What is Boustrophedon?


In my article Do I Need a Dictionary to Study Ancient Manuscripts?, I included the word boustrophedon, but I haven’t used the word yet in any of the articles. I’ve read there are (or were) New Testament manuscripts which use (or used) boustrophedon, but I was unable to find any specific manuscripts. 

Most languages that I’m aware of write from left-to-right, while some languages are written right-to-left (e.g. Hebrew and Arabic). Boustrophedon is method of writing where the direction of the text changes in alternating lines. The odd-numbered lines may be read left-to-right, while the even-numbered lines may be read right-to-left (or vice-versa). Boustrophedon comes from an Ancient Greek word βουστροφηδόν, from βοῦς (ox), στροφή (turn) and the  suffix –δόν (like). Loosely, it means “turn like an ox (while ploughing)”. True boustrophedon not only reverses the direction the text is to be read, but it also reverses (or mirrors) the letters themselves. 

Boustrophedon - Turn like an ox (while ploughing)

As far as I have been able to determine, boustrophedon has never been wide-spread. A few extinct languages used it regularly, and it has been found in some ancient manuscripts, but I haven’t found any significant use in modern writings. It has been used for writing secret messages, but in those cases, usually all of the text is written in a mirror form, not just every other line.1

Boustrophedon - Lord's Prayer (Matthew 6:9-13)
Boustrophedon

There seem to be two popular theories why boustrophedon was used. First, some people may have learned to read and write in one language, such as Hebrew, and continued to use the same  writing method when learning another language, such as Greek, even though those two languages typically used different directions. When switching between the two languages, those people may have felt it natural to switch directions for each line.

The second theory I found indicated an experienced scribe could write faster and more accurately when using boustrophedon, because the hand and the eye moved across the page less, and the scribe was less prone to accidentally skipping a line when copying a text. The person reading the document could also read faster.

I’ve seen a number of web sites that have ways of reversing the words but not the letters, but only one site that actually reverses the letters2.

Resources

Footnotes

  1. Leonardo do Vinci often used mirror writing, possibly because he was left handed and mirror writing would prevent smudged ink. Mirror writing (Wikipedia)
  2. Reverse Text Generator (TextFixer.com) Accessed 04-Mar-2020. Click both “Generate Reverse Text” and “Mirror Text” to generate boustrophedon.

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