Post #24: It’s All Greek to Her: the Inscriptions on Wonder Woman’s Equipment in ‘Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice’
By Vincent Tomasso
Originally posted Saturday April 9 2016
“It’s how I was raised, Hephaestus.”
—Hephaestus and Wonder Woman, Wonder Woman Volume 2: Guts
An excellent accompaniment to this post is Hans Zimmer’s “theme” for Wonder Woman (WW) from his soundtrack for Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (BvS), which is unsurprisingly fantastic. It sounds a little bit 300 to me—how appropriate!
Recently my research was featured in a video by the news outfit Nerdist about the Greek on Wonder Woman’s shield and sword in the film BvS. I was asked to translate the inscriptions via photos of the costumes displayed at the 2015 Comic-Con (figures 1 + 2).
Here are the two inscriptions as far as I can make them out from the photos:
Line 1: ↑ΥFΑΝΑΜΡ ΑΜΑΝΤΑΙΝΑΜΡ ΑΜΑΝΙΑΜ↑ΥFΑ∀AΜΛΑ ΤΙΨΡΑHΑΣ
Line 2: ΑΤΙΑΤΙΙΘΑΡΑΛΑΝΨΑΤΙΙΘΑΡΑNΨΑ ΛΡΙΕΑΓΨΕΑΡΑΘΣΑΗΣ
Line 3: ΑΔΑΤΙΚΑ ΗΣΑΖΑOΘΡΑΣΑΛΑΤΙΨ HΑΗΑΣΑΤII
(from upper left-hand side, reading left to right) AΛΡΙFΑΛΨFΑΛΑ ΘΣΑΗΣΑΔΑΤΙΚΑ ΗΣΑΖΟΘΡΑΣΑ ΡΑΤΙΨFΑΗΑΣΑΤΙ ↑ΥFΑΝΑΜΡΑΜΑΝ ΤΑΜ↑UFΑΝΑΜΛ ΑΤΙΥFΛΗΣΑΤΙ ΑΤΗΘΑΒΑΛΑΝΤ
In my original report, I noted several archaic letter-forms, which I found by cross-referencing the WW inscriptions with the local alphabets listed in An Introduction to Greek Epigraphy by E. S. Roberts. For instance, a letter called “digamma” appears seven times in the WW inscriptions. Represented by an “F” in my transcriptions, the digamma was a “w” sound in ancient Greek that dropped out of most alphabets by the seventh century BC. Other letters appear as local variants, but look quite different from the more “standardized” forms. Take, for instance, the letter I rendered as a sigma (an “s” sound in ancient and modern Greek) in the third line of the sword inscription. There it looks more like an angular version of modern English capital “S”, whereas in standardized ancient Greek it looks like an “m” turned on its side (Σ) (figure 3). The variant on WW’s sword appears in inscriptions from Attica and Argos in mainland Greece to the islands of Naxos and Ceos. This formation was evidently fairly wide-spread, but ultimately didn’t become standard. A letter that looks like an upward-pointing arrow (￪) appears twice in the sword inscription and has no parallel in any ancient Greek alphabet. It looks much more like the Anglo-Saxon rune for “t.” (A big “thank you” to my colleague at USF, Dr. Michael Heyes, for suggesting this.)
These elements impart a strongly archaic flavor to the inscriptions, and the combination of eccentric Greek letter-forms with letters from other languages suggest otherworldliness. In my original report to Nerdist, I proposed that we might think of this as parallel to the series Battlestar Galactica, in which the names for the humans’ gods in the series (“Apollo”, “Artemis”, “Zeus”, etc.) become the names for the historical gods. (I wrote a book chapter about this in Classical Traditions in Science Fiction.) Producer Charles Roven’s statement in Entertainment Weekly becomes clearer in this context: “Themyscira is influenced by the Greek but it’s clearly more then [sic] that.”
This might hint at a new origin story for WW. According to Charles Roven, in the DCEU WW is a demigod child of the Greek god Zeus. This indicates that Warner Brothers is retaining WW’s Greek connection (and BvS had other clues that lead us in this direction, like WW knowing that Alexander the Great’s sword on display at Lex Luthor’s party is a fake). It’s also striking that the DCEU WW’s equipment has inscriptions on it, since there aren’t any on Azzarello’s WW’s (figure 4).
But this leaves the $10,000 question still unanswered: what do the inscriptions actually mean? In ancient Greek, which is what Nerdist wanted me to translate, they’re meaningless. (Though that doesn’t mean they’re not meaning-ful, as I speculated above.) Dr. Christine Shreyer, the linguist who created (!) the Kryptonian language for Man of Steel (Snyder 2013), helpfully pointed me to a Tech Insider article that discusses the inscription on WW’s sword. The article claims that the inscription is a quotation from Joseph Campbell. I’ve discovered that it’s part of his discussion of the Greek goddess Artemis in Goddesses: Mysteries of the Female Divine. The italicized portion of what follows is what was “translated” (from page 112): “Originally Artemis herself was a deer, and she is the goddess who kills deer; the two are dual aspects of the same being. Life is killing life all the time, and so the goddess kills herself in the sacrifice of her own animal. Each life is its own death, and he who kills you is somehow a messenger of destiny that was yours from the start.”
Note that the article states that this information may be found in the Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice Tech Manual, though I haven’t been able to verify this with my own eyes yet.
Artemis is a particularly apt reference for WW, whose birth name, Diana, is the Roman equivalent of “Artemis” (figure 5). Beyond that, we have to wonder at whether this hints at a sacrifice WW made in her previous adventures (or perhaps in the next Justice League film?) It suggest the Amazons’ devotion to Artemis, and perhaps suggests that the goddess will appear in a future film. But another question remains: what does the shield inscription mean? What are we to make of the fact that Zack Snyder drew on Campbell for quotations on both WW’s sword and Superman’s suit (Dr. Schreyer confirmed to me that the BvS production contacted her to translate Campbell into Kryptonian)? Might this imply, as Nerdist suggested, that their cultures are both drawing from a shared Kryptonian text? (In any case, it demonstrates Hollywood’s penchant for using Campbell in superhero narratives, as my friend and colleague Dr. Brett Rogers has written eloquently in Classics and Comics.)
In her earliest incarnation, WW’s mother and the other Amazons left Greece to form their own nation after their encounter with a brutish Hercules (figure 6). In that version the Amazons apparently communicated in ancient Greek, since Diana takes dictation notes in Greek (figure 7) and (somehow) loses a scroll containing an origin story in ancient Greek (figure 8)! In the DCEU origin, I speculate that the Amazons similarly broke off from the rest of the human world in Greek prehistory, before ancient Greek developed into the language that we now know. This explains the eccentric letter-forms and the fact that there are no ancient Greek words.
Much more can be said about Wonder Woman’s ancient Greek, but I’ll leave further observations for another day. Suffice it to say that I’m eagerly awaiting director Patty Jenkins’ Wonder Woman solo film, due out in 2017. A sneak preview shows WW fighting soldiers in World War I (see figure 9), an interesting twist on the character’s comic-book origins in World War II.
UPDATE 4-22-16: I’ve now been able to take a look at the Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice Tech Manual, which does confirm that the WW inscriptions are the Campbell quotation that I mentioned above. The sword and shield inscriptions are much more visible in their photos, and I’ve changed my transcriptions to include this new info.
The figure near the hilt, which I had a hard time making out from the Comic-Con photos that circulated late last year, turns out to be an eagle holding a thunderbolt in its claws. (figure 9) In the Tech Manual, Douglas Harlocker, a propmaster for the film, mentions how “Zack [Snyder] loves the eagle, because it’s her [WW’s] motif.” This eagle also appears in the center of her shield, though it’s quite faded from age. The eagle looks like the ones that appear on Hellenistic coins (figure 10) On each side of the eagle are several letters, but they’re not ancient Greek, and they appear to be in a different script-system than the sword and shield inscriptions.