Readings on the origin of writing in the west
Hellenic sources

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[Records suggest that writing dated from before 5000 BC in the Middle East, and it was borrowed by the Hellenes only much later. What the Hellenes said about the origin of writing is presented below on this page.] 

from HERODOTUS, THE HISTORY (c. 450 BC)Ancient coin shows Cadmus presenting the letters.

The early Greek historian, Herodotus, tells us how the alphabet was introduced into Greece. The story is woven into another story (Herodotus' usual style, as it was Homer's) about a tribe of foreigners in Athens, the Gephyraean tribe, who worshipped strange gods:

[5.57.1] These Gephyraeans claim to have come at first from Eretria, but my research tells me that they were among the Phoenicians who first came with Cadmus to the land now called Boeotia. After the Argives expelled the Cadmeans from Thebes, the Gephyraeans settled in the countryside in the area of Tanagra that was allotted to them.  They came to Athens later, after being expelled from Tanagra by the Boeotians. The Athenians received them and allowed them to become Athenian citizens, although they prohibited them from many of their customary rites. 

[5.58.1] These Gephyraeans and other Phoenicians who came to Boeotia with Cadmus brought with them, among many other kinds of learning, the alphabet, which in my opinion had not been known earlier to the Greeks. The sound and the shape of the letters were changed as time went on. Most of the Greeks living near these Phoenicians were Ionians, and after the Phoenicians taught them the letters, the Ionians used them with a few new changes of form. From ancient times they called the characters "Phoenician" since the Phoenicians had brought them into Greece. The Ionians also called sheets of papyrus "skins," since long ago they used the skins of sheep and goats due to the lack of papyrus. Even today many foreigners write on such skins.

[5.59.1] I have seen Cadmean writing in the temple of Apollo at Thebes in Boeotia. It is engraved on certain tripods. The characters look for the most part like Ionian letters. On one of the tripods there is this inscription: "Amphitryon dedicated me from the spoils of [the battle of] Teleboae."

This inscription must date from about the time of Laius the son of Labdacus, grandson of Polydorus and great-grandson of Cadmus.

[5.60.1] A second tripod says, in hexameter verse: "Scaeus the boxer, victorious in the contest,
Gave to Apollo the archer god this fine offering." 

Scaeus the son of Hippocoon, if he is indeed the Scaeus of this dedication, would have lived at the time of Oedipus, son of Laius.

[5.61.1] The third tripod says, in hexameter verse again: "While he reigned, Laodamas, dedicated this cauldron to Apollo, the sure of aim, as a fine offering."

During the rule of this Laodamus, son of Eteocles, the Cadmeans were expelled from Thebes by the Argives and went away to the Encheleis. The Gephyraeans were left behind, but later they were forced by the Boeotians to withdraw to Athens, as I said before. They have forms of worship at Athens in which the rest of the Athenians take no part, particularly the rites and mysteries of Achaean Demeter.

Cadmus and the alphabet

Herodotus' remarkable story is the best evidence that we have about the introduction of alphabetical writing into western culture. The Greek alphabet clearly was borrowed from Phoenician, as comparison shows:

So who was this letter-giver Cadmus? His name, in Greek, simply means "from the east" and clearly that's what he was--not a westerner. His language was Phoenician, and Phoenicia (meaning the land of Phoenix, the place of sunrise) stood at the eastern end of the Mediterranean Sea, in the region of modern Lebanon. The city of Gephyraea, where the Gephyraeans evidently came from, was in what is now Syria. 

Phoenicians are known to have inhabited Jerusalem, Ur, Megiddo and other very ancient cities of the Near East from at least 2800 BC. The culture and government were influenced by Egypt from early times until the 12th century BC, the end of the Bronze Age and supposed time of the Trojan War. "Phoenician" is the Greek name for the people that the Hebrews called "Canaanite."

By 1500 BC the Phoenicians had become sea-farers. They extended their colonies across the Mediterranean as far as the region of modern Spain, perhaps beyond. In colonization, trade and piracy, they were the major competitors of the Hellenes, and later Romans, for more than a thousand years. (Rome's great enemy Carthage in North Africa was a Phoenician colony, founded about 900 BC.) 

Oedipus and the sphinx, from an ancient bowl decoration. There are sphinxes and other strong Egyptian influences in early Hellenic art and literature.Cadmus was the founder of the strange Phoenician city of Thebes on the Greek mainland, tragic Thebes that would become home to Oedipus and Antigone, doomed Thebes that would be destroyed by the Argives at about the time of their sack of Troy. It isn't surprising that foreign invaders would take interest in Thebes because of its location. The land was fertile, and it controlled a major north-south route.

Cadmean Thebes seems to have been different than Athens and the rest of its Hellenic neighbors. Its religion originally wasn't Hellenic. The "Achaean Demeter" that the Gephyraean tribe worshipped in Herodotus' time probably was a local variant of the Egyptian goddess Isis. In any event Cadmean Thebes identified itself with the religious capital of old Thebes in Egypt. (Homer knew old Thebes as the wealthiest city of them all; Achilles won't accept all of the gold in Egyptian Thebes to return to Agamemnon's war. Iliad ix. 372) To become King of New Thebes Oedipus had to solve the riddle of the Sphynx because his cultural heritage ultimately was Egyptian.

(cir. 100 AD? based on much older sources)

The story of Cadmus' Egyptian and Phoenician ancestry, his conquest of Boeotia and founding of Thebes is told by the ancient (probably Roman) mythologist Apollodorus. Here are the central excerpts from the story (but if you wish, you can read the whole amazing thing at the Perseus web site):

[2.1.4] Egyptian King Epaphus married Memphis, daughter of Nile, and he founded the city of Memphis in her honor. They had a daughter Libya, after whom the land of Libya was named. By Poseidon Libya in turn had twin sons, Agenor and Belus. Agenor went up to Phoenicia and reigned there, and he became the ancestor of the Phoenicians . . . 

[3.1.1] . . . As I have said Libya had two sons, Belus and Agenor. Belus ruled over Egypt . . . but Agenor went up to Phoenicia and married Telepassa. They had a daughter Europa and three sons, Cadmus, Phoenix, and Cilix. (But some claim that Europa was the daughter of Phoenix, not of Agenor.)

Now Zeus loved Europa. He presented himself to her as a bull, he mounted her on his back, and he ferried her across the sea to Crete. There she bore him sons: Minos, Sarpedon and Rhadamanthys. (According to Homer, however, Sarpedon was Zeus' son by Laodamia, the daughter of Bellerophon.)

Father Agenor sent out his sons to search for Europa, and he ordered them not to return home until they found her. Mother Telepassa also went along with them, together with Thasus, son of Poseidon . . . but they could not find Europa after careful searching so they gave up the thought of returning to Agenor, and they took up new homes in various places. Phoenix settled in Phoenicia. Cilix ruled the land not far away, near the river Pyramus, and he called the place Cilicia. Cadmus and Telepassa lived in Thrace. Thasus similarly founded the city of Thasus on an island off Thrace, and he ruled there . . . 

[3.4.1] When at last Telepassa died, Cadmus buried her. Leaving the Thracians he went to Delphi to consult the oracle about Europa. The god told him not to worry about Europa, but to follow a cow, and to found a city wherever the cow would lie down to rest. Cadmus left Delphi, and was traveling toward Phocis, when he found a cow among the herds of Pelegon, and he followed her. After crossing into Boeotia, she at last rested in the place that now marks the city of Thebes.

To sacrifice the cow to Athena, Cadmus sent some of his companions to draw water from a nearby spring. But the place was sacred to Ares. A dragon (that, some say, was begotten by Ares) guarded the spring and destroyed most of the men who had been sent for water. In anger Cadmus slew the dragon. Athena put it in his mind to sow the dragon's teeth on the ground. From these seeds armed men sprouted up out of the ground, warriors called Sparti. They slew each other, some by brawling and others accidentally . . . but five of them survived: Echion, Udaeus, Chthonius, Hyperenor and Pelorus.

[3.4.2] To pacify the god, Cadmus served Ares for an eternal year--so called because at that time one year was the equivalent to eight years by our modern calendar. After his service to Ares, Cadmus received the kingdom from Athena, and Zeus gave him Harmonia to be his wife. She was the daughter of Aphrodite and Ares. All of the gods came down from the heavens to join the feast and to celebrate the wedding with songs. Cadmus gave Harmony a robe and the necklace wrought by Hephaestus . . . To Cadmus were born daughters, Autonoe, Ino, Semele and Agave, and also a son, Polydorus . . .

Note the mythological fudging in this passage. Apollodorus isn't really sure about all of the details of the story, but he follows what his various sources say--and he points out the contradictions that he finds in his sources. The general meaning of his story is clear enough, however. 

Apollodorus' larger story in The Library is about the spread of cultures throughout the world from the beginning of time, and this is mostly a story of "A begot B and C, B begot D, E, and F, etc."--much like the multiplication story in Genesis (as discussed in Lesson 1). People multiply, and cults come into conflict. The mythological wars in heaven are, in reality, wars of worshippers on earth.

Apollodorus' story tells us that the fertility rites of the bull and cow spread from Egypt to Phoenicia and then across the sea to Crete and its Minoan civilization (named after Minos, son of the Egyptian Zeus and Egyptian or Phoenician Europa). Phoenicians of Egyptian cultural background also spread to the mainland of Greece, first in Thrace in northern Greece and later into central Greece in Boeotia at Thebes.

Serving Ares (the god of war) simply means fighting--in Apollodorus' time, all warriors were said to serve Ares. In the story, Cadmus wants to appease the local Greek deity, Athena (the goddess worshipped in neighboring Athens and, apparently, in Boeotia too), so that there will be peace among the gods, but he is forced to fight for his new homeland instead. Only after eight years (or maybe one long year?) of fighting is harmony achieved, with all of the gods reconciled. The participation of all of the gods in the wedding of Cadmus and Harmonia is a multicultural event. The cults are at peace--temporarily.

(cir. 174 AD)

Another version of the Thebes foundation story is told by Pausanias, in his ancient travel guide Description of Greece. Pausanias' approach to the story is decidedly modern, almost journalistic. (This complete work also can be found on the Perseus web site.)

[9.12.1] The ancient Thebans used to sacrifice bulls to Apollo of the Ashes. During one of these festivals, however, those who had been sent to fetch the sacrificial bull had not returned. A wagon happened to be nearby, and so they sacrificed one of the oxen to the god, and it has been customary to sacrifice working oxen ever since.

The following story also is current among the people at Thebes. After Cadmus left Delphi on the road to Phocis, he found a cow to guide him. He received this cow from the herdsmen of Pelagon, and on each of her sides was a white mark like the orb of a full moon.

[9.12.2] The oracle had said that Cadmus, and the group with him, should make their new home where this cow would go to rest. This is one of the places that the Thebans can show you today. On the spot, there is an altar with an image of Athena, said to have been dedicated by Cadmus. Some think that this Cadmus who came to Thebes was an Egyptian, and not a Phoenician, but this view is contradicted by the name of this Athena, because she is called by the Phoenician name of Onga, and not by the Egyptian name of Sais.

[9.12.3] The Thebans also will tell you that part of their market-place today was in ancient times the dwelling of Cadmus. They will show you the ruins of the bridal-chamber of Harmonia, and also another chamber, which they say was Semele's bedroom [where the god Dionysus was conceived], but no man is allowed to step in there even now. Those who say that the Muses sang at the wedding of Harmonia can point to the spot in the market-place where the goddesses sang . . .

Pausanias sounds like a detached tour guide here, not quite endorsing any of the quaint local superstitions, but he clearly understands the situation almost as well as Apollodorus does, and he sees some real evidence as Herodotus does. There really is a Cadmus who comes from Phoenicia, or possibly from Egypt, to found Thebes. Moreover, through the marriage of Phoenician and Hellenic cultures, an important new god will develop, Dionysus.

Pausanias lived in an international and secularized age, at the height of the Roman Empire. Note in his passage above how religious or cult differences are treated as differences of language: the same goddess can have a Greek name, a Phoenician name, and an Egyptian name. It's even ok, in ritual, to substitute an ox for a bull. This underlying unity within polytheism creates a framework for cultural understanding. Wherever they go in such a world, travelers will feel right at home . . .

The fall of Thebes, based on a classical image.

The Destruction of Thebes

Unhappily the story of Thebes does not end with the wedding of Cadmus and Harmonia. Read further in Apollodorus and see. From this marriage will come Semele, and in her generation a strange and violent new cult will be born, devotion to the god Dionysus.  Dionysus is not a Hellenic god or a Phoenician/Egyptian god but a new Theban hybrid. To prove his might as a god, Dionysus will demand the deaths of many non-believers. Cult and cultural conflicts of the Thebans with the Hellenes will be renewed. Some of the cult practices of the Theban descendants bothered the Athenians hundreds of years later, as Herodotus suggests (quoted above).

To believe the old genealogies, there were only seven rulers at ancient Thebes before its destruction by the Argives: Cadmus, Polydorus, Labdacus, Laius, Oedipus, Eteocles, and Laodamus. The war with the Argives that ended Cadmean rule broke out in the time of Eteocles' reign, and it lasted for ten years. Eteocles' brother Polynices fought with the Argives against Thebes, and in the fighting both Eteocles and Polynices were killed. The Argives destroyed the city, and Laodamus fled with the remnant of the Cadmeans. The famous Theban seer Teiresias (the Teiresias of the Odyssey) died as he fled the burning city.

The Argives who assaulted Thebes were the same Argives who sacked Troy, though there are different opinions as to which city fell first. In the Iliad, Diomedes' father was a leader in the Argive force that first attacked Thebes, unsuccessfully, and Diomedes himself sacked the city ten years later, just before the attack on Troy. However, according to the Greek historian Thucydides, a usually reliable source, Thebes fell to the Argives 60 years after the fall of Troy, an idea that places the Trojan War at about the time of Oedipus or his father Laius. In any case, not many years separated the downfall of the two cities. Modern archaeology makes the destruction of both cities part of the general catastrophe, the destruction of the Bronze Age palace-states by raiding barbarian hoards at about 1200 BC.

(Later Greeks dated Troy's destruction as follows: 1184 BC Eratosthenes, 1209/8 BC the Parian Marble, cir. 1250 BC Herodotus, and 1334/3 BC Douris. The exact dating is still contested by modern scholars.)

In classical times, there were Homeric songs on the subject of "The Seven Against Thebes"  and "The Sons of the Heroes" that told of the destruction of Thebes by Hellenic forces, but these songs have been lost since antiquity. It is ironic that this song cycle recorded the fall of Cadmean Thebes, the place where writing may have been introduced to the Hellenes by Cadmus.

But back to the question of writing . . .

If the old stories are correct, Cadmus introduced writing to the Greek-speaking people some 100 years before the end of the Bronze Age, and the fall of Thebes and Troy. The first versions of the Trojan War story could have been recorded in writing at the time of the war either by Achaeans or by Thebans, and the Homeric songs that we know could have been based upon these earlier written sources. The archaeologists have not discovered any alphabetical Greek writing before about 775 BC, when it begins to be found on pottery, but writing on animal skins obviously would not have survived. Homer's preoccupation with animal sacrifice and victim speech may suggest that he knew about the use of skins in story-telling and he expected his audience to know about it, too.

Lack of direct evidence about writing in Homeric times is taken by many scholars to mean the Troy story was remembered and communicated solely by word of mouth for many hundreds of years. This "oral tradition" theory is quite hard to believe. Though it can't be disproved, there is plenty of circumstantial evidence against it. No literature of such sophistication and length as the Iliad and the Odyssey is found anywhere in world history to have been supported solely by oral transmission over any extended period of time. Nor is there any practical reason for generations of bards to have memorized and handed down these particular old stories verbatim, or nearly so. What would have been the point?

This is not to say that oral style doesn't matter in Homer. Homeric style is decidedly oral, and there is no question that in classical times at least the songs were sung or recited in performance. Performing bards were aided by Homer's use of mnemonic (memory-aiding) devices, such as stock epithets and heavy repetition. But like actors everywhere, they also would have been helped by a script.

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Powers of Literature home

Copyright  2001

American Indian painting (also weaving) on animal skins or hides
was very common and remains in practice by a few artists today.


READINGS for Powers of Literature
(with Lesson numbers):

1. Genesis 1
Creation Story

1. Genesis 11
Babel Story

2. Odyssey 8
Odysseus' voyage 1

3. Iliad 1-2
Achilles' anger

4. Iliad 9
Mission to Achilles

4. Peleus & Thetis
ancient sources

5. Iliad 15 ff
Death of Patroklos

6. Iliad 20 ff
Burial of Hektor

7. Odyssey 13-18
Return of Odysseus

8. Odyssey 20-24
City of Dreams

9. Life of Alexander
the Homeric king

10. Origins of writing
ancient sources

11. Plato, Euthyphro
Socrates gets busted

12. Plato, Apology
Socrates on trial

13. Plato, Crito
Socrates in jail

14. Plato, Phaedo
Socrates in heaven

15. Luke, Acts
Paul does Christ

16. Saint Francis
gospel without text

17. Chretien, The Knight of the Cart
Sire Lance's genes

18. Virgil, Aeneid
Aeneas & Dido