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.

Monday, May 10, 2010

How many Linear A signs do we have?

My next post will be a bit of "return to basics". I have been dodging this matter for long enough, but now we really need to put some systematics into our work. What I attempt right now is to establish a 'minimal set' of Linear A signs, in the hope that this will shed light on previously undetected features of the underlying language. Of course, the only thing we are interested in, are the phonetic signs. There are zounds of logograms in both Linear A and B (and in Hieroglyphics, too), but I leave their analysis to the economists: for it is the language that interests us, not the goods Cretans produced or paid for. And this is when we need to work out a good way how to separate the two. This what my current post is about.

The base set of the Linear A system encompasses about 55 signs. These signs are all well-attested in Linear A, in phonetic use, and have a more-or-less ascertained reading thanks to their Linear B counterparts. You can see them all on the table below:

(I put an asterisk onto Lin AB *85 = AU because of its special value - it might have also been *hu or *wu instead of *au)

Unfortunately, not all signs attested in Linear A have such clear readings. We also have a couple of signs in the next group I shall term the extended set. The criteria for a sign to fall into this set are simple: (1) It cannot be a hapax (occurring once in the entire Linear A corpus) and (2) it should be featured at least two times in a certainly non-logogrammatic situation (the same word two times does count). I also included signs that (1) occur only once as phonetic characters, but (2) have clear Linear B counterparts with well-established reading. Using these relatively stringent criteria I could count about 27 additional phonetic signs. Most of them have very dubious readings - see them on the table below (warning: the list is very long - and it took quite some time to comply):

(I would like to express my thanks to John Younger, as his site provided invaluable references as well as corrected transcriptions of most phrases, and visual images of all the rare signs)

Even so, we are not finished yet. When searching for the signs of the 'extended set', I disqualified a number of signs that did not satisfy the appropriate criteria. Some Linear A signs are clear precursors of well-known Linear B ones, yet they are only and exclusively used as logograms. A good example is Linear A *122, the 'olives' (OLIV) logogram, that is exactly the same as Linear B *33 = RA3, with a phonetic value of rai or lai. Another example is the case of the Linear B *20 = ZO sign, that has a clear Linear A ancestor in Lin A *304. The only problem is - and that is a major problem - that Lin A *304 is exclusively a logogram, and never used as a phonetic sign. The Linear B *87 = TWE sign is attested too, but only as a mere logogram. In these cases, one can suspect that either these syllables were extremely rare in the Minoan language, or were perhaps already covered by existing signs; or even that the phonetic reading of these signs changed over time.

Other signs look like phonetic ones, but they are only attested once. This goes for examples like Lin A *342 (only in PA-*341-I), Lin A *349 (A-TO-*349-TO-I) and Lin A *361 (A-KU-TU-*361). Unfortunately, we have very little chance to ascertain their phonetic use, to exclude the possibility of graphic variants and - of course - to find the true phonetic value. Because all these troubles, I did not even attempt to make a list of this group. A clear-cut list might be impossible to comply, because of the nasty tendency of certain scribes (especially those at Phaistos) to heavily deviate from well-established sign-shapes, or to use logograms for phonetic purposes as 'shorthand notes' or even 'puns' (when used in names).

Clearly, we should not forget about the fact that no matter how many tablets we have found so far, there is no guarantee that these feature all the possible signs. Yet there is some correlation between the completeness of our syllabaries and the size of corpus. An exact calculation of sign-set size was first proposed by Alan Mackay, back in 1965, when he attempted to estimate the size of sign-set behind the Phaistos Disc. His formula was quite simple: The total number of signs, T = L*(1 - L/(L-A)), where A = the number of attested signs, and L is the total length of the sample. While this formula works well with alphabetic signs (just give it a try in English), it performs more poorly on texts that are either very repetitive or of sign-sets with very skewed distribution (e.g. ideogrammatic or complex scripts). Though I'm afraid the method won't pass a bootstrap analysis, let's try it on a subset of Linear A texts: the Haghia Triada inscriptions! In roughly 2000 non-logogrammatic characters, it attests 77 of the 80-85 known phonetic Linear A signs. Mackay's formula would predict 80 characters. So it isn't that bad after all. We shouldn't forget though, that Linear A signs actually have a very skewed distribution towards zero frequency, so what Mackay's formula gives is an underestimation. Perhaps - if I'll have ample time in the future, I shall put some effort into developing a better mathematical model...

Because of such reasons we should not forget about those signs that are only attested in Linear B, without any known single Linear A precursor. Although some of these signs might be novel inventions, such as QO (*32) from Mycenean *qous = 'cow', PTE (*62) from Greek pteros = 'wing' (looks like the 'horns of consacration') or DWO (*90) from the numeral *dwo = '2'; the rest might be Minoan heritage. Some signs may have evolved to yield more than one offspring: a possible example is the Lin B *90 = DWO sign with its twin Lin B *83 (possibly ZI). A truely peculiar case is what we find at the Linear B signs WE and NO. There are signs that resemble them in Linear A, the problem is, they remain assigned to another group (the Lin B *75 = WE closely resembles certain occurrances of Lin A *53 = RI). Either some of these Linear A signs are mis-assigned, or we deal with a quite complex evolution. Especially problematic is the case of the Linear A 'I'-group. In this case, there are not only two but three linear B counterparts: I (*22), AI (*43) and NO (*52) ! This matter is so complicated I would like to deal with it in a separate post. But up to this date, the available evidence is still more suggestive of the main Linear A signs being correctly aligned, thus the ancestors of these Linear B signs being missing. A collection of these missing signs - along with those whose identification in Linear A is not universally accepted - I put on our last table:

Now, what was this fuss worth at all? With more-or-less precise numbers on our hands, we can immedietely go and check some theories about the phonetic system of Minoan language. For example, it was proposed by Beekes, that the language underlying the Minoan system should have had two additional series for most consonants: a palatalized and a labialized one. However, looking at the number (and the expected maximal number) of signs in Linear A, it quickly becomes clear that it is sheer impossibility to reconstruct a complete palatalized-labialized system. With 5 vowels, and 24 or more series of consonants, the quantity of signs would be far too high versus the attested sign-set, which is reasonably small (82 according to our tables). Even with the O-series discounted (4 vowels only), we would get a really bad overestimation.

In my opinion, the highest possible number of full consonantal series (based on 5 vowels) is about 18. The first table already featured 16 probably full or almost full series - if we add the less-well established DW- and SW- series, we are done. And there are no normal-palatalized-labialized triads, not even with T (or at least there cannot be a complete series). This estimation would give 90 signs as a theoretic maximum, and we were not far from that when counting all the 'uncertain' signs. Since certain syllables were likely very rare (as in any other language), I do not expect to ever see the full system. And - of course - we shouldn't forget about the presence of superfluous 'shorthand' signs: removal of these lower the number of possible regular signs even further!

Some other would-be decipherers of Linear A go with a different assumption: if the limited number of signs make their hypothesis impossible (as they assume too many consonants), they lower the number of vowels instead. While there do exist languages with just 3 vowels (Arabic comes to my mind), it requires painstaking 'reassignment' of a high number of signs, with an otherwise perfect reading in E or O. These "reconstructions" thus create much more problem than they solve. The only thing I could view as acceptable (though certainly not with my approval), is the removal of the O-series from the list. This series has the lowest number of confirmed signs; and some Linear A words even seem to testify an O - U ambiguity (e.g. compare A-MI-DA-U [ZA10] and A-MI-DA-O [PH31]). However, anyone who would have his hands itching to obliterate the O-column from the table with a single scratch should stop for a second. Because they really need to explain why the PO, TO and RO (=LO) signs borrowed into Cypro-Minoan (and ultimately Linear C) have exactly the same phonetic value as the Linear B ones!

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Divine names on Linear A tablets

Parsing through the Linear A tablets several times, one can discover a large number of interesting phrases. The tablets mention places and persons, debths and taxes, a large variety of goods and even the names of gods offerings were given to. Given the intimate ties between religious and political authority in the Minoan and Mycenean era, the frequent references to religious ceremonies and donations should not be surprising. This is exactly what I would like to discuss.

It has already been well-known for several decades, that Linear B archives feature a high number of theonyms. Some tablets exclusively deal with the acts of sacrifice made to please the gods - like the famous Pylos tablet PY Tn316. This is an unusual document and therefore quite renown. It mentions golden chalices and people as a subject of sacrifice; the term PO-RE-NA might translate as "sacrificial victim", implying human sacrifice. Greek legends mention several instances of human sacrifice (remember Iphigeneia), so it must have existed in the bronze age - and now we have direct proof of it. But by any means, it is expected to having been carried out on very rare occasions only. Some have suggested that this tablet was written in the last moments before Pylos was overrun by the enemy. The mentioned sacrifices could have been the last desperate attempt to enlist divine aid, and were perhaps never carried out - as the tablet was found among the burnt ruins of the palace.

The sacrifices at Knossos were of much milder nature than what the former Pylos tablet has shown. Human sacrifice is never mentioned, and even animal sacrifice seems to be lacking. The gifts are exclusively agricultural goods, mostly oil or honey (supposedly given as libations). As an example, I will show one of these tablets below:

The text is roughly the following:
In the month of Lapathos: to Dwikutos(?) 1/18 unit of OIL, to Pipituna 1/18 unit, to Aurimos 4/18 unit of OIL, to all the gods 1/3 unit, to Qerasia 1/3 unit, to the priestess of winds 1 unit of OIL, to the Utanos priestess of winds 1/3 + 3/18 units.

All the personal names on this tablet are expected to be divine entities. Unfortunately we know nothing of Qerasia or Pipituna, except that the former name resembles the name "Thera" and the latter is somwehat similar to goddess Diktynna. The mentioned fractional oil units (the logogram is featured once in each line) are in fact quite large quantities: 1 unit of oil equals approximately 36 litres, so the smallest quantity is still about 2 litres.

Now, as we have seen the examples in Mycenean Linear B, it is time to look at those tablets that likely detail similar offerings in Minoan Linear A. We shall see that several putative theonyms can be discerned on Linear A tablets, among them the names of Maia, Eileithyia and Apollon!

We have already seen - thanks to the Egyptian scribes - that the Minoans had some divinities by the names Razija and Amaja. While for the former "Great God(dess)" there is no evidence on the Cretan clay tablets, there is one clear instance of the latter name. The Khania tablet KH14 features a broken heading, but sure-enough, a name A-MA-JA can be made out between two word-dividers. Given the frequent loss of initial vowels on Minoan words borrowed by Greek i.e. *Adikitu -> Dikte, it is quite possible that this goddess corresponds to the classic Greek Maia, leader of the Pleiades.

Tablet KH14
?-RA • A-MA-JA •CYP6
 *336 (horses)2
?NI (figs)1/4
 VIR+*307 (women?)2

The list of offerings to this deity is interesting, too: Apart from the figs (that were commonly used as food) and the CYP logogram (that might have meant barley or something other instead of Cypress-wood), we have a strange and unique logogram: a horse-head (Lin A *336), with a number '2' following it. Albeit horses were an important commodity in the later Mycenean age, the Linear A tablets never mention horses apart from this single occasion, so we must assume horse-breeding was less commonplace in the Minoan than it was in the Mycenean era. Thus this pair of horses is rather a special gift. In the lowest row of the tablet, a logogram VIR+*307 can be made out (with a number '2'), likely referring to women, but the context cannot be determined, as the rest of the tablet is broken off. But if the relatively little quantity of food FIC 1/4 belongs to them, we should rather expect temple-servants instead of sacrificial victims.

Our next tablet of interest is the Haghia Triada tablet HT96. Geographically, Haghia Triada is almost next to Phaistos (3 km away on the next hilltop), so we expect them to be the same polity, possibly even the same city. The Phaistos 'palace' must have been an important religious centre, and now we have some proof on our hands: this tablet mentions the term A-PA-RA-NE in the header on both sides. Although *Apalan(e) is a word somewhat different of the classical Greek Apollon (Latin Apollo, Etruscan Apulu, Luwian Appaliunas), but there is one term that makes this identification probable: the word SI-MI-TA, that is similar to a title of Apollon: Smintheus. This epithet refers to a hard-to-understand role of Apollon (Apollon of the mice). But form Hittite sources, we know that in the bronze age, mice played an important role in religion: they were not only given as religious offerings, but also used as a "scrape-mouse" (like a scrape-goat later) in ceremonies. Although SI-MI-TA is more probably read as *Simintha, a reading *Smintha cannot be entirely ruled out, since a weak-weak joining (a cluster of two non-plosive consonants) was somewhat a "scribe's choice" case: it could either have been simplified or resolved. Such ambiguities of writing rules may be caught on the tablet HT103 with the terms DA-KU-NA and DA-KU-SE-NE-TI. (*takusna versus *takusnethi ?)

Tablet HT96
 *323 *3171
 PI-TA-RA •1
 *323 *3441

?-KU-MA-RO • TENI (figs)20
?NI (figs)2

A-PA-RA-NE • QA-*118-RA-RE •*516 • GRA •40+1/2+1/4
 NI (figs)2+1/16

The list of goods is - again - quite special. Apart from relatively small quantities of grain and figs, side A mentions twice a hard-to interpret item with logogram *323 (it is like a slightly modified TI sign). Once it stands with *317, the logogrammatic "double-axe" sign, and the other time with an image of a roughly-drawn tripartite building (*344). Like this unknown object, items by the name RU-SA and PI-TA-RA were also given (they have integer quantities), but we do not know what on earth they refer to. Given the small quantities and possibly a sacrifice, they must have been valuable. On the reverse, the goods are less exotic: There is a large shipment of grain (more than 40 units), some type of oil (OLE+U) and figs. These items are from an owner or place *Qazir (QA-*118 [KH10] in the suggested "pertinentive" case *-(a)le).

For the last part (and to make this 'trinity' complete), let us observe another Khania tablet (KH5), detailing a transaction that might have had something to do with a religious offering. In the header, we find a name A-RA-U-DA, which shows a reasonably high similarity to the Mycenean theonym Eleuthia, corresponding to classic Greek Eileithyia. This identification is further reinforced with another small detail: the second paragraph on the table mentions a place-name WI-NA-DU, that can be identified with the Mycenean WI-NA-TO and the classic Greek town of Einatos (thanks to Miguel Valério) - actually quite close to the cave sacred to Eileithyia.

Tablet KH5
WI-NA-DU • *301-NA • KU-PA-DOCYP+?3+2/3
 NI (figs)2+1/2+1/3

At this time, the list of goods supposedly offered to goddess *Alauta is less exotic: A smaller quantity of wine, some CYP and a package of figs. Apart from the names, the header is difficult to interpret: while A-DA-KI-SI-KA might have been a verb, even a passive preterite one (ending -SI-KA), the word KU-PA-DO cannot be securely identified as the case of KU-PA (the -DO ending would be a hapax). Undoubtedly, we shall need more time, more finds and much more research to find out the truth behind these mysterious documents.

Many authors dealing with the Minoan religion forget about the essentially polytheistic nature of the Minoan pantheon. We can almost always read about a "Great Goddess", with little or no reference to others. But it is beyond doubt that like the Myceneans, the residents of Minoan Crete worshipped a plethora of divine entities. What is more, most of the classic Greek 'Olympic Gods' are though to be borrowed from earlier civilizations. Now we have seen a few intriguing examples of Greek divinities appearing in a purely Minoan context. Without doubts, this is just the 'tip of the iceberg': We know next to nothing about the portfolio of these gods, or their original attributes. Seems like we are looking forward to many more interesting discoveries in the near future!