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Number 81 in this series.  Link to all items here.

Early literacy

Of Monkey-Men and Nestor's Cup                                                    

Some time ago, M., a dear friend and art historian, wrote me:

"You probably know that the first instance of Greek language on an object was found in the Greek ruins in Ischia."

I didn't. Dear M. was giving me way too much credit, but first things first. The Greek name given to the island we now call Ischia was Pithecusa. That's pith, as in pithecoid and pithecanthropous—ape. Island of the monkeys. Why would the Greeks settle on an island full of monkeys, you ask? Good question. (And this will be on the midterm exam.)

The Greeks settled on Ischia because everyone knows they just love islands, and this one had a nice, nostalgic Olympus-looking mountain on it (which turned out to be a volcano!) (oops...not so...see Pithecusa). Mainly, however, they wanted an island as a convenient place to trade with the Etruscans, the mainland power in the Italy of 700 b.c. (the presumptive date of the settling of Pithecusa) without encroaching on the mainland, itself. The area was not unknown to the Greeks. Many centuries earlier, Mycenaean Greeks had visited the same bay. (See "Uncovering the Bronze Age on Procida".)

There were, however, no monkeys. The pith- comes in because Greek mythology spoke of a race of thieving and mischievous little forest creatures called Cercopes that Zeus turned into monkeys and banished to various volcanic areas, one of which was our island out here in the bay. (I'm hazy on that. Cercopes means "-with a tail" in Greek and there is, indeed, a genus of monkey called cercopithecus; thus, I don't know if these little Greek proto-Leprechauns had tails before or after Zeus turned them into monkeys. Robert Graves in The Greek Myths (1955), section 136.c-d has "...[some say that Zeus] punished their fraudulence by changing them into apes with long yellow hair, and sending them to the Italian islands named Pithecusae." ["Islands" —plural—because the small island of Procida, next to Ischia, was included.] So, apparently, the settlers did not name the island when they settled. It was already Pithechusa and they had set out from Greece—Euboea, the second largest of the Greek islands—where things must have been dull, indeed, to sail to that volcanic island in Italy where Zeus had sent all the ape-men.

Nestor's cup and early Greek writing.

The Archaeological Museum of Pithecusa, open since 1999, is housed in the 18th-century Villa Arbusto in Lacco Ameno on Ischia. The jewel of the collection is "Nestor's cup" (top photo). That expression can be (1) a reference to Homer's Iliad and the golden cup belonging to Nestor, the wise, old advice-giver and king of Pylos; (2) a cup discovered at Mycenae by Heinrich Schliemann (the excavator of Troy) that he claimed was the Nestor's Cup of the Iliad; or (3) the cup on display at the museum on Ischia. The Pithecusa cup bears an inscription in an early Euboean form of the Greek alphabet. This forerunner of our modern alphabet was in existence in Greece by about 800 b.c., and there are enough samples from 700- 600 b.c. to show that writing was widespread enough in the Aegean by then to serve as a practical means of communication, for commerce and even early literature.

The cup in the museum was discovered in 1954 in a Greek tomb on Ischia and has been reliably dated to 750-700 b.c., making it at least one of (if not the) oldest sample of Greek writing found inscribed on an object. (The other candidate is the so-called "Diplyon inscription" a short text on an ancient Greek pottery vessel, found in 1871 at the ancient Dipylon Cemetery in Athens.) The cup on Ischia is more interesting since it actually makes the literary reference to Nestor's Cup. Translating the inscription on the cup, however, is many daunting steps up from "The pen of my duck is on the table" of your high school Italian class. This is Homeric Greek written in the oldest alphabet we have. Forms of letters have changed and the inscription, itself, is fragmented and has to be reconstructed. People who do this have lots of unfragmented letters after their names, and their discussions are replete with references to the Indo-European ablative and long vowel subjunctive and sentences such as "In Vedic Sanskrit, as in Homeric Greek (and contemporary Russian), the verb 'to drink' may take either an accusative or a partitive genitive of the liquid drunk, reflecting an inherited semantic opposition."* At least one plausible reading of the inscription, written in three lines, right-to-left, is:

"This is Nestor's cup, good to drink from. Whoever empties it will be seized by desire for Aphrodite, crowned with beauty."

It is generally agreed upon that the inscription was meant to be humorous—a piece of clay claiming to be the fabled golden cup, indeed! (Ho-ho. Slap my thigh and call me Ajax.) Other than that, the jury is out and probably never coming back. It may be a classical reference to the Iliad (given the ample wiggle room on the presumptive date of the writing of that classic); on the other hand, whoever inscribed the cup may have known about Nestor from other sources (after all, Homer had to get it from somewhere). It is also slightly racy—"seized by desire"— so maybe the inscription was the result of a "drinking game"—slightly tipsy potters in ancient Greece each inscribing a line. The Pithecusa cup was not manufactured on Ischia; it was made in Greece and brought to Italy by settlers.


*from "Observations on the 'Nestor's Cup' Inscription" by Calvert Watkins, in Harvard Studies in Classical Philology, Vol. 80 (1976), pp. 25-40.

[also see this entry on Pithecusa]

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