From Athens to Crete and back

2015.09.10 | By Gregory Nagy


§0.1. In my posting for 2015.08.26, I spoke of a “Minoan-Mycenaean civilization,” not saying “Minoan” and “Mycenaean” separately. That is because, as we saw in the postings for both 2015.08.26 and 2015.09.03, some of the myths that we encounter about Minoan civilization as centered on the island of Crete are infused with elements that are distinctly Mycenaean as well as Minoan. And such an infusion has to do with the fact that Minoan civilization, which had evolved in the context of a “Minoan Empire,” as archaeologists know it, was eventually taken over by a “Mycenaean Empire.” This takeover, as I argued already in the postings for both 2015.08.26 and 2015.09.03, resulted in modifications of myths about the Minoan Empire by way of myths about the Mycenaean Empire. Now we will see that these modifications, taking place on the island of Crete, involved the city of Athens as it existed in the Mycenaean era.

§0.2. I must stress here that the myths stemming from Minoan-Mycenaean civilization need be studied from a diachronic as well as a synchronic perspective. The terms synchronic and diachronic, as I use them here, come from linguistics.[1] When linguists use the word synchronic, they are thinking of a given structure as it exists in a given time and space; when they use diachronic, they are thinking of that structure as it evolves through time.[2]

A missing link: the Athenian connection

§1. In speaking about a Mycenaean “infusion” into Minoan mythmaking, I have concentrated in the postings for 2015.08.26 and 2005.09.03 on Athenian myths and rituals concerning the hero Theseus. But I have not yet made it clear why these myths and rituals concerning Theseus, which are of course Athenian myths, are also Mycenaean myths. Here I return to the concept of an “Athenian connection.”

§2. I introduced this concept at §§6 and 48 in the posting for 2015.08.26. As I already argued there, the myth about the Ring of Minos, recovered by Theseus from the depths of the Aegean Sea, must have aetiologized the idea of a transition from a Minoan thalassocracy to an Athenian thalassocracy. But such an idea did not start with the likes of Herodotus and Thucydides in the classical period of the late fifth century BCE. The mythical construct of a connection between the Athenian and the Minoan thalassocracies originated not in the classical period. No, in terms of my argument, this myth existed already in the Mycenaean period of Crete. This was the time when the Minoan civilization of that island, which had evolved in the context of a Minoan Empire, was being taken over by Greek-speaking elites of the Mycenaean Empire. These elites came from the mainland of what we call Greece today, yes, but I would be suffering from a “blind spot” if I thought of these Greek-speakers simply as “Mycenaeans”—as if they all came from the Mycenaean acropolis of Mycenae. As we will now see, some of these “Mycenaeans” came from other places in Greece, and one of those places was the Mycenaean-era acropolis in Athens. That is what I mean when I speak of an Athenian connection.

§3. Evidence comes from the Linear B tablets found in the so-called Room of the Chariot Tablets at Knossos in Crete. At §§16–23 in the posting for 2015.08.26, I have already spoken about the administrative unit that was in charge of the record-keeping as reflected in the contents of the tablets stored in this room, which can be dated at around 1400 BCE. At §22, I noted with special interest the “Mycenaean” cultural agenda reflected in the written records of the Linear B tablets that are linked to the administrative zone represented by this particular room in the context of the overall administration in the “palace” at Knossos. I quoted the apt formulation of Thomas Palaima, who notes that the administrative unit responsible for keeping written records at the Room of the Chariot Tablets in Knossos was using these records “mainly for the monitoring and distribution of military equipment (chariots, body armo[u]r, horses) to a Greek-dominated military élite.”[3] And I already said back then, at §22, that the Mycenaean Greek name for such a military élite would have been Akhaioí ‘Achaeans’. But now I will also say that some of these ‘Achaeans’ were Athenians. To say it another way, at least some of the “Mycenaeans” who were running the administration of the labyrinthine “palace” at Knossos around 1400 BCE must have been Athenians.

§4. For me the “smoking gun” that may possibly prove the Athenian provenience of at least some of the “Mycenaeans” who ran the administration of Knossos around 1400 BCE is the name of one of the divinities listed in one of the Linear B texts found in the so-called Room of the Chariot Tablets. The text is written in the Knossos tablet V 52, and the name of the divinity in line one of that text is a-ta-na-po-ti-ni-ja. An article published in 2001 by Joann Gulizio, Kevin Pluta, and Thomas Palaima argues persuasively that the name of this divinity is to be read as Athānās potnia and needs to be interpreted as ‘[our] Lady of Athens’, not as ‘our Lady [the goddess] Athena’.[4]

§5. If it is true that the goddess who is featured so prominently in the pantheon of divinities recorded in Knossos tablet V 52 is ‘our Lady of Athens’, then we see here a direct reference to the goddess of the acropolis of Athens in mainland Greece, specifically, in Attica.

§6. In Homeric poetry, the name in question here is Athḗnē. This name applies both to the goddess known in English as ‘Athena’, as at Odyssey 7.78, and to the place that is seen as the possession of the goddess—which is the territory of the place known in English as ‘Athens’, as at Odyssey 7.80.[5] The suffix -ḗnē is visible also in the name of the nymph Mukḗnē, who presides over the acropolis of Mycenae.[6]

§7. The same suffix -ḗnē is visible also in the place-name Messḗnē, which means something like ‘Midland’.[7] Here I compare the place-name me-za-na written on a Linear B tablet from Pylos, Cn 3.1. On the basis of this comparison, I have observed elsewhere: “I suspect that the suffix -ḗnē is endowed with an elliptic function.”[8] What I meant there when I made that observation is this: a form that is elliptic refers not only to X but also to everything that belongs to X, such as X2, X3, X4 etc. An elliptic form of X implies X2, X3, X4 etc. without naming X2, X3, X4 etc. explicitly. In terms of this definition, the name Athḗnē refers not only to the goddess ‘Athena’ but also to everything that belongs to the goddess. The primary example of that ‘everything’ here is the acropolis of Athens. And we see another level of ellipsis in the plural form Athênai: this elliptic plural refers not only to the acropolis of Athens but also to everything that belongs to the acropolis of Athens, which is the city of Athens, and, by extension, to everything that belongs to the city, which is ultimately the region of Attica.[9]

§8. I see a parallel situation in the use of the form Aswia (/Aswiās) in the Linear B texts, where Aswia is evidently a goddess, as we see from the collocation po-ti-ni-ja a-si-wi-ja = potnia Aswia ‘[Our] Lady Aswia’ as written on a tablet from Pylos, Fr 1208. In the case of Aswia, the name survives into the classical period of recorded texts in the fifth century BCE and later: now the name is pronounced Asíā, meaning ‘Asia’, and the referent here is what we call ‘Asia Minor’ in English. So, from a diachronic perspective, this name applies both to the goddess and to the realm of the goddess. She is ‘Our Lady of Asia’ or ‘Asia’ personified.

§9. I emphasize here that the form Athḗnē at line 80 of Odyssey 7 is the only instance, in all surviving texts ever written in the ancient Greek language, where the name of  the place ‘Athens’ is found in the singular, not in the plural. Everywhere else in attested Greek, we read the elliptic plural Athênai, which I now interpret to mean ‘everything that belongs to the acropolis of Athḗnē’. And there is also a deeper level of ellipsis here: the suffix -ḗnē of Athḗnē indicates that the goddess Athena is also a personification of the place of Athena, which is the acropolis of Athens and, by extension, the city of Athens, and by further extension, everything that belongs to the city of Athens.

What is missing so far in the big picture?

§10. At this point in my analysis of an “Athenian connection” between the Minoan and the Mycenaean empires, I have concentrated on the goddess Athena as she was pictured in the second millennium BCE. But there is more to it. In the posting that will follow this one, I will concentrate on a female character in myth who is another essential element that is needed for reconstructing the “Athenian connection.” As we will see, this character seems to be mortal, not immortal. At this point, I would rather not give away her name. But I show here an image that previews her identity. This image, produced by the brilliant researcher Mark Cameron, shows this female figure as she was represented in Minoan fresco paintings. The image is a reconstruction from fragments, but this reconstruction will give us the big picture that I will need for tracing further my thread of argumentation.

Here it is:

Park Fresco_full—panel only_72dpi
From a fresco found at Hagia Triadha in Crete. Reconstruction by Mark Cameron, p. 96 of the catalogue Fresco: A Passport into the Past, 1999 (for an expanded citation, see the Bibliography below). Reproduced with the permission of the British School at Athens. BSA Archive: Mark Cameron Personal Papers: CAM 1.



Driessen, J. 2010. The Scribes of the Room of the Chariot Tablets at Knossos: Interdisciplinary Approach to the Study of a Linear B Deposit. Minos Supplement 15. Salamanca.

Fresco: A Passport into the Past. 1999. A catalogue curated by Doniert Evely. Full title: Fresco: A Passport into the Past. Minoan Crete through the eyes of Mark Cameron. Athens: British School at Athens and N. P. Goulandris Foundation, Museum of Cycladic Art.

Gulizio, J., Pluta, K., and Palaima, T.G. 2001. “Religion in the Room of the Chariot Tablets.” In: Potnia: Deities and Religion in the Aegean Bronze Age. Proceedings of the 8th International Aegean Conference held in Göteborg, Sweden, 12–15 April 2000 (ed. R. Laffineur and R. Hägg) 453–61. Liège.

Morris, S. P. 1989. “A Tale of Two Cities: The Miniature Frescoes from Thera and the Origins of Greek Poetry.” American Journal of Archaeology 93:511–535.

Muellner, L. 1976. The Meaning of Homeric EYXOMAI through its Formulas. Innsbruck.

Nagy, G. 1972. Introduction, Parts I and II, and Conclusions. Greek: A Survey of Recent Work (F. W. Householder and G. Nagy) 15–72. Janua Linguarum Series Practica 211. The Hague.

Nagy, G. 2003. Homeric Responses. Austin.

Nagy, G. 2004. Homer’s Text and Language. Urbana and Chicago IL.

Nagy, G. 2005. “The Epic Hero.” A Companion to Ancient Epic (ed. J. M. Foley) 71–89. Oxford.

Nagy, G. 2006. “The Epic Hero.” Expanded version of Nagy 2005.

Nagy, G. 2008. Greek: An Updating of a Survey of Recent Work. Cambridge MA and Washington, DC. Updating of Nagy 1972, with new paragraph-numbers, but the original page-numbering is also indicated.

Nagy, G. 2011. “Diachrony and the Case of Aesop.” Classics@. Issue 9: Defense Mechanisms in Interdisciplinary Approaches to Classical Studies and Beyond.

Nagy, G. 2015.07.22. “East of the Achaeans: Making up for a missed opportunity while reading Hittite texts.”

Palaima, T. 2003. “ ‘Archives’ and ‘Scribes’ and Information Hierarchy in Mycenaean Greek Linear B Records.” In: Ancient Archives and Archival Traditions: Concepts of Record-Keeping in the Ancient World (ed. M. Brosius) 153–94. Oxford.

Palaiologou, H. 2013. “Late Helladic IIIC cremation burials at Chania of Mycenae.” Cremation burials in the region between the middle Danube and the Aegean, 1300–750 BC (ed. M. Lochner and F. Ruppenstein) 249–79. Vienna.

Palaiologou, H. 2014. “The Plain of Mycenae during the 13th Century BC and Later.” Physis: Environnement naturel et la relation homme-milieu dans le monde égéen protohistorique. Actes de la 14e rencontre égéenne internationale, Paris, Institut National de l’Institut de l’Art, 11–14 décembre 2012 (ed. G. Touchais, R. Laffineur, and F. Rougemont) 517–19. Leuven-Liège.

Saussure, F. de. 1916. Cours de linguistique générale. Critical ed. 1972 by T. de Mauro. Paris.

Saussure, F. de. 1966. Course in General Linguistics. Trans. W. Baskin. New York.



[1] See Nagy 2003:1, with reference to Saussure 1916:117.

[2] On diachronic as distinct from historical perspectives, see Nagy 2011.

[3] Palaima 2003:164. Dreissen 2008:71 makes a relevant observation with reference to the Linear B tablets found at Chanià in West Crete and dated around 1300 BCE: one of these tablets (Sq 1) concerns chariot wheels.

[4] Gulizio, Pluta, and Palaima 2001, especially pp. 457–58.

[5] Commentary in Nagy 2004:159–64.

[6] See Nagy 2004:163; also Palaiologou 2013:250n5.

[7] Nagy 2004:163n17.

[8] Again, Nagy 2004:163n17.

[9] See also Muellner 1976:70, who notes that the singular form of Athḗnē vs. the plural form Athênai can in fact refer to the place that we know as ‘Athens’. Muellner also analyzes the elliptic function of the plural form here. On the elliptic plural in general, see Nagy 2004:157–75.