THE INFURIATINGLY IMPRECISE ORTHOGRAPHY
OF LINEAR B

A Cautionary Tale of Crime and Punishment
in Bronze Age Greece


The Archive Room at Pylos (painting by Henry Hankey)



     Nestor, esteemed wa-na-ka1 of Pu-ro2 went on a royal bender one night, draining his famous golden di-pa3 of many <|-units4 of wine.
     He awoke the next day badly hung over, with a splitting headache and in a very dark mood. Nonetheless, duty summoned. His royal schedule called for him to adjudicate several routine civil disputes that morning. He pulled on his po-pu-re-ja   pu-ka-ta-ri-ja5 and headed for his to-no6, cursing as he stepped outside where the blinding Greek Bronze Age sun7 struck his eyes.
     First in the docket was an a-re-pa-zo-o8 who had lodged a grievance against a pu-ka-wo9 named A-ke-ra-wo, whom he had accused of burning down his house. King Nestor was outraged at this transgression; he immediately determined that the punishment for the arsonous A-ke-ra-wo was to be death. Now Nestor was a pious king; in order to get the most mileage out of the judgment, he decreed that the man be sacrificed to A-pa-i-ti-jo10, chuckling to himself at the delicious irony of offering up a firebug to the god of the forge. The royal scribe in attendance dutifully recorded the decree on a tablet, and sent it to the archives to be logged in; judicial protocol dictated that the death sentence be carried out immediately thereafter. Later that morning, the decree was read to the captain on duty, who dispatched a contingent of palace guards to find the miscreant and carry out the king's decision posthaste.
     After a few more summary (and similarly draconian) judgments, the old king grew weary. He dismissed his do-e-ro-i11, and headed back to the royal apartments for a much-needed nap.
     Late that afternoon, he awoke. His headache had abated somewhat, but he was still in a foul mood, and decided he needed some cheering up. He told his footman to summon his e-qe-ta12 and close friend, A2-ke-ra-wo.
     "But sire," the footman replied anxiously, "I, Pi-ro-we-ko  thy servant, the dirt under thy feet--at the feet of the king, my lord, my pantheon, my Sun-god, seven times seven times I fall!13--must humbly beg to inform my radiance that A2-ke-ra-wo was sacrificed this morning, according to thine order."
     "What??," roared the king, a look of deep anguish on the royal visage. "We gave no such order!!"
     The footman called for the scribe in attendance, who appeared soon thereafter with the relevant tablet. The scribe read aloud: "PU-RO   i-je-to-qe   A-pa-i-ti-jo   A2-ke-ra-wo14."
     King Nestor was horrified. "No!!  Not  A2-ke-ra-wo!!  A-ke-ra-wo!!", he cried out, collapsing in tears.
     "Damn this Linear B," muttered the scribe under his breath.


The moral of this tragic story:
Strive for precision in your writing.
And for God's sake, use an alphabet, not a syllabary.



APPARATUS CRITICUS

1 King.

2 Pylos (modern Ano Englianos, in southwestern Greece), site of a major Mycenaean palace excavated by the University of Cincinnati beginning in 1939.

3 Depas, the name of a particular shape of goblet. The cup of Nestor was featured in an aside in the Iliad (Book IX, lines 631-635). Homer tells us that when his cup was full of wine, another man could lift it only with great effort; but Nestor, aged though he was, could raise it without straining.

4 The Linear B ideogram <| represents a unit of liquid measure thought to correspond to approximately 2 liters.

5 Purple double cloak (?). This term, found on Knossos tabet L 474, suggests that the color purple (a fast but expensive textile dye made from a fluid extracted from the Mediterranean Murex trunculus seashell) was already by this time associated with royalty in Greece (Michael Ventris and John Chadwick, Documents in Mycenaean Greek, 2nd ed. [Cambridge University Press, 1973], p. 321).

6 Throne (located in the Megaron, the focal point of the Mycenaean palace).

7 The sun of Bronze Age Greece was doubtless even brighter and hotter than the sun of modern Greece, where the sky is occasionally obscured by smog.

8 Unguent-boiler (an official occupation).

9 Fire-kindler (an official occupation).

10 Hephaistos, Greek god of the forge.

11 Slaves or servants.

12 Official companion to the king; perhaps a member of the warrior class.

13 Okay, okay. This is not really a Linear B formula. I have lifted it from Amarna Tablet no. 254 (a letter from Labayu, a prince of Shechem in Palestine, to the Egyptian pharaoh Akhenaton) because I love the imagery of groveling. Functionaries in antiquity--not to mention slaves--were pathetically obsequious when addressing royalty. This particular phrase was boilerplate, and prefaces every statement addressed to the king in that series of correspondence (translation in James Pritchard, ed., The Ancient Near East: An Anthology of Texts and Pictures [Princeton University Press, 1958], p. 266). Mycenaean kings, to judge from their vivid depictions in the Homeric epics, were every bit as fearsome as their Near Eastern counterparts, and would surely have been treated by their lackeys with equal deference.

14 "PYLOS: Perform a certain action at the [shrine] of Hephaistos: A2-ke-ra-wo" (cf. the notorious Linear B tablet Tn316, q.v. Ventris and Chadwick, op. cit., pp. 284-289; pace Thomas Palaima, "The Last Days of the Pylos Polity," Aegaeum 12 [1995], pp. 623-637).


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