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.

The culture of the feelings


This expression, in the last post, caused one reader to ask huffily, “What does that mean—if anything?”  It is tempting to dismiss it as yet another phrase being used to sell things, which is far from being the case.

David Holbrook, in his book English for Maturity—recommended for a teacher of any subject—entitles his fourth chapter The Very Culture of the Feelings, which is a quotation from John Stuart Mill’s autobiography.

J S Mill spent his adolescence thinking and writing about how human life could be improved.  But, he says, he attached ‘almost exclusive importance to the ordering of outward circumstances and the training of the human being to speculation and to action.’ Then he began to realise that ‘the passive susceptibilities needed to be cultivated as well as the active capacities, and required to be nourished and enriched… the cultivation of the feelings became one of the cardinal points in my ethical and philosophical creed.’

This perception came to him initially from reading Wordsworth’s poems. Wordsworth, he acknowledges, was not the greatest of writers, but his poems ‘seemed to be the very culture of the feelings, which I was in quest of. In them I seemed to draw from a Source of inward joy, of sympathetic and imaginative pleasure, which could be shared in by all human beings… what would be the perennial sources of happiness, when all the greater evils of life shall have been removed.’


Encountering such a phrase, students can be urged to look at the individual words in depth: for it is easy to skate over them.

  • Culture means enabling and helping things to grow.
  • Feelings—do they need to be cultivated? Well, yes, because Mill is using the word feeling in its primary metaphorical sense, given by the OED as ‘Capacity or readiness to feel emotion, esp. sympathy or empathy; susceptibility to emotional or aesthetic influences; sensibility.’

It is this cultivation that David Holbrook discusses in his book. He quotes, among other things, from Sir Walter Raleigh’s last letter to his wife, commenting that ‘Here a magnificent sincerity is couched in the same language as that which now, alas, abased and abused, leers and gestures at our helplessness from the gutter press, and lies jaded on our own tongues.’

Raleigh’s writing is in the classical style, and by its restraint and subtlety, it offers culture of the feelings in a manner similar to Virgil or Homer.