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What can we know about Linear A?

Posted by on in Paths Blogs

It’s terribly frustrating trying to figure out what the ancient Minoans did in terms of religion – what they believed, how they practiced – because we can’t read anything they wrote. They were a literate culture, to be sure. They had both a hieroglyphic script and a syllabary. But we can’t read either one of them. There are clues, though.

The Cretan syllabary is commonly known as Linear A. It was used to write the native language of the ancient Minoans, which probably died out with the collapse of Minoan civilization in the second millennium BCE. However, there is a possibility that Eteocretan, which is attested as late as the 3rd century BCE, is either the native Minoan language or a direct descendant of it.

There’s another writing system that offers some clues to the nature of Linear A and the language it represents. It’s named, rather unimaginatively, Linear B and it turns out to record a very early version of Greek called Mycenaean. The Mycenaeans borrowed the Linear A script (or had Minoan scribes do it for them) and altered it somewhat in order to record their own language, because they were illiterate until they came in contact with the Minoans. So Linear B has been translated, which is an amazing thing. And one of these days, that translation will probably be the key to figuring out Linear A. But so far, it hasn’t helped much. Why? Because we simply don’t have enough Linear A texts to be able to ‘decode’ the writing system. There are other issues as well.

Linear A and Linear B overlapped for only the briefest time – the end of Linear A use occurred at the same time as the beginning of Linear B, toward the end of Minoan civilization – so there may be some overlap of terms. We have a good handful of deity names in Linear B as well as terminology that denotes sacred areas, temples, and job titles. For instance, a-ne-mo i-e-re-ja translates as ‘priestess of winds’   and di-ka-ta-jo is a god associated with Mt. Dikte, probably Rhea’s son born there (the Minoan Dionysus, also called Zeus by the Greeks because he was the highest ranking male member of the Minoan pantheon). So Linear B may give us a few glimpses into late Minoan and Mycenaean religious practice, but they’re only glimpses. And there are, of course, some awkward bits in the translation of Linear B, probably because they’re native Minoan words that the Mycenaeans borrowed, but for the most part we can read the inscriptions pretty well.

But here’s the thing: We can’t apply the translation of Linear B to Linear A and assume we have an accurate rendering of the Minoan language. That would be like using the letter values of Russian to translate Greek (the Russian alphabet is an adaptation of the Greek alphabet in roughly the same way that Linear B is an adaptation of Linear A). Some of the sounds would be correct and some wouldn’t, and we have no way of telling which is which. Of course, that hasn’t stopped legions of people from trying. John Younger is one of the more dedicated academics in this regard; I’ve been following his work for years. But until we have more Linear A texts to work with, even his highly organized method isn’t going to yield results.

And yes, I’ve also tried to translate Linear A, starting back in high school when I first discovered the world of the Minoans. And no, I haven’t been successful. But I have gleaned a few insights over the years. The first is that Linear A is a syllabary that was designed for the Minoan language. This suggests that the words it represents have a structure that works well with a syllabary, just as modern Japanese works well with its syllabary (hiragana). Linear B is much more awkward in terms of how it represents the Mycenaean Greek words: it simply doesn’t fit well. You have to drop vowels all over the place to make the words come out right. So perhaps the words in the Minoan language were created predominantly of consonant-vowel syllables, much like Japanese. (I’m not saying Minoan is in any way related to Japanese – it’s just a handy example.)

Another thing I’ve figured out is that Minoan may very well be a stand-alone language, like Basque or Etruscan. Before the coming of the Indo-Europeans, who spread their single language family all over the European continent, there were dozens, perhaps hundreds of local languages. (A similar situation existed in North America before the coming of the Europeans – estimates range as high as 500 native languages there.) Classical authors record legends of the Minoans coming ‘from the east’ to settle their island, and that may very well be true, but over the years people have done their best to fit Linear A into all the different language families of the Near East, with no luck. So at this point I’m betting the Minoan language is in a class by itself, so to speak.

I’m also struck by the fact that the majority of the writing we’ve found so far in both Linear A and Linear B amounts to accounting documents: lists of donations to the temples, essentially. They were written on clay tablets using reed styluses, and I expect those clay tablets were eventually wiped clean and reused, like ancient note pads. They don’t appear to have been meant for long-term storage of the information on them, since they were not purposely fired (unfired clay will crumble under pressure and melt back to muck if it gets wet). The only reason we have the tablets to examine today is that they were accidentally fired during the destruction of Minoan and Mycenaean sites, when buildings were looted and burned.

There are a few Linear A inscriptions on pottery and other objects, which may be dedications of some sort, but of course we can’t really read them. I have to wonder, though – did the Minoans write down anything other than the most basic of temple donation lists? It’s possible they thought that subjects such as the stories of the gods were too sacred to write down; many cultures have insisted on oral traditions for their mythos. But it’s also possible the Minoans wrote other things – letters to loved ones, medicinal or cooking recipes, stories and tales – on a perishable surface such as papyrus, which they could easily have imported from Egypt. The fact that the currently-known Minoan cities and towns were all looted and burned suggests that any papyrus is likely to have turned to ash or turned to compost millennia ago. But it’s possible that somewhere, there’s a site that wasn’t burned, where some writing was preserved. The new discovery at Sissi of a previously unknown Minoan temple complex suggests there’s still a lot we don’t know.

I encourage you to explore these writing systems: Cretan hieroglyphs, Linear A, and Linear B. There are many resources online, and as many opinions as there are writers. But they’re all aiming for the same goal: listening to what the ancient Minoans have to tell us about their lives, their beliefs, their values. If we stick with it, one day their voices will come through strong and clear.

In the name of the Bee -

And of the Butterfly -

And of the Breeze - Amen!


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I'm an artist, writer, and lover of all things ancient and mysterious. The Minoans of Bronze Age Crete have been a particular passion of mine since a fateful art history class introduced me to the frescoes of Knossos back in high school. My first book was published in 2001; one of my most recent works is Labrys and Horns: An Introduction to Modern Minoan Paganism. I've also created a Minoan Tarot deck and a Minoan coloring book. When I'm not busy drawing and writing, I enjoy gardening and giving living history demonstrations at local historic sites.


  • Anthony Gresham
    Anthony Gresham Wednesday, 07 October 2015

    Wouldn't it be ironic if "from the East" was originally "too the East" and the Minoan Linear A turns out to be a variant of Basque or Iberian?

  • Laura Perry
    Laura Perry Thursday, 08 October 2015

    Stranger things have happened! However, DNA testing on the human remains from several of the Minoan cemeteries shows that they are closely related to the native people of Anatolia, which confirms the legends of the Minoans coming from the East. Since the Minoans were a seafaring people who traveled as far west/northwest as Britain, they probably had contact with the people of the Iberian peninsula, but that would have occurred several millennia after the island was settled.

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