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The Letter E at Delphi

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Most inscriptions in the pronaos of Apollo's temple at Delphi were known from the foggiest days of antiquity:

  1. "Know Thyself!"
  2. "All Things in Moderation!"
  3. "Only a Fool Signs a Legally Binding Contract!"


But one message remained secret until the Greek philosopher Plutarch (ca. 45–120 CE) went and blabbed his fool mouth off to all his friends:

  • The Letter E.

Like a particularly long and boring Sesame Street skit, Plutarch's dialogue on the subject drones on and on and on about the mystical magical power of the Letter E until the reader longs for ending credits and a transition to Blue's Clues.


According to our friend Plutarch, someone, at some time, for some reason, mounted a giant golden Letter E onto a sacred wall that was otherwise known for its profound messaging. That fact, Plutarch felt, deserved to be examined.

Was it possible that a large golden Letter E was commissioned, at great expense, and donated to the temple for no reason? Anything is possible, admittedly, but even a pointless act is worth examining. Why do the neurons firing in a person's brain inspire one pointless act while an infinite number of equally pointless acts are never even imagined?

These were the kinds of questions Plutarch asked, constantly, which enabled him to make a pretty good living for himself as a professional philosopher.


Plutarch was convinced that the mounting of the golden Letter E could not have been a random act. It's an E, rather than any other letter of the alphabet, which implies purpose. If you're going to pick a letter by random chance, and not just include them all, the odds of your chosen letter being an E are much smaller than the odds of it not being an E.

Plutarch's suspicions were confirmed when a priest of the temple let slip that the golden Letter E had replaced an earlier Letter E made of bronze, which had been worn away from being stared at so intently by philosophers. This bronze Letter E was said to have originally come to Delphi from Athens.

This raised even more questions for Plutarch:

  • Does the meaning of the Letter E change when it's moved from one city to another?
  • Does the meaning of the Letter E change with the material from which it's made?
  • And how long exactly does it take for human eyeballs to wear away bronze?

These questions of time, place, and matter have since been generalized to many other contexts and form the basis of law and philosophy underpinning much of Western Civilization.


To tackle the first question first, does the Letter E mean the same in Delphi as it did in Athens?

In modern America, we might ask whether the Letter R means the same in Boston as it does in Philadelphia. To the Bostonian, the Letter R, in its rhotic capacity, functions like a human appendix; it can be safely removed without affecting the word's meaning at all. The Bostonian can "pahk his cah in Hahvahd Yahd" all day without ever needing a Letter R or missing its absence. The Philadelphian, on the other hand, clings to the Letter R like a toddler clings to a security blanket. The use of a vehicle, the act of leaving it somewhere, and the place itself become inaccessible without multiple Letters R sprinkled liberally into a single sentence: "I will parrrrrrk my carrrrrr in Harrrrrvarrrrd Yarrrrrd or wherever else I damn well choose!"

So it is quite possible, given regional dialects, that a Letter E also changes its meaning from place to place. In Athens, the Letter E might mean, "Eeeeee, a mouse is eating my spanakopita!" while in Delphi, a Letter E might mean, "Eh, let him have it, I'll make a new batch."

The big golden Letter E in the middle of a Chuck E. Cheese's logo stands for "Entertainment," the middle name of one Mr. Charles Cheese. But placed onto the wall at Apollo's temple at Delphi, the Letter E certainly means something different.

For Plutarch, the Letter E was pronounced ei, which in Greek meant "you are" or "you exist." But was it a believer's affirmation that Apollo exists or a message from Apollo that his believers exist? Even Plutarch could not decide.


Does a golden Letter E mean something different than a bronze Letter E?

Clearly, yes.

Font designers, graphic artists, marketing professionals, web developers, among others will affirm that the size, shape, and color of text affects its perception by a reader.

Gold is valuable, ornamental, decorative, while bronze is useful. Gold implies a connection with the gods, while bronze implies a connection with the earth. Gold is the material of nobility, while bronze is the material of the masses.

A gold Letter E aims for a more refined, sophisticated audience than a bronze Letter E. But while a gold Letter E will seem more authoritative to some, others may find it gaudy, as if this letter is putting on airs, implying a superiority that hasn't been earned, or trying too desperately to attract attention to itself.

The material of the Letter E also diffuses qualities onto its surroundings. Having a golden Letter E within Apollo's temple provides a sense this is a prosperous cult for the elites. Having a bronze Letter E within Apollo's temple provides a sense that this is a cult for a broader segment of society.

To farmers, soldiers, and sailors, bronze was an everyday requirement of their livelihoods, while gold was a fanciful substance of legend, something they might never encounter in their lifetimes, much like the Letter R to a Bostonian.


The golden Letter E replaced the bronze Letter E at Delphi about a hundred years before Plutarch's time. But this, also, was not the original version. The bronze Letter E had itself replaced an earlier wooden Letter E that burst into flames in 548 BCE from being thought about too deeply.

Plutarch traces the Letter E, in its various forms, back before the construction of Apollo's temple itself, back to a time before Apollo and Artemis were born to Leto, back before Zeus overthrew his father, back before the Titans, to when Gaia herself was the mistress of prophecy. Her name, in the old tongue, was GE. Just GE. Which, as a name, is 50% G and 50% E.

So instead of asking about the mysteriously present Letter E, perhaps Plutarch should have been wondering about the equally mysteriously absent Letter G. Where is it, who has been guarding it for all this time, and what secrets of the universe might be revealed if these two letters were once again reunited?

But instead of tackling the issue of the missing Letter G, Plutarch instead chose to next delve into the mysterious "is equal to mc2" message located on the wall directly to the right of the golden Letter E, and this opportunity to advance human knowledge was lost to him.


Once a person develops an awareness of the Letter E at Delphi, and of Plutarch's close examination of its circumstances, the Letter E forever takes on many layers of additional meaning.

Contemplate the Letter E often enough, and you may start to develop a sense of paranoia, including the common belief among philosophers that every Letter E is secretly watching them and reporting their every word and movement back to the Master E in Apollo's Temple. Nearly two thousand years after Plutarch, the Letter E has become the most commonly used glyph in humanity's collective writing systems, and that can't be just a coincidence!

This article has been brought to you by the Letter E, the Temple of Apollo, and by the Number 2.71828.

Stay tuned for a very special episode of Blue's Clues!

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