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Semeta lygra: Reading hieroglyphics with Archaic Greeks

Christopher Stedman Parmenter

New York University

This paper traces a history of Greek interaction with foreign scripts in the 7th/6th centuries. In

recent years, the adaption of the Greek alphabet from north Semitic script has become clearer as

more ostraca are known from various parts of the Late Geometric Euboean world, such as

Pithekoussai, Eretria, and Methone (West 2015, Papadopoulos 2016). In the late archaic period,

the alphabet is known to have been called in inscriptions the made-up ethonym poinikeia,

‘Phoenician letters’ (Kritzas 2010) (cf. Herodotus’ appellation as παρὰ τῶν Φοινίκων τὰ

γράμματα 5.58.3), and by the fifth century Herodotus remembers the alphabet as one of the many

ambivalent ‘Assyrian and Egyptian cargoes’ (1.1.2) brought to Greece in a hazy past.

Yet the Greek alphabet only prevailed late in regions such as Cyprus, and was not the only script

to arrive in Greece. Between the Early Iron Age and the end of the Archaic Period, thousands of

objects with Egyptian hieroglyphic inscriptions circulated the Mediterranean (Hölbl 1979, Skon-

Jedele 1994, Gorton 1996). Unlike the north Semitic script, hieroglyphics were never adapted

for literacy, nor were they likely understood. At Perachora, Sounion, and the sanctuaries of

Rhodes, Greeks dedicated many hundreds of faience scarab seals inscribed with pharaonic

cartouches, royal titles, or nonsense inscriptions, with forged, misdrawn, or otherwise

indecipherable hieroglyphics (James 1961.473; Gorton 1996.63-79). Most of these were

manufactured in Greece itself, for Greek consumption, by artisans with no knowledge of

Egyptian letters (Webb 2016.1-10). In this paper, I analyze the most spectacular of these

sanctuaries, Perachora, and argue that the purpose behind Greek use of Egyptian hieroglyphics

was to project an image of local cosmopolitanism and membership in the Aegyptianizing koine

of the sixth century Mediterranean to outsiders. This sheds light onto the other uses of script

beyond communication, and provides a new type of evidence for Greek engagements with non-

Greek literary cultures.

Greeks engaged with Egyptian material culture in various and locally contingent ways (Hölbl

1979, Gunter 2009, Arrington 2015). Corinth, with its namesake Orientalizing pottery style, is

usually understood as a city with substantial ties to the eastern Mediterranean (Lloyd 1975,

Salmon 1984.224-26, Skon-Jedele 1994.209-12), but in the city itself, aside from a handful of

objects, there is little to suggest an interest in things imported. In the absence of compelling

evidence for the immigrant Phoenicians elsewhere linked to the transmission of the alphabet,

Homer’s association of ‘baneful letters’ (σήματα λυγρὰ Il. 6.169) with Corinth in his story of

Bellerophon (Il. 6.155-203)—his only mention of the alphabet—has always struck an odd note.

People in archaic Corinth structured their interactions with foreign or imitative objects—and

especially objects inscribed in Egyptian letters—by segregating the overwhelming majority to

Perachora, a sea-facing sanctuary that was easily accessible to people coming from or departing

to the west (Skon-Jedele 1994.218-25).

Scholarship since 1930s has treated scarabs at Greek sanctuaries as “sailors’ trinkets” deposited

one by one (Pendlebury 1930.82), but basic quantification suggests otherwise. Those charged

with curating votives at Perachora showed awareness as to what was, or was not, script. At the

Greek sanctuaries with the most hieroglyphic inscriptions—Perachora and the sanctuaries of

Rhodes—more than half of inscriptions are legible. At sanctuaries with smaller collections, such

as Sounion, Chios-Phanai, and Artemis Orthia, the percentage of legible inscriptions is far lower,

suggesting that objects were not valued as inscriptions. Across the board, documents with

official connotations—pharaonic names and titles—form a remarkably consistent percentage of

the total assemblage (around 10%), and analysis of the pharaohs represented suggests some

awareness of political developments in late period Egypt (cf. Hölbl 1999/2000 on Italy).

By dedicating imitated and forged hieroglyphics at sanctuaries, archaic Corinthians projected a

self-image of cosmopolitanism: if real Egyptians were not to be found in archaic Corinth, their

language could be. Once Egypt ceased to be independent after 525, Egyptian letters lost their

cache, and the Greek engagement with hieroglyphics at sanctuaries concluded.

Session/Panel Title

Ritual and Religious Belief

Session/Paper Number


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