Oldest Odyssey fragment?  No, but what is it?

I – The Case

A day (or two, or few, depending on when I finish this) ago, it was announced by the Greek ministry of culture that a new find from Olympia can claim to be the oldest fragment of the Odyssey found to date.

Herein is the official announcement, whatever one thinks of the claim of being the ‘earliest yet found in Greece’, at least it’s a fairly sobre text. From the Guardian, for example, we learn that on some authority while the Odyssey was composed in the 8th century, it was only later  ‘transcribed during the Christian era on to parchment of which only a few fragments have been discovered in Egypt.’

If this represents the level of popular awareness of papyrology (and for all its fault, the Grauniad is usually good on the literary stuff), we can understand the level of confusion permeating every news source.

To be clear, this is not the first material testimony we have for the Odyssey. We have an ostrakon (piece of fired pottery) from Olbia, around the 5th-4th century BC. Provenance here. In fact, the number of pre 3rd century AD testimonies is reasonably high (around 50). This is all the more impressive given that throughout antiquity the Iliad was (rightly!) much more widely read and copied.

Papyri, not clay or parchment, was the most commonly used writing material in antiquity. Cheap, reasonably durable, and mass producible, this ubiquitous material was how most ancient Greeks and Romans would have read their texts. A monopoly on it within Egypt was one of the ways the Ptolemids retained and expanded their wealth. Trade wars (ooh, topical) between Pergamon and Alexandria were what allegedly led to the wider scale adoption of the more expensive parchment in the ancient world.

In fact, the transfer from papyrus roll to parchment codex is one of the watershed moments in the nachleben of any antique text. It’s why we have what Pindar we have. It is also, partly, the reason so much literature is lost or lacunary.

Parchment was expensive and elegant, worthy of illumination (see the fantastic Vergilius Romanus from the ancient world). We often recover papyrus from midden heaps or mummies. In fact the Homeric fragment P.Oxy. 67.4633 was literally used as toilet paper.

excerpt from the  Vergilius Romanus (Vatican City, Biblioteca Apostolica, Cod. Vat. lat. 3867)

To bring everything back round, anyone interested in the early papyri of Homer should read Stephanie West’s ‘The Ptolemaic Papyri of Homer’. For those without access to the book, this link may be more amenable – though be warned, it’s not a straight account like West’s.

So, the new find is not the earliest found. So what is it? What’s interesting about it?

For starters, that it’s been inscribed (that may be too technical a word) in clay and deposited in a sanctuary, and a major one at that.

As you may have surmised from the above, clay wasn’t the most common writing material in the Aegean, at least not since the collapse of the Mycenaean civilisation. It was used throughout the near east – indeed, we even have bilingual Greek/Akkadian texts – but, within Greece, its use seem to have been limited to trainee writers.

We know from certain festivals, such as the Athenian Arkteia (celebrated at Brauron), that those on the cusp of man/womanhood might ‘sacrifice’ their childhood possessions to the temple in a ceremony. The shedding of these childhood accoutrements were meant to signify the crossing into adulthood, the exchange of dependency for rights and responsibilities.  

This is incredibly unlikely here. This is the temple of Zeus, at Olympia, not a place for initiation ceremonies.

Do we know of other instances of texts being deposited in temples? Why, yes, we do. Herakleitos (‘The obscure’) deposited his entire oeuvre within a temple as a bulwark against the exigencies of time. The library at Alexandria was, above all, a temple complex. Elite Romans would deposit their wills at the temple of Vesta. We can detect a close link between text and temple from Kinaithos and his hymn to Apollo onward.

But this is not a personal will or a complete text in need of safe keeping. What is the most likely explanation, which combines materium with provenance?

II – Elementary, Dear Watson?

Here’s my solution: How about a rhapsodic votive offering?

Votives were objects left in temples (either deposited away or displayed) in a fulfillment of a vow or as a sort of prayer for the future. For a much better write up, here’s a page on votives from the Akropolis museum.

There’s a very archaic human urge for votive offerings, we have evidence of them from our neolithic past to contemporary times: I’ve seen more than one church (on the island Tinos?) were people have affixed plaster/bronze/wood effigies of ailed limbs in hopes of treatment. As you may imagine, votives formed an important part of Greco-Roman cultic practice.

Olympia itself was a famous site for some extravagant votive offerings. Rather than link an article, I’d invite anyone interested to read the relevant section from Pausanias.

When we discuss Greek literature, we forget all too often both the performative element and the antagonistic aspect. Poets vied with one another as much as those men of any profession (to paraphrase Hesiod), for both material gain and word-fame. Competitions could be as serious as athletic games and indeed were often held in similar(ish! …we need to put that ‘ish’ or Xenophanes will come back from the dead and throttle us) esteem.

Could this then not be a fledgling rhapsode vowing something of himself, his art, to the god before a contest? It seems to make intuitive sense to me. This isn’t a rhapsode’s text, marked up for performance or an expensive codex. The lines (Odyssey 14.7-13) are hardly what one would expect from a schoolboy exercise, which tended to be dominated by proems.

Greek lyra player

On the other hand, if the rhapsode was competing/partaking in a sort of Homeric relay, where singers each sang a book in succession, and he had been allotted book 14, it makes sense for these lines to come to mind. Perhaps this clay tablet is the votive offering of a nervous singer, breathing out the first lines that came to mind, scribbling them into the clay (the voice, the performance, not the medium, is pre-eminent here) and dedicating it to the gods.

‘Zeus, father of gods and men: if ever I have burnt for you the fatty thigh upon your altar; if I have always treated strangers fairly and with their due, may I sing well and lift the bronze tripod in your name this day’

That sort of thing.

What do you think? It’s hardly perfect, by nature circumstantial and reconstructionist. A blog post is not the place for a lengthy expansion on my reasoning, but I think I’ve given a fair few thrusts even if I’m defective on the cuts.

Let me know what you think.

Further reading

Many of the things touched upon here regarding papyri and literacy are best encountered in Peter Parson’s incredibly enjoyable book, ‘The City of the Sharp Nosed Fish’

I am eagerly awaiting ‘Homer in Performance’ edited by Jonathan L. Ready and Christos C. Tsagalis this August. If anyone from UoT press is reading this instead of working, feel free to lose a copy my way.

If you’re interested in Homer, be sure to follow this blog since I’m starting a new series in the very near future on the Iliad



4 thoughts on “Oldest Odyssey fragment?  No, but what is it?

  1. I wouldn’t reject the school hypothesis out of hand. Precisely because it wasn’t familiar, it might have been the subject of a dictée. That would account for the sloppy penmanship (stylusmanship?)l


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