A Is For Ibis

“The ibis — the first letter invented by Mercury.”

Athanasius Kircher, the Jesuit polymath best known today for his early efforts to transcribe bird song on the musical staff, explains why the Egyptians called the first letter of their alphabet “Ibis“: After the first king of Egypt, Osiris, had seen the land drained for cultivation,

a huge number of serpents was hatched out of the putrifying mud, and every day many people died from their bites…. Great Osiris sent a number of ibis into those areas, which ate the serpents and in short order made the area free of danger. Afterward it was remarked that the ibis, which had multiplied, made with their spread legs and bill … a shape not unlike that of the Latin A, which they called Ibin and was placed by Mercurius [the inventor of the Egyptian writing system] as the first of the list of sacred characters.

Kircher cites no less an authority than Plutarch for this story, which was widespread elsewhere in the fanciful Egyptological literature of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

As it turns out, François Gaudard tells us that the Egyptians did in fact assign each letter of their alphabet the name of a bird, obviously for mnemonic purposes. Alongside the ibis, they had letters named for herons, doves, geese, hens, swans, quails, kites, sparrows, and (they have wings and fly) mosquitoes.

Even more charming, Gaudard reports on a papyrus of the fourth or third century BC in which neophyte readers and writers were coached in the demotic alphabet using a paired list of bird and plant names, each beginning with the same letter:

The Ibis [hb] perched upon the ebony tree [hbyn]

and so on.

Somebody needs to write a children’s book.