“The project is about how history is told, how many stories are left out and how many texts are simply lost: sometimes by time and neglect, at other times because they were intentionally destroyed. One section of the poetic series is about ‘lost texts’. It includes translations and inventions.”
I visited Crete in the winter of 1976 at the end of my undergraduate university studies. I had very little knowledge of ancient Greek history (perhaps an advantage in retrospect), but I had heard from other women living in the same squat in London as I was that Crete had at some time in the distant past been a matriarchy. I was overwhelmed by what I found, not only at Knossos and Phaestos and Haghia Triadha, but also in the tiny seal stones in the Museum in Heraklion. My mind spun as I moved from the oldest work, full of vitality, energy and some kind of woman-spirit, to the newer layers which struck me as tight, restricted, geometric and masculine. This was what I thought. It was an eye-opener, like coming to feminism the first time and the scales falling from one’s eyes.
I returned to Australia and began to read about the ancient world. By 1979, I was enrolling in a PhD on ‘The structure of belief systems in the ancient world’. I studied Greek as a way of getting access to the original sources.
My favourite subject was Historical Syntax. In this class we looked at the development of the Greek language, its Indo-European roots and how Greek words were transformed into other related words in Lithuanian, German, French, Italian and so forth.
We also looked at Linear B and its connection to Ancient Greek. Linear B was deciphered in 1952. All the credit has gone to Michael Ventris, but in June 2013 the news emerged that American classicist Alice Kober did the painstaking work behind the decipherment, without which Ventris would not have had the information for the decoding. Unfortunately Alice Kober died in 1950.
I didn’t ever finish that PhD, but my novel, The Falling Woman (1992), incorporates some of the ideas I was thinking about.
Linear B is now a readable text, but Linear A remains an enigma. Scholars have been trying to figure out these texts and there are some advances being made. In researching this poem, I began reading through an online Dictionary of Linear A. In the process I discovered that some words have been deciphered and so I took these individual words and imagined a poem.
The poem is part of a larger writing project, currently entitled Lupa and Lamb, that I am pursuing while living in Rome for six months on a writing fellowship funded by the Australia Council. The project is about how history is told, how many stories are left out and how many texts are simply lost: sometimes by time and neglect, at other times because they were intentionally destroyed. One section of the poetic series is about ‘lost texts’. It includes translations and inventions.
I wanted a way to engage with a language that has only been partially deciphered, so this poem and the accompanying text combined both translation and invention. It represents a hidden or lost language, just as women’s histories have been hidden and lost.
The poem includes an imaginary text, transcription and discussion. In the discussion I am attempting to show how a scholar might write about such a ‘lost text’ if it were found.
Lost texts: Linear A
she carries the gilded pot
delicate and three-legged
from Mesara wheat sun-gilded
is cooked with threads of saffron
the shepherd girls bring in the wethers
from the hills
figs fresh and dried are piled high
golden wine spills from conical cups
the women feast under a full moon
vessel : bronze : three legs : diminutive ending : of gold : carries [fem]
direction : place name? : movement towards : grain : of gold
[verb] : spice / herb /plant [crocus?] : of gold
shepherds [fem] : sheep : 27 : high
figs : green : figs : black : high
conical cups : liquid : of gold : high
people : food : moon
small bronze tripod gilded she carries
from place name Mesara [near Phaestos] to this place
golden grain [wheat]
[transformation verb?] : spices of golden thread [saffron]
shepherds [fem] [sheep neuter – wethers] : 27 : high [from]
green figs [fresh figs] black figs [dried figs] : high
conical cups : golden liquid [wine] : high
people food [feast] : round moon
she carries a small gilded tripod
from Mesara comes golden wheat
cooked in saffron
the shepherdess brings the wethers from the hills
fresh figs and dried figs are piled high
golden wine spills from conical cups
the people feast under the full moon
The interesting thing about this short text is the interweaving images and metaphors. The colour gold is a trope that goes through all of the text. Height is also important: in one instance it means from the heights, in the others it suggests a cornucopia. A feast or festival is taking place and a woman is carrying a small vessel that can stand on its three legs. Young women bring in the sheep who have been neutered at some point. Oddly the number 27 is specified. It is unclear what significance this number has; it’s also unclear whether or not the sheep are to be killed [ritually] or eaten as part of the feast or whether these people eat mainly grain, herbs and fruits. If the sheep were to be ritually slaughtered one would expect some sense of the sacrificial to be evident in the poem. Further, one would also expect such a ritual to take place at the dark of the moon or at the first sight of a sickle moon as sympathetic magic with the sheep horns. The wine is plentiful for the feast and the conical cups reflect the moon’s shape.
Interestingly, all the actors in this short text are female, from the unidentified ‘she’ at the beginning of the poem to the shepherdesses. The sheep would once have been male but have been castrated and therefore the neuter gender is used for them – they are wethers not rams. While this is a short fragment, the fragment itself is complete. No doubt there is more detail about the unnamed ‘she’ in the poem, possibly a woman with ritual power. The age of the shepherdesses is indicated by a word which suggests that they have not yet reached puberty.
It is possible that the text refers to a puberty rite in which only women participate as has been noticed by Spyridon Marinatos (1976) while Nanno Marinatos (1984) suggests that saffron was used in rites of passage for young women because of its effectiveness against menstrual cramps. The full moon is also suggestive of a puberty rite.
The two signs from Linear A included in this text are not identical to the Tables of Standardized Linear A Signs because there are a large number of hapax legomena (single instance of a word in a text or language) in many of the extant Linear A tablets, most of which are broken.
The vocabulary for this text has been taken from http://archaeology.about.com/od/lterms/qt/linear_a.htm
For more information see the following texts.
Day Jo. 2011. ‘Counting threads. Saffron in Aegean Bronze Age writing and society.’ Oxford Journal of Archaeology 30(4): 369-391.
Day, Jo. 2005. ‘Adventures in Fields of Flowers: Research on contemporary saffron cultivation and its application to the Bronze Age Aegean.’ In SOMA 2003: Symposium of Mediterranean Archaeology. Edited by Camilla Briault, Jack Green, Anthi Kaldelis, and Anna Stellatou. Oxford: Archeopress BAR S1391.
Marinatos, Nanno. 1984. Art and Religion in Thera. Athens: Mathioulakis.
Marinatos, Spyridon. 1976. Excavations at Thera VII. Athens.