06 October 2014

Eritha, A Mycenaean Uppity Woman

Around the year 1300 B.C.E., a priestess named Eritha argued a law suit against the governing council of the district of Pa-ki-ja-na (= Sphagianes, "the place of ritual slaughter").  Eritha was high-priestess of the religious sanctuary at Sphagianes where she served the great Mycenaean-Greek goddess, Potnia (meaning "Our Lady" or "Mistress").  
Eritha the priestess claims that the land she holds is a 'freehold' on behalf of her divinity, but the damos [district council] says that she holds a plot of leased communal land.

Eritha v District of Sphagianes

The legal issue is clear: if Eritha had leased the land from the commune as an individual person, it would be taxable.  Eritha asserted, however, that she held it as "freehold" on behalf of her goddess, and thus it was free of all fiscal and service obligations.  This was no trivial dispute.  The amount of land involved was substantial.  It was also prime arable land located not far from the town of Pylos, where the king (the wanax) who then ruled over this part of Greece had his palace. 

We know about this legal case because it was recorded on a clay tablet (PY Ep 704) written in Linear B (the earliest known form of Greek) by a bureaucrat working in the palace of Pylos.  Faced with two powerful, competing entities -- a senior priestess versus her local governing council -- the scribe either lacked the will or the authority to decide whose claim took priority and simply recorded both claims as items to be dealt with at some later date.  In time-honoured bureaucratic form, he "kicked it upstairs".  Presumably, the king himself would have decided the case ... had not the mortal enemies of Pylos chosen this time to attack his capital.  And so it happened that, in the year that Eritha challenged the district council, the palace went up in flames and the kingdom collapsed. 

Death and taxes

The fire that destroyed the palace unexpectedly baked and thus preserved the Eritha v District of Sphagianes tablet. Like so many other ancient court cases, we do not know how this dispute was resolved nor even if the king had time to hear any arguments before disaster overtook him.  All we really know is that Eritha had an active dispute with the local government of Sphagianes and had challenged them over the classification of a large chunk of land.  

Presumably, every landholder in the community of Sphagianes shared the obligation to pay a certain amount of annual tax to the palace.  If Eritha's property wasn't taxable, the missing amount would have been shared out among the other landholders when the taxman came to collect whatever was due to the king.  The prospect of heavier burdens for the rest of the community (not to mention for themselves) must have prompted council members  to object to Eritha's claim.  Eritha, however, was trying to protect the interests of her goddess and sanctuary (though it's not impossible she had also slipped a bit of private land into the divine freehold).  Both the district council and the sanctuary had the wherewithal to act as independent legal entities.  And both sides tried to get the most out of the system for their supporters and also possibly for themselves.


This seemingly everyday squabble is actually of huge importance in women's history because it tells us, first of all, that Eritha must have had legal access to both private and official land holdings; otherwise there could be no dispute.  Clearly, despite being a woman, Eritha could legally own, or lease, arable land -- the most important commodity in an agrarian economy and the basis of all status and power.  Eight centuries later, Greek women -- at least those of whom we know anything, like the ladies of Classical Athens -- no longer had such rights: they could own personal effects like jewellery, clothes, and household goods, but (with very few exceptions) nothing more.  

Second, Eritha apparently had the authority to plead her own case.  No husband, guardian, or son is mentioned.  Remarkably, she was able to defend her own economic interests against her local governing council. And she did so in public. Again, no later Greek woman, not even a priestess, would have been able to represent herself in a legal dispute, let alone challenge public authorities.  Such audacity cannot have been common.  In fact, we hear of no legal case brought by a male official or landowner.  It is extraordinary (at least from the viewpoint of gender politics) that this is the only law suit recorded in the entire Linear B corpus.

Eritha thus has the dubious distinction of having argued the first legal case ever known in Europe.

An Uppity Woman

As chief priestess of "Our Lady", the great goddess Potnia, Eritha had an exceptionally high status.  She held leases in her own name on rather a lot of different tracts of land in the district, as well as having the authority to disburse some of this land to her own subordinates.  For example, she made a grant of land as a 'gift of honour' to a woman named Huamia, who was described as a 'servant of the divinity' (PY Eb 416; PY Ep 704).  Apparently, she had the right to reassign her own land holdings in accordance with her personal wishes.  Other tablets tell of two of her slaves (or servants) who each held a small allotment of public land: her high rank meant that even her lowly underlings qualified for official land holdings (PY Eb 1176; PY En 609).

Behind every uppity woman is a power base, in this case the cult sanctuary at Sphagianes.  Potnia and her shrine were closely linked with palatial cult and power.  The king of Pylos made monthly offerings to the great goddess and lesser deities connected with her sanctuary.  A unique tablet (PY Tn 316) records gifts to the gods in connection with a religious ritual.  Found in the  central archive of the palace, the tablet lists gifts of thirteen gold vases and ten human beings (8 women, 2 men) to female and male deities in order of descending importance.  Potnia takes pride of place  She is clearly the principle deity for the royal house at Pylos, at least at this time of year [July-August?]:

During the Month of Sailing.
And he [the king?] is performing a holy ceremony.
And he is bringing and carrying gifts to the shrine at Sphagianes.
To Potnia: 1 gold goblet, 1 woman [servant?]

Then, four minor goddesses who reside with Potnia at her shrine are given simpler gold bowls (plus two woman servants).  From the language used, it appears that the primary activity of the event was a procession and ritual performance at which the king offered gifts of gold vessels and female servants to Potnia and associated goddesses.

Beware of Mycenaean-Greeks bearing gifts

Which brings us back to the land at the centre of the dispute between the priestess Eritha and the damos of Sphagianes.  Can it have begun with a lavish royal gift of land given by the king to Potnia? The palace certainly had the power to tax the land of Sphagianes.  Perhaps the king simply comandeered a parcel of their communal land, declared it free of taxes, and presented it as a religious offering to the goddess.  If so, the district council's protest may have been aimed not so much at the alienation of land as the fiscal consequences -- a problem which only the king could resolve.  Thus, the dispute might have involved not two but three centres of power: the king, the damos, and Eritha fighting her corner on behalf of the shrine of Potnia.   

No wonder the palace scribe 'kicked it upstairs' for a royal decision.

A One-And-Only Eritha

This post was meant to review a marvelous new book, Women in Mycenaean Greece: The Linear B Tablets from Pylos and Knossos, by Barbara Olsen (Associate Professor of Greek and Roman Studies at Vassar College).  For better or worse, I got carried away by the extraordinary implications of Eritha v District of Sphagianes.  Eritha, however, was an altogether exceptional woman.  She was not representative even of other high-born women at Pylos, let alone those of the middling or lower classes.  What rights had they?  What kind of lives did they lead?  We'll turn to that in the next post.  Consider Eritha's story, thus, as a kind of trailer for my upcoming review Barbara Olsen's fascinating study of the women at Pylos and Knossos. 

Part II: The Women of Mycenaean Pylos and Knossos


Barbara Olsen, Women in Mycenaean Greece: The Linear B Tablets from Pylos and Knossos, Routledge, London and New York, 2014; Susan Lupack, "Redistribution in Mycenaean Societies. A View from Outside the Palace: The Sanctuary and the Damos in Mycenaean Economy and Society", American Journal of Archaeology 115 (2011) 207-17; T.G. Palaima, "Kn 02 - Tn 316",  Floreant Studia Mycenaea.  Acts of the 10th International Mycenaean Colloquium in Salzburg , Vienna, 1999, 437-456.


Top: Fresco of the "Mycenaean Lady" from the Cult Centre, Acropolis of Mycenae. National Archaeological Museum, Athens inv. no. 11670. Photo credit:

Middle:"Goddess with Sheaves of Grain", Room of the Frescoes, Citadel House, Mycenae. Nauplion Museum.

Below: Two-handled gold goblet, the so-called 'Cup of Nestor' from Shaft Grave IV (Grave Circle A), Mycenae.  Photo credit: http://users.stlcc.edu/mfuller/mycenae.html


  1. What an exciting story about Pylos and the Greeks who populated it in Mycenaean times. Since my days of proper studies of the late Bronze Age world we now have learned the name of a priestess, of a law suit, the first in European records, and of the Great Goddess' name. Things have really moved along since the mid-1970s!!. Is there a particularly fine book or books on this time of Minoan and early Greek history in English that someone could recommend for my catching up program? This information would be greatly appreciated by me. Rob rufuschoate@yahoo.com

  2. Dear Rob, Thanks for your comment. Yes, things have moved along. Careful, though, while 'Potnia' *is* the Great Goddess, it is a title (meaning 'Mistress'or 'Lady'), not her name. We still lack a really good book on the whole Minoan-Mycenaean period. Probably the best available now -- if a bit dry -- is Oliver Dickinson's *The Aegean Bronze Age*, published by Cambridge University Press (1994) and available in paperback.

  3. Lyn Blewitt6/8/16 18:57

    From my research into this in the late 1970s, I would also recommend Karolos Kerenyi's books - the one on Dionysos has been updated since first publication in the 1970s so is now dated to 1996 - see https://books.google.co.uk/books/about/Dionysos.html?id=cXL-QIIhn5gC&redir_esc=y. Kerenyi seems to have captured both written sources and a more intuitive approach to the subject. Potnia Thera (= Mistress of the (Wild) Animals) is the title given in Linear B inscriptions and later to the oldest goddess known from the middle Bronze Age, Late Helladic IIIc - and this deity no doubt goes back much earlier but we have no written evidence for this! I suspect she is a successor to the Cycladean mother goddess figures and the near Eastern goddesses, in the matriarchal tradition.

  4. Myceneans by Rodney Castleden is an informative if sometimes provocative read. He does very thorough research before writing his books about Minoan and Mycenean Society.


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