Happy International Lego Classics Day – the highlight of our calendar here at CREWS! To celebrate, I’ve put together a special post on writing in the Homeric epics, which, as you’ll see, gives us a great excuse to talk about how writing developed all around the Mediterranean in the Bronze Age and Iron Age.
There is a very big Classical problem at the heart of this post: the so-called “Homeric Question”. Which is actually more like a group of questions. Who was Homer, the individual credited with composing the Iliad and the Odyssey? Was he a real individual, or is “Homer” a convenient umbrella term for multiple individuals involved in the poems’ composition? When and in what circumstances were they composed? And – in some ways the most interesting question – do the poems refer to real historical events in an identifiable historical period?
I’m going to use this post to come at the Homeric Question(s) from an interesting angle, namely the possibility that references (or lack of references) to writing in the poems might help us to think about the period of composition and historicity of the stories. Here is a basic outline of what we know about the poems’ composition:
First there was a long period of oral composition when the poems were composed, memorised and sung by travelling bards. They used some repetitive formulas to help them compose new scenes on the spot, and the poems were in a very strict metre (what we call dactylic hexameter). Then they were eventually written down at some time by the 6th century BCE, or thereabouts – we don’t know exactly when. We do know that people in the later Classical period (i.e. in the 5th century BCE) knew the Iliad and Odyssey very well, so much so that they could quote from them and based lots of new stories and plays on them, sort of like ancient fanfiction. We don’t have any ancient full copies of the poems, only medieval ones – people have been copying these stories down over and over again for over 2,500 years. The poems tell stories from the Trojan War, recounting episodes set in what must have seemed a distant (even mythical) past for Classical Greeks – but again we don’t know when that period might have been if it was real.
Now, if I asked you how many references you think there are in the Homeric epics to people writing something down, or reading something, what would your answer be? If you guessed ‘none’ then you are very close, because for the most part the Homeric world is one in which writing and literacy are not practised by the characters we encounter – with only one or two exceptions. One episode in Book 7 of the Iliad refers to a group of Greek warriors each marking a token and casting them into Agamemnon’s helmet, with the intention of drawing lots to see who would be chosen to face the Trojan warrior Hector in combat (7.175-6). But the word used for marking here, semaino, need not and probably doesn’t refer to writing, but rather to adding a sign or symbol. This probably isn’t writing in any meaningful sense.
However, another episode in Book 6 of the Iliad is much more promising (6.160-179). When Diomedes (Greek) and Glaucus (Trojan) meet on the battlefield, they suddenly realise (after talking for longer than you would think two angry fighters might have a chance to) that they have a long-standing guest friendship between their families as their heroic ancestors knew each other. They decide not to fight each other, exchange some gifts and depart as friends. But what is interesting is the back-story told by Glaucus, which concerns his ancestor Bellerophon’s exploits.
Bellerophon was in Tiryns, enjoying the hospitality of king Proetus and his wife Anteia. Anteia took a shine to Bellerophon and made a pass at him – but he was too honorable to give in to her advances.
Embarrassed by the rejection, Anteia lies to her husband, telling him that Bellerophon had tried to seduce her, and asks him to have Bellerophon killed. Proetus is angry, but too scared to try to kill the warrior Bellerophon himself, so he sends him to see Anteia’s father Iobates, the king of Lycia, sending a message with him: “but he sent him to Lycia, and gave him harmful tokens, carving many deadly signs in a folded tablet, and told him to show these to his wife’s father, so that he might be killed”.
The Greek verb used here for carving is grapho, which can mean “to write” in later Greek but also “to carve” in a non-literate sense; the “deadly signs” are semata lugra; and the tablet is referred to as a pinax, which could mean a “board”, but the adjective ptuktos used here, meaning “folded”, is heavily reminiscent of a folding writing tablet.
What happens next also points quite strongly towards this being an example of writing. Bellerophon travels to Lycia and gives the pinax to king Iobates, Anteia’s father.
Iobates politely offers hospitality to Bellerophon for nine days before looking at the pinax, and then “receives the evil sign” sent by Proetus.
But he is also too scared to kill heroic Bellerophon himself, so he orders him to kill a nearby monster, the Chimera (a hybrid creature made of parts of lion, goat and snake). I bet you can guess what happens next – Bellerophon slays the Chimera, and Iobates sees him as a hero and lets him marry another one of his daughters, Philonoe. I bet there were some awkward moments at family reunions after that…
OK, look, I know my Chimera is part lion, part snake and part hedgehog. They don’t make Lego goats as far as I know! And I didn’t have my Lego lamb to hand. And who says hedgehogs aren’t scary? If you think my Chimera isn’t very convincing, have a look at what ancient Greek vase painters made of this monster and you’ll see how hard it is to depict…
It’s easy to get carried away with the wonderful stories told in the Iliad, but let’s not lose focus on our central theme here: Is this episode in the Bellerophon story an example of writing? People have been wondering about this for a long time, and even some ancient writers and scholars were undecided. But personally I’m very much convinced that this is a reference to an act of writing, for three reasons.
Firstly, the folded pinax seems to be a reference to an object used to convey written messages since the Bronze Age. We in fact have a very nice example of a hinged wooden writing tablet from a shipwreck at Ulu Burun, just off the coast of southern Anatolia (and very close to Lycia!), dating from the 14th century BCE (below). And we have plenty of evidence for their use around the Mediterranean in later periods too.
Secondly, although the signs (semata) referred to in the passage don’t have to be written signs, we can be completely certain that they had a systematic meaning that was understood by both Proetus, who wrote them down, and Iobates, who ‘decoded’ them at the other end. The message is conveyed only by these signs. Bellerophon would hardly have knowingly carried a message giving an instruction to kill him (especially one based on a lie), so we have to assume that he never peaked inside (he was honorable like that) – and so we know that there was nobody else who knew the content other than the writer Proetus (who was in Tiryns in Greece) and the reader Iobates (who was in Lycia in Turkey, across the sea).
Thirdly, it is difficult to imagine how the detail of this message could have been conveyed in the tablet without using a complex and consistent communication system. Although people often argue about what ‘counts’ as writing or not, it seems likely that we are dealing here with some sort of writing system.
We may wonder, then, what the writing system written in the tablet would have been. Unfortunately, we cannot date the reference, so there are several possibilities.
(1) It could have been Linear B, which we know was in use in Tiryns (Proetus’s kingdom) during the 13th century BCE and probably earlier. Surviving examples of Linear B are all administrative in nature and almost all written on clay tablets or other document types, but we don’t know that it wasn’t used on items that would have been less likely to survive – such as wooden writing tablets.
(2) It could have been the Greek alphabet, although this writing system is not attested until the 8th century BCE, which would be quite late in the history of the composition of the Homeric epics. We have plenty of evidence that people wrote on wooden writing tablets in the Greek alphabet at least, including depictions of people writing in statuettes and vase paintings. Given that we know that some episodes in Homer seem to be later ‘interpolations’ (i.e. they were added at a later point and became part of the canon), we can’t rule out that this could be a reference to a writing system that didn’t exist in the Bronze Age.
(3) It could have been another writing system in use around the eastern half of the Mediterranean sometime around the Bronze Age or into the Iron Age. Anatolian hieroglyphs could be one possibility, or perhaps some form of cuneiform such as Akkadian (which was for a while a sort of scriptio franca used by several Mediterranean powers to communicate with each other) or Ugaritic (an alphabetic form of cuneiform used in what is now Syria).
Sadly it is very difficult to choose between these possibilities – but what we do know is that different kinds of writing systems got all around the Mediterranean in the Bronze and Iron Ages, so it isn’t really very surprising if one should have been used by these Homeric characters.
I couldn’t resist a postscript to this post, because I had a great deal of fun building an extra scene. It occurred to me that it’s interesting to consider whether writing featured in the famous Roman epic, the Aeneid. Of course, the Aeneid was written by a single known author (Virgil) in a period and situation with relatively high literacy, so this is a completely different scenario – but we may note that writing is just as rare in the Aeneid as it is in Homer. Perhaps Virgil had cottoned on to the mythical past of the Trojan War, which he was also writing about, being a time before writing was commonplace. However, there is one reference to writing.
In Book 6, Aeneas goes to see the Sibyl, a prophetess who also happens to control access to the underworld through her cave.
Aeneas is looking for guidance on how to make progress in his quest to found a new city (and wants to see his dead father Anchises in the underworld), and asks the Sibyl to help him. But he says: “Only do not commit your verses to leaves, lest they fly away, confused playthings of the rushing breezes”.
This strongly implies that the Sibyl has a tendency to write her prophecies down on leaves and then let them fly away in the breeze. Incidentally, writing on leaves isn’t such a strange thing to imagine – in some parts of the world, people have been writing on palmleaves for thousands of years.
It is difficult to say whether Virgil was intentionally making his mythical world one where writing was a rarity, and this reference shows that at least one character was literate. Elsewhere we see a couple of vague hints towards literacy, for example Jupiter’s ‘unrolling’ of fate as if it were a papyrus scroll and so something written down somewhere. In fact, prophecies in the Roman world were often thought of as written things – perhaps most famously the Sibylline Books that Roman king Tarquinius Superbus only managed to acquire three of out of the original nine (it’s a good story, see here).
So, back to our original theme: have we solved any mysteries by looking at writing in the Homeric poems? Not really, because unfortunately it’s difficult to date a reference to writing without more detail, such as the writing system being used, or more about the way the writing was done. Wooden writing tablets were – inconveniently for our purposes – used for over a thousand years by people in different parts of the Mediterranean using different writing systems. But by exploring the question, I hope we have raised some interesting issues and helped to think through them in Lego!
I will just finish by telling you that my Lego Chimera wasn’t harmed in the making of this blog post – Bellerophon discovered it was actually quite tame and befriended it instead. The End.
If you enjoyed this post, you might also enjoy looking back on some of our previous offerings for International Lego Classicists Day: Mycenaean writing, writing in Pompeii, literate Cleopatra and the story of the alphabet (video).
~ Pippa Steele (principal investigator of the CREWS project)