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.

This muddy vesture

Some 14-year-olds, reading the myth of Prometheus, saw the statement that the first human beings were fashioned from clay and water—ex luto et aqua.

They were smiling at such a primitive notion, when one boy—perhaps a future habitué of the Cavendish Laboratory—pointed out that yes, it is entirely correct: the human body is over 60% water and the rest is compounded from the topsoil of the planet.

By coincidence a thoughtful sixth former was wrestling with Aeneid Book VI, line 724 onwards, and asked for it to be clarified:

principio caelum ac terras camposque liquentis
lucentemque globum lunae Titaniaque astra   725
spiritus intus alit, totamque infusa per artus
mens agitat molem et magno se corpore miscet.
inde hominum pecudumque genus vitaeque volantum
et quae marmoreo fert monstra sub aequore pontus.
igneus est ollis vigor et caelestis origo               730
seminibus, quantum non noxia corpora tardant
terrenique hebetant artus moribundaque membra.

‘Essentially the heaven, the lands, and the watery expanses,
and the glowing ball of the moon, and the star of Titan,
are nurtured by a spirit within: a mind, infused through their parts,
motivates the whole mass and blends itself in their great framework.
From it comes the race of men and beasts, and the lively birds,
and the monsters that ocean bears below that smooth surface.
These have energy like fire, and there is heavenly origin for their seeds—
so far as they are not slowed by their hurtful bodies and dulled
by their limbs of clay and perishable frame.’

This is the belief, known to the Stoics, that has origins with Anaxagoras, then Plato, and then the pupils of Pythagoras, that there is an anima mundi: a psyche of the universe, which is the source of all being: from it, all living things contain the animating seeds that give life to what would else be clay and water.

The body, however, can be a prison, enclosing human beings in a darkness that thwarts them from seeing—or hearing—beyond.

In English literature:

‘…a sense sublime
Of something far more deeply interfused,
Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns,
And the round ocean and the living air,
And the blue sky, and in the mind of man;
A motion and a spirit, that impels
All thinking things, all objects of all thought,
And rolls through all things.’
William Wordsworth, Tintern Abbey

‘Look how the floor of heaven
Is thick inlaid with patines of bright gold:
There’s not the smallest orb which thou behold’st
But in his motion like an angel sings,
Still quiring to the young-eyed cherubins;
Such harmony is in immortal souls;
But whilst this muddy vesture of decay
Doth grossly close it in, we cannot hear it.’
      William Shakespeare, The Merchant of Venice, V.1

Of interest:
James Lovelock, Gaia: a new look at life on earth, OUP, 2000.
See also the accounts in Hindu, Buddhist and Neo-Confucian literature.