Conrad has a new post up about an ancient mystery which, if I was ever aware of it, I had forgotten:

In the pronaos (vestibule) of the ancient Oracle of Delphi, so it is said, were three inscriptions on the walls. The first of these, and the most famous, read Gnothi seauton—’Know thyself’—while the second read Meden agan—’Nothing in excess’. The third was merely the letter E: a capital epsilon. Plutarch’s essay on the meaning of the E, in which various thinkers propose different explanations, is our only literary source for the object. Not much is clear about the E…

Conrad goes on to summarize the various explanations that have been given, by Plutarch (his Plutarch link does not work for me, but here‘s one that does) as well as by later scholars: a misunderstood Minoan symbol? a ΓE (ge ‘earth’) from which “the Γ fell off the wall”? He concludes that “The constant in these explanations, and others, is that the E was once a communicating sign, but then ceased to be. It became rather a fetish, something left over from before and venerated out of context. It acquired new meaning as a sign purely because the old meaning was no longer there…” and promises to return to “this notion of the remnant object,” a return which I anticipate with pleasure.


  1. Maybe it was Pi, which is to say, there is no answer.

  2. I suppose “the inscriber started to add a third saying, realized this would violate Meden agan, and stopped after the first letter” is not a satisfying explanation?

  3. Jim Parish says

    A minor nitpick, but isn’t the reference to “a capital epsilon” anachronistic? My understanding is that the upper-case/lower-case distinction in the Greek alphabet didn’t arise until centuries later.

  4. The fact that all movies were black-and-white for decades doesn’t make it an error to say that early movies were black-and-white.

  5. I suspect it wasn’t originally a letter at all.

  6. Jim Parish says

    KCinDC, I don’t think the analogy is a particularly apt one. The color/B&W distinction has an external reality to it which upper-case/lower-case does not. The latter is an aspect of the symbol system in question, and has no reality outside of that.
    Let me present a hypothetical situation. Suppose that, at some point in the future, English develops a dual number, and that the word “oxen” is assigned to that number, the plural form being “oxes”. Would it be accurate to speak of (pre-change) “oxen” as being dual, especially in a context where there was nothing to distinguish whether the reference was to two or to more?

  7. Jim: While I understand your nitpick (and believe me, I love nitpicks), I think in this instance your persnicketiness is misplaced. The point of adding “capital” is not to imply that the distinction existed back then but to help modern readers, who are primarily familiar with the lower-case Greek letters and thus think of ε as “epsilon” (and think of E as “capital E,” so it’s helpful to remind them that what looks like an E is actually a capital epsilon).

  8. Jim Parish says

    That explanation did eventually occur to me, yes.

  9. In another work, Plutarch gives the third maxim as a whole sentence: ‘Give a pledge, and disaster follows’. I posted about it here.

  10. Short for Έιςοδος / Έξοδος?

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