Geometric Greece: 900-700 BC

By J. N. Coldstream | Go to book overview

11

The Recovery of Literacy

No aspect of the Greek Dark Ages is more poignant than illiteracy. The syllabic writing of Linear B, which had served the needs of Mycenaean palatial administration, was forgotten in Greece after the destruction of the Mycenaean palaces. Thereafter we know of no inscriptions in the Greek language until the earliest alphabetic graffiti on Geometric pottery, none of which is older than 750 B.C.

In addition to these graffiti, four other kinds of evidence bear on the birth of the Greek alphabet: literary, linguistic, epigraphical, and archaeological. According to Herodotus (v. 58, 1-2), the Greeks first learned to write from Phoenician immigrants to Boeotia led by Cadmus; although Cadmus is a figure from the heroic past, it is clear that by 'Phoenician letters' the historian meant the alphabet, and not the Linear B syllabary which had passed into oblivion during the Dark Ages. 1 The role of the Phoenicians as teachers is confirmed by the names of each individual letter, meaningless in Greek, but based on real words in Phoenician and other western Semitic languages-and, furthermore, these words explain the original form of the sign: thus alpha answers to the Semitic 'alep denoting an ox, and the corresponding Semitic sign in its oldest form (c. 1500 B.C.) is just recognizable as an ox-head. Since the forms of each Phoenician letter underwent many changes, comparison with the earliest Greek inscriptions will help to determine the period when the Greeks first learned to write alphabetically-for here the LG graffiti give us no more than a terminus ante quem. And, since the local Greek alphabets adopted in each city differ considerably from each other all through the Archaic period, the first Greeks to learn alphabetical writing should produce the letter forms which are nearest to their Phoenician prototypes. Finally, the archaeological evidence bearing on these matters is indirect, but nevertheless quite important and circumstantial, drawing our attention to the times when, and the places where, Greeks and Phoenicians are known to have been in close contact.

Some oriental ideas-for example, the Tree of Life design or the frieze of grazing animals-could have been copied by Greek artisans directly from oriental imports. Other notions, like the difficult techniques of granulation and filigree in goldwork, could not have been learned without the help of an oriental teacher; and so it must have been with the alphabet, immeasurably the greatest legacy of the Orient to the rising civilization of Greece. Somewhere we must imagine a hitherto illiterate Greek, memorizing by rote the names of the Phoenician letters, repeating them in the order in which he heard them spoken, and learning to associate each name with a sign drawn by his Phoenician instructor. He would quickly grasp the acrophonic principle, whereby each sign represented the initial

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Geometric Greece: 900-700 BC
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page 1
  • Preface to the Second Edition 3
  • Preface to the First Edition 4
  • Contents 5
  • Contents 8
  • Acknowledgements 9
  • Abbreviations 12
  • Introduction 17
  • I - The Passing of the Dark Ages C. 900-770 B.C. 23
  • 1 - Isolation: the Early Ninth Century 25
  • 2 - The Awakening in the Mid-Ninth Century 55
  • 3 - Consolidation: Late Ninth to Early Eighth Century 73
  • II - The Greek Renaissance C. 770-700 B.C. Regional Survey 107
  • 4 - Athens and Attica 109
  • 5 - The Argolid, Arcadia, Laconia, and Messenia 140
  • 6 - Corinth and West Greece 167
  • 7 - Euboea, Boeotia, Thessaly, and the Cyclades 191
  • 8 - Italy and Sicily: Trade and Colonies 221
  • 9 - Eastern Greece and Anatolia 246
  • 10 - Crete 271
  • III - Life in Eighth-Century Greece 293
  • 11 - The Recovery of Literacy 295
  • 12 - Towns and Villages 303
  • 13 - Sanctuaries, Gods, and Votives 317
  • 14 - Recollection of a Heroic Past 341
  • 15 - Oriental Influences 358
  • 16 - Epilogue 367
  • Supplement 371
  • Epilogue 414
  • Glossary 416
  • Bibliography and Site Index 418
  • Index 443
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