23 October 2014

The Women of Mycenaean Pylos and Knossos (Part II)

The Essence of Woman

(continuing Zenobia's review of Barbara Olsen's Women in Mycenaean Greece.  Part I click here)

The Linear B tablets found in the palaces at Pylos on the Greek mainland and Knossos on Crete are the oldest documents ever written in Greek  They are without exception administrative records (inventories, accounts, and lists of names and personnel).  While they record information on some 5,000 men, they also document the palaces' interest in more than 2,000 women.  In fact, these tablets are one of the largest sets of evidence for real women's lives in any period of Greek antiquity. 

Unfortunately for us, the palaces were not interested in reporting on their private lives (loves, friendships, family).  Rather, women are only documented because they are, in some way, connected with the economic institutions of the palace -- whether involved in commodity production, property holdings, land tenure, or cult practice.  The result is that, at Pylos and Knossos, scribes recorded women's economic activities in public or civic -- rather than domestic -- contexts.  Women (like men) are listed either as individuals with names or titles, or as undifferentiated members of collective groups.

Who are these 2,000 women?  How do they compare in status and power to the men who are recorded in the Linear B tablets?  Prof. Barbara Olsen (Vassar College) has brought together for the first time all of the references to women in the Linear B tablets from the two best-documented Mycenaean sites (1400-1200 BCE).  As far as written sources are concerned, it is the low-down on everything there is to know -- or possibly ever will be known -- about Myceanean women.

The Belated Death of Matriarchy

The numbers alone (5000:2000) should be the first red alert: the tablets reflect societies where men's production and holdings were more important than those of women.  Of course, it might also be possible for women to hold the same types of commodities and property as men -- but at approximately 30% of the amount, reflecting their proportion in the tablets.  Alas, as Prof. Olsen irrefutably demonstrates, this is not at all the case. The documents reflect societies where men's production and holdings were much more significant to the palaces than those of women.

The palaces of the Late Bronze Age Aegean were not egalitarian in matters of gender.  If any of my readers still believe that there was a feminist tilt at that time, get over it now.  This book is ruthless in its incidental demolition of any such idea.  Women's holdings differed from men's not just in scale but also in substance.  As a sex, women held significantly less property and received fewer commodities (whether slaves or livestock, foodstuffs, textiles, leather goods, bronze, or precious objects such as gold vases and ivory) than men.
The archives from both palaces reveal strictly gendered societies where an individual's sex opens or limits access to various occupations and to specific commodities or resources and ultimately governs his or her access to civic office, control over property, and public functions.  In short gender is constructed at both Bronze Age palaces in a way so that men and women largely experience their societies in very distinct ways.
Women at both sites had more limited access to commodities, were excluded from the highest political offices, and were socially and economically subordinate to men.  In short, the palaces were patriarchal in their social, economic, and political organizations.  The only ray of light is in the religious sphere, but we'll get to that in a moment.

First the gloom. 

Separate and Unequal 

On the left is The Mycenaean Woman as expressed by a scribe writing in Linear B.*

Lazy bureaucrat that he was, he used a shorthand picture (ideogram) instead of writing out the whole word: just a semi-circle for her head, a skirt, and dot breasts was quite enough to make it clear that he meant 'Woman'.  

What could be simpler?

Except that no Mycenaean scribe ever drew such a neat, clean ideogram.  What Mycenaean scribes actually sketched was much sloppier; like this:

A rag, a bone, and a hank of hair

Who were these carelessly-drawn women?  They could not have been further from the high-priestess Eritha (Part I) in rank, status, and -- especially -- autonomy.  Never personally named or differentiated in any way as individuals, they belong to single-sex female work groups that were assigned by palace officials to menial, labour-intensive work.  They are the anonymous women who, day after day, would card wool, spin thread, weave, sew, and decorate cloths.  These are not Penelopes but some of Penelope's nameless maids.  They are flour-grinders (a perpetual, unhealthy task), sweepers who clean the palace, water-carriers and bath attendants, launderers, or simply personal servants.  For which work, the women (along with their minor children) received standard subsistence rations of wheat and figs.  And that's it.

In a word, they are slaves.

The Slave Women of Pylos
At Pylos, 7 women wool-carders, 4 girls, 4 boys: wheat 240.4 litres, figs 230.4 litres; 1 supervisor(?)
Such servile low-status women make up by far the largest group of women documented in the Linear B tablets at Pylos (more than 750 out of nearly 900 women).  There is no evidence for extra-palatial craftswomen who might have conducted economic activities in their own right.  In contrast to Pylian men, not a single free, economically independent women is listed in any craft or trade.  Female workers always appear without any property of their own, labouring in collective work groups in return for bare subsistence rations.

Except for just one woman -- Kessandra (the meaning of whose name hints at a future Cassandra, "who speaks solemnly to the men"**).  Kessandra receives more than 25 times the amounts of wheat and figs that a workgroup woman would get as rations.  This is the largest, and perhaps only, real property attributed to a Pylian woman who is not expressly in cult service.  Clearly, Kessandra (who appears on five tablets) is a very different mess of pottage compared to the menial laborers who are no more than ideograms to us.  The best explanation is that she is one of the female supervisors whose job may have been to dole out rations to the female workgroups.  Whatever her exact role or status (slave, free, or freed), she is the only such woman in the Pylos archive, an exception that proves the rule.

The Seven Merry Wives of Pylos

Only a handful of named women appear on the tablets without any religious titles.  Six women listed on a single tablet (PY Vn 34+) are all pendants to their husbands: the man's name comes first, followed by the woman's name and the number one. Each couple apparently receives one portion or piece of whatever is being distributed.  Three of the men are known from other sources where we are able to identify them as prominent elite Pylian officials.
[Their] wives would appear to occupy a high level of prestige -- presumably they were aristocrats -- but their high social status does not translate to a similarly high level of economic status.  Put simply, these women have no major property holdings allocated to them as distinct individuals ... and consequently no real economic authority or autonomy.
One couple, however, Metianor and his wife Wordieria ('Rosie'), pop up again as recipients of leather goods from the palace storerooms: he gets 1 prepared hide and 3 red-leather hides; she gets 10 pigskins, 2 deerskins, 1 ox-hide, and two (pairs?) of sandals with matching ox-hide laces.  A second woman  -- perhaps a merry widow since no man's name is appended -- gets pigskins, deerskins and something with fringes(?).  Those skins and sandals are the only non-edible goods, as far as we know, allocated to any woman outside of the religious sphere.  With the best will in the world, we cannot magnify a pair of sandals into female economic power.

Let there be light

Priestess, Keybearer, Servant of the god, Servant of the Priestess, or Servant of the Keybearer

The five titles of female cult officials specifically identity 120 Pylian women as religious functionaries.  These are the only women both named and titled in all of the Pylos texts.  And they differ in nearly every way from their lay sisters.
Religious officialdom not only lends to Pylian women a visibility not accorded to their secular peers but also provides for functionary women an exceptional status where many of the usual restrictions on women's access to resources and economic power are lifted.
First and foremost, these are the only women who exercise control over land at Pylos even if they did not achieve full parity with men.  While all five categories of cult-affiliated women are known to have held land-leases, none is attested as land-owner.  Nonetheless, they shared the ability to redistribute sanctuary resources and land.  The priestess Eritha was at the very top of the pile, able to challenge her community council in a legal dispute over land and to represent herself to make her case.  Other priestesses and keybearers had access to bronze (the key raw material of the time) and received textiles and other goods intended either for use in the cult or for their personal use.  They supervised low- and mid-ranked personnel, owned slaves, both male and female -- one priestess is granted 14 female slaves "on account of the sacred gold" -- and appear on tablets (PY An 1281, Fn 50, Jn 829) alongside male officials listed in ways analogous to the men -- among the very rare cases when both men and women are recorded on the same tablet.

So at Pylos, as eight centuries later in Classical Athens, religion lent certain women an exceptional status in that economic restriction and subordination were overruled for them by the requirements of cult.  Priestly women had, at least to some extent, economic autonomy.  But, of course, it was also the only place where women had any economic power in their own right. As Prof. Olsen puts it, "religion functioned as an economic wildcard in terms of Pylian gender roles."

So much for Pylos! You wouldn't really expect more from those Mycenaean-Greeks; would you? But what about Knossos in the Mycenaean period (after 1450 BCE)?  What was the status, what were the rights of the post-Minoan women of the Knossian state? Were there any real or significant differences between the gender biases of Pylos and those of Mycenaean Knossos where the conquerors governed a mixed Mycenaean and Minoan population? 

The next post follows Barbara Olsen to Crete as she examines the "wildcards" that were played out in the daily lives of women at Knossos under Mycenaean rule. 

Part III: The Women of Mycenaean Pylos and Knossos

Women in Mycenaean Greece

The Linear B Tablets from Pylos and Knossos

By Barbara A. Olsen

Routledge – 2014 – 380 pages

Hardback: $140.00
ISBN: 978-0-415-72515-6

*The comparable ideogram for a man (left) was a simple forked stick, with some slight stress on the shoulder line, and a barest sketch of the head.
Collected ideograms of MUL and VIR from J. Weilhartner, "Gender Dimorphism in the Linear A and Linear B Tablets", in Kosmos, Aegaeum 33 (2012) 287-296, Fig. LXVI 5, Fig. 9: https://www.academia.edu/1777935/Gender_Dimorphism_in_the_Linear_A_and_Linear_B_Tablets.

** Though, of course, it may just be built on the masculine name Kessandros, since it is "not conceivable" that any Mycenaean woman would speak so to men: J.L. GARCÍA RAMÓN, 'Mycenaean Onomastics', in "A Companion to Linear B Vol. 2 (Y. Duhoux - A. Morpurgo Davis, eds) Louvain, 2011, 225, 226.


Upper left: Fresco fragment, the 'White Goddess' from the NW slope, Pylos; end 14th C BCE.  Photo credit: http://www.tumblr.com/search/mycenaean+frescoes

Second left: Fresco fragment, 'La Parisienne' from the Campstool Fresco, Knossos; 14th C BCE. Photo credit: http://onassisusa.intelligentlearningmedia.com/blogos/?p=266

Centre: Fresco fragment, "Women in a loggia" from ramp house deposit, Mycenae.  Photo credit: http://www.ou.edu/finearts/art/ahi4913/aegeanhtml/mycptg2.html 

Below: Fresco fragment, Woman with a decorated ivory box (pyxis): reconstruction of figure from Women's frieze Tiryns.  Photo credit:Wikimedia Commons


  1. cool review ! waiting for Knossos

  2. Hi Judith, Thank you for this post which is relevant to the study of Linear B Ancient Minoan script writings, which I am studying at the moment . The Syllabograms and Ideograms I can read since I have passed Levels l to 4. Now I know a little more about the Minoan Woman which is a great help towards my understanding of this ancient language.

  3. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  4. Sorry, I just removed a duplicate comment. My fault. Judith

  5. You use a particular iteration of the Mycenaean Woman symbol - "a semi-circle for a head, a skirt and dot breasts." I think it's interesting to note that the semi-circle seems pretty constant, somewhat surprising (is it just my cultural blinders that make me assume the norm of a full-circle head on a stick figure?) and bears a notable resemblance to the Tanit symbol from Carthaginian graves, where the semi-circle is generally referenced as a crescent moon. I also wonder at the designation 'dot breasts', though you've no doubt seen far more of these than I, so maybe they're more obviously breasts or nipples in other exemplars. In your sample. they aren't really placed where I'd expect breasts, since they're under what I read as arms. Could there be a reference to yoked buckets? I wonder if one of the prime duties of slave women may have been transporting water. (I later note that a couple of the male figures in the image at the bottom have a similar crescent.)

  6. Hi Ryan, Thanks for writing. The semi-circular head is, I think, simply quicker and easier to incise with a stylus in clay than drawing a full circle. Hence, it is used for the MAN ideogram as well as for WOMAN. Whereas the crescent that tops the Tanit symbol is clearly intentional and usually (but not always) carefully drawn.
    The breasts that are indicated on the formal ideogram are almost never added on the actual tablets; as I showed, the scribes pare it down to its minimum, just enough to know what is meant but rarely even an extra line or dots.
    They are writing for themselves or for each other, not for outsiders (like us) who might be puzzled. Judith


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