While reading Sailing The Wine Dark Sea this weekend, Thomas Cahill’s survey on the historical context of Greek life and culture, I came upon a reference to what many scholars consider the earliest surviving example of the Greek alphabet.
Although Cahill is not specific, subsequent research suggested that he must have been referring to an inscription on a wine jug found in the Dipylon Cemetery, near the Dipylon Gate in the Kerameikos area of Athens. The jug is attributed to the Late Geometrical Period (750-700 BCE), and it has been dated to ca. 740 BCE. It is now in the National Archaeological Museum of Athens.
What got me excited was that this sounded like the first use of packaging not just to protect, but also to enhance the entertainment value and usage occasion of the contents. And as you will read this is a wonderful combination of linguistic history, wine lore, and graphic design.
What got Cahill excited about the jug is the fact that what written language had previously existed, had been used most often for rather mundane purposes, as he says in the book,
“Almost as interesting as the invention itself are the uses to which the Greeks swiftly put their writing. If the pictographic systems, in their early incarnations, served simply as accountant’s tools and if the Semitic consonant alphabets were, to begin with, employed to similar purposes – or, in the Sinai, used perhaps to record short prayers – the Greek alphabet, from the first, takes off in a delightfully unserious direction. The earliest inscription we have is scratched on an Athenian wine jug of Homer’s time proclaiming playfully that:
The dancer of consummate grace,
will take this vase as his prize.”
He then goes on to describe what many think is the other very early example of the Greek alphabet, from the Nestor’s Cup, excavated in graves dating from the time of the Trojan War, by Heinrich Schliemann in 1876 at Mycenae.
“Not a glint of the green eyeshade of the accountant or a hint of the furrowed brow of the believer. And even when god is mentioned, as in the three lines of verse inscribed on a drinking cup almost as old as the Athenian jug . . . we could hardly ascribe high seriousness to the poet:
Who am I? None other than the luscious
drinking cup of Nestor. Drink me quickly –
and be seized in lust by golden Aphrodite.
I haven’t seen a bottle of 21st century wine that says it better.