Saturday, January 5, 2013

Writing, Law, and Memory in Ancient Gortyn

In the ruins of Gortyn, in central Crete, some of the famous ancient laws of Crete are preserved in stone.  Archaeologists uncovered them in 1884, and have since built a brick enclosure to protect them from the weather.
David L. O'Hara, photo credit
Gortyn, Crete

Even though I'm not an expert in the Doric dialect, I love to read this inscription, for several reasons that might interest even those who don't know Greek.

First of all, it has an unusual alphabet, containing fewer letters than modern or classical Attic Greek.  It lacks the vowels eta and omega (for which it uses epsilon and omicron), and the consonants zeta, xi, phi, chi, and psi (for which it substitutes other letters or combinations of other letters: two deltas for zeta, kappa+sigma for xi; pi for phi; kappa for chi; pi+sigma for psi.)

It also uses a letter that has since fallen out of use, the digamma.  The digamma (or wau) is probably related to the Hebrew letter waw (or vav) and to the Roman letter F, which it closely resembles.  By the classical age it had dropped out of use in Greek, and is fairly rare, like the letters sampi and qoppa.

(There is also a digamma in Delphi, not far from the Athena Pronaia sanctuary, on an upright stone dedicated to Athenai Warganai.  That second word is related to the Greek word for "work" or "deed," ergon, and also to our word "work."  This stone, pictured below, evinces several peculiarities of archaic Greek script.  Look at the second word, which looks like it says FARCANAI. The first letter is digamma; the third letter, rho, very much resembles the Latin "R"; the letter immediately after it, gamma, looks like a flattened upper-case "C.")

David L. O'Hara, photo credit

"Athenai Warganai" inscription at Delphi

Second, the writing is in boustrophedon style.  Boustrophedon means something like "as the ox turns."  Today we write in stoichedon style, in which all the letters face the same direction, like soldiers standing in formation.  Boustrophedon is based on an agricultural, not a military ideal: the writer writes as a farmer plows.  Write to the end of the line, and then, rather than returning to the left side of the page, turn the letters to face the opposite direction and write from right to left.  When you read boustrophedon, your eye follows a zig-zag across the page -- or the stone.

Have a look at this close-up of the engraving at Gortys and look at the way letters like "E," "K," and "S" face in adjacent lines:

David L. O'Hara, photo credit
Close-up of the Gortyn Code

(By the way, that "S" character is actually an iota; sigmas look like this: M; mu is like our "M" with an extra stroke added.)

There are a lot of other reasons to like this place, and this inscription, but I'll limit myself to just one more thing for now: memory.

This inscription is one way that an ancient community deliberately remembered their laws.  They wrote down what they decided, and that has affected our lives.  Writing the law down makes it accessible to everyone, and makes judicial decisions transparent. It establishes a set of expectations for conduct in the community, and makes those expectations known even to aliens.

The code at Gortyn records (in Column IX, around the middle, if you're curious) the presence at court of someone in addition to the judge: the mnemon.  You can see by the word's resemblance to our word "mnemonic" that it has to do with memory.  The mnemon's job was to act as a witness to previous judicial decisions, and to remember them and remind the judge of those decisions.  The mnemon's job was not to decide cases but to be a kind of embodiment of the law and therefore an embodiment of fairness.  

Unfortunately, no mnemon lives forever.  Presumably, the writing on the wall at Gortyn was a way of preserving what mattered most in the court, so that when they passed away, their memories would live on through the ages.

National Archaeological Museum, Athens. Possibly a child's dish? The sixth letter is digamma.


Harold Fowler writes in a footnote to his 1921 translation of the Cratylus that under Eucleides the Athenians officially changed their alphabet from the archaic one to the Ionian alphabet in 404/403 BCE.  This expanded their system of vowels, adding the long vowels eta and omega.  It became known as the Euclidean Alphabet.


If you can find it, Adonis Vasilakis' The Great Inscription of the Law Code of Gortyn (Heraklion/Iraklio: Mystis O.E.) is a great resource.  It has a facsimile of the whole wall, a complete translation, and some helpful historical observations.  ISBN 9608853400


  1. Thank you for the information on why some letters are the wrong way round. No one was able to tell me when we visited two weeks ago.

    1. I'm glad to hear that you found this helpful. It's a beautiful site, and I think knowing a little about it makes it even more interesting and lovely.

  2. David, I didn't locate this box, so put a comment under Speaking. Sorry.