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Symbols can mean different things to different people—some are gained from experiences, while others are influenced by culture. The first letter of the English alphabet, there’s quite a bit of mystery surrounding the letter A. Let’s uncover the meaning behind the symbol, along with its history and importance in different cultures.
Meaning of the Symbol of A
The letter A has diverse meanings, and its interpretation depends on which context it appears, from the symbolism of vowels to numerology and esoteric beliefs. Here are some of them:
1- The Symbol of Beginning
As the first letter in the English alphabet, the letter A has become associated with beginnings. In the symbolism of vowels, it’s regarded as a symbol of affirmation and beginnings, with the belief that the alphabet is a structure comparable to the universe itself. In alchemy, the letter A represents the beginning of all things too.
2- The Number One
Generally, words become numbers when their letter values are added together, and these numbers have symbolic significance. In arithmomancy, a form of mysticism used by the ancient Hebrews, Chaldeans and Greeks, the letter A has a value of 1. Therefore, the symbol of A also becomes associated with the symbolism of number 1, as the origin of all things. In modern-day numerology, the letter A’s numeric value is also 1.
3- Symbol of Unity
In some cultures and religions, the letter A is regarded as a symbol of unity because of its association with the number 1. In monotheistic religions, it represents the universe or God.
4- Balance and Stability
It’s said that the graphical representation of the letter A gives it a sense of stability. The crossbar of A is located below its midpoint, which reinforces its strength and stability. More than that, it originally had an image reminiscent of a bull’s horns that pointed to the heavens, but it now resembles a man standing balanced on two feet.
Also, the letter A is shaped like a triangle pointing upwards, which represents balance and reason for the ancient Greeks. In an esoteric concept, the crossbar at the middle of A separates the upper spiritual world from the lower material world, resulting in balanced forces.
5- Arising Above the Rest
The Greek letter alpha, from which the English A is derived, gained a mystical meaning based on its shape. It’s said that the letter seems to gather force from the Earth to rise up toward the heavens. Some associate it with the concept of arising, which is significant in the Greek belief of immortality and divinity.
6- Symbol of Excellence
The letter A marks the ace, the strongest card in the deck. No wonder, a person who excels in a certain field is also called an ace. In academic grading scale, the A symbol is an indication that a student performed well. In dream interpretation, it symbolizes one’s desire for accomplishment and recognition, be it getting an A on a test or being an achiever in life.
Here are the other interpretations for the symbol of A:
- In Sumerian culture, the letter A was associated with water, as the pictogram for it was pronounced as [a].
- In Cabbalistic belief, a mystical interpretation or esoteric doctrine, the A symbol corresponds to figures on the cards of the tarot. The Hebrew letter aleph represents the magician, the man, or willpower.
- In some contexts, the symbol of A corresponds to the color black, associating it with amplitude, nobility and perfection.
- When A is enclosed in a circle, it becomes the symbol of anarchy, a philosophy that revolves around the absence of government, and favors complete freedom without governing law. The circled-A symbol became popular during the 1960s and 70s.
- In New Age belief, having the A letter in your name is an indication of aspiration, ambition, leadership and independence. It also says that you’re self-reliant and have strength of character and a courageous attitude.
- In astrology, the letter A or Hebrew letter aleph means oxhead, associating it with the astrological sign Taurus.
History of the A Symbol
Let’s know more about the interesting evolution of the letter A, as well its significance in several literary works.
- In Alphabetic Symbolism
Around 1700 BCE, the letter A appeared in Proto-Sinaitic alphabet as a glyph of an animal’s head with two horns above it. By the 11th century BCE, the Phoenicians rotated the glyph 90 degrees, with the animal’s head facing right. It’s believed that they depended heavily on oxen for the necessities of life, so they also drew their letter A to look like the head of an ox.
The Phoenicians called the letter aleph, which is a western Semitic term for this beast of burden. Some linguists even speculate that it was placed at the beginning of their alphabet to honor the ox, though this remains a subject for debate. Developed from the Phoenician alphabet, the Hebrew alphabet also retained the aleph as the first letter, though the earlier version of A has more resemblance to our modern-day K.
By the time of the Greeks, the Phoenician letter aleph was again turned to another 90 degrees clockwise, and the vertical bar between the horns was relocated. The Greek used it to represent the A vowel and named it alpha, the first letter in the Greek alphabet. The Romans adopted the Greek alphabet by the way of the Etruscans, in which the capital A in Latin alphabet became our A in the English alphabet.
- In Literature
In the 1850’s novel The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne, the letter A has moral, social, and political significance, as it’s associated with different meanings for each character in the story, as well as the community in which they live.
The letter A primarily symbolized adultery, as anyone who had committed this ‘crime’ in the story was forced to wear an A on top of his or her clothing as a form of public humiliation during the Puritan era. In some scholarly interpretations, it also represents redemption, forgiveness, and wholeness.
In 1870’s Voyelles, a famous sonnet celebrating the vowels, written by French poet Arthur Rimbaud, vowels are associated with certain colors, in which A stands for black. It’s one of the most studied poems in the French language, leading to diverse interpretations.
The Symbol of A in Different Cultures
The letters of the alphabet have symbolic significance in all cultures, regarding both the sound and shape. The symbolism of the letter A can be traced back to primitive ideographic signs and pictograms.
- In Ancient Egyptian Culture
In Egyptian hieroglyphics, the symbol of A is represented by the figure of an eagle, associating it with the spirit of the sun, warmth of life, the day, and spiritual principle in general. For this reason, the symbol can sometimes be linked to the elements of air and fire, since the eagle was considered to be luminous in its essence. Some scholars also suggest that the letter A may also be related with the vulture, another animal drawn in the hieroglyphic alphabet.
- In Hebrew Culture
The first letter of the Hebrew alphabet is ʼaʹleph (א), which means bull or cattle. However, it’s not a vowel but a consonant, and has no true equivalent in the English alphabet. In fact, it’s transliterated in writing by a raised comma (ʼ). In the Hebrew Bible, it appears in the first eight verses in the book of Psalm, chapter 119.
- In Ancient Greek Culture
The Greek name alʹpha is derived from the Hebrew letter’s name ʼaʹleph, and our letter A is drawn from the Greek letter. However, the Hebrew letter is a consonant and the Greek letter is a vowel. When uttered during a sacrifice, the letter A was regarded as a bad omen by the Greeks.
- In Antiquity
During the voting in tribunals, the elders placed tablets inscribed with a letter in urns. The letter A was called littera salutaris, the salutary or saving letter. It was used as an abbreviation of absolve, which meant pardon, acquittal, or grace by fathers. Sometimes, it could also mean antiquo or rejection of a law.
- In Welsh Culture
In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, the Coelbren alphabet was devised by the famous Welsh poet lolo Morganwg, and had a great significance in Welsh symbolism and teaching. It appeared in the text Barddas, a collection of Druid lore and used in divination. In fact, the Welsh term coelbren means omen stick, suggesting that small wooden sticks were once used to uncover the mysteries of the bards.
When used in divination, the symbol of A is thought to represent continuity and spontaneity, whether it’s an action or rest. It’s said that the alphabet had been passed down by a succession of Welsh bards since the times of the ancient Druids, and contributed to the lore The Secret of the Bards of the Isle of Britain. However, most scholars believe that it was only invented by the poet himself.
- In Hinduism and Buddhism
Hindu tradition gives significance to certain sounds, letters and syllables. For instance, the letter A in the sacred syllable AUM—also written Om and pronounced A-U-M—is thought to correspond with Vishnu (conservation), while the letters U and M stand for Shiva (destruction) and Brahma (creation) respectively. In some interpretations, the entire essence of the universe is contained in the syllable, so A represents the beginning, U symbolizes the transition, and M stands for the deep sleep or end.
- In the Bible and Spirituality
The term alpha, in conjunction with omega, appears several times in the Bible as a title for God. The respective positions of these letters in the Greek alphabet are used to represent the sovereignty of God. Therefore, the Alpha and the Omega refers to Almighty God, implying that He is the beginning and the end, as well as the first and the last.
The Symbol of A in Modern Times
The fascination with the letter A is evident in several novels and films. The American romantic drama film The Scarlet Letter was adapted from Nathaniel Hawthorne’s novel of the same name, in which the letter A is regarded as a symbol of sin.
The American post-apocalyptic horror television series The Walking Dead also utilize the letter A as a symbol of confinement and it crops up in the show over and over again. In fact, its appearances often happen when the characters in the story are having a crisis.
In modern English orthography, the letter A represents different vowel sounds. In mathematics, it’s used to denote known quantities in algebra, as well as to represent segments, lines and rays in geometry. Also, it remains the universal symbol of excellence, quality or status.
The letter A in our English alphabet was the aleph of the Phoenicians and Hebrews, and the alpha of the Greeks. Throughout history, it gained different meanings, as a symbol of beginning, a mark of excellence, as well as a representation of unity, balance and stability. It remains significant in numerology, New Age beliefs, and fields of arts and sciences.