Inscriptions on Inscriptions
Nestor’s Cup is a black figure Rhodian skyphos that dates to around 740-20BC and was found on Ischia, an island off the coast of Naples and a colony of the Greek peoples of Euboea. This cup was most likely used as a wine cup at the ancient Greek all-male drinking party called a symposium. But what is relevant about this cup to Classical Texting is the inscription on the cup’s side. Like many pots and potsherds from the ancient Greek world, the inscription was scratched onto the surface of the cup after firing; this is known as a ‘graffito’ and has been dated to as late as 600BC. What is interesting about this inscription is that it uses the formulae and conventions of two different types of inscription and turns them on their head. Those two types of inscription are the ownership inscription and the curse formula, which I will treat in turn.
First of all, here is the Nestor’s Cup inscription:
Νέστορός : ε[ἰμ]ι : εὔποτ[ον] : ποτέριο[ν].|
hὸς δ’ ἂν τõδε π[ίεσι] : ποτερί[ο] : αὐτίκα κενον |
hίμερος αἱρέσει καλλιστε[φά]νο : Ἀφροδίτες. (CEG 454)
I am Nestor’s cup, good to drink from,
whoever drinks from this cup, immediately
the desire of beautiful-crowned Aphrodite will seize him. (own translation)
Line one adopts the generic formula for an owner’s inscription, which normally follows the pattern of “I am/ this is [name in the genitive]”, such as this eighth century inscribed pottery from Mount Hymettos:
…εἰμὶ τõ Διὸς τõ… (Langdon: 1976, no.4a)
“I am of Zeus…” or ‘I belong to Zeus’
What this object’s inscription does is to make reference to the famous cup of Nestor mentioned in Iliad 11.632-7. This cup is described in the Iliad as studded with golden nails, with four handles, and two doves decorating it - a far cry from the ceramic, geometrically decorated cup before the reader’s eyes. By evoking the Iliadic cup through its reference to the mythical character Nestor, the inscription plays with contemporary practices of marking ownership and exaggerates them to make outlandish claims about the object’s identity. By juxtaposing the humble ceramic Nestor’s Cup with the lavish Iliadic golden cup, the inscription satirises claims of ownership by compelling the reader to knowingly make false statements while speaking in the voice of the cup: “I am Nestor’s cup”.
Lines two and three play with the standard formula of curses: “If X happens [normally to do with the violation of the associated object], Y will happen as a [negative] consequence.” Faraone also identifies the hexametric meter and the deictic tode in line two as further signs of performative curse language (1996: 96). Considering that it is a sympotic vessel - a drinking cup no less - it is virtually unavoidable that at some point during its use in the symposium someone would have drunk from it. Thus it is likely that the composer created a curse that he intended to be fulfilled as opposed to more conventional curses which are created for the very purpose of actually preventing their own fulfilment, such as this inscription on a small flask from seventh century Cumae: “whoever steals me shall be blinded.” (IG XIV.856). In this example, the curse is designed to prevent its own fulfilment, whereas the curse of Nestor’s cup has chosen a condition so likely to be fulfilled that it inverts the very concept of a curse inscription.
In sum, the inscription of Nestor’s Cup toys with ideas concerning the power of writing - whether these be assertions of the ownership, identity, or power of an object. It uses the performance context of the symposium to subvert the expectations the reader, making for highly self-conscious and playful interaction. As holder of the cup, the reader is compelled to adopt the false identity of the cup and to make the incorrect assertion that “I am Nestor’s cup” aloud before his audience, comprised of his fellow symposiasts. It also used the formula and attributes of a curse inscription within the context of the symposium to have fun with the idea of cursing and a curse’s fulfilment. This playful deployment of epigraphic precedents to subvert and amuse shows the sophisticated way in which Archaic Greeks were reading and thinking about the epigraphic material around them and treating it much like the way in which their contemporaries were treating material we would consider to be more ‘literary’. The self-consciousness of epigraphic material and its engagement with concurrent literary culture shows how Greek epigraphy, from a very early period, had the potential to be highly complex and self-aware of its own status as epigraphy.
CEG Carmina Epigraphica Graeca, ed.Hansen, P.A., (Berlin and New York 1983, 1989).
IG XIV Inscriptiones Graecae XIV Italiae et Siciliae additis Graecis Galliae, Hispaniae, Britanniae, Germaniae inscriptionibus, ed. George Kaibel (Berlin, 1890)
Langdon, Merle K. (1976) “A Sanctuary of Zeus on Mount Hymettos” Hesperia Supplements, vol.16, (The American School of Classical Studies at Athens)
Faraone, C. (1996). 'Taking the "Nestor's Cup Inscription" seriously: erotic magic and conditional curses in the earliest inscribed hexameters,' Classical Antiquity 15: 77-112.
Nick Brown is a PhD candidate in the Department of Classics and Ancient History at the University of Warwick. His research looks into the ways in which early Greek sculptures and their inscriptions interact with one another. In particular, he is investigating the significance of the body of the sculpture being the site of inscription. More broadly, his interests within Classics focus on the theme of art and text from Greek pottery to ekphrastic literature.