Friday, November 17, 2006

Nestor's Cup Revisited

In his article, Grated Cheese Fit for Heroes, JHS, 1998, M.L. West considers the Nestor's Cup inscription, dating from 735-720, in light of the trend to place Homer's Iliad in the eighth century as well. West thinks that this makes it more plausible that the poet of the Nestor's Cup inscription was not echoing Homer directly, but an older common source for the drinking episode involving Nestor. He presents two related elements to the reader: one metrical, and the other archaeological.

The metrical issue involves these lines, Iliad 11.638-640:
ἐν τῷ ῥά σφι κύκησε γυνὴ εἰκυῖα θεῆισιν
οἴνῳ Πραμνείῳ, ἐπὶ δ᾽ αἴγειον κνῆ τυρόν
κνήστι χαλκείῃ, ἐπὶ δ᾽ ἄλφιτα λευκὰ πάλυνε.

[In it the woman, like the goddesses, mixed Pramnian wine for them, and over it she grated goat cheese with a bronze grater, and sprinkled white barley on it.]

The word κνῆ in line 639 is extremely unusual, according to West, being a long monosyllable in the biceps position of the fifth foot. Around 100AD, Heraclides of Miletus reports the variant κνέε, which he says was found in "some of the Aristarchean texts" (τινὲς τῶν Ἀρισταρχείων ἐκδόσεων). Despite the fact that West thinks this reading was a conjecture designed to eliminate the unusual metrical situation, and probably not genuine, he does suspect that κνῆ is a contraction of two short syllables. To the point, West suggests that when this hemistich was first used, the verb was *κνάε instead, and that it would have been contracted to *κνᾶ. He thinks our reading, κνῆ, was an Atticism in transmission, based on the spoken Attic ἔκνη. Therefore, the description of the cheese grating must have been introduced before the contraction of αε to ᾱ, which, according to West, would put it at least as far back as the first half of the 8th century, and "very probably" the ninth.

This is where archaeology enters the picture. Euboea played an important part in the development of the epic between 950 and 750, and David Ridgway has discovered bronze cheese graters, along with weapons, in warrior graves of 9th century Lefkandi. Ridgway says: "I submit that bronze cheese-graters at Lefkandi make perfectly good sense as part of a warriors' personal property. A grater could have been regarded as essential to both the preparation of an effective pain-killer and to the kind of serious non-medicinal drinking that is not uncommon in military circles" (Nestor's cup and the Etruscans, Oxford Journal of Archaeology, 1997). West points out that a grater would also be useful for grating hard cheese into dough or over meat, and not simply for drinking. He theorizes that the Nestor's Cup tradition goes back to Mycenaean poetry, but that an epic poet of 9th century Euboea was the first to introduce the grated cheese, following a custom that he knew in his own time. He thinks too that the function of the cup had changed, from a large personal cup that only Nestor could lift, to a mixing bowl, with the underlying suggestion that "heroes from the past drank from cups as large as mixing-bowls are now."


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