BMCR 1991.05.15

Homer and the Origin of the Greek Alphabet

, Homer and the Origin of the Greek Alphabet. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991. xxv, 280 pages. ISBN 0521371570

Some may question whether making the case for Wade-Gery’s 1949 suggestion that the Greek alphabet may have been fashioned explicitly in order to record hexametric verse is worth doing at all; Powell has shown in this book that it is worth doing well. Replete with maps, chronological charts, and a careful review of all possibly relevant evidence, alphabetical, epigraphical and Homeric, the case as presented here still rests ultimately more on possibilities and a willingness to believe than on demonstrable probabilities.

First, in Chapter 1, a survey of what can be known about the creation of the Greek alphabet from the West Semitic syllabary is seen to suggest a single Euboian adapter working with a Phoenician informant about 800 B.C., first learning in their proper order the names and shapes of the signs and then experimenting with the usefulness of their phonetic values for the writing of Greek words: converting to use as vowels those four Semitic signs the names of which, at least, represent sounds rather than consonants (alf, he, yod, ain) and splitting off from the consonant wau its vocalic counterpart; and attempting, with some confusion, to find uses for all four Semitic sibilants.

The product, or Ur-alphabet, being transmitted first to colonists and neighbors, then throughout Greece, incurred the variations characteristic of the epichoric alphabets as a result of error, ignorance, or efforts to simplify or differentiate. The argument is intricate and masterly in its use particularly of the supplemental letters (phi, chi, psi) to show how the adapter, in inventing the chi-form and psi-form as signs for aspirated kappa and koppa (just as he had invented the phi-form for aspirated pi, imitating his use of Semitic tet for aspirated tau), set the stage for the division between the so-called “blue” (chi-form for chi) and “red” (psi-form for chi) epichoric alphabets. Why the chi-form as xi is first of the supplementals in the Etruscan abecedaria (derived from Euboia) is not explained even though that value is seen to be a subsequent abbreviation of the adapter’s chi-sigma when the psi-form’s use as chi made the chi-form redundant.

Powell demonstrates the nature of the adapter’s alphabet by using it to record the first ten lines of the Iliad. He does not, however, explain the several anomalies in the writing. Why, for example, is contraction for the sake of the meter noted inconsistently (μύρι’ Ἀχαίοις and δ’ ἐτελείετο but ἄλγεα ἔθηκε, δὲ ἰφθίμους and τε ἄρ) despite regular contraction in the earliest verse inscriptions? Why is the chi-form used for chi before alpha (Ἀχαίοις), iota (Αχιλῆος), and upsilon (ψυχάς) while the psi-form is used for chi before omicron (χολωθείς)? Why are the two o-sounds in ἡρώων represented by one vowel while the two e-sounds in ἐτελείετο both appear? Is the omission of a metrically necessary digamma in ἄναξ a mistake like the rho for pi in πᾶσι and the omitted kappa in ὀλέκοντο?

Chapter 2 surveys the history of writing from Egyptian hieroglyphics through the Cypriote syllabary to the Phoenician script, which Powell, following the view of Gelb outlined in Appendix 2, takes as a syllabary. How these earlier forms of writing worked is described in detail in order to make clear the nature and magnitude of the change involved in the invention of the alphabet. Then for the first time in the history of writing it became possible for a man both to record and to pronounce words in a language he did not know. Furthermore, unlike the syllabaries, the alphabet with its unique emphasis on phonetics constituted the perfect vehicle for the recording of hexameter verse. Was that why it was invented?

Chapter 3 presents 68 of the earliest Greek inscriptions, showing both the preponderance of hexametric verse in those long enough to exhibit it and the private, almost literary concerns of the writers which are manifested in all parts of Greece. The absence of public or economic texts confirms the impression of an aristocratic society (of which the adapter was a leading light) intent on its own good life. Noted also is the extent to which the inscriptions’ preservation has resulted from nothing more than the imperishability of the objects on which they were written, suggesting the possibility of much contemporary writing on perishable materials. But once such lost writing is mooted, is the absence of public or economic texts significant?

Chapter 4 is concerned with the question whether the adapter invented the alphabet in order to record hexametric verse in general or that of Homer (rather than that of the demonstrably later Hesiod) in particular. The answer comes with a detailed survey of the evidence of Homer’s date (from archaeology, linguistics, and outside references both literary and pictorial). Considerable importance is given to the beginning of the representation of legendary material about 725 B.C. with the vastly greater number of such mythic scenes being from the Epic Cycle rather than from Homer. The impetus is taken to be the greater ease of writing and so the greater spread of copies of such shorter poems, as if pot painters and other artists could be inspired only by the written word. And yet the poems of Homer are here assumed to have been recorded some fifty years earlier without having started any new fashion in artistic representation.

Chapter 5 contrasts the Iliad and Odyssey with the short, one-topic songs sung by the bards in the Odyssey at banquets or on the athletic field, by audience request or on their own impulse. The length of the Iliad and Odyssey, which is taken to be inordinate for any conceivable performance, and their richness and variety of episode could have been achieved only in a situation in which the poet was obliged to spin out, to elaborate, to digress—that is, in which his normal pace was so slowed down that the adapter could record it word by word in the alphabet he had invented for this purpose. “We praise Homer, but the Iliad and the Odyssey were a joint venture, a cooperative effort between the poet and the man who wrote down the poet’s words” (p. 230). How are we to react? Many who think wishfully that we have Homer’s words pure and unadulterated will be pleased at the neatness of this solution even though they may have to give up notions of the poet’s unique genius. Still there are questions. Instead of the epics’ organic unity that we have supposed resulted from an orally composing poet’s repeated re-creation and structural tightening, are we instead to imagine a poet who has time enough on his hands between words and lines to invent new epithets but rather saves it up to insert episodes which were hitherto separate songs? And if the oral performance of the Iliad requires 18 hours (p. 229, note 19), how many days of how many sessions would it have taken to record in a new and unfamiliar medium the same Iliad now to be viewed as a composition which was conceived ab ovis, vastly enlarged and strung together by a poet who was inflating now for the first time one old song with other songs old and new? And if the Iliad and Odyssey came into being thus, what was it about Homer’s earlier repertory that so impressed the adapter that he invented the alphabet to record it?

A final tying-up of mythic and alphabetic loose-ends introduces the adapter by name, that is, as the Palamedes who is in later literature credited with alphabetic and other cultural innovations. All in all, this is a book which is as remarkable for the ingenuity of its answers to difficult questions as it is for its useful review and compelling display of so much of the relevant evidence.