Friday, March 19, 2010

Flower gardens of ancient Crete

In this post, I decided to go a bit off-topic. As spring is closing on and every little bulbous plant is beginning to grow in order to bloom, one cannot help but contemplate about the origins of these petty jewels of nature. Many of them stem from the ancient Mediterrranian lands; and if we traced their origins - or at least the origin of their names - we would be surpised to see most of them originating from Minoan Crete. For anyone wishing to read more on the Aegean origins of our common garden plants, I can recommend the works of C. Diapoulis or Katzler's spice pages.

Let us see a few examples of herbaceous plants bearing Minoan names! From monocots, there is the common daffodil (Narcissus sp.) called νάρκισσος in Greek, the Madonna lily (Lilium candidum), the Greek λείριον or the white asphodel (Asphodelus albus), called ασφόδελος by ancient Greeks. Many of these flowers were also associated with mythical figures and stories. (Need I tell the story of Narkissos or the connection of the asphodel flowers to Hades?) The names of these plants (and many others) are typically 'Pre-Greek', lacking any meaningful Indo-European etymology, yet sharing some common features. This is one of the hallmarks that these names borrowed by Greek are actually of Minoan origin.

Althouth there are many more plants no longer bearing a Minoan name, we can be more-or-less certain that they were grown on ancient Crete, because of the frescoes. The paintings found on the wall of houses or the 'palatial' complexes depict a huge variety of plants: many of them still found in our gardens. Apart from lilies and daffodils we can find saffron (Crocus sativus), iris (Iris germanica) and gladiolus (Gladiolus segetum) flowers. There are wild rose-bushes (Rosa canina); myrtle (Myrtus communis) and sage (Phlomis fruticosa) shrubs; honeysucle (Loniceria etrusca) and ivy (Hedera helix) branches. Fruit-bearing trees were also depicted, like pomegrenates (Punica granatum). We also find palm-trees like the non-indigenous date palm (Phoenix dactylifera). There are also images of aquatic plants like papirus (Cyperus papyrus) and water lilies (Nymphaea alba). The frescoes even show weeds - common like today - such as nettle (Urtica pilurifera).

Perhaps the most beautiful and characteristic plant grown by ancient Cretans was the sea daffodil (Pancratium maritimum). It is depicted on a high number of frescoes as well as other objects. Faintly similar to the common daffodils but white in colour and blooming in summer, it must have had special importance to Minoans. Unfortunately sea daffodils are no longer cultivated today, but can still be encountered as a wild flower on the coast of the islands all around the Aegean Sea. The importance of this plant to Cretans is reflected by the fact that its symbol was even included in their writing system! One of the Cretan signs depict a lily-like flower: it is the Lin AB *27 (Hie *31) sign with a phonetic value 'RE' or 'LE'. On the hieroglyphic documents, this sign resembles not to the common lilies, but to Pancratium flowers, with their characteristic leaves and branched inflorescences. The Lilium flowers too, were an important symbol: another Minoan sign, Lin AB *122 (Hie *159), with the phonetic value 'RAI' or 'LAI', display a flower from the Lilium genus (despite its earlier interpretation as Crocus, It resembles more to Lilium, especially with its long stem and short bracts (barely visible on Crocus).

Other plants were not only planted for there mere beauty: Saffron or Crocus (Crocus sativus), was not only domesticated on the island of Crete, but also found application in numerous forms, most importantly as a dye and a spice. The Cretan origin of this plant is nowadays evident from genetic studies: it is a triploid and thus infertile variant of the wild-growing Crocus cartwrightianus plant native to Greece. Its Classic Greek name κρόκος, as well as its Semitic names (karkom, kurkum) likely come from the Minoan language. But we know that saffron likely bore a miriad of different names, like κνήκος (the term used for saffrons in Mycenean Greek) or others, lost to the passing of time.

We also know that the Minoans cultivated a high number of plants to use them as medicine, dyes, spices or just as food. Saffron was just one of them, with its stigmas used as a dye (not just for food colouring as today, but also for items like clothes). For example, wormwood (Artemisia absinthium) was used to ferment a strong alcoholic beverage that still keeps its name today: absinthe. Mint (Mentha sp.) on the other hand, was used for medicinal purposes. A special Cretan medicinal herb was dittany (Origanum dictamnus), that carries the name of mount Dikte and it is still grown on the island of Crete today. Poppy (Papaver somniferum) was likely domesticated in the western Mediterranean region, but was also cultivated on Minoan-era Crete, for medicinal purposes as well as its narcotic properties. Plants like caper (Capparis spinosa), celery (Apium graveolens) and garlic (Allium sativum) were used as spices. Linear B tablets also mention fennel (Foeniculum vulgare) and sage (Salvia officinalis) as MA-RA-TU-WO (classic Greek μάραθον) and PA-KO-WE (classic σφάκος). Other plants were imported from the East, together with their Semitic names: cumin (Cuminum cyminum) is featured as KU-MI-NO (κύμινον) and sesame (Sesamum indicum) as SA-SA-MA (classic σάσαμα) on Myceanean documents. Chick-pea (Cicer arietinum) was a legumine plant grown for consumption even in later times, but the Greeks still commemorated its Minoan origins by calling it ερέβινθος.

There is also an abundance of woody plants, trees and bushes that are planted since Minoan times and carry Minoan names up to the present time. For example, there is the Cypress-tree (Greek κυπάρισσος) that could be a symbol of Crete. Originally the name κυπάρισσος could denote any member of the genera Cupressus and Juniper. Although cedar-trees are famed for their timber since millenia in the ancient Near East, the tree received a new name in Greece, without any clear IE or Semitic etymology: κέδρος. The famous bay laurel (Laurus nobilis) was also called in a name predating the Greek civilization: δάφυη. Though almond-trees (Prunus dulcis) stem from the Middle East, they too, carry an ancient pre-Greek name up to this day: αμυγδαλιά. The olive trees (Olea europaea) yielded one of the most important products of the Aegean region: olive-oil. Domesticated in this region, the Greeks took its name - ὲλαία - from earlier inhabitants. As olive-oil is denoted by the syllable LAI (RA3) in Linear A, there can be no doubts that - this name as well - was of Minoan origin. Quince (Cydonia oblongata) stems from ancient Mesopotamia, but it likely grew so rich on Crete, that the Greeks and Romans called it "Kydonian apple" (κυδώνιον μῆλον) - where its modern name comes from. Perhaps one of the most common sight in today's gardens are the rose bushes. The name of rose (Rosa damascena) comes from the Greek ῥόδον. This is not a Semitic name, yet it does have cognates further to the east, like Arabic الورد (al-ward, hence the female name Warda) or the Hebrew ורד (wered). We also know that roses were one of the plants depicted on the beautiful Minoan frescoes found at Thera. Putting all pieces together it is quite possible that the name rose ultimately comes from an Aegean source.

As for the terebinth tree (Pistacia terebinthus), we can be almost 100% sure that its name is of Minoan origin, because of its structure: places with -inthos/-intha and -issos/-issa endings are typically found on the western Aegean (that is, Minoan) linguistic territory. The eastern Aegean (proto-Tyrrhenian and Luwian) territories would instead preferably show (grecized) endings in -anthos/-antha or -assos/-assa. The terebinth or turpentine tree was not only used as a medicine, but also as perfume or incense. The temples and shrines of the Aegean region likely used excessive amounts of incense or scented oils made of terebinth: this is shown by the sheer amount - one ton - of resin found in the shipwreck of Uluburun, Turkey (dating to the 14th century BC).

The following table will summarise some of the more important plant-names that stem from an Aegean, most likely Cretan source:

English nameClassic GreekMinoan originalNotes
almondἀμυγδάλη*amutskal(a))with fricative?
caperκάππαρις*kapparstressed p = ph?
cedarκέδρος*kedarends in -r?
celeryσέλινον*sedinacf. Latin sedano
chick-peaερέβινθος*arawinthacf. Latin ervum
cypressκυπάρισσος*kuparitsa-σσ- = *-ts-?
daffodilνάρκισσος*narkitsa-σσ- = *-ts-?
dittanyδίκταμνος*diktamanacf. JA-SA-SA-RA-MA-NA
garlicἄγλις*akil(i)cf. Latin allium
laurelδάφνη*dakwunacf. Lin A DA-KU-NA
lilyλείριον*lairicf. Lin AB sign 'RA3'
oliveἐλαία*alaiwacf. LAI (RA3) in Lin A
roseῥόδον*oradacf. O-RA2-DI-NE
saffronκρόκος*kurukucf. Lin A KU-RU-KU
saffronκνήκος*kanakaLin B KA-NA-KO
terebinthτερέβινθος*tarawintha -β- = w or kw?
wormwoodἄψινθος*aspinthacf. M.Persian aspand

The table is by no means complete and the reconstructions are far from certain. The original Minoan ending was almost always supplanted by a Greek nominative case-ending. In places where the original word likely ended in a vowel, I used 'a' , as this is by far the most common in Linear A words. Since the Mycenean age, Greek has had the tendency to recolour vowels inside stems from -a- to -e-, so it appeared wise to back-colour at least some of the stems to -a-. At some places, we have evidence of methathesis or other substantial changes: words attested in other languages like Arabic, Hebrew, Persian and Latin help to reconstruct the original sounding. Some of these names actually refer to similar, but not identical plants: the Latin ervum stands for bitter vetch (Vicia ervilia) and the Middle Persian aspand probably means syrian rue (Peganum harmala). I also made a good use of the "Pre-Greek" theory of Robert Stephen Paul Beekes. There are some reconstructed words that sound very similar to phrases recorded in Linear A. Most of them are personal names (like DA-KU-NA [HT103] and KU-RU-KU [HT87]) and not wares (like O-RA2-DI-NE [HT6] = resin?). Nevertheless, as it is common - even today - to give names of flowers, especially to girls, it is not beyond reasoning that these phrases are actually related to plant names.


  1. Wow! I've been reading this bit by bit when I have time. Very long but also very interesting and full of things to discuss here. I especially am drawn to the floral list of terms. Excellent!

    I've already been tracking some of these terms for myself for many months now. Each of these words is like a tiny universe of details and probably deserves an essay separately.

    However, I'll summarize what I notice so far. Considering Latin lilium and Greek's penchant for metathetic -i-, would it not be better to reconstruct *léri- without diphthong? In that case, the value of RAI for AB *122 would need to be ammended to RE.

    I would also modify your *diktamana 'dittany' because, in light of (Y)A-DI-KI-TU, we'd expect *aðíkitumana to fit better overall. The word κυπάρισσος suggests to me *kapáriza or *kapáritia with accent on the second syllable as reflected in the Greek. Etruscan *elaiva 'olive, olive oil' is contained in elaivana 'of olive oil' [TLE 762] and might be used to further support a general Aegean root *élaiwa.

  2. Thank you for your comment! You put me to a difficult situation with so many questions, but here we go:

    First, let us take the 'lily problem': it is true that there are at least 2 signs in the Cretan scripts, that depict flowers: the RE (LE?) and the RA3 (RAI, LAI) signs. I intentionally wrote 'Cretan' because these signs in Linear A and B can be well traced back to Hieroglyphics. The only problem is, their precise identification in terms of plant species. As for the sign Lin AB *27, that is most likely a Pancratium maritimum plant. The sign seems to continue the 'orthodox' tradition of depicting Pancratium flowers with three inflorescences (see the image in the post). It is not beyond reason that the name lily originally referred to the sea daffodils (most ancient peoples were rather bad botanists). But personally, I think the similarities between Pancratium and Lilium are meager (apart from both being monocot and bearing white flowers): Pancratium is much more similar to daffodils (Narcissus), actually its close relative (from Amaryllidaceae). Originally, the sign Lin A *122 (=RA3 in Lin B) was identified as 'Crocus'. Since the poor details of that flower do not exclude anything from Liliales or Asparagales, we are in for a trouble. One thing is certain: even if RA3 (=LAI) depicted a Crocus sativus flower, it was never used in this sense in Minoan documents. On all the accounting tablets (likely in Hieroglyphics, too) the sign RA3 was used as an abbreviation for olive-oil, and not for saffron. This lends credence to the identification of its phonetic value as *lai. (Linear B e-lai-wo, Linear A lai logogram). I fully agree with you, that a long vowel would be a far better explanation for the original name of lily, but that would leave us with a third, unexplained name for Crocus ('lai-?' or 'lá-?')

    As for your second question (or rather a series of questions), I have to admit, that many of my reconstructions are not that good. I already realized that after completing my post, but I did not go back to correct it just just because of slack... Some stems may not belong to those of Aegean origin at all (I am especially concerned with those like κέδρος). Of course many of your suggestions are right: Minoan words quite frequently start with a vowel that was later lost in Greek (perhaps because of accent change and consequential root collapse). For 'olive-oil', the initial vowel can of course be 'e' instead of 'a' (being lazy, the Minoan scribes left it unmarked). Another real trouble is the interpretation of the double sigma: this could be a reflection of a sound lacking from classic Greek, but we do not get any closer to the solution by knowing that. Possible readings include 'fortis s', a postalveolar sibilant (sh,ʃ) or an affricate (ts). I did vote fo the latter, but there is no way to prove or even to see if I was right or not.

  3. Thanks for being so thorough.

    All I know is that an Aegean protoform like (*)*aláiwa for 'olive' with accent on the second syllable would fail to give me the Etruscan form attested since the first vowel should be lost. However, in the name Alexander in Etruscan, which is clearly borrowed from Greek, we do find variants like Elχsentre (with the normal fixed initial stress accent proven by the results of later syncope that omits vowels after the first syllable) showing that *accented* a- may at times rise to e-. Therefore, I take it for granted that any Aegean protoform should likewise have at least an accent on the *first* syllable despite the tonal accent shown in Greek.

    Dare I say, perhaps your analysis of the symbol for RA3 isn't quite right. What I get out of this is that RA3 simply represents ra (and thus also la, rai, lai, etc. as per known LinB script rules). It's not however impossible from what I see here that LinA LE/RE begat LinB RA3 with a minor change in vowel between scripts and it's not impossible that the symbol is nonetheless inspired from a word *leri-.

    Also, I never claimed that *léri- had a long vowel since I don't know of any solid justification for short/long contrast in Aegean vowel systems. It's simply a plain ol' *e in the first syllable which would still account for -εί- in Greek.

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  6. Etruscan *elaiva 'olive, olive oil' is contained in elaivana 'of olive oil' [TLE 762] and might be used to further support a general Aegean root *élaiwa.

    But the Etruscan word looks like a loanword from Mycenean Greek!!