Could Theseus, King of Athens, read or write? And, later, could Agamemnon, King of Argos? We may with confidence believe not.
Yet these are the words of Theseus in Hippolytus, lines 856ff, as Phaedra’s body is revealed:
τί δή ποθ᾽ ἥδε δέλτος ἐκ φίλης χερὸς
ἠρτημένη; θέλει τι σημῆναι νέον;
ἀλλ᾽ ἦ λέχους μοι καὶ τέκνων ἐπιστολὰς
ἔγραψεν ἡ δύστηνος, ἐξαιτουμένη;
‘What can it be, this tablet fastened to her dear hand? Does it mean to tell me something new? No, surely she has written instructions about our marriage and our children, in sorrowful entreaty…’
He breaks the seal of the tablet (δέλτος)—and finds Phaedra’s allegation about Hippolytus: he tells the Chorus he is destroyed by what he has seen ἐν γραφαῖς—in its writings, or, literally, scratchings.
Euripides is cryptic about the nature of the scratchings; but in Iphigenia in Aulis, lines 111ff, he uses open anachronism. Agamemnon speaks to the old man who is to be his messenger (E.P.Coleridge’s translation):
…Up now and away with this missive to Argos, and I will tell you by word of mouth all that is written here, the contents of the folded scroll, for you are loyal to my wife and house.
“Daughter of Leda, in addition to my first letter, I am sending you word —.”
Say on and make it plain, that what my tongue utters may accord with what you have written.
“Not to despatch your daughter to Euboea’s deep-gulfed wing, to the waveless bay of Aulis, for after all we will celebrate our child’s wedding at another time.”
Phaedra and Theseus did not have knowledge of the written word, nor did Agamemnon and Clytemnestra.
The word ἐπιστολή does not appear in Homer at all, and γράφειν appears only twice—in the Iliad—with its original meaning of to scratch.
σγράφω and scribo are part of that large family of words starting SCR- or SC- to do with surfaces: scratching, scraping, skimming surfaces, or just the surfaces themselves:
English: scrape, skim, scour, scathe, score, scoop, scorch, scud, scald, scratch, scrabble, scrounge, scrub; scum, skiff, scab, scalp, scar, skin, scruff, scupper, scurf, scythe; scarce, scanty.
Latin: scribo, sculpo, scapha (a skiff, which skims over the surface), scopa, scobis.
Greek: γράφω (originally σγράφω), ξέω, ξύρω, σκάριφος, σκάπτω, γλάφω.
The potential philologists among our students
love this kind of thing.