Book Excerpt

THE HISTORY OF THE LIBRARY IN WESTERN CIVILIZATION: FROM MINOS TO CLEOPATRA. Konstantinos Staikos

THE HISTORY OF THE LIBRARY IN WESTERN CIVILIZATION: FROM MINOS TO CLEOPATRA.

New Castle, Delaware: Oak Knoll Press and HES & DE GRAAF Publishers BV, 2004. small 4to. cloth, dust jacket. 374 pages. This work is the first in an important, five-volume series addressing the unique role libraries have played in building and preserving Western culture. Mr. Staikos has become one of our foremost scholars on library history, writing such books as this, as well as works like "The Great Libraries," a classic in its field. This..... READ MORE

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Preface


In this book, the first volume of The History of the Library in Western Civilization, to which I have given the allusive and somewhat flowery title From Minos to Cleopatra: The Greek World from the Minoans' Archival Libraries to the Universal Library of the Ptolemies, I have attempted to trace and recount the methods used by the Minoans, the Mycenaeans and the Greeks generally, from the Early Bronze Age to the end of the Hellenistic period, for storing, classifying and arranging the products of their written tradition, whether those products be clay tablets bearing records of everyday farm life or papyrus rolls immortalizing the great achievements of the Classical period in poetry and philosophy and the entire tradition of scholarship down to the time of the Neoplatonists and the commentators on Aristotle. These records and works of literature or scholarship, written on or in all sorts of books - clay tablets, diptychs and polyptychs, potsherds, parchment, papyrus sheets and rolls - were stored in public and private archives variously referred to as demosia grammata, chreophylakion, grammateion, grammato- phylakion, syngraphophylakion and bibliothekai.

Both in Minoan Crete and in the Mycenaean world it seems that there may have been a certain mystique surrounding the scribes - the elite who possessed knowledge and the secret of reading and writing. Not only are their names never mentioned, but they are not even used by artists as models in the magnificent, colourful frescoes or the lavish vase-paintings of the Minoan civilization. These scribes, who devised the pictographic and Linear A and B scripts, and the 'proto- typographer' who impressed the Phaistos Disc were destined to preserve their anonymity and to keep their secrets so closely guarded that their pictographic and Linear A scripts remain largly undeciphered to this day. And although the Cretans and Mycenaeans had well-developed commercial and diplomatic relations with the countries of the Near East, especially Egypt, it would seem that the prestige attached to scribes in those countries, on account of their mastery of the secrets of reading and writing, was not a feature of Minoan society. So perhaps the best way to pay tribute to the scribes of the land of the Keftiu (as the Egyptians called the Cretans) is by quoting a passage from an Egyptian poem which indicates the high repute in which scribes were held in Egypt, as being the sole repositories of knowledge and wisdom: The all-wise scribes in the age that shall come after the gods, those whose prophecies come true. Their names shall be preserved forever They shall live on in the books they have written and in their teachings.

At some time in the Mycenaean period, between about 1100 B.C. (when the art of writing was forgotten) and the middle of the eighth century B. c. (when the Greek alphabet was invented), Homer ensured that future generations would be well provided with subjects for recitation by singing of the calamities visited by the gods upon the human race; but in all his verses he never once refers to any community of scribes or their working environment. His solitary allusion to writing presents a satanic picture of the role and symbolism of the power of the written word: Bellerophon, the hero who slew the Chimaera, was sent to the king of Lycia bearing a message consisting of 'signs with a deadly meaning' - actually his own death sentence. However, the oral tradition created by Homer, in which mortals and gods fight superhuman battles on the plain beneath the beetling walls of Troy and heroes contend with the forces of nature, was to beget two great epics - the Iliad and the Odyssey - that fostered an awareness of the need to establish fixed written texts of oral epics and, as a natural consequence, to found public libraries.

While Homer's 'heirs', the guild of itinerant rhapsodists called the Homeridae, continued to celebrate the exploits of the Achaeans and Trojans in song, around the beginning of the sixth century a competition was instituted as part of the Panathenaea festival in which rhapsodists had to recite Homer in accordance with a fixed text. This innovation, attributed to Solon, paved the way for the founding of the first Athenian public library by Pisistratus. However, Xenophanes of Colophon took issue with the moral basis of epic poetry, castigating the poets for their anthropomorphic depiction of the gods and urging the Greeks to acknowledge the 'eternal sphere' as the one true god. The strife provoked by this pious itinerant rhapsodist, who was himself a poet, split Greek society down the middle; and Plato, who reject- ed outright the whole idea of the gods and goddesses quarrelling and fighting each other, actually banished Homer from his ideal state on those very grounds. In the time of the itinerant rhapsodists a new philosophical movement came into being in southern Italy. It involved mystic rites (of which Orpheus was regarded as the patron) to do with life and death, and by the middle of the sixth century B.C. the words of these rites had been put in writing in a fixed form. The famous gold plates (deltoi) inscribed with the words of burial rites, the Pythagorean oral tradition and the writings of 'natural philosophers' were eventually gathered together into a corpus of sacred texts that were widely read in Athens.