Some missing links in my efforts to trace continuities as well as discontinuities in Minoan-Mycenaean scribal practices

2020.01.17 | By Gregory Nagy

§0. The picture I show here, which is a photograph of a legal document composed in the Aramaic language and written on papyrus, illustrates a point I hope to make on the occasion of an event planned for the future. The event, organized by Giulia Sissa, will take place in the spring of 2020 at the Johns Hopkins University. Papers written in honor of Marcel Detienne will be presented—papers meant to be relevant to his lasting intellectual legacy. The paper I plan to present will address part of that legacy, centering on insights achieved by my friend Marcel in his investigations of ancient Greek alphabetic writing as it evolved in the first millennium BCE. And the point that I hope to make is specifically relevant to Marcel’s insights as elaborated in an essay he wrote for a book that he edited, Detienne 1988, about the diversity of scribal practices involved in ancient Greek uses of alphabetic writing. My point is, such diversity is due in part to continuities as well as discontinuities in scribal practices stemming from the Minoan-Mycenaean world of the second millennium BCE. To make this point, I will need to focus on non-Greek as well as Greek examples showing continuities in scribal practices attested throughout the Mediterranean world and beyond—not only in the second millennium BCE but also in the later first millennium. A case in point is the picture I show for this posting: the papyrus here, found in Elephantine, Egypt, and dating back to the fifth century BCE, is a folded and sealed document that is addressed, in a way, “to whom it may concern,” that is, to any authorized person who may need to unseal and unfold the authorized document and then read its content, written by or on behalf of those who originated this content.

Legal document, fifth century BCE. Provenance: Elephantine in Egypt. Written in Aramaic on a sheet of papyrus that was rolled, then flattened, then folded to one third of its full length, then tied with string, and then sealed, over the string, by way of a clay sealing. This document, part of a set of papyrus documents stemming from an archive stored by a family, remained sealed and unopened until its acquisition by the Brooklyn Museum, Bequest of Theodora Wilbour from the collection of her father, Charles Edwin Wilbour. Image via the Brooklyn Museum. Further details from the Institute for the Study of the Ancient World.

§1. As I hope to demonstrate, such a procedure of folding and sealing what is written—and then reading what is unsealed and unfolded—is a practice found not only in ancient Egypt (for a most lucid account of this practice, I recommend the work of Jaroslav Černý 1939 and 1952; valuable illustrations in Černý 1939:xvii–xix). As I indicated in the last two postings of Classical Inquiries, 2020.01.03  and 2020.01.10, we find this same kind of procedure attested also in a rival ancient world, controlled by Minoan-Mycenaean palaces, which eventually gave rise, I argued, to some of the scribal practices that survived into the later Greco-Roman era. But the problem is, there are many gaps to be confronted as I now proceed to attempt such a demonstration. Some of these gaps are due to the simple fact that so much relevant evidence has been lost. But other gaps—or let me call them missing links—are due to the complexities of whatever evidence has in fact survived. To fill at least a few of those gaps for now, I propose to examine some of these missing links.

§2. I start with the most obvious one of these missing links. The fact is, there was no single way for the ancient Greeks to visualize the medium of writing. A prime example is the word gráphein, ordinarily translated into English as ‘write’. As I indicated in Classical Inquiries 2019.12.12 at §3A and §3B, this word can mean not only ‘write’ but also ‘paint’ and even ‘weave’. But now I offer an additional perspective, from the standpoint of linguistics. Etymologically, gráphein should mean something like ‘cut’ in the sense of ‘incise’, as we see from the evidence of cognate Indo-European languages, and its root can be reconstructed as “full-grade” *greph- (DELG under γράφω). But the earliest meaning that can be reconstructed for gráphein is more like ‘scratch’. There is a related form griphâsthai (DELG under γριφᾶσθαι) attested in the ancient dictionary attributed to Hesychius, where we read: γριφᾶσθαι· γράφειν, οἱ δὲ ξύειν καὶ ἀμύσσειν. Λάκωνες. My translation: ‘griphâsthai [means] gráphein [= write]; but others say it means xúein [= scratch] and amússein [= scratch]; so say the Laconians’. I propose that we see here a survival of a standard Mycenaean form, where the vowel e is raised to the vowel i in the vicinity of the bilabial consonant ph, so that the substandard Mycenaean form would be *grephâsthai, not griphâsthai. For an explanation of the distinction I make here between standard and substandard Mycenaean, I refer to Classical Inquiries 2020.01.03 §§2–4. The idea of ‘scratching’ would fit, I propose, the procedure of writing with a stylus on the surface of a clay tablet as opposed to writing with a brush on the surface of parchment. This idea would also fit, as we will see later on at §7, the procedure of ‘scratching’ a message on the waxed surface of a wooden writing-tablet.

§3. Given, then, such diversity of meanings attached to gráphein—writing by scratching or by dabbing—I am not all that surprised by the corresponding diversity of meanings attached to modern and postmodern adaptations of this Greek word, as also of its derivatives, like grámma in the sense of ‘writing’ or even ‘letter’. A case in point is the term grammatology as used by the linguist Ignace Gelb (1952) with reference to the study of any writing system as a mere reflection of language itself as a system. By contrast, we see the same term used as the title of a book written by the theoretician Jacques Derrida (1967, as best mediated by the translation of Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak 1976, revised in 1997 and again in 2016) with reference to the study of the text itself as a primary way of understanding the language that exists outside the text.

§4. Aside from theoretical models, there is also the relevant evidence of popular usage connected with the same verb gráphein ‘write’ and with its derivative nouns grámma ‘writing, letter’ as also graphḗ ‘writing’. I think of superannuated terms like “gramophone record” and “phonograph record,” where even the word “record”—let alone the elements “gram“ and “graph”—have lost their usefulness in a post-vinyl age of recording the sound expressed by the elements “phono” and “phone.”

§5. And then there is the word “paper,” as when I said at §0 that I plan to present a “paper” about writing in the ancient world. In such a context, the material of paper is not really the medium for what I will present when I read what I have to say—any more than printed paper is for me the ordinary medium for reading, say, an article in the New York Times. Similarly for the Ionians of Asia Minor, as we saw in Classical Inquiries 2020.01.10 §2 with reference to the testimony of Herodotus (5.58.3): they could say in their Ionic dialect diphthérai, originally meaning ‘parchment’, even when they really meant búbloi, meaning ‘papyrus’.

§6. Although papyrus was the medium of choice for writing that suited most kinds of needs in the ancient world, there were also other media that were more suitable for special needs, as in the case of note-taking. A shining example is an underwater discovery, offshore from a promontory by the name of Uluburun, situated along the Turquoise Coast of Turkey. Discovered there was a sunken ship, dated to the late fourteenth century BCE, which included in its vast cargo a small folding writing-tablet, measuring 9.5 by 6.2 centimeters, which was made of boxwood and equipped with ivory hinges for folding and unfolding; presumably, the writing would be done on a wax surface coating the two inner sides of the tablet (my bibliography lists sources for further details about the Uluburun shipwreck and about the writing tablet: Bass 1986, Bass, Pulak, Colon, and Weinstein 1989; Payton 1991; Pulak 1988).

§7. This folding writing-tablet evokes the Homeric mention in Iliad 6.168–169 of ‘baleful signs’ (σήματα λυγρά, 168) that Proitos, king of Tiryns, had ‘written’ or ‘scratched’, grápsas (γράψας, 169, from gráphein); these signs were written ‘in a folding [ptuktós] tablet [pínax]’ (ἐν πίνακι πτυκτῷ, 169) to be carried by the hero Bellerophon from the king of Tiryns to the king of Lycia. As the story proceeds in Iliad 6.174–178, we learn that Bellerophon, although he escaped the death that was ordained by the ‘baleful signs’  that were ‘written’—or, better, let us say ‘scratched’—on the surface of the folding tablet, never got to read the message he was told to carry from the one king to the other. That was because, even in terms of the story, the tablet had been folded by the writer, and it was not to be unfolded by anyone except the intended reader. Such, then, is the mentality of producing a folded text, no matter what the surface for the writing happens to be: parchment or papyrus or wax-on-wood.


Bass, G. F. 1986. “A Bronze Age Shipwreck at Ulu Burun (Kas): 1984 Campaign.” American Journal of Archaeology. 90:269–296.

Bass, G. F., Pulak, C., Colon, D., and Weinstein, J. 1989. “The Bronze Age Shipwreck at Ulu Burun: 1986 Campaign”. American Journal of Archaeology. 93:1–29.

Černý, J. 1939. Late Ramesside Letters. Bibliotheca Aegyptiaca IX. Bruxelles.

Černý, J. 1952. Paper and Books in Ancient Egypt. An inaugural lecture delivered at University College, London, 29 May, 1947. London. Reprinted 1977. Chicago.

Chantraine, P. 2009. See DELG.

DELG. = Chantraine, P. 2009. Dictionnaire étymologique de la langue grecque: histoire des mots. Ed. J. Taillardat, O. Masson, and J.-L. Perpillou. With a supplement Chroniques d’étymologie grecque 1–10. Ed. A. Blanc, Ch. de Lamberterie, and J.-L. Perpillou. Paris.

Derrida, J. 1967. De la grammatologie. Paris.

Derrida, J. 1976, Of Grammatology, tr. G. Ch. Spivak. Revised 1997 and again 2016. Baltimore.

Detienne, M., ed. 1988. Les savoirs de l’écriture en Grèce ancienne. Villeneuve-d’Ascq.

Detienne, M. 1988b. “L’espace de la publicité: ses opérateurs intellectuels dans la cité.” In Detienne 1988:29–81.

Gelb, I. 1952. A Study of Writing. 2nd ed. Chicago.

Nagy, G. 2011. “Observations on Greek dialects in the late second millennium BCE.” In Proceedings of the Academy of Athens 86.2:81–96. Republished online,

Nagy, G. 2019.12.12. “About writings and rewritings by scribes: an e-dialogue with Hana Navratilova.” Classical Inquiries.

Nagy, G. 2020.01.03. “A Minoan-Mycenaean scribal legacy for converting rough copies into fair copies.” Classical Inquiries.

Nagy, G. 2020.01.10. ‘Echoes of a Minoan-Mycenaean scribal legacy in a story told by Herodotus.” Classical Inquiries.

Payton, R. 1991. “The Ulu Burun Writing-Board Set.” Anatolian Studies. 41:99–106.

Pulak, C. 1988. “The Bronze Age Shipwreck at Ulu Burun, Turkey: 1985 Campaign.” American Journal of Archaeology. 92:1–37.

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