A clay tablet, found near the ruined Temple of Zeus in the ancient city of Olympia, Greece, could be the oldest written record of The Odyssey. The tablet was uncovered by archaeologists and tentatively dated to the Roman-era 200s CE.
It is engraved with 13 verses from the Odyssey’s fourteenth book,
in which Odysseus speaks to his lifelong friend Eumaeus, the first person he sees on his return from his decade away from home.
According to the poet, traveler, and politician Usama ibn Munqidh, who lived in the 1100s CE, “One of the wonders of the human heart is that a man may face certain death and embark on every danger without his heart quailing from it, and yet he may take fright from something that even boys and women do not fear.”
ibn Munqidh then told the story of a battle hero his father knew, who “would run out fleeing” if he saw a snake, “saying to his wife, ‘The snake’s all your’s!’ And she would have to get up to kill it.”
Around the year 950 CE, the Japanese emperor was contemplating cutting down an ancient plum tree, which had recently died. The emperor changed his mind after receiving an anonymous poem. “Since my lord commands, what can I do but obey; but the nightingales, when they ask about their nests– whatever can I tell them?”
This vase, made in 1904 by Miyagawa Kozan, commemorates that story. You can see the character for “nightingale” perched daintily on the blue plum branch. The character (and all the other characters) is not painted on, but colored clay inserted into the cutout wall of the vessel. They probably couldn’t do that in 950!