Typology and Semantics of Cryptograms and Acrolexa in the Orthodox East in the Byzantine and Post-Byzantine Period

Moutafov- EmmanuelBy: Emmanuel Moutafov, Bulgarian Academy of Sciences, Andrew W. Mellon Fellow 

For some scholars, the letter abbreviations with encoded meaning on cryptograms and acrolexa are the creation of a monachus ludnes (a monk having fun), who has been instructed to hide his identity or his personal message in an acrostic or in visual poetry, writes his signature through cryptographs, laughs at monastery moralizing anecdotes and does not want his identity to be revealed in the vanity of mundane life. This monk is perhaps of the greatest schema, due to which the so-called cryptograms will be written on his hood, in order to protect him from evil demons, impious thoughts, misfortunes, and encroachments. The visual model of a cross with letter symbols will be borrowed from certain bilingual Byzantine coins, bearing the image of the blossoming Golgotha cross from the time of Emperor Heraclius; the Roman numbers of those coins ХХХХ began to be perceived as the popular tetragrammata/ tetragrams since the Greek numbering uses letters, while Latin is forgotten in the East. The earliest manuscript with such signs dates back to the 11th century in Sinai, but these signs are well known. In the late 14th century, the letters around the blossoming cross appear in monuments of church art in the Balkans and Cyprus. From the 15th century onwards, the Slavs started to extend the repertoire of the letter abbreviations related to the cross, in which the tetragrammata was dominant. In terms of their contents no analogue to them was found either in the canonical written or in the apocryphal tradition. Around the 16th century, this staurographic tradition appeared also in the old-print books and manuscripts with liturgical content, but the cryptic signs there did not become a sustainable element of their decoration. In contrast to the tradition close to Mount Athos from the 17th century onwards in Russia, there was real encryption of the messages in the “Letters of the Cross.” However, the hypothesis that they originated from the anonymous Russian alphabetic books is unsubstantiated. In that same period in the Balkans, the use of these signs was reduced and almost completely disappeared in the 19th century without affecting day-to-day Christianity.

The scientific interpretation of cryptograms has been quite limited so far, and this is due mostly to the lack of a concrete idea as to which of these letter symbols are encrypted, and which are not, because not all researchers are knowledgeable in the Greek tradition; it is due also to the lack of adequate terms used to describe the different types of acrolexa. Because of this, I had to research mainly the semantics of these acrolexa, to set up their typology, to find parallels in epigraphy, paleography, and to extend the parameters of my study not only outside Bulgaria, but also beyond the Balkans.

I realize that this study does not cover all monuments, and also that there are other genres of medieval and post-Byzantine art where such letter abbreviations can be found. Also I understand that the interpretations I have suggested are only tentative. However, since my aim was to establish a typology of what is known about them and to highlight what is valuable in their semantic structure, I believe that finding numerous and different abbreviations of this kind is possible. Such decoding, as well as many items in the humanities are tentative, at least until we find the answers to this “crossword puzzle,” provided that such answers exist.


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