Sphragis (literary device)

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Sphragis (Latin, from Greek σφραγίς 'sphragis' a seal or 'signet') is a modern term in literary theory and classical philology used to describe a literary device employed mainly in the classical world, in which an author names or otherwise identifies himself, most often at the beginning or the end of a poem or collection of poems.[1] In the broader sense, it can refer to any technique when an author tries to hide his name or a reference to his identity in an encrypted manner (e.g. acrostic). The meaning of the word in the original literary contexts, however, is still not properly understood and the modern usage of the term may be historically inaccurate.[1][2][3]

One of the earliest uses of the word can be attested in Theognis (19ff) in a "highly controversial passage"[2] in which the poet speaks of setting his seal on his verses, to protect them from being plagiarized:

Let the seal [sphrēgis] of the wise man, Cyrnus, be set upon these lines, and they shall never be filched from him, nor shall evil ever be changed with their good, but every man shall say "These are the lines of Theognis of Megara, famous throughout the world"... (tr. J. M. Edmonds)

The device has been employed by many other writers in the Hellenistic and Roman period:[1]

Sphragides became almost "mandatory" in Classical Arabic and Turkmen poetry (e.g. in the poems of Magtymguly Pyragy),[4] but have been used by many modern poets as well (e.g. Bohdan Ihor Antonych[4] or Sergey Esenin).


  1. ^ a b c Roberts, Deborah (2012). "Sphragis". In Hornblower, Simon; Spawforth, Antony; Eidinow, Esther (eds.). Oxford Classical Dictionary (4th ed.). Oxford University Press. p. 1394. ISBN 9780199545568.
  2. ^ a b Peirano, Irene. "Ille Ego qui quondam: on authorial (an)onymity". In Marmodoro, Anna; Hill, Jonathan (eds.). The Author's Voice in Classical and Late Antiquity. pp. 251–285. ISBN 0191649503.
  3. ^ Pratt, Louis (1995). "The Seal of Theognis, Writing, and Oral Poetry". The American Journal of Philology. 116 (2): 171–184. doi:10.2307/295439. JSTOR 295439.
  4. ^ a b Гром'як, Р. Т.; Ковалів, Ю.І.; Теремко, В.І. (eds.). Літературознавчий словник-довідник [A Dictionary/Reference Book of Literary Theory] (in Ukrainian) (2nd ed.). Київ: Академія. pp. 648–9. ISBN 978-966-580-244-0.