It’s endemically difficult to comprehend in our present tAgora-dominated environment, but letters and pages and books didn’t always have the upper hand. They didn’t always represent the trump technology, the medium through which all other media had to be interpreted. Nowhere is this more evident than in a tale from Homer’s Iliad, a perilous episode that at first sight may seem like unexpected evidence for writing within the oAgora.
The story concerns the victimization of the Greek hero Bellerophon, who incurs the wrath of Proitos’ wife by denying her advances. His refusal so infuriates her that she spitefully reports him to her husband as the instigator, causing Proitos to attempt a kind of vicarious, long-distance revenge (which eventually fails, by the way). In short, Proitos sends Bellerophon to the Lykian king with a “folding tablet” bearing the encoded message to “kill the bearer.” Homer calls the kill-code sêmata lugra, literally “baneful signs,” and it’s hard to argue with that description.
But Homer and his tradition, good citizens of the oAgora, weren’t simply defaulting to the tAgora here. The logic runs the other way. By calling the written message a series of signs, Homer was explaining that inscription, a technology he doesn’t use, amounts to a species of sign-language, an OT technology that he does use. He is characterizing the momentous communication in the only way that he can – as a species of the expressive signals known within his tradition as sêmata and used to describe such phenomena and objects as divinely inspired omens, tomb markers for heroes, and Odysseus’ and Penelope’s olive-tree bed.
And Homer is absolutely consistent in his media dynamics. Wherever these sêmata occur in the Iliad and Odyssey, and for whatever specific purpose, they share one principal function: they serve as symbols rife with hidden meaning that can be discovered in no other way. As such, these dedicated signs remain as mysterious as they are powerful, as superficially opaque as they are effective. In other words, Homer interprets the tablet and its murderous code from within his own oAgora – by comparing the written message to a meaning-making strategy that lies at the heart of his OT craft.
Homer does not struggle to escape the ideology of texts. He does not suffer from the modern plague of agoraphobia. He’s many centuries too early to worry over the reaccreditation of the Museum of Verbal Art. For once, the tables are turned: oral tradition sets the frame of reference, and we’re asked to understand a text in terms of oAgora technology, not vice versa.