December 17th, 2004

My Fame Has Reached The Heavens

Men know me for my many strategems.
My fame has reached the heavens.

Odysseus was a man “of many wiles” and Homer’s Greece was a culture of spectacle. All fame and infamy were communicated orally, never written down. Thus an ambitious man who wished to advance himself was obliged to speak openly of his own accomplishments, even to strangers. If you didn’t create your own legacy, you couldn’t expect others—especially the gods—to do it for you.

But then came a case of necessity driving invention. Homer’s classic epics, as one major example, had to be memorized word by word. Why not a system of writing that would mirror speech itself?

The earliest known example of Greek alphabetical writing appears right here on the Island of Ischia, in the museum of Villa Arbusto, above the village of Lacco Ameno. On the side of what’s called "The Cup of Nestor" are scratched the following lines:

I am the goodly cup of Nestor;
Whomsover shall drink of me,
Fair-crowned Aphrodite shall
Immediately seize.

The cup—dated to the 8th century BC—was found in Lacco’s necropolis, part of a collection of grave goods in the tomb of a young boy. Nothing is known of the boy, nor who might have thrown the cup in as a gift or tribute.

The scratched lines, however, are understood to be a spell. The Greeks were deep into the practice. Someone had the bright idea of writing the incantation on a cup so that it didn’t have to be chanted aloud. A secret sex spell, or aphrodisiac.

Now, when I first met Vittoria in April, 1997, I was captivated not only by her beauty and intriguing character, but also by the fact that she was from Ischia. As it happened, several months before our initial encounter I'd found an essay in The New York Times Book Review that described the Nestor’s Cup, and its significance in the history of language. Also in the essay were a few words about the island, originally called Pithecusae, founded nearly 2,800 years ago by settlers from Calcydes and Eretria in Eubea. I tore out the pages, folded them carefully and put them in my Oxford Book of Classical History.

So when Vittoria asked me if I knew where Ischia was, I nodded, “Oh yes, of course! And what an incredible coincidence!” I went on to describe that Times article, and the profound importance of the invention of written alphabetical language, and…blah, blah, blah. She was amused by my passion for all this ancient history.

Not too long afterward my smiling sweetpea offered me the cup and I eagerly drank deeply and now seven years, eight months, and five days later, seized by goddess Aphrodite I happily remain.