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« Tuna 4 / 2020

The ‘Cup of Nestor’: Literacy, Symposion, Eroticism and Epic in the Mediterranean in the 8th Century BC

This article examines a Greek drinking vessel from the 8th century BC and the brief text written on it in hexametric verses, and draws attention to its importance in understanding the development of Greek culture. The item in question is a wine goblet found in the grave of a 10-14-year-old upper class boy on the ancient island of Pithekoussai (currently the island of Ischia) near the Italian coast. The text written on the goblet states that

I am the cup of Nestor good for drinking. Whoever drinks from it, will be instantly seized by the desire belonging to fairly crowned Aphrodite.

This ‘Cup of Nestor’ text is one of the earliest examples of the Greek alphabet and evidently its earliest surviving notation in hexametric verses. In terms of its content and objective, the epigram under consideration is typical in many respects among numerous early texts that note the affiliation or maker of an object in first person: ‘I am such-and-such’ or ‘so-and-so made me’. Yet it surpasses the others in terms of its length and complexity. Since the goblet was used at symposions and the inscription stressing the passion-inciting effect of wine is also comprehensible precisely in the context of drinking parties, the object under consideration provides us with perhaps the earliest evidence of the symposion in the Greek cultural region. The lust for love pledged in the inscription also has to be understood in the context of the symposion, where homoerotic love in particular had an important role. Since the boy, in whose grave the goblet was found, had just reached the age that was suitable as an object of homoerotic love, the ‘Cup of Nestor’ can also be seen as the earliest evidence of Greek paiderastia (pederasty). Who that Nestor was, to whom the drinking vessel belongs according to its own announcement, is an altogether different question. He could have been the goblet’s owner, who sacrificed it at the funeral of the boy that was close to him, or he could have been the boy to whom the goblet was given as a gift. Yet the hexametric verses refer to heroic epic poetry, where the chalice that belonged to the ancient hero Nestor played its role. For this reason, it is likely that the goblet under consideration referred to the famous drinking vessel known from heroic epic poetry. Since the ancient drinking vessel of Nestor is mentioned and described in the Iliad, the goblet found at Pithekoussai has also been seen as the earliest evidence of the existence of the Iliad more or less in the form that is known to us. Unfortunately, this conclusion does not hold true. Heroic epics, including the Iliad, were based on the centuries-long oral epic song tradition, and as a central figure of the Greek world of heroes, Nestor played an important role in other epics as well, for which reason there are no grounds for believing that his chalice would have been the invention of the Iliad’s poet or that knowledge of it would have derived namely and only from the Iliad.

Hence the ‘Cup of Nestor’ does not solve Homer’s question. Yet it is indicative of quite widespread literacy among the 8th century Greek elite, of the early spread of symposion customs, quite likely also of the cultivation of homoeroticism in this context, as well as the fact that revellers enjoyed heroic epic poetry, were knowledgeable of its subject matter, and were in the habit of putting epic verse in writing as well.