One of my favorite stories is the Ovid version of Philomel. (She pre-figures the Tarantino heroines in many ways. Note that the elements of other myths section of Wikipedia omits the most direct reference, which is, of course, Atreus' feast for his brother Thyestes;)

Philomel is famously reprised in a degraded form in an early play of Shakespeare, widely regarded as his worst (although it also contains elements of his greatest,) Titus Andronicus.

Like Philomel, Lavinia is deprived of words (and her hands as well, which is partly why the story is degraded--it was likely necessary for Shakespeare as a plot device but results in a scene that is generally received by audiences as pathetic to the point of absurdity, and thus comes across as morbidly comic, evoking laughs at inappropriate moments, which is occurs not infrequently in this most over-the-top of the Bard's plays.)

Nevertheless, Lavinia is able to reveal the perpetrators, and their progenitor may be fed her own offspring.

My question, however, does not relate to adaptations of Procne, as the story of Philomel is sometimes referred, but instead to the use of code and ciphers in myth.

What are other examples of codes and ciphers in mythology?

  • Is there a version of the Philomela story where the designs in her tapestry are explicitly said to be encrypted? I have only a passing familiarity with the story, but I don't remember it involving ciphers. – yannis Mar 9 '17 at 19:12
  • As I recall, the term is not used explicitly (not even sure if such a word was in use at that time), but the story makes the use of the device plain: Unable to tell of her woes, Philomel weaves them into a tapestry only her sister will recognize, and has it sent to her as a gift. There is evidence of ciphers in antiquity in Greece and Rome. – DukeZhou Mar 9 '17 at 19:30
  • I always thought that she had either explicitly drawn her woes on the tapestry, or even that she wrote her message in plain text (and that whoever delivered it was either complicit or illiterate). A word for encryption doesn't have to be explicitly mentioned, it would be good enough if the story mentioned that no one other than Procne was able to understand the message. That would be a plausible hint to some sort of encryption being used, and would make the story a much more fascinating one. – yannis Mar 9 '17 at 19:38
  • You can find the Ovid here in Latin and English. Many translations of the Ovid exist, but all interpretations involve code. Written language is a less likely interpretation, but it serves as code to one who is illiterate. However, the story is considered quite old, even by Ovid's time, so the natural tendency is to view the tapestry as pictorial, as opposed to linguistic. Also notable that weaving was a source of power in Greek Myth: Moirai, Penelope, etc. – DukeZhou Mar 9 '17 at 20:00
  • 2
    Thanks for the link, I certainly need to refresh my memory. Re weaving: don't forget Arachne ;) – yannis Mar 9 '17 at 20:15

The story of Bellerephon, as told by Homer in Book VI of the Iliad, may be of interest:

There is a city in the heart of Argos, pasture land of horses, called Ephyra, where Sisyphus lived, who was the craftiest of all mankind. He was the son of Aeolus, and had a son named Glaucus, who was father to Bellerophon, whom heaven endowed with the most surpassing comeliness and beauty. But Proetus devised his ruin, and being stronger than he, drove him from the land of the Argives, over which Jove had made him ruler. For Antea, wife of Proetus, lusted after him, and would have had him lie with her in secret; but Bellerophon was an honourable man and would not, so she told lies about him to Proteus. 'Proetus,' said she, 'kill Bellerophon or die, for he would have had converse with me against my will.' The king was angered, but shrank from killing Bellerophon, so he sent him to Lycia with lying letters of introduction, written on a folded tablet, and containing much ill against the bearer. He bade Bellerophon show these letters to his father-in-law, to the end that he might thus perish; Bellerophon therefore went to Lycia, and the gods convoyed him safely.

"When he reached the river Xanthus, which is in Lycia, the king received him with all goodwill, feasted him nine days, and killed nine heifers in his honour, but when rosy-fingered morning appeared upon the tenth day, he questioned him and desired to see the letter from his son-in-law Proetus. When he had received the wicked letter he first commanded Bellerophon to kill that savage monster, the Chimaera, who was not a human being, but a goddess, for she had the head of a lion and the tail of a serpent, while her body was that of a goat, and she breathed forth flames of fire; but Bellerophon slew her, for he was guided by signs from heaven. He next fought the far-famed Solymi, and this, he said, was the hardest of all his battles. Thirdly, he killed the Amazons, women who were the peers of men, and as he was returning thence the king devised yet another plan for his destruction; he picked the bravest warriors in all Lycia, and placed them in ambuscade, but not a man ever came back, for Bellerophon killed every one of them. Then the king knew that he must be the valiant offspring of a god, so he kept him in Lycia, gave him his daughter in marriage, and made him of equal honour in the kingdom with himself; and the Lycians gave him a piece of land, the best in all the country, fair with vineyards and tilled fields, to have and to hold.

The Iliad, by Homer. Translated by Samuel Butler.

It could be argued that the "wicked letter" was simply sealed and not encoded. However, Homer uses "σήματα λυγρά"1 to describe it, a phrase that points to pictorial tokens and perhaps allows us to interpret the letter as an encrypted one.

Interestingly, this story is the only mention of writing in the Iliad, and the source of the phrase "bellerophonic letter".

1 see http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/morph?l=sh%2Fmata&la=greek&can=sh%2Fmata0&prior=ge#lexicon

  • Excellent! (I had quite forgotten this story and had not thought about Bellerphon in years.) I think you're assessment is correct because literacy was not widespread in Homer's time, and Bellerophon predates the Trojan war by a couple of generations--the story you reference is told by his grandson, Glaucus. Writing would have certainly been known of, but still quite specialized as a craft. (Possibly the wicked letter was some form of Linear B ;) Not surprising this is the only mention of writing in the Iliad. – DukeZhou Mar 9 '17 at 20:22

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.