Introducing Painful Signs

I am moving some essays and longer projects to a substack called “Painful Signs, Or, Joel’s Substack.” I am experimenting with this space for a few reasons: (1) wordpress has gotten a little annoying; (2) I’d like to try something different; (3) substack seems to make it easier to raise funds we can donate to good causes. Here’s the summary on the first page from the site:

It is an extension of the multiverse designed for longer essays, threaded projects, and revision and renewal of older ideas. I have spent over a decade building a website bringing together translations and commentary on ancient Greece and Rome with great collaborators and partners. This site will feature only my own work and, in its first months/years, focus in particular on the Iliad.

As nears 10,000 posts and the twitter feed @sentantiq dies a Musk-fueled death, this new space provides something of a tabula rasa to think again about writing outside of the cycle of academic publication, about public engagement, about how to think and write about the past, and how to develop and sustain new projects.

This site will have free and paid subscriptions. Free subscriptions get access to regular shorter posts; longer posts and the archive go to paid subscriptions.

All funds generated by paid subscriptions will be donated to non-profit groups working to support the study of the ancient world and emphasizing public engagement. I will make annual statements about where funds are sent.

I have trouble imagining too many people doing paid subscriptions, but anything we get from the other site will be sent to groups and initiatives we have supported in the past.. isn’t going anywhere. I won’t cross-post much from substack, so check it out and subscribe (for free or otherwise!)

Why “Painful Signs?”

“Painful Signs” is my loose translation of the description of the message Proitos sends along with Bellerophon in book 6 of the Iliad when he sends him to Lykia, with the hopes his father-in-law will murder him. (Proitos’ wife was in love with Bellerophon, but he refused her, so she told Proitos that Bellerophon raped her. Because they were guest-friends, however,  Proitos could not have him killed in his country).

Homer, Iliad 6.168-170

“Then he sent him to Lykia and he gave him painful signs,
He marked many heart-rending things on a folded table,
Which he told him to show to his father-in-law, so he would die.”

πέμπε δέ μιν Λυκίην δέ, πόρεν δ’ ὅ γε σήματα λυγρὰ
γράψας ἐν πίνακι πτυκτῷ θυμοφθόρα πολλά,
δεῖξαι δ’ ἠνώγειν ᾧ πενθερῷ ὄφρ’ ἀπόλοιτο.

This is the only apparent reference to writing in Homeric epic, but most sources believe it is not actually so. Here are ancient scholars’ comments:

Schol. T ad Hom. Il. 6.168 ex

Murderous signs: letters.

“It would be strange if people who developed every kind of craft would not know about letters. Some people claim these are like the sacred images of the Egyptians, used to communicate actions.”

     σήματα λυγρά: γράμματα…ἄτοπον γὰρ τοὺς πᾶσαν τέχνην εὑρόντας οὐκ εἰδέναι γράμματα. τινὲς δὲ ὡς παρ’ Αἰγυπτίοις ἱερὰ ζῴδια, δι’ ὧν δηλοῦται τὰ πράγματα.

Schol. A. ad Hom. Il. 6.169 ex

“written on a folded tablet”: this appears to use letters. But it does not mean this-instead to scrape [graphein] means to ‘smooth’ out. This is really the impression of images through which Proitos’ father-in-law may understand”

γράψας ἐν πίνακι πτυκτῷ: ὅτι ἔμφασίς ἐστι τοῦ τῆς λέξεως γράμμασι χρῆσθαι. οὐ δεῖ δὲ τοῦτο δέξασθαι, ἀλλ’ ἔστι γράψαι τὸ ξέσαι· οἷον οὖν ἐγχαράξας εἴδωλα, δι’ ὧν ἔδει γνῶναι τὸν πενθερὸν τοῦ Προίτου

Schol. D ad Hom. Il. 6.168

“Signs: symbols and shapes through which he communicates a plan. For there was no use of writing [letters]”

σήματα: σημεῖα καὶ τύπους δι᾿ ὧν δηλοῖ τὴν ἐπιβουλήν. οὐδὲ γὰρ ἦν τῶν γραμμάτων χρῆσις

Schol. D ad Hom. Il. 169

“After he wrote”: after he sketched out signs and symbols. For heroes did not know about writing.”

γράψας: χαράξας σημεῖα τινὰ καὶ συμβόλαια. τοὺς γὰρ ἥρωας μὴ ἑπίστασθαι γράμματα

I like this phrase “painful signs” and its use in the Iliad because it conveys (to me) some sense of the peril of secret messages, of the potential dangers of a fixed communication, of the insidious side of language. There’s something telling in the way that the message’s bearer does not know its contents and their implications.

So, I am taking this phrase as a bit of a thematic tuning for the beginning of a return to thinking about the Iliad . I think it is probably tenuous to claim that this tablet taken from the Peloponnese to Asia Minor is in away a symbol for epic itself, but I don’t think its too much to say that the episode shows a poetic concern with what effects signs have on the world, and how they have different meaning depending on who you are.

color photograph from a museum catalog.Waxed ivory writing tablet: one of a set of sixteen writing tablets hinged together as a folding set. It is scored on the back and front to receive the wax surface, which would have been inscribed in cuneiform with a stylus.
Waxed ivory tablet from British Museum. #131952. Neo Assyrian, 8th Century BCE

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