Anachronism in Euripides

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 —.”
Old man
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.

Names of stars

Aldebaran is the α star, i.e. the brightest, in the constellation of Taurus. It is a fine sight through binoculars, red and ‘glowing like a jewel of fire’ (see below).

The boy who was asked the origin of its name at interview, and got it right, had expressed an interest in astronomy on his personal statement: and he knew that Aldebaran, along with so many other stars, was given its name by Arab astronomers in the Middle Ages, in that flowering of Muslim science and culture whose passing has recently been regretted by Professor Dawkins. It was those astronomers who translated the work of Ptolemy into Arabic, and named it the Almagest.

Students need to be aware of the names and words in English that come from the Arabic of that period, the most obvious being albatross, alcohol, algebra, alkali, and of course the Alhambra. And then there is the word zero, for which the Muslim scholars gave us not just the word, but the concept itself, until then unknown to mathematicians.

A question recently arose about a passage in Tolkien:
‘Away high in the East swung Remmirath, the Netted Stars, and slowly above the mists red Borgil rose, glowing like a jewel of fire. Then by some shift of airs all the mist was drawn away like a veil, and there leaned up, as he climbed over the rim of the world, the Swordsman of the Sky, Menelvagor with his shining belt. The Elves all burst into song.’

The description corresponds to the rising of three constellations: first the Pleiades (the Netted Stars), and then Taurus with its brightest star Aldebaran (Borgil), then Orion (Menelvagor). The meanings of these Elvish names are perhaps determinable by experts in those tongues.

Orion, named by the early Greeks, is perhaps the most spectacular constellation in the Northern hemisphere, striding from left to right with his shining belt, his sword hanging from it, and his arm uplifted to cast a spear, with his dogs at heel on the left— Canis Major with its brilliant star Sirius, and further behind, Canis Minor.

The two brightest stars in Orion have Arabic names: at the top, Betelgeuse (orange-red) and at the bottom, Rigel (pure white). But behind Orion, Sirius, the Dog Star, is one of the few individual stars to have been named by the Greeks. It is glittering white, and the brightest star in the Northern sky.

All three of these too are magnificent through a pair of binoculars.