Literary Convention

Anthropologist Kathryn Denning suggested that the sequences are perhaps an example of literary convention, a common language idiom.

In response to my request for a critical evaluation of the Sagan Signal, skeptic Jason Colavito, pursuing this strategy, sent me the following: NOTE: bracketed comments are my own:


“Julian the Apostate, speaking in the 300s CE, spoke of supplying his subjects with “wine, oil, and bread.” [Not in the right sequential order] The Augustan History makes the probably fictitious Julius Capitolinus speak of a lack of (“wine, oil, and wheat” (vini olei, et tritici”) [Not in the right sequential order] as the depth of poverty (Life of Antonius Pius 8). The phrase also appears several times in Justinian’s Digest of Roman Law (33.6). The difference here is that the Romans placed wine first, but that’s probably attributable to the way that vinium sounds in Latin.

Nor is it to be thought that the lack of the same phrases in Hebrew literature outside the Bible is disproof. First, I am not sure that all the texts written in that period have been indexed and/or translated to allow for such a categorical statement. Second, when phrases became associated with the sacred, they were no longer used as frequently for the profane. To take a familiar example: Shakespeare coined many new phrases that echo those of the Anglican liturgy because Biblical phrases could not be used for secular purposes lest an author be accused of blasphemy.

Going back still further, when we have only sketchy records, we find that the list of inventories in Linear B tell us that the three most important non-animal items in Mycenaean sacrifice were grain, oil, and wine, [Not in right sequential order] to which they added figs and honey, and sometimes wool – just as Deuteronomy tells us the Jews did for their God. One notable sacrifice to Poseidon recorded as Un718 gives the ceremonial offerings as “wheat, wine, one bull, ten cheeses, one ram’s fleece, and honey, then wheat, wine, two rams, five cheeses, oil, and one ram’s fleece and honey” (Burkert, Greek Religion). Sadly, while the tablets give us an inventory of the items consumed – through which we know that grain, wine, and oil took pride of place through sheer quantity – the lack of ritual texts from the era leave us ignorant of the phrasing used to describe them, but in later times we find evidence of a continuation of practice at every level. Theophrastus wrote that ordinary Greeks made sacrifices of thylomata, which was a mixture of – guess what? – ground grain, wine, and oil [No examples cited].”


Colavito’s research essay is a better argument for the Sagan Signal than against it. He cites but a single reference from Greek literature where grain, wine, and oil are in proper sequence, hardly proof of a language idiom. Other skeptics have fared no better.