The pleasure of writing

One of the oldest surviving traces of the Greek alphabet is the Dipylon Oinochoe Inscription dated to about 740 BC.

Writing is fun. Its roots are bound up with entertainment and pleasure-seeking.

One of the earliest instances of the use of the Greek alphabet is an inscription on a wine jug (an oenochoe) which has been dated to around 740 BC. The Diplyon inscription, as it is known, was scribbled on the jug by someone who attended a dancing event. The inscription, written in Greek letters resembling Phoenician script, reads:

Whoever of all these dancers now plays most delicately, of him this pot.

The text is not written in prose, but in hexameter verse. It is poetic.

Another candidate to the earliest use of the alphabet is an inscription on another cup known as Nestor’s Cup, dated more loosely to the 8th century BC. The inscription is clear:

I am the cup of Nestor good for drinking.
Whoever drinks from this cup, desire for beautifully
crowned Aphrodite will seize him instantly.

The last two lines are also hexameters. The text is poetic in nature.

Dancing and wine, certainly that’s not something an intellectual would like to associate the roots of writing with. It would’ve been great to have a moral axiom or a philosophical insight inscribed instead.

Between Dyplon and Nestor, writing occurs in a social context of pleasure and fun, singing and drinking. As scholars like Eric Havelock have pointed out, literacy emerged as a continuation of orality, not as a competitor but as a way of extending the human memory of the group. Writing provided a means of taking snapshots of social interaction for later reference.

The earliest Greek compositions are poetic texts born out of oral performances, choruses, epic recitals, songs. The nine Greek muses who drove the creative spirit of the past were all ludic and festive goddesses: Cleio as the Celebrator, Euterpe as the Delighter, Thaleia as the Luxuriator, Melpomene as the Song Player, Terpsichore as the Dance-Delighter, Erato as the Enrapturer, Polyhymnia as the Hymnal Player, Urania as the Heaven Dweller, Cal­liope as the Fair-Speaker. Once they took over writing – when poets began to encode the ludic performance into text –, a new age began.

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