AS battle raged between Greeks and Trojans in Homer’s Iliad, two warriors confronted and challenged each other in no-man’s land. Soon, and in a strange turn of events, they established common ground and friendship before shaking hands and going their separate ways.
The two men were the Greek hero Diomedes, King of Argos, and Glaucus, a leader of the Lycian supporters of the Trojans.
Both told of their proud and ancient lineage before Diomedes declared: ‘I have said enough to show that in me you will now have a good friend in the heart of Argos, and I shall have you in Lycia, if I ever visit that country. So let us avoid each others spears…’
With no more ado, says Homer, both men leaped from their chariots, shook hands and pledged each other. Heart-warming as this episode may be it enabled Glaucus to recount a story about a famous ancestor, the heroic Bellerophon.
It also gave Homer the opportunity to record in the Iliad a memorable episode concerning unrequited lust, vicious revenge, murderous intent … and a secret message ‘traced with a number of devices’ which could only be understood by the sender and the recipient. See Ref. 1 below.
Of this incident, David Kahn, author of The Codebreakers, wrote of ‘the story in the Iliad that includes the world’s first conscious reference to – as distinct from use of – secret writing’. See Ref. 2 below.
This story of Bellerophon began, said Homer, when Queen Anteia fell in love with the handsome young hero and ‘begged him to satisfy her passion in secret. But Bellerophon was a man of principle and refused ‘.
In revenge for being rejected, Anteia told her husband, King Proteus, that Bellerophon had tried to ravish her and demanded that he be killed.
As Bellerophon was a guest in his house, Proteus had to abide by custom and not carry out the murder. Instead Proteus sent Bellerophon to the King of Lycia ‘with sinister credentials from himself. He gave him [Bellerophen] a folded tablet on which he had traced a number of devices with a deadly meaning and told him to hand it to the Lycian king’.
That ‘folded tablet’ was intended to be Bellerophon’s death warrant.
‘When he [the King of Lycia] had deciphered the fatal measure’ he gave Bellerophon four tasks, none of which he was expected to survive. Gallant Bellerophon, however, turned the tables and killed the monstrous Chimaera, successfully fought the famous Solymi,
killed the Amazons ‘who go to war like men’, and finally, escaped a deadly ambush.
The King of Lycia then wisely re-thought his position and recognised that Bellerophon was a true son of the gods and not only offered him his daughter’s hand but also gave him half of his kingdom.
David Kahn (Ref. 3) notes:
‘This is the only mention of writing in the Iliad. Homer’s language is not precise enough to tell exactly what the markings on the tablet were… The whole tone of the reference makes it fairly clear that here, in the first great literary work of European culture, appear that culture’s first faint glimmerings of secrecy in communication.’ Ref.2.
In Homer’s times (c. 745-700 BC) when an efficient Greek writing system had yet to emerge, the story of Bellerophon and the ‘folded tablet’ was not the only method of preserving and communicating important knowledge.
Homer and earlier generations of poet-astronomers were the guardians of an extraordinary volume of knowledge of astronomy and calendar-making woven into the stories they memorised and passed down the centuries by word of mouth. Such learning would have been as essential for the organisation and well-being of life in pre-literate Greece as it was in contemporary – and literate – Babylon and Egypt.
Crucial support for this view arises from analysis of the extensive numerical data embedded in the Odyssey which is directly and accurately linked to astronomy, sophisticated luni-solar cycles and calendar-making.
For a wider introduction to the Iliad and the Odyssey as extended astronomical metaphor see Homer’s Secret Iliad (John Murray, London) and Homer’s Secret Odyssey (The History Press).
Reference 1 and subsequent quotations are from the Iliad, Book 6, pp 120-122 (E.V. Rieu, Penguin Classics).
References 2 and 3: David Khan’s The Codebreakers (Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1974 edition) pp 73-74. The Codebreakers was first published in 1967.
© K&FS Wood, 2015