|An extremely interesting fragment of the Odyssey -- but nowhere near ‘the oldest record’|
The discovery is certainly important, and quite unusual. It isn’t written on papyrus, like most literary texts. It isn’t a verse inscription on stone, of which we have many. It’s a clay tablet. This was never a common writing medium in the Greco-Roman world. Its use for this tablet, and for this text, is something quite unique. The research project The Multidimensional Site of Olympia, led by Dr Erofili-Iris Kollia, head of the Ephorate of Antiquities of Ilia, deserve congratulations on their exciting discovery.
But the most widely repeated claim -- that it’s the oldest copy of the Odyssey ever found, or even that it might be the oldest -- is dead wrong. The tablet misses out on being the oldest existing copy by some 700 years.
Dr Kollia, regrettably, has also had her name mangled in the media. (The Washington Post calls her ‘Kolia Erofili-Irida’.) This is partly because the Ministry’s own press release misspelled her name in Greek, and partly because automatic translation tools have difficulty with possessive forms of Greek names.
This was a really sloppy press release, and Reuters was negligent to disseminate it so gullibly.
The most responsible handling of the story by any news outlet in the world, as far as I can see, is by the Italian newspaper La Repubblica. They realised that the thing about the date was untrue and contacted the Greek embassy in Rome about it. The response was that the tablet was the earliest copy of the text on a hard material. In a similar vein the Süddeutsche Zeitung casts it as the oldest inscription containing verses from the Odyssey. This might sound plausible, but it’s pretty obviously a case of someone scrambling for an excuse. Because the very earliest copy of any part of the Odyssey is incised on a 5th century BCE potsherd. ‘Potsherd’ means it’s a hard material. ‘Incised’ means it’s an inscription.
|Some news sources that have spread the false info from the press release: the BBC; the Frankfurter Allgemeine; The Guardian; Le Monde; The New York Times; The New Zealand Herald; Reuters; Time; The Washington Post. Some outlets that give a report with reduced misinformation: Archaeology.org; La Repubblica; Science Alert; Smithsonian.com; Die Süddeutsche Zeitung.|
The textSince there’s intense interest, here’s a transcription and translation. I’ve made them from the photograph that has been circulated in the press. Underneath is a version of the photo with the letter shapes highlighted. In my transcription the square brackets don’t represent edges of the tablet, as they normally would, but the edges of the photograph.
7 [κ]α[λη τε μεγαλη τε περιδρομοϲ ην ρα ϲυβω]-
8 αυτοϲ δ’ αμφι ϲυεϲϲιν αποιχομενοιο
9 νοϲφιν δεϲποινηϲ και Λαερταο γ[εροντοϲ]
10 ρυτοιϲιν λαεϲϲι και ετριγκωϲεν αχερ[δωι]
11 ϲταυρουϲ δ’ εκτοϲ ελαϲϲε διαμπερ[εϲ ενθα]
12 π̣υκνουϲ και θαμεαϲ το μελαν δ[ρυοϲ]
13 [ε]ντοϲθεν δ’ αυληϲ ϲυφεουϲ δυοκ[αιδεκα]
[There was a f]i[ne and large enclosure which the swineh]erd
and he himself, around the pigs during his lord’s absence,
independently of his mistress and the o[ld man] Laertes,
10 surrounded (them) with quarried stones and pear (wood);
and on the outside he drove stakes [this way] and that in a mesh,
densely and close-spaced, [s]plitting the core (or: the bark?) of the t[ree];
and on the [i]nside of the yard he made twe[lve] pigsties ...
-- Odyssey 14.7-13
The tablet doesn’t require any changes to the standard text of the passage. It does have a couple of differences from the standard text, but they’re clearly errors:
- The tablet omits a verb in line 8, making lines 7-10 a bit of a jumble: it changes δείμαθ’ ὕεσσιν ‘(which) he built for the pigs’ into δ’ ἀμφὶ σύεσσιν ‘and around the pigs’.
- In line 10 ἐθρίγκωσεν, ‘he surrounded’, the tablet changes the aspirated θ to unaspirated τ. This is uninteresting from a textual point of view, but very interesting phonologically. It shows that either the scribe or the person who dictated the text was aware of the classical pronunciation of theta, as in tin. In the Roman era, when the tablet was written, θ was regularly pronounced as in thin, just like in modern Greek.
The dateA complete list of ancient copies of the Odyssey -- not including this tablet, of course -- can be found in the introductory material to the recent edition of the Odyssey by M. L. West (2017), starting at page xxvii, headed Exemplarium antiquorum fragmenta (‘fragments of ancient copies’). There are something like a hundred that are older than the 3rd century CE, the date of the Olympia tablet.
The very oldest is a potsherd found at the Greek colony of Olbia, modern Ukraine, dating to the 400s BCE, which has Odyssey 9.39 written on it: ‘a wind bearing me from Ilios put me ashore among the Kikones’. Very evocative: to me it suggests someone who feels a long way from home. (Catalogue details for the potsherd: Trismegistos.org; SEG 30: 933.)
Some news outlets realised the claim was dubious and softened it.
“If this date is confirmed, the tablet could be the oldest written record of Homer’s work ever discovered in Greece,” the culture ministry said.... notwithstanding the fact that the softer claim is contradicted by the article’s title. Greece is not a good source of ancient papyri: too damp. The vast majority of our ancient copies of the Odyssey have come from Egypt, which has much better conditions for preservation.
-- The Guardian, ‘Ancient find may be earliest extract of epic Homer poem Odyssey’, 10 July 2018
Even an expert might well think the tablet is the oldest copy discovered in Greece -- I did at first. But then I am no expert on papyri. Even that would be an error, though. One of the two oldest papyri found in Greece, the Derveni papyrus, found in
The tabletWhat about the purpose of the tablet? Why clay? ‘The Philological Crocodile’ has posted a suggestion that it’s a votive offering made by a rhapsode. That seems very plausible, given the find location at the temple of Olympian Zeus.
It still poses some mysteries. Votive offerings with verse inscriptions are normally stone, or some object of personal significance. Also, the writing on this tablet is frankly sloppy: the lines are uneven, the line divisions and many letters are scrawled. If I had paid a scribe to make a votive offering for me and this was the result, I would not be happy. The choice of passage is also curious: why should the description of Eumaeus’ stockyard be apt, regardless of what kind of offering it is? I’m interested to see what ideas anyone has about these questions.
Miscellaneous misinformationThere’s a fair amount of other misinformation floating around in the news reports on this tablet -- some coming from the press release, some from Wikipedia, some from other half-remembered sources. Briefly:
- In the passage on the tablet Odysseus does not address ‘his lifelong friend Eumaeus’, as the BBC and some other sources have put it. It’s a description of Eumaeus’ farm, and Eumaeus is Odysseus’ slave.
- The Odyssey does not date to the 11th century, and even the 8th century is a push. ‘The eighth century date is more often stated than argued for’, as Barbara Graziosi has memorably put it. The mid-7th century is a more likely date.
- While there was an oral epic tradition, that does not mean that a fluid Odyssean narrative was floating around waiting for someone to write it down and turn it into a canonical form. First, we can’t be sure when it was written down: there’s no guarantee that the seventh century date involved a transcription event. Second, the Odyssey feeds on many legendary narratives, including an Oresteia narrative and an Argonautica narrative, of which either, or more probably neither, may have existed in epic form. We can’t know that the story of Odysseus’ homecoming would have been at all recognisable in a hypothetical period prior to those influences.
- There is no evidence that the Greek alphabet was invented to write down Homer: that’s a fringe theory, and scarcely any Homer scholar outside the University of Wisconsin believes it.