different from the ancient Armenian alphabet. Although, I think one might argue that it may just as well suggest that somebody wrote the Armenian book with Greek or Syriac letters, or in any other script, just phonetically adapting for the Armenian words. No idea how legit this interpretation is, but it’s very interesting nonetheless.

Old Armenian script
Old Armenian script (Source: EvgenyGenkin on Wikimedia Commons)

Here is another totally killer piece of evidence that Armenians used some alphabet prior to Christianity. This means – prior to Mesrop Mashtots, too. In our pre-Christian, pagan tradition we had a god called Tir. This guy is something like Apollo or Hermes in Greece – a messenger between gods.

Tir was a very popular god among Armenians. The Armenian mythology associates him with science, education, and arts. Here is a curious fact – people believed he took records about people and their dreams. Just think about it! What would be the point for the pre-Christian Armenians in having a god that’s all about writing and taking notes, passing messages, and all that good stuff if they didn’t have their own script?

Did Mesrop Mashtots create the Armenian alphabet from scratch?

If there are so many signs of an ancient Armenian script, why did Mesrop Mashtots have to create the Armenian letters from scratch? That’s the point, my friends! I don’t think he did. Well, he might have added some letters that would better correspond to the phonetic structure of the Armenian language at the time.

Also, he clearly thought of some cool stuff with the order of the letters in the alphabet. For example, if you order Armenian letters in the form of a triangle, the three peaks of it will form the letters of the holy trinity. Or, if you put them into a square over another square, then the letters in corners form the word Hayk (Armenia) in Old Armenian. He was very smart, and he knew how to cater to the trends of the time – Christianity and nationalism. (I’m being a tiny bit sarcastic here, I hope you can sense that.)

We could say Mesrop Mashtors created the Armenian alphabet, meaning the order in which the letters appear one after another when listed. But he didn’t invent the Armenian letters themselves.

Statue of Mesrop Mashtots
Statue of Mesrop Mashtots (Source: Marcin Konsek on Wikimedia Commons)

To understand why the Armenian alphabet is considered Mashtots’ invention, we must consider the time and the historical context – specifically the 5th century. At the time, the clergy considered anything pre-Christian evil. They wanted to wipe out all the pre-Christian signs of culture. Most of the Armenian pre-Christian historical heritage, like our pagan shrines and sculptures, depicting our gods, were ruined.

So, I guess it was only reasonable for the clergy to want to associate something as grandiose as a systematic alphabet with Christianity. And, most likely, the notion of “Mesrop Mashtot’s inventing the Armenian alphabet” successfully became a notion of him inventing our letters. Of course, they needed to use letters that would be familiar to people so that they could translate the Bible. The point was to make it accessible to as many people as possible. So, building on the system of a pre-Christian Armenian script would only help the mission.

Wrapping up

So, here you go! Here is all the evidence I have showing that the Armenian alphabet existed before Mesrop Mashtots. I’m sure there is more of such evidence out there in the world, and I’m not a historian or anything. So, give me some slack if I didn’t capture everything. Nevertheless, although the evidence is clear in my opinion, the debate about who should be credited for the Armenian letters is ongoing. What do you think? Let me know on Twitter or Instagram with #ArmeniaTravelTips. Let’s debate! 🙂

If you’re curious to learn more about how difficult it is to learn Armenian, follow that link. I have broken down all the details. And if you care to learn some cool facts about unique aspects of Armenian culture, check out that other post.

Featured image credits: Arshak27 on Wikimedia Commons (CC)

Share with your friends: