Kim H. Veltman

Alphabets, Runes and the Cosmos


Figure 1. Yggdrasil Nine Worlds, Iwaz, Eihwaz, Laf, Hagal Nied Isaz

A world tree stands at the centre of early cosmologies (Figure 1). It is a symbol of the world axis, the cosmic pillar and the tree of life. The tree is called Yggdrasil and its basic structure reveals that there are three realms: the heavens, a middle world of humans and a lower world. Its skeleton has 9 points that define the 9 worlds. Six runes offer views of this cosmic anatomy. Iwaz shows the central, human worlds. Eihwaz (yew tree) shows us the tree trunk which focusses on those living in the world beyond. Laf (law) shows us an initial branch which is simultaneously a limit. Hagal summarizes the cosmos as a 6 pointed star that is also a cube containing the 6 main directions (North, East, South, West, Up, Down). A second form of Hagal is an H with a downward connecting stroke. Nied is an I with the same downward stroke. Finally Isaz (Ice, Is, I) shows us the world pillar in isolation. It is the beginning and the end. At first glance the six runes are merely combinations of 6 lines. We shall discover that they entail a world of meaning.

It is frequently claimed that runes are a relatively recent phenomenon centred in Scandinavia, Germany and the Anglo-Saxon traditions, going back to perhaps the first century A.D. and thus have little to do with the alphabet and major writings systems. The historical records reveal a much more complex picture. The first two vowels of Old Turkic Rovas script the Eihwaz and the Laf Runes. The sibilants of ancient Etruscan contain the Isaz (Is) and Manas runes. Manas is a Sanskrit word for man. Northeast Iberian Script also contains the Laf Rune, Tyr and Ear Runes. Another table of Old Turkic reveals Is, Laf, Tyr, Kenaz, Sowilo, Berkana, Nied and Algiz in the first line (Figure 2 a-d). The final letter of Brahmanicum, one of the 72 sacred languages, has a letter p that is a combination of the Isaz and Laf. Indeed, another of the sacred scripts, Adamaeum, attributed to Adam himself has at least two rune-like letters (Figure 3a-b). There is a much bigger story, in which the history of runes, alphabet and ornament are interwoven.

The essence of our story is simple, The strokes of runes and letters of the alphabet are much more than scripts for writing. Major alphabets have an underlying system. They reflect a theory of ordering the universe. Initially they were attempts to explain the creation of the world, cosmic laws of nature, and outline stages in the development of man and woman. In Sanskrit, the goal went beyond accounting for existence (how we got here) and focussed on the complementary question (how do we get back: how can we be reunited with the One beyond?). This acquired a very practical dimension. It became one of the three ways of conduct, one of 3 kritis: Vikriti, acting in an uncontrolled manner, Prakriti, acting according to nature and instincts, Sanskriti was acting according to culture. The development of language, the alphabet, and writing thus became linked with human evolution and civilization.

Three was a central number in the Sanskrit vision. There were initially three worlds, linked with 3 phases of life, 3 phases of the moon, 3 phases of the day and tied together by 3 Goddesses of the sacred thread. In the metaphysical world, this led to 3 stages of evolution, mind, thought, consciousness (manas, buddhi, citta) or body, speech, spirit (kaya, vak, citta).

Figure 2. Old Turkish Rovas, Etruscan, Northeast Iberian, Rovas
3. Adamaeum, Brachmanicun (2 of the 72 Sacred Alphabets)
4. Runes as a descent from Heaven to Earth.
5. San and Ou (Chinese), Hexagram 1, Magic Square, Lo Shu
6. Earlier Heaven Diagram (China), Zodiac Square (India).

In the physical world, this led to sacred knots and three-formed objects (tribindu, trisula).To explain creation, procreation and what might be termed post-creation required linking basic sounds and letters to all levels of the cosmos. This led to six alphabets, corresponding to the six main schools of Hindu thought ranging from 25 letters (52), 36 letters (62), 49 letters (72), 64 letters (82) with the largest from 102 - 104 (Chinese). This link with powers is of central significance to the history of Sanskrit and all other languages. It led to grids or matrices, which became mandalas, ranging from those in sand for meditation to vastu purusha mandalas, which became ground plans for temples and also cubbyholes for organizing the Hindu pantheon of gods. From this emerged a tradition of magic squares found also in China and also made its way to the West.

As the construction of alphabets went West they became smaller. The Bulgarians once lived in what is now Pakistan and Afghanistan. This old Bulgarian runic alphabet has 132 (12 x 11) letters. The Sarmatian Alphabet has 120 letters (12 x 10). Old Persian and one form of the Anglo Saxon Runes both have 33 letters and the same sequence of letters. The old Slavonic Alphabets were typically 44 letters (11 x 4) and 33 letters (11 x 3). The languages of the Mediterranean, Phoenician, Hebrew, Greek in their early forms typically had 22 letters (11x2). The good news was that the new Western alphabets were much shorter and easier to learn. The less good news was the connection between the alphabet and man’s spiritual development went into the background, became a matter for mystics and magicians, or was forgotten altogether. One goal of this book is to reawaken awareness of these dimensions.   

Our approach is simple. Part one is about the structure of the alphabet. First, we must understand the idea of underlying matrices which come from China as well as India. Second, we shall explore the basic clusters of letters that structure western alphabets:1,  3, called the mother letters in Hebrew); 7, called the double letters in Hebrew, and 12, called the simple letters in Hebrew. Next we must understand why and how these 22 letters of the early European alphabets became 26 (English), 28 (Arabic) and 33 (Russian). This journey will reveal how a small number of metaphors and symbols became basic to alphabets: the world tree, tamed animals, the idea of bathing and crossing.

Part two is about origins. For this we shall return to India. We shall see that the quest of Sanskrit as right conduct began with a quest of taming body, mind and spirit. This led to the root metaphor of a charioteer, transformed the burden of a yoke (yuga) to a vision of liberation (yoga). To achieve this key points and centres along the spine (nadis, chakras) were linked with the different divisions of sounds (vargas). These were also linked with the sun through signs of the zodiac and with the moon through mansions of the moon (nakshatras). From this emerged not only images of seated yogis familiar to the West but also an alphabet linked with a world view.

Part three is the story how these ideas from India came to the West. Some might even ask if these ideas came to the West. The quick answer is yes. The last letter of the language that the West attributes to Adam is the last letter in (some versions of) the Sanskrit alphabet. 2 of the 72 sacred languages collected by the Vatican (Indicum and Brachmanicum. cf. Figure 2b). More importantly, an old variant of Hebrew found in the Dead Sea Scrolls, has direct parallels with Sanskrit. These parallels help to explain why early Western alphabets such as Phoenician and Hebrew had 22 letters. We shall see also that the idea of linking chakras and letters became part of the Celtic mystical  tradition. But all that is later. First, we must understand the ideas of matrix and matrices which give alphabets their inner structure.