Lepontic grammatomancy

In a previous post, I alluded to a slightly loopy idea that had gotten into my head to use the limited number of letters present in the Lepontic alphabet for divination on analogy with the Germanic runes. Runes probably derive (primarily) from the northern Old Italic alphabet used for writing Rætic. The use of runes for divination is widely practised, and seems to rest upon a circumstantially strong historical foundation. Rætic, Venetic, Lepontic and Cisalpine Gaulish were all written in what amounts to a single northern Old Italic script, with local variations. (There’s no very satisfactory name for this particularly alphabet, by the way. It’s sometimes called the alphabet of Lugano, or Gallo-Etruscan, or Lepontic, or … well, you get the picture.)

In light of these shared origins, it occurred to me that runic divination might be adapted to the alphabet of Lugano in a reasonably plausible way. To be sure, this must inevitably be a modern in(ter)vention, and cannot claim antiquity. It can, however, claim historical analogy.

Like the Etruscan alphabet, from which it derives, the alphabet of Lugano has jettisoned a number of letters corresponding to B/beta/berkanan, D/delta and C~G/gamma. For these letters, the Lugano alphabet uses pi, tau and kappa, respectively. It also has no letter corresponding to H/eta/haglaz (since Lepontic, Gaulish and proto-Celtic are not thought to have had a phoneme /h/), and also none corresponding to the runes thurisaz, wunjo, jeran, iwaz or ingwaz, which are thought to have been Germanic innovations. It makes no use of Q/qoppa, and after an initial transitional period gives up Z/zeta (corresponding to algiz) and Ð/theta in favour of san.

What remains is an alphabet with 15 or 16 letters (depending on whether you count X/chi), all of which have more or less direct equivalents in the Elder Futhark. The qualifier ‘more or less’ can be dispensed with if one accepts that the gebo rune derives from Latin X, and dagaz from san (which are essentially identical to their runic equivalents). Divination with a scaled-down system such as this might therefore be likened to doing tarot readings with only the Major Arcana.

All right, now for what the letters actually look like:

The letters from the alphabet of Lugano are on the right. I’ve shown them in the above table as dextroverse (i.e. for writing from left to right), although in fact most inscriptions are sinistroverse (written from right to left). For everyday use, all the letters should be the mirror image of how they’re shown above. The dextroverse variants are also authentic, however, and they’re useful here for visual comparison with the Greek, Roman and runic alphabets, which are all dextroverse.

Where do I get the Celtic names in the rightmost column above? Well, a number of runic names actually correspond exactly to Gaulish or Lepontic words in terms of etymology and even meaning: ehwaz/epos ‘horse’, laukaz/locos ‘lake’, raido/reda ‘chariot’, sowilos/sonnos ‘sun’, uruz/uros ‘aurochs’. In other cases, a semantic or etymological gap can be easily bridged: ansuz/Aisus ‘one of the Æsir/Esus’, isaz/iagis ‘ice’, mannaz/mapos ‘man/son’, Tiwaz/Toutatis ‘gods identified with Mars’, othalan/orbion ‘inheritance’. In some cases, I suggest a Celtic name that requires only a little explanation: ulidos ‘feast’ for fehu ‘wealth, cattle’ (for the Gauls demonstrated their wealth by throwing lavish feasts); noxs ‘night’ for naudiz ‘need’ (each evoking absence, insufficiency, even fear); catus ‘battle’ for kauna ‘ulcer’ (each portending physical difficulty and struggle); gestlos ‘host’ for gebo ‘gift’ (hospitality necessarily entailing giving). In the case of pritios ‘poet’, I’ve chosen the Celtic word primarily for phonetic reasons, but it would actually fit the (Anglo-Saxon) rune poem more transparently than the obscure word peorð does. Although the Lepontic letter san might be related to dagaz, or conceivably to thurisaz, I think the only satisfactory Celtic name for it is ðira ‘star’.

As for what to do when using these letters for divination, I should not presume to offer instruction when so many others are far more familiar with the ins and outs of runic divination. However, the basic idea is to invoke a god of prophecy (I go to Apollo Virotutis), ask a question, draw one or more letters, and piece together their meaning starting from the basic word assigned to each letter. (My feeling is that as long as you’ve declared what these meanings are in advance, you’ve offered a conventional idiom by which the gods can instruct you; if you’re fit to receive their instruction, then they will provide it—even if the divinatory instrument is only a modern convention.) Additional interpretive insights might be offered by the Anglo-Saxon, Icelandic and Norwegian rune poems—or even by the conventions of ancient Greek grammatomancy.

The Lexicon Leponticum by David Stifter, Martin Braun and Michela Vignoli has been an indispensable reference for this post. It’s really a fantastic scholarly resource, highly recommended for glyph variants and historical usage statistics, as well as the texts of inscriptions themselves. An article by Michel Lejeune, “Le vase de Latumaros (Discussions sur l’alphabet de Lugano)”, was useful for untangling Lepontic san, theta and zeta in my mind. I’ve also referred to various resources at the Arbre Celtique, to X. Delamarre’s Dictionnaire de la langue gauloise, to the WordGumbo page on Gaulish, to the page Mots français d’origine gauloise, and, yes, to the French and English editions of Wikipedia. If any detail looks dubious, please point it out in the comments section, and we can put it right.


About DeoMercurio

I’m a Gaulish polytheist, now back living in lands ceded by the Council of Three Fires after several years’ sojourn in Anatolia and in the land of the Senecas, with frequent travels to Gaul along the way. My grandfather’s family came from the area around Trier, and I identify closely with the Treveri in my religious practice.
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5 Responses to Lepontic grammatomancy

  1. disirdottir says:

    I have to admit, my initial response was great dismay at what is left out, and I had to go and process that somewhat before coming back to discuss. (It’s a very specific personal emotional response, not a reflection on the quality of your scholarship!)

    While the substance of my problems with the system is unlikely to impact the system’s value or effectiveness for others, I thought it may be worth sharing anyhow, subjective as it is.

    The first one you mention dropping is berkana. My immediate reaction was of shock and disbelief – it feels extremely inauspicious and hubristic to START by skipping *the beginning*!

    Now, you probably mentioned it when you did because you are, logically enough, following the sequence of the standard Roman alphabet. Strictly speaking, berkana falls in the one of the latter groupings of the Elder Futhark, so in that way my instinctive gut reaction does not make sense. Berkana has the energy of beginnings, though, which for me overrides the happenstance of its relative placement in its own system. This is reinforced by another factor. . .

    This is where we get to one of the idiosyncratic bits. I studied the ogham alphabet some years before I studied the runes. While entirely different systems, they do have points of sympathetic correspondence, and one of the strongest is the berkana-beith connection. As it happens, beith IS the first letter of its own alphabet.

    Letter order aside, both are also associated with purification. Incorporating this into a Roman worldview, eliminating the symbol of purification from the system of your omen-taking is a pretty seriously defiant and potentially profane gesture. Yikes!

    You list a number more that you’ve dropped, and I don’t have another reaction until you mention wunjo and jera one after the other. Again, idiosyncratically, I happen to have a strong personal attachment to the particular grouping berkana/jera/othala/wunjo. It’s not a classic combination as far as I know, just a conceptual construct given me for personal contemplative purposes. I’m openly biased to them; there may be other things that got dropped that would make more of an impact on other people, but the combination of (roughly equivalently) not having “beginnings/purification”, “holy joy” and “diligent & persistent effort/cycles of time” in the system. . . well, it’s a record-scratching-everyone-stops-and-stares-in-the-sudden-silence moment.

    At this point it is clear that this system will not suit me at all on a personal level. (Although as I write, I feel that I could actually probably divine with it on the behalf of others for whom this system works. . . which is mildly surprising).

    Your methodology and conclusions seem to me to be entirely rational and responsibly based in reliable source materials – it’s intellectually solid work, I just can’t turn off my instinctive diviner self in assessing it!

    I would be most interested to hear the opinion of Galina Krasskova on the system. I am but an egg in comparison to her mastery of rune knowledge. Fortune smiles. . . the fact that she is also a Classics scholar speaks to her possessing a rare convergence of interests needed to address the content of your work here in a deep and meaningful way.

    • DeoMercurio says:

      Thanks for your comments! I was going to ask what you thought if you didn’t get there first.

      I’m very interested at your reactions (particularly regarding berkanan!) since you’re someone actually experienced with working with runes, which I am not. I hadn’t really reflected on the aggregate meaning of which runes have no analogue in Lepontic. I should point out, though, that my phraseology was perhaps less than precise: I myself didn’t remove any letters, and certainly not from the runes, which this schema emphatically does not touch. On the contrary, it’s chiefly dependent on rune lore for its interpretive force. Both the alphabet of Lugano and the runes derive from a north Italic alphabet closely akin to Etruscan. Celtic speakers (naïvely?) followed classical Etruscan in omitting the letters beta, gamma and delta. Which archaic Etruscan actually had, interestingly enough; they only fell out of use because Etruscan did not have distinctive /b/, /d/ and /g/ phonemes. There are even one or two possibly Celtic texts in Old Italic (such as that from Ptuj) that use Old Italic letters such as beta, theta and zeta which the alphabet of Lugano had not taken up. (By the way, the order in which I spoke of “beta, delta and gamma” just comes from my thinking in terms of a phonemic inventory. In linguistics, it’s conventional to order the stops as p/b, t/d, k/g.)

      The ‘value added’ in the Lepontic schema (such as it is) is that Old Italic alphabets, apart from having an obvious ancient Celtic tie-in, are the meeting-point of Greek, runes, and the Latin alphabet. I’ve just begun a preliminary pass through it, but the comparison between runes and the Greek letter oracular tradition attested at Olympos so far looks intriguing. It might certainly be reasonable to broaden our Lugano net to include the whole of north Italic (or even archaic Etruscan) scripts, which would then bring in beta, gamma, delta, zeta, eta, theta, qoppa, phi, and possibly other letters as well.

      I’d be delighted to hear Galina Krasskova’s thoughts — though I also blush to think what she might think of this admittedly odd little project!

      • disirdottir says:

        You know, my initial thoughts about requesting Galina’s input were simply based on her impressive and promising overlap in subject matter expertise, but further reflection has brought to mind what may be a more salient consideration.

        I think she would be generally supportive and encouraging of the project, with the caveat that it would nevertheless be wise to proceed with significant caution. Tools of power never come free. Diving into a project to bring a new system of divination into the world is bound to be a life-changing experience that will take you out of your comfort zone and lead you to strange and disturbing places. The you of now can’t meaningfully consent to everything involved because it can’t yet be known.

        That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do it! It would be irresponsible not to warn you, though.

      • disirdottir says:

        I think your phraseology was just fine as originally deployed – perhaps the tone of my response was over dramatic. *grin* Or perhaps my mental shorthand for comparing sibling divination systems isn’t as clear outside my head as it is on the inside. . .

        I didn’t think you were implying any impact of your project upon the runes, and my impression was not that you selectively chose to exclude letters so much as you only “brought over” what had parallels.

        To draw an analogy, it’s like learning a new animal oracle when you already know one. I first worked with Phillip & Stephanie Carr-Gomm’s Druid Animal Oracle, and later added Jamie Sam’s Medicine Cards to my repertory. They have animals in common, certainly, but since one is based in the biome of the United Kingdom before Christian domination – with a few mythological additions – and one is based on the biome of (presumably modern) North America, you’d be working with a smaller deck than either is independently if you chose to only use the cards that the two have in common. That isn’t a commentary about whether Mountain Lion is a significant and powerful symbol, or that it should be excluded from its own system. . . Puma concolor just never naturally occurred in the United Kingdom!

        (Since my biology is stronger than my linguistics, it would be a bit easier to predict “no mountain lion in this notional crossover” and modulate my personal disappointment, vs. “no berkana in this crossover”!)

        As far as broadening the symbol set in this system past the core of parallel elements, it may well be a good thing, but I imagine it may prove very challenging. Say we want to have something for purification, because that seems a critical component we need to address. What purifies? We don’t really have a fire symbol. Do we need one? Set that aside for the moment. Do we add purification to locos? I don’t know, the feel of laguz is more of “water in the wild” to me, not so much water tamed to mankind’s hand and bendable to his purposes. Might we tie this to sacred springs? We were talking about what roughly means “lake”, but how literal should we be? What about the rivers that often flow from lakes and streams? What about the associated goddesses? The questions can go on for quite some time. . .

  2. Pingback: Lepontic grammatomancy in verse | Deo Mercurio

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