A Short Tutorial on Greek Paleography

This morning, it struck me that an introductory page on the topic of Greek Paleography might be useful for a variety of reasons, but particularly for those wanting to look at this newly re-discovered manuscript of Origen’s. While the manuscript is easily one of the clearest and easiest to read miniscules I’ve seen, it still contains plenty of features that will cause trouble for those who haven’t read Greek manuscripts before. This post will explain several of these "perplexities." My goal is that other interested, intermediate-level Greek students like me would be able to read this particular manuscript, even if they have little or no paleographical experience.

For those wanting to go deeper, I can scarcely do better than recommend the resources which Fordham University hosts. Their resources also have beginning paleographers in mind, and they have several extremely helpful charts.  There is also a helpful bibliography.

The difficulties lie in several places: first, there is the matter of word-divisions. Additionally, there are several unfamiliar letter forms. Finally, one must also contend with abbreviations (like the nomina sacra for instance) and ligatures (combinations of multiple letters into a compound character). I’ll discuss each, and give examples from the manuscript. Finally , I’ll post a paragraph or so on which to practice.

Word Divisions

This certainly takes some adjustment. Our modern texts faithfully split each word from its neighbor, but the Greek cursive hand was more fluid. As an example, here are the first lines of the 3rd homily on Psalm 77 (76 LXX):


If I were to follow the spaces, I might transcribe the first line like this:

Πο ταπὰ ἆρ ατὰ ὕ δαταταῦτα

Now, of course, that doesn’t make much sense. Fortunately, this scribe placed accents faithfully. If you’re familiar with the basic rules of accenting, it make it much easier to divide this properly. The basics really come down to these:

  • Most Greek words contain one and only one accent, where an accent is acute (ά), grave (), or circumflex ().
  • The grave accent () only ever occurs over the last syllable of a word
  • Breathing marks ( or ) only occur over initial vowels (and ρ).

These rules, along with a general knowledge of Greek, help me divide up the first line with relative ease.

Ποταπὰ ἆρα τὰ ὕδατα ταῦτα.

Thus, if you’re not sure how the words should divide, identify the accents and let them guide you. If you see a grave (), that has to be our last syllable of a word. If you see a breathing mark, then you’re dealing with the initial letter of a word. The other, more complicated rules of accentuation are helpful too; but even these three will help you quite a bit.

Unfamiliar Letter Forms

The Greek script has evolved quite a bit in almost 3000 years. In our case, we’re dealing with 8-900 years since this manuscript was written. The Fordham site contains some extremely helpful charts which give several ways for each letter to be written (make sure you’re looking at the miniscule portion). Some of these variant forms are just different. Some, look remarkably like other letters. Here’s a few that might be tricky.

Beta (β)

To me, this is easily the most frustrating letter. Instead of being written anything like our modern β, it is much closer to a μ or ν. For example:


Βλέπει– from βλέπω, to see



βλέποντα– from βλέπω, to see

Make sure you don’t mix this one up with a κ or a μ/ν. The κ extends higher:


καθαρῶν– from καθαρός, pure

A μ has a little tail on the left side:


μακάριαι– from μακάριος, blessed/happy

That said, sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference, and you have to judge based on knowledge of Greek vocabulary. I tried for far too long to find a word κλέπει (doesn’t exist), before I realized the κ was a β.

Gamma (γ)

Gamma is sometimes written in a lowercase form, sometimes in an uppercase. Compare:


γὰρ– for



γένωμαι– from γίγνομαι, to be, become

Epsilon (ε)

Epsilon is often written like our own, but it also has several other form that are harder to spot. Here’s another common form:




οικε (from ἔοικε, the first epsilon is on the previous line)

But, compare:



Zeta (ζ)

Zeta extends below the line, and can start from there. It sort of resembles a 3.


συνεζευγμένων– from συζεύγνυμι, to yoke together, or couple

Eta (η)

Eta is most often written in uncial form, that is, like an uppercase H:



Theta (θ)

Theta often looks rather normal by our standards:


ἔνθα– wherein, within

But it also has a different form that’s a bit harder to spot.


θεὸν– God. (curiously not written in the abbreviated nomen sacrum form).

Lambda (λ)

Lambda extends below the line, unlike in modern script. It uses the same basic form though:


λέγουσαν- from λέγω, to say

Mu (μ) and Nu (ν)

Mu looks about like what we’d expect. Nu, however, is written largely the same as mu, instead of like an English v. The difference is that μ will connect to the next letter, while a ν will not. Here an example with both a μ and a ν in close proximity:


ὀψομένοις – from ὁράω, to see

Notice that the μ connects to the ε, while the ν does not connect to the ο.

Pi (π)

Pi is written fairly consistently like an omega with a line above it. It’s not too different from our π:


πᾶς– All or every.

Sigma (σ/ς)

Many σ’s are written like we our non-final sigma. Others are written as a lunar sigma (a Latin c). Compare:


πόσα– how?


ὡς Παῦλος – As Paul…

Abbreviations and Ligatures


Let us begin with the simplest of abbreviations: nomina sacra. These are a collection of common Greek words that Christians began abbreviating in their texts. The list varies from century to century, but the most common are: θεός, ἄνθρωπος, πάτηρ, πνεῦμα, οὐρανός, Χριστός, and Κύριος. These are common in almost all our Greek manuscripts, though scribes will sometimes used the full form. Here are a few examples. Notice that they often have a line written over them, and the accent following:


ἀνθρώπων– Man, in the plural genitive


θεὸν– God, in the accusative form.


οὐρανῶν– Heaven, plural genitive


πατρὸς– Father, singular genitive


πνεῦμα– Spirit, singular nominative

Other abbreviations are often the bane of the paleographer. Often, when a scribe reaches the end of a line, he’ll simply write what he has room for an abbreviate the rest. Sometimes it takes place at the middle of the line too. Fortunately they are uncommon in this manuscript, and only done with a few, common words. For example:


τούτων– of these

We’re at the end of a line, so the last syllable, ων, gets dropped, and replaced by a line above the word. Writing a line like that above the word is a common way to abbreviate ων.


τὸν– the

Again, we’re at the end of a line, so the ον get replaced by two "backslashes" above the τ. This is a common Byzantine practice, but it doesn’t show up too often here. Some scribes will almost always write τὸν that way.


Ligatures are often difficult. The occur two or three independent letters are combined into one glyph. Some easily decompose into their constituent parts, but others you just have to learn. The Fordham page has several charts that contain ligatures, but it’s far from exhaustive. Here I’ll list the ones I’ve come across so far. The are in alphabetical order (by the first letter).






ει. This one is pretty common.


εξ- very common.



εσθ- two examples




ευ- common also.


ου- not common in this ms, but common elsewhere.


σσ- common


στ- also pretty common




τοῖς (notice the το)


υ often gets smashed into the following letter, this reads δυν


υν- This one tripped me up quite a bit. It looks like a ψ, but it can’t be that because it has an accent on it (accents only go on vowels). I finally realized it was a ν superimposed over a υ)


υς- This one is a bit tricky because it looks like the dative form: τοῖς τόποις. However, what looks like an ι is really an υ smashed into the σ. The accent above the article also gives it away: τοὺς τόπους.


ωρ- Sometimes letters are just superimposed!


ως- a lunar sigma written inside an ω: creative!


If you’d like to try your eye at some continuous text, here’s the beginning of the homily I’ve started transcribing and translating:


You can find my transcription here.


If you find any errors here, (typos, incorrect information, etc.) please let me know in the comments.  Suggestions and questions are welcome too.

ἐν χάριτι αὐτοῦ,


8 thoughts on “A Short Tutorial on Greek Paleography

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