Sunday, May 30, 2010

Mythical figures on Cretan jewellery

In this post, I would like to share a recent discovery of mine. While searching for materials on the Minoan religion, I stumbled across a number of golden rings, with intricate design and figures despite their tiny size. The real discovery is that they are not only inscribed in a script similar to the Minoan Hieroglyphs, but they may also admit a good reading in some cases, likely representing divine names!

Let us look at our first example! On the signet-ring above, four large human figures can be discerned, all female, intricately dressed, with a background likely that of a countryside. Yet some details do not fit the picture. For example, what is an eye doing in the background? One could accept a cypress-tree and a river or an eagle as part of a countryside, but body-parts are certainly odd. This leaves us with the conclusions, that the tiny objects encircling the central figure are not simple decorations - rather, they are part of a script!

First of all, we must know that both depiction of mythological scenes, and inscribing the names of the figures beside them was an extremely common practice in Classic Greece. This way we really should not be surprised to find something similar in Minoan and Mycenean material. And this is exactly the case here.

Back to the seal we first examined, we shall now attempt to transliterate the signs into Minoan Hieroglyphic, so that we can read at least parts of it. In closer examination, it seems that the signs are very similar to those seen on the Phaistos Disc. This reinforces our previous concept, that the syllabary seen on the disc, is nothing but a festive version of the same Minoan system, that can take both picture-like (Hieroglyphics) or simplistic (Linear A) forms.

In total, we can discern about five signs: two on the left of the central figure, and three on the right. The first sign looks like a 'snake with wings'. Since we are not in Central America, we must assume it is a modification of the 'flying bird' sign, that has the value KU in Linear A. Immediately following that, we see a small female figure. Since it is much smaller than the protagonist figures of the scene, and poorly detailed, I assume it is part of the script, and not a true figure. While I could not discern any figure in Hieroglyphics that would correspond to a female figurine, the Phaistos Disc offers a good parallel: the 'pregnant woman' sign (Pha *06, possible Linear A counterparts include KE, DE, E or WI). On the right of the main figure (probably a goddess), the uppermost sign depicts a cypress-tree, very similar to the Phaistos disc *13 sign (probably corresponding to Hiero sign *68), but the phonetic value cannot be determined due to a lack of established Linear A counterpart (very tentatively, it could be PA, PA3 or even DI). The next sign is somewhat strangely-shaped (with a blob on its top), but - since it seems to depict a creek or stream - I assume it is the same as Phaistos Disc sign *45, Hiero *69, and Linear AB *76, all with the reading RA2 (=*rya?). The last sign is the least problematic. Though missing from the attested Phaistos sign-set, it is clearly the same as Hiero *05 and Linear A *79, possibly with a reading DO (or perhaps DWA). Although due to all these uncertainties, we are unable to actually read the word(s), it can be safely concluded that the script represents the name of the figure, very likely a goddess. Alternatively, since we have two group of signs, it can be two names for two divine figures - one for the central one and one for the rightmost one - clearly distinct from the two 'followers' on the left (raising their hands in adoration).

This seal is by far not the only one we have. On the spectacular series of seals you can see above, we can see scenes of a different story: a sort of a divine romance. The protagonist is a female figure, undoubtedly a goddess, who appears as being seduced by a male figure (almost certainly a god), with the help of giant fennel (Ferula sp.) branches. Why am I drawing this conclusion? First of all, the upmost seal shows a depiction of love prototypical to later Greek art: there is a tiny figure floating in-between the two main ones. In Classic Greek art, this exactly how they depict Eros (the personification of 'love', 'passion' or 'romance') between the characters involved (see the beautiful statue of Aphrodite and Pan from Delos below). The other argument is less direct; and it involves exploring the connotations of Ferula plants.

Perhaps the most famous plant of the Ferula genus was the silphium of antiquity. An asafoetida-like smelly resin product of a now extinct species once native to Cyrene - silphium was not only a highly priced spice of ancient Greece and Rome, but also an aphrodisiac. While - according to modern pharmacological research - it probably held no actual aphrodisiac properties, it was likely a reasonably effective anticoncipient and abortifacient, as many other members of the Ferula genus are (even if extracts from species like Ferula jaeschkeana are less effective than today's pills). We do not know if silphium was already produced in the Minoan era. But the fact that one of the standard equipment of the bacchants, the so-called Thyrsus (see the picture later below) was a sceptre fabricated from giant fennel (Ferula communis) branches, seems to underline that such connotations of Ferula species were widespread early in the antiquity. It has even been suggested, that the modern 'heart symbol' (a universal modern logogram for 'love') does not derive from the shape of crocodile-heart, but rather the shape of the twin silphium seeds, so typical of the Apiaceae family of plants.

Apart from the two protagonists, a number of other figures are also carved on these rings. Some of them may depict the sequence of events in this unknown myth, while others may depict additional characters. This may especially be true to the 'crying female' on the second seal's right side, and the 'kneeling male' on the left of the last seal. Now that we have examined the scene, it is time to turn our attention to the signs present beside one character or another. Most importantly, on the second seal, our eye can meet a long, almost vertical sequence of four signs (I disregard the 'scratch' above the crouching male figure's head, as I could not find any Minoan signs even faintly similar to it). The upmost character in this slightly semicircular inscription is undoubtedly an 'eye' character (perhaps DO). Immediately below this one, we can see a nicely-depicted column. Though it does not follow any of the Minoan writing traditions, we can relatively safely identify it as a 'column' or NA sign. The two lower signs are more problematic. Each of them depicts a flying insect, though from different angles. Unfortunately, we do not know whether the two lower signs are just artistic variants of each other, or genuinely different. There is only one sign in the Hiero signset (*20), that would depict a flying insect, and that features a bee. A bee-like sign (Pha *34) is also present on the Phaistos Disc. Because Linear A has only one insect-type sign, and that is actually a bee, too, I took the courage to identify both these signs as PI.

If we read these signs together from up to down, they would give a sequence DO-NA-PI-PI, which is pronounceable, but unknown from any other source. However, if we interpreted this sequence as forming a bit deformed full circle running around the goddess, then - breaking it in the middle - we can get the word PI-PI-DO-NA - which is fairy similar to the Linear B theonym PI-PI-TU-NA. Is this reading correct? Is it indeed goddess Pipituna whose story these seals show? I admit, I do not know. It took too much force to mould this name into a meaningful one. But circular inscriptions are fairly common on seals (perhaps even more common than linear ones), so it is not impossible, though intuitively not the best solution. Another seal I will not be showing here (due to the lack of space) features the same goddess, carrying a Ferula bush on her ship, but there the signs of the (semicircular) inscription are in the order NA-DO-PI-PI (and the two 'bee' signs appear more similar to Lin AB *39 = PI). This fact lends some credence to the freedom of reading I applied here.

Otherwise, the theonym Pipituna is a perfectly Aegean name of a non-Greek type, with a formative suffix *-(o)na (or *-(u)na). Names or titles of the same type are pretty common in Aegean sources, like A-MA-TU-NA (a theonym at Pylos, perhaps meaning 'Amathousian', from the town Amathous on Cyprus), phraisona ('Praisian', found on one of the Eteocretan inscriptions from Praisos) or Diktynna ('Diktaian', an epithet of Cretan goddess Britomartis). These does not imply that Pipituna is derived from a geographic name, because other words are also attested with the same formative, like Eteocypriot A-SO-NA (likely meaning 'godly' - compare with Etruscan aisuna = 'divine'), that has nothing to do with places.

On the third seal, again, there is more than meets the eye. Right above the rightmost figure (the female perhaps sleeping or crying) two signs are present that show unmistakable similarity to those on the Phaistos Disc. The first of these is the Cypress-like Pha *13, whose reading is very uncertain, the second one is the 'double-twig' Pha *36, identical to the Lin AB *24, with a value of NI. It is not beyond reason, that this short word is actually the name of the figure (possibly another goddess) depicted on the scene.

Other seals also exist that show mysterious unidentified objects, that might turn out to be phonetic signs. But it is more common on jewels to show only one character: and the most common character is a simple double-axe (sign A in the syllabary). You can see it on the beautiful signet-ring shown above: it features a scene where two females (followers?) visit a goddess, seated under a huge, tree-like Ferula bush, holding a bunch of poppies in her hand (just like the followers). The double-axe is in fact in the background, not carried by any of the adorants visiting the goddess. The main reason I do not believe this double-axe is purely a symbol of divine power is the existence of words in Aegean languages like A-SO-NA in Eteocypriot. These hint at the possibility, that the word for 'god' or 'goddess' might have begun with an 'A' in these languages. For example, if the word *ais or *as denoted 'god(dess)' in Minoan, then the double-axes in iconography would have merely signified that the figure depicted is a divine being, and not a commoner. This realization also sheds a new light on the use of double-axes on altars and in other sacral themes - a religious symbolism of a literate society.


  1. You have my interest piqued. The name of this goddess Pipituna is very interesting. There's no doubt in my mind that the ubiquitous suffix -na means 'pertaining to, related to, of', if not a full-blown genitive case ending in Minoan. Naming geographical regions is only its secondary usage.

    Pipituna reminds me of the Etruscan epithet Aracuna '(She) of the Hawks' for the underworld goddess Vanth. So I'm tempted towards interpreting Pipituna as '(She) of the bees' but I need more evidence to feel comfortable with that. Nonetheless, the name is likely formed along these lines.

  2. Oh by the way...

    "For example, if the word *ais or *as denoted 'god(dess)' in Minoan [...]"

    I disagree. I've become convinced that Etruscan ais is an Italic loan since this same root is found in Venetic, Umbrian and Volscian. Note Venetic aisus 'god'. The Minoan word is likely different and, I feel, underlies the symbol L301.

  3. Hey there! Very nice blog. I wanted to share a thought (I'm sorry if my English isn't academical enough, it's not my 1st, neither the one my University classes are in).
    My point it's about these goddesses here and the word "ipinama".
    1. Minoans knew how to draw/carve elegant and proportionate human figures.
    2. The heads of the goddesses here (your 1st image, or a drawing here: ARE NOT proportionate.
    3. More than that, they're not heads at all.
    4. Honey and bees were sacred in ancient cultures (that came to find and then use them).
    5. It's not out of place to say that they're heads were beehives (as could be Venus of Willendorf head)

    I know, it's not linguistics (I am a history of art student) but it may be useful, I don't know...

    Anyway, keep up the very nice work, I love your blog!

  4. Thank you for your comment!

    Just a tiny thought I would like to add: When trying to make out some really strange conclusions regarding the figures, don't forget that the whole ring facet is only about a centimeter or two in diameter. So any apparent "design faults" can be explained by the troubles the goldsmith faced when carving sub-millimeter sized objects.

    Since you enjoyed this topic so much (as I did as well), I have decided to make a folow-up post, with several other inscribed rings in store for you.
    Stay tuned!

  5. Huh! Look at that. The second signet ring in the group of three has the ever-so-elusive nigh-mythical symbol AB171!

    Also, I appreciate your humor. This was an entertaining post to read. Since we are not in Central America... ;>

  6. On the Hippodameia wedding vase, what are the winged creatures? Could they be a variant of the teensy people in the signet rings, or serve a similar purpose? They are also smaller than the primary figures. (Though I most definitely find the Phaistos disk connection intriguing RE: the woman symbol).

  7. Divine AB08?


    I'm not so sure if the Linear B phonetic "A" will eventually be an acrophonic abbreviation from the original double axe meaning, but I also believe the A- and also the JA- have value as determinatives. I concluded this via a completely different route, so it's interesting that we both have come to this hunch. My original reasoning was that the Egyptians use a little axe (some books refer to this as a flag but there are an increasing number of people providing convincing evidence that it is an axe - see for example) NTR to designate divinity. The Minoans, not to be outdone, used a labrys - same concept, but with 100% more sharpness! It's always struck me, with the possibility of dual male-female divinity in the Mycenaean texts (PO-SE-DA-O-NE, PO-SI-DA-E-JA), that a double-axe might be a more appropriate divine symbol for the Minoans, capturing both the male and female energy of the divine.

    For a long time, I was very zealous about AB04 being a strict divine determinative, mostly on the evidence that AB04 + AB59 in the Minoan Libation Formula, as its counterparts in Egyptian are, could be translated to "temple", i.e. "divine" + "house". When this combination is replaced by AB59 + AB06, I've pondered the possibility of temenos. This, I will admit, requires a bit of dancing though. First, one must assume AB59's "TA" value in Mycenaean is an acrophonic abbreviation which comes from "TAMA" (house) defined in Lycian Greek. Then, one can read AB59 + AB06 as TAMA-NA and voila! temenos, which would neatly alternate with temple.

    Incorporating, however, the entire Linear A corpus, using these assumptions, tends not to result in much else, so it remains a backburner "feels right" pet theory for now. For instance, the sign groups which are attested with and without the AB04 prefix should present at least one theonym. I haven't had any luck with it with the various values I've tried over the years. Have you?

  8. Hello,

    I have the same idea than you about the grphic link between the phaistos disc and these rings

    th 44 sign is also on the rings :

    and the 25th too:


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