by Edwin D. Floyd
The most obvious treatment of writing in Homer is σήματα ... γράψας "having written signs" at Iliad 6.167-168. Probably the passage alludes to Bronze Age syllabic writing. Now most familiar as Linear B, such writing continued to be used in Cyprus until after 300 BCE; consequently, it could readily have been known to Homer (around 725 BCE). There are also several Homeric passages which combine σήματα "signs" with forms of ἀναγιγνώσκειν. Compounded from ἀνά "up, again" and γιγνώσκειν "to know", this verb basically means "to know again, to recognize". As early as Pindar (about 250 years after Homer), though, it also means "to read". My claim is that this meaning is (1) pre-Homeric and (2) poetically resonant in Homer.
Etymologically, ἀναγιγνώσκειν fits one's approach to a syllabary well. A typical scenario for reading a Linear B text is that a scribe goes back to his own ledger to corroborate certain details. Alphabetic writing, on the other hand, represents a flow of speech. Reading an alphabetic text, then, is not so much a matter of "knowing again" what one had previously written. Accordingly, ἀναγιγνώσκειν is not so likely to have first developed the meaning "to read" after Greek writing had become alphabetic.
Besides being etymologically attractive, an association of ἀναγιγνώσκειν with reading will also provide poetically effective double entendres at Odyssey 19.237-250, 23.200-206, and 24.336-246. Odyssey 23.200, for example, refers to crimson and ivory decoration, and at 23.206 we find the participle ἀναγνούσῃ "having recognized / read". Rare in alphabetic Greek, the "crimson / "ivory" combination is found in three Linear B tablets (with varying degrees of epigraphical uncertainty and/or complication), viz., KN Sd4401, Sd4408, and Sd4450; correspondingly, one can hear Odyssey 23.200-206 in terms of Penelope's somehow "reading" a Linear B text as she finally acknowledges Odysseus' identity.
The connections of Odyssey 23.200 with writing also extend to alphabetic materials, inasmuch as Iliad 4.141 likewise combines "crimson" and "ivory". Different as the two Homeric contexts may seem (warfare and marriage), there is nevertheless an underlying identity of resonance, consistent with Penelope's "reading" an alphabetic Greek text. On the other hand, the reference, in the next line of the Odyssey, to a single oxhide cut in a thin spiral strip has Phoenician associations. It therefore also adumbrates some other text (albeit perhaps a hypothetical one), written in the Phoenician alphabet - and this point is corroborated through the occurrence in Odyssey 23.201 of the word φοίνικι "Phoenician dye".