© ErN 81,
Jeff Matthews entry Dec 2008, rev.
Oct 2010, update Aug 2015
and Nestor's Cup
time ago, M., a dear friend and art historian, wrote
"You probably know that the first instance of
Greek language on an object was found in the Greek ruins
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
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
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,
"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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