SS. Cyril and Methodius and May 24, Day of Letters
This is an essay on historic and modern events, rather than a
historical presentation; for the latter, see the first reference at
SS. Cyril and Methodius, who lived in the 9th century, are the
creators of Slavic writing: in the words of a Bulgarian poet, they
gave "to all Slavs books to read".
In Bulgaria and some other countries, their day is celebrated on May
24 as the Day of Slavic Writing and Culture, or the Day of Slavic
Enlighteners, often commonly known as the Day of Letters.
This is an official national holiday, with parades or other public events,
and is also celebrated as
Teachers' and Students' Day, both grade school and university.
(The school year ends on the day before for the first and the last
There is a song that belongs to this day, a march, which has almost
the standing of a national anthem:
Go, reborn people,
Cyril (born Constantine; he adopted the name by which he is commonly
known when he became a monk) and Methodius, born in Thessaloniki on
the Aegean Sea (now in Northern Greece) and whose mother was a Slav
according to legend, were missionaries at the service of the Eastern
Roman Empire (the Byzantine Empire).
They were talented and learned men, especially Cyril, who was
They were given the task of developing writing for the language of the
Slavs (at the time, it was still a single language, spoken only, with
a number of dialects, which evolved into distinct languages a few
This had been tried before, unsuccessfully, and was a much bigger
endeavor than simply inventing an alphabet, as their work is often
Besides inventing the glyphs of the letters, they had to capture the
phonetic "texture" of the vernacular (which was more complicated at
the time than it is today) as well as—probably the most
challenging part—come up with a way of expressing sufficiently
complex and abstract notions in writing, which included extending the
vocabulary with a number of completely new words (many of them calques
from the Greek).
The first touchstone of that work, as it were, was a translation of
(The modern Bulgarian version of the Bible, even though it has
undergone a number of major revisions since then, has amazingly few
"foreign" loan words.)
Another important objective was to allow church services to be
conducted in a language that would be understood by Slav church-goers
(which involved producing a large number of written texts in that
Once ready, they were sent to Moravia (now part of the Czech
Republic), where their efforts to spread the new writing and
literature on an Eastern Orthodox mission clashed with Roman Catholic
What was essentially a political conflict for spheres of influence
found expression in a debate whether it was admissible to express the
Holy Writ in a language that did not belong to the "blessed" triad of
Hebrew, Greek, and Latin.
This debate was taken before the higher authority of the Pope, with
Cyril and Methodius travelling to Rome.
They are said to have defended their thesis successfully, and very
("Does the Sun not shine equally for everybody?"
And is, therefore, every language not equally suitable for expressing
This was some seven centuries before the Reformation and
Protestantism, when Latin's hegemony in the Western Churches ended.)
Cyril, however, was exhausted by his efforts and travels, and died in
Rome (he was buried in the church of San Clemente, a few blocks east
of the Colosseum, where his grave can be seen today).
Methodius returned to Moravia as bishop, officially with the Pope's
blessing, but when he, too, died a few years later, his and his
brother's work was undone by their opponents, and their disciples were
imprisoned or forced to flee.
Not all was lost, though: Boris I, prince of recently Christianized
Bulgaria, was eager to have the newly adopted religion expressed in
the native language of the people, rather than in Greek.
Thus, three of those disciples, St. Climent (Clement), St. Nahum, and
St. Angelarius, turned their eyes to Bulgaria, their only hope for
And Bulgaria welcomed them; to use a modern phrase, they were
generously sponsored, and it was in Bulgaria that Slavic writing first
established its roots.
(One century later, Russia adopted Christianity while importing the
writing and literature from Bulgaria.)
Climent, the most prominent of the three, established a school, where
he is said to have taught 3,500 students.
He is also credited with adapting the Greek alphabet for Slavic
writing (it was necessary to add more than a dozen letters to it, as
Greek is lacking a number of sounds that are present in the Slavic
languages) and thus producing an alphabet that was graphically
compatible with the Greek one.
This alphabet, which is in use today, although in a revised form, was
called Cyrillic in honor of St. Cyril.
The original one, as designed by Cyril and Methodius, was eventually
abandoned, probably because it was rather unusual graphically and much less practical.
It was called Glagolitic (from an archaic Slavic word meaning "speak";
in modern Bulgarian, "glagol" means "verb").
The Bulgarian National Library bears the name of SS. Cyril and
Methodius; across the street, Sofia University, the first modern one to be
established in Bulgaria, bears the name of St. Climent.
Towards a bright future, go!
With letters, this new force,
Your fortunes you will renew!
SS. Cyril and Methodius
about their day;
SS. Cyril and Methodius Parish in Lemont, Illinois.
Newspaper article, Standart, Saturday, 19 May 2007:
"Majorettes and 11 Orchestras Lead May 24 Parade"
Linda Joyce Forristal describes
her visit to Sofia, Bulgaria.
Vassil Nikolov, May 2007