Yesterday, I published reviews of the latest episodes of both Ancient Aliens and America Unearthed, amounting to more than 3,000 words, so today I’m only going to post a short (well, relatively short) notice of a couple of interesting articles about historical memory and Ancient Greece. Both came to my attention via David Meadows, the “Rogue Classicist.”
The first is from Karen Ní Mheallaigh called “The ‘Phoenician Letters’ of Dictys of Crete and Dionysius Scytobrachion” (December 2012) which the Cambridge Classical Journal has made available for free. In the article, Mheallaigh discusses the fictitious account of Dictys of Crete, which purported to be a firsthand account of the Trojan War, supposedly predating Homer’s Iliad. In the preface to this ancient Journal of the Trojan War, the anonymous author wrote (in my translation):
Dictys, a Cretan by birth, a citizen of Knossos, and a contemporary of the Atridae, was an expert in the language and letters of the Phoenicians, which had been brought to Greece by Cadmus. This man was a companion of Idomenus, son of Deucalion, and Meriones, son of Molus, who were the leaders of the army that went against Troy and by whom he was selected to write an account of the Trojan War. Therefore, he arranged six volumes about the whole war on linden-wood tablets in Phoenician letters. …
Mheallaigh writes that this account reflects the Greco-Roman cultural milieu, reflecting back into the past a bilingualism (Greek and Phoenician) meant to mirror that of the imperial age (Latin and Greek), using a vague memory that the Greek alphabet descended from the Phoenician. I wonder though if there isn’t a bit more to it.
Over at the ASOR blog, Josh Cannon discussed “From History to Myth, Anatolians in Mycenaean Greece” (January 2013). He mentions the only instance in which writing is discussed in all of Greek myth, the passage of the Iliad (6.119ff.) in which Bellerophon transports a written message he cannot read from Greece to Anatolia; Cannon interprets this as meaning that the words could have been written in Hittite by an interpreter working in Greece, though the text itself suggests that Bellerophon was physically prevented from reading the words because they were sealed in a folded tablet:
The king was angered, but shrank from killing Bellerophon, so he sent him to Lycia with lying letters of introduction, written on a folded tablet, and containing much ill against the bearer. He bade Bellerophon show these letters to his father-in-law, to the end that he might thus perish… (trans. Samuel Butler)
At any rate, because the Lycian king in Anatolia can read the text, the implication is that there was at least a vague memory that the vanished Mycenaeans (about whom Homer wrote in the Iliad) had a form of writing, one long forgotten when the oral poems later forming the Iliad took shape in the Dark Age. (Alternately, the Homeric poet merely projected the Greek dominance of Anatolia from his era back in time; after all, none of the characters have trouble speaking to one another, implying that the poet thought of them as all speaking Greek.) Homer’s poems were composed a bit after the time writing began to be re-introduced to Greece, around 750 BCE, so this reference is not conclusive evidence of a memory of Mycenaean writing.
We know that the ancient Greeks raided Mycenaean era tombs and dug up Mycenaean buildings, and we know that they interpreted the artifacts they found therein as the armor, jewelry, and accoutrements of the Heroic Race. I wonder if they found among those ruins Linear B tablets like those archaeologists uncovered at Pylos and Knossos and Thebes. Surely the Greeks must have found some artifacts with Linear B writing. What did they make of them? Did they think the writing related to Phoenician, since some of the symbols share a visual similarity and the letters could not be read by readers of Classical Greek? Cadmus, the Phoenician who brought writing to Greece, did so at Thebes, where the ground was rich with Linear B tablets, suggesting to Frederick Ahl of Cornell University that Archaic Greeks, finding such tablets, associated them with Cadmus and thus developed the legend of the introduction of writing at Thebes.
It seems a stretch to think that the author of the Dictys preface was heir to knowledge about Mycenaean Linear B, but it also seemed a stretch that Homer correctly recalled the shape of a long-vanished Mycenaean boar’s tusk helmet, until one turned up in an archaeological dig. Perhaps the author of the Dictys preface was aware that the Mycenaeans of the Heroic Age had writing (for Homer said as much), and to make his fiction plausible assigned that writing to the only logical source: the Phoenicians, which the Greeks considered the source of their alphabet, when Cadmus brought writing to Greece from Phoenicia. It’s a fascinating what-if, but one that, sadly, all the evidence I know of simply can’t confirm or refute, at least until some re-used artifacts with Mycenaean Linear B writing turn up in an Archaic Greek context.
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I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Esquire, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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