Ariadne's Tribe: Minoan Spirituality for the Modern World

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What can we know about Linear A?

Posted by on in Paths Blogs

It’s a challenge to figure out what the ancient Minoans believed and practiced in their religion 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 may have survived the collapse of Minoan civilization in the second millennium BCE. There's a tantalizing 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. Languages do change over time - a brief glance at any Shakespeare play will demonstrate that point. But so far, linguists haven't had a lot of luck connecting the two.

There’s another writing system that offers some clues to the nature of Linear A and the language it represents. It’s unimaginatively called Linear B, and it turns out to record a very early version of Greek called Mycenaean.

The Mycenaeans, who were illiterate until the came in contact with the Minoans, borrowed the Linear A script (or had Minoan scribes do it for them) and altered it somewhat to record their own language. Linear B has been translated, which is an amazing thing.

But so far, clickbait headlines notwithstanding, Linear A has resisted all attempts to translate it. Why? Because we simply don’t have enough Linear A texts to be able to ‘decode’ the writing system. There's a hard mathematical limit to deciphering scripts - you need a minimum amount of text to do it, even with a computer.

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 - words and phrases that both the Minoans and the Mycenaeans used on Crete. But the two scripts encode totally different languages otherwise.

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, possibly Rhea’s divine son born there at Midwinter (the Minoan Dionysus, also called Cretan 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 sound values of the Linear B signs 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. Dr. John Younger is one of the more dedicated academics in this regard. Though he has retired, he has generously left his Linear A work online for others to reference. And Dr. Ester Salgarella has recently had some amazing insights.

But until we have more Linear A texts to work with, even these inspired methods aren't going to yield results. Fortunately, ongoing excavations at Minoan sites do produce a handful of new Linear A inscriptions every year or two.

Yes, like so many other people, I’ve also tried to translate Linear A, starting back in high school when I first discovered the world of the Minoans and continuing into my graduate studies in comparative and historical linguistics. And no, I haven’t been successful. But I've gleaned a few insights over the years.

The first is that Linear A is a syllabary that was designed for the Minoan language, and that piece of information can give us insights into the language. This suggests, for instance, that the words Linear A 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 due to all the consonant clusters in Greek. You have to drop vowels all over the place to make the written words come out right in the spoken language. 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 for comparison.)

Another possibility I’ve considered 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.)

DNA evidence now shows that the Minoans' ancestors were part of the population of Old Europe and migrated from western Anatolia to Crete during the Neolithic period. That offers the possibility that the Minoan language is related to one of the ancient Anatolian languages that existed before the influx of Indo-European-speaking people into that region. Unfortunately, most of the languages in that area disappeared as Indo-European languages took over, though Hattic is one possibility that we still have texts from.

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 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 weren't purposely fired (unfired clay will crumble under pressure and melt back into mud if it gets wet). The only reason we have the tablets to examine today is that they were accidentally fired during the destruction of the Minoan and Mycenaean sites, when the 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 read them. There's evidence that the Minoans used papyrus, since the clay nodules that were used to seal folded paper-like documents have survived, showing the imprints of the papyrus on the clay. But given the context, these were probably also administrative documents of some sort.

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 papyrus. The fact that the currently-known Minoan cities and towns were all looted and burned suggests that any papyrus is likely to have burned 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 on papyrus was preserved, maybe in a sealed container of some sort. 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 may come through strong and clear.


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Laura Perry is a priestess and creator who works magic with words, paint, ink, music, textiles, and herbs. She's the founder and Temple Mom of Ariadne's Tribe, an inclusive Minoan spiritual tradition. When she's not busy drawing and writing, you can find her in the garden or 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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