Thursday, 21 January 2010


Nobody reads, or writes, in the Iliad or the Odyssey (it tells of a pre-literatre society, and is probably the result of oral composition by illiterate bards). That fact is in itself strange, but stranger still is Bellerophon's tablet (Iliad 6:155–203):
Bellerophon, whom heaven endowed with the most surpassing comeliness and beauty. But Proetus devised his ruin, and being stronger than he, drove him from the land of the Argives, over which Jove had made him ruler. For Antea, wife of Proetus, lusted after him, and would have had him lie with her in secret; but Bellerophon was an honourable man and would not, so she told lies about him to Proteus. 'Proetus,' said she, 'kill Bellerophon or die, for he would have had converse with me against my will.' 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; Bellerophon therefore went to Lycia.
Like Hamlet, Bellerophon unwittingly carries the warrant for his own death; although unlike Hamlet he cannot read them -- reading and writing was for slaves and scribes. Now there is something screwy about this -- because the Iliad is set squarely in the illiterate period, that many-century stretch after the loss of the fantastically difficult, intricate Linear B script, and before the invention of the simpler, more flexible Greek alphabet. Nobody else in either the Iliad or the Odyssey can read or write; nobody makes so much as a reference to reading or writing. Maybe Bellerophon's tablet is a hangover from the earlier Minoan culture (that's what C M Bowra thought); or maybe it's evidence that Homer wasn't an oral bard after all, but knew all about the graphic arts (which is what Rufus Bellamy thinks).

Me, I like the way this sole reference to reading and writing also encodes death. I like the way the word for writing here (γραφὰς; originally this meant to scratch with a point into a surface, rather than paint over the top of it) is also used by Homer to describe arrows piercing victims: in 4:139, Paris's arrow passes through Menelaus's layers of armour and pierces his skin, releasing a flow of blood ... and the word used for 'pierces' is επιγραφὰς, which is to say, 'inscribes', or 'writes upon'. This is the true medium of the poem after all: war writes death upon the bodies of men.

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