The standard letters to denote the Levi-Civita symbol are the Greek lower case epsilonε or ϵ, or less commonly the Latin lower case e. Index notation allows one to display permutations in a way compatible with tensor analysis:
where each index i1, i2, ..., in takes values 1, 2, ..., n. There are nn indexed values of εi1i2…in, which can be arranged into an n-dimensional array. The key defining property of the symbol is total antisymmetry in all the indices. When any two indices are interchanged, equal or not, the symbol is negated:
If any two indices are equal, the symbol is zero. When all indices are unequal, we have:
where p (called the parity of the permutation) is the number of pairwise interchanges of indices necessary to unscramble i1, i2, ..., in into the order 1, 2, ..., n, and the factor (−1)p is called the sign or signature of the permutation. The value ε1 2 ... n must be defined, else the particular values of the symbol for all permutations are indeterminate. Most authors choose ε1 2 ... n = +1, which means the Levi-Civita symbol equals the sign of a permutation when the indices are all unequal. This choice is used throughout this article.
Use of the two-dimensional symbol is relatively uncommon, although in certain specialized topics like supersymmetry and twistor theory it appears in the context of 2-spinors. The three- and higher-dimensional Levi-Civita symbols are used more commonly.
That is, εijk is 1 if (i, j, k) is an even permutation of (1, 2, 3), −1 if it is an odd permutation, and 0 if any index is repeated. In three dimensions only, the cyclic permutations of (1, 2, 3) are all even permutations, similarly the anticyclic permutations are all odd permutations. This means in 3d it is sufficient to take cyclic or anticyclic permutations of (1, 2, 3) and easily obtain all the even or odd permutations.
Analogous to 2-dimensional matrices, the values of the 3-dimensional Levi-Civita symbol can be arranged into a 3 × 3 × 3 array:
where i is the depth (blue: i = 1; red: i = 2; green: i = 3), j is the row and k is the column.
Using the capital pi notation∏ for ordinary multiplication of numbers, an explicit expression for the symbol is:
where the signum function (denoted sgn) returns the sign of its argument while discarding the absolute value if nonzero. The formula is valid for all index values, and for any n (when n = 0 or n = 1, this is the empty product). However, computing the formula above naively has a time complexity of O(n2), whereas the sign can be computed from the parity of the permutation from its disjoint cycles in only O(n log(n)) cost.
A tensor whose components in an orthonormal basis are given by the Levi-Civita symbol (a tensor of covariant rank n) is sometimes called a permutation tensor.
Under the ordinary transformation rules for tensors the Levi-Civita symbol is unchanged under pure rotations, consistent with that it is (by definition) the same in all coordinate systems related by orthogonal transformations. However, the Levi-Civita symbol is a pseudotensor because under an orthogonal transformation of Jacobian determinant −1, for example, a reflection in an odd number of dimensions, it should acquire a minus sign if it were a tensor. As it does not change at all, the Levi-Civita symbol is, by definition, a pseudotensor.
As the Levi-Civita symbol is a pseudotensor, the result of taking a cross product is a pseudovector, not a vector.
Under a general coordinate change, the components of the permutation tensor are multiplied by the Jacobian of the transformation matrix. This implies that in coordinate frames different from the one in which the tensor was defined, its components can differ from those of the Levi-Civita symbol by an overall factor. If the frame is orthonormal, the factor will be ±1 depending on whether the orientation of the frame is the same or not.
In index-free tensor notation, the Levi-Civita symbol is replaced by the concept of the Hodge dual.
Summation symbols can be eliminated by using Einstein notation, where an index repeated between two or more terms indicates summation over that index. For example,
In the following examples, Einstein notation is used.
For (1), both sides are antisymmetric with respect of ij and mn. We therefore only need to consider the case i ≠ j and m ≠ n. By substitution, we see that the equation holds for ε12ε12, that is, for i = m = 1 and j = n = 2. (Both sides are then one). Since the equation is antisymmetric in ij and mn, any set of values for these can be reduced to the above case (which holds). The equation thus holds for all values of ij and mn.
To establish (5), notice that both sides vanish when i ≠ j. Indeed, if i ≠ j, then one can not choose m and n such that both permutation symbols on the left are nonzero. Then, with i = j fixed, there are only two ways to choose m and n from the remaining two indices. For any such indices, we have
(no summation), and the result follows.
Then (6) follows since 3! = 6 and for any distinct indices i, j, k taking values 1, 2, 3, we have
In any arbitrary curvilinear coordinate system and even in the absence of a metric on the manifold, the Levi-Civita symbol as defined above may be considered to be a tensor density field in two different ways. It may be regarded as a contravariant tensor density of weight +1 or as a covariant tensor density of weight −1. In n dimensions using the generalized Kronecker delta,
Notice that these are numerically identical. In particular, the sign is the same.
On a pseudo-Riemannian manifold, one may define a coordinate-invariant covariant tensor field whose coordinate representation agrees with the Levi-Civita symbol wherever the coordinate system is such that the basis of the tangent space is orthonormal with respect to the metric and matches a selected orientation. This tensor should not be confused with the tensor density field mentioned above. The presentation in this section closely follows Carroll 2004.
The covariant Levi-Civita tensor (also known as the Riemannian volume form) in any coordinate system that matches the selected orientation is
where gab is the representation of the metric in that coordinate system. We can similarly consider a contravariant Levi-Civita tensor by raising the indices with the metric as usual,
but notice that if the metric signature contains an odd number of negatives q, then the sign of the components of this tensor differ from the standard Levi-Civita symbol:
where sgn(det[gab]) = (−1)q, and is the usual Levi-Civita symbol discussed in the rest of this article. More explicitly, when the tensor and basis orientation are chosen such that , we have that .
where the sign depends on the orientation of the basis. The contravariant Levi-Civita tensor is
The following are examples of the general identity above specialized to Minkowski space (with the negative sign arising from the odd number of negatives in the signature of the metric tensor in either sign convention):