Has the Phaistos Disk Been Cracked? by Carol P. Christ

Carol Christ in LesbosRecent headlines in the international press announced that the enigmatic language of the ancient Cretan “Phaistos Disk” has been translated—in part—by the Welch-Cretan scholar Gareth Owens. Owens states that the Phaistos Disk records an ancient hymn to a Mother Goddess. More specifically he claims that one side is dedicated to a Pregnant Goddess and the other to a Birth-Giving Goddess.

All of this is very exciting, but is he right?

I have been leading Goddess Pilgrimages to Crete for that past twenty years, in the course of which I have developed an intimate and scholarly knowledge of the religion and culture of ancient Crete. Participants on my tours sent me the news reports about the Phaistos Disk, assuming I would be thrilled to have confirmation of my understanding that the ancient Cretans worshipped the Goddess as the Source of Life, or as Marija Gimbutas says, as the powers of birth, death, and regeneration in all of life.

snake goddess blue backgroundReading the news reports, I noted that archaeologist-translator of the disk, Gareth Owens, identified the Goddess of ancient Crete as a “Mother Goddess” and more specifically as a Pregnant Goddess and a Birth Goddess . This raised a red flag for me. The most well-known Goddesses of ancient Crete, the bare-breasted Snake Goddesses, are neither pregnant nor giving birth. Other Goddesses pour liquids from the breasts, but again are not visibly pregnant or giving birth.

Marija Gimbutas states that the image of the Goddess as pregnant or giving birth is a minor rather than the major theme in the language of the Goddess of Old Europe. I wondered: Does the archaeologist who claims to have deciphered the Phaistos Disk understand that the Goddess as the Source of Life is a cosmic principle, not limited to the activity of giving birth?

I decided to take a closer look at Gareth Owens’ claims: I watched his Ted lecture and read his numerous online published works. Before commenting on Owens’ translation of the disk, I will provide a bit of context.

The Phaistos Disk is written in a “hieroglyphic” language stamped onto both sides of a clay disk which was then fired. The disk is dated to about 1700 BCE, at the end of what is called the “Old Palace period” of ancient Crete. There are no other exact matches to the stamped language of the Phaistos Disk—neither in Crete nor elsewhere.

There are 45 symbols on the disk, which suggests that the language might be syllabic rather than alphabetic (which would have fewer symbols) or true hieroglyphic (which would have many more symbols). On the disk, syllabic symbols seem to be divided into words by straight lines. Owens states that scholars agree that the disk is to be read beginning from its outside edge, spiraling into the center. It seems to me that it could also be read beginning from the center.

Owens concurs with other scholars that the disk most likely contains a prayer or a hymn—in other words, that its purpose was sacred rather than administrative. Owens suggests that the disk must have been dedicated to a Mother Goddess because the Mother Goddess was at the center of ancient Cretan religion. This assumption, while congenial to Goddess feminists, is likely to be contested by contemporary archaeologists who dismiss the idea of a Great Goddess as the focus of ancient religions as romantic fantasy.

Leaving this issue aside for the moment, three types of writing have been discovered in ancient Crete. These are known as Linear A, Linear B, and the hieroglyphic language.

Linear B was translated more than fifty years ago and is widely accepted to be an early form of Greek, a member of the Indo-European language group. Linear B is a primarily syllabic language (with a few logograms, picture-symbols that refer to complete words): its signs refer neither to words nor letters, but rather to syllables, for example, sa, ka, or ra. It is assumed that when the Mycenean Greeks entered or invaded Crete c. 1450 BCE, they brought with them the Greek language, but not having writing, adapted the logograms and syllabic script of the ancient Cretan language.

Linear A has not been translated. However, many scholars assume that “more or less the same” sound values can be attributed to the Linear A and Linear B signs. Thus, we can “sound out” the Linear A language, much as an English speaker can “sound out” written French or written German, without knowing the meaning of the words, where to put the accents, or that the same symbols may be pronounced somewhat differently in different languages. However, since Linear A is not exclusively syllabic but a combination of “logograms”and syllabic signs, “reading backwards” from Linear B is not straightforward.

Based on “reading backwards” from Linear B to Linear A, scholars think they may have recognized or translated a few words of Linear A. “A-sa-sa-ra” may be part of a libation formula or prayer, and some have speculated that it is the name of a Goddess–possibly related to Asherah or Ishtar. “I-da-ma-te” was found on two labryses (double axes) from a cave in Arkalohori. “Ida Mate” could be the Mountain Mother of Mount Ida.

These are not true translations. Asasara has simply been recognized as possibly being a name. In the case of Ida Mate, the assumption is made that the name “Ida” for the mountain range has been transmitted from ancient times, and that words beginning with “m” and “a” are common words for “mother” with a probable origin in prelinguistic babytalk.

Reading back from Linear B to Linear A, and basing his theory on a small amount of data, Owens believes he has discovered that Linear A uses an Indo-European case ending and that a few Linear A words can be translated using the assumption that they have Indo-European roots. Along with other scholars, Owens speculates that the ancient Cretan “hieroglyphic” language and Linear A were both were used to write the language of ancient Crete, with Linear A taking over because it was simpler. By a process which seems highly speculative, Owens “reads back” Linear A syllabic values into the ancient Cretan hieroglyphic language and the Phaistos Disk. (In contrast, Harald Haarmann believes the Phaistos Disk may be largely or exclusively logographic.)

Owens then claims to be able to translate two words that are repeated on the Phaistos Disk. He reads one of them as “i-qe-ku-rja.” He translates “ku-rja” as lady based on the Indo-European cognate “kyria” in Greek; he speculates that “i-qe” must mean something like important or great. He translates the phrase as “great lady of importance.” (There are other possibilities: why not “All Holy” as in the contemporary Greek “Panagia”?) Owens finds the key word “akka” on the other side of the disk and speculates based on Indo-European cognates that the word means mother and adds pregnant to make “pregnant mother.” He concludes that one side of the disk is addressed to a pregnant woman and the other to a woman giving birth (how he got giving birth from “great lady of importance” is not stated).

I have already questioned the notion that the most common attributes of Goddesses are pregnancy and birth-giving. It is time now to introduce another controversy concerning the dissemination of the Indo-European languages. Owens’ theory is that the ancient Cretans spoke an Indo-European language brought with them from Anatolia around 7000 BCE.

The Indo-European language group includes the main languages of Europe, among them Latin and Greek and the Germanic languages, as well as Sanskrit. Marija Gimbutas hypothesized that the Indo-European homeland was north of the Black and Caspian Seas and that Indo-European speaking groups began to invade or infiltrate Europe along the Danube beginning about 4400 BCE. This view is widely accepted by linguists.

However, there is a competing theory. The English archeologist Colin Renfrew proposed that the Indo-European languages spread from the Middle East into Europe along with agriculture. My friend and colleague, Miriam Robbins Dexter who is a linguist, tells me that “DNA studies, among other data, in the Tarim Basin, make it very clear that the Indo-European homeland is north of the Caucasus — just as Marija thought,” and that the “Indo-European lexicon shows a model of a northerly climate (and flora and fauna) and a pastoral, not agricultural, base.”

Underlying this dispute about the origins and spread of language groups is Marija Gimbutas’ theory about the two cultures of Europe. According to her, the pre-Indo-European cultures of Old Europe were peaceful, sedentary, agricultural, egalitarian, highly artistic, matrifocal, matrilineal, and probably matrilocal and worshipped the Goddess and the powers of birth, death, and regeneration in all life. In contrast the Indo-Europeans were patriarchal and patrilineal, nomadic, warlike, horse-riding, carrying bronze weapons, and worshiping the shining power of the sun.

Pitcher Goddess MochlosIf Gimbutas is right about the spread of the Indo-European language, it is impossible that the earliest Cretans brought an Indo-European language from Anatolia or that ancient Cretans spoke an Indo-European language. It is far more likely, as Gimbutas suggested, that ancient Crete was the last flowering of pre-Indo-European Old Europe and was overthrown by Indo-European speaking Greeks c. 1450 BCE.

Has the Phaistos Disk been translated?

I think not.

Is it likely that the Phaistos Disk is a hymn or a prayer addressed to the Great Goddess?

I think so, based on everything I know about ancient Cretan culture and religion—even though I am not convinced by new claims about the Phaistos Disk.

*Many thanks to Miriam Robbins Dexter for help in sorting this out.

**In addition to googling Owens’ online published works, readers might consult Harald Haarmann, “Writing in the Ancient Mediterranean” and Marija Gimbutas The Kurgan Culture and the Indo-Europeanization of Europe.

Published simultaneously on PaganSquare.

Carol has recently returned from a life-transforming Goddess Pilgrimage to Crete (on facebook)–early bird discount available now on the 2015 tours.  Carol can be heard in interviews on Voices of the Sacred Feminine, Goddess Alive Radio, and Voices of Women.  Carol is a founding voice in feminism and religion and Goddess spirituality. Her books include She Who Changes and Rebirth of the Goddess and with Judith Plaskow, the widely-used anthologies Womanspirit Rising and Weaving the Visions.  Follow Carol on GoddessCrete on Twitter.


Categories: Archaeology, Feminism and Religion, General, Goddess, Goddess Spirituality, Mother Earth

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22 replies

  1. Great read Carol – i have been waiting your response :)

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Looking at the center of the disk (both sides), the oval outline appears to be the head of a coiled up snake and which would indicate, because snakes shed their skin, nature’s miracle of rebirth. Demeter, the great mother goddess of the Minoan era, dates back to the Aegean Bronze Age. Her cult center at Eleusis is said to be of tremendous antiquity —1700 BCE or earlier, and there are artifacts which date back to 2000 BCE. And since her myth recounts Persephone’s return from the underworld, she is the goddess of rebirth in all its aspects, as well as all gifts of the Earth. If the stamped glyphs are syllabic, as seems likely because of the repetition, the Phaistos disk could be a hymn to spring or to Demeter and Persephone.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Fabulous response to Owens, Carol. I feel so inspired by your cogent analysis – how I wish your point of view were getting the coverage that Owens’ has received. It also seems to me to be obvious that the Phaistos disk could be read from the inside spiralling out – if I were making such a disk myself, it would evidently be easier to begin in the centre than on the outside. And I especially liked your point about the Lady possibly being called All-Holy, not just ‘important’.


      • yes I thought of that too, you start from the center, work your way out, and then create the final size of the disk, I also noticed that one side has fewer symbols on it, so it could be the second side.


    • That’s why I’ve been trying to find out all I can about this “translation.” There area number of experts who hypothesize that the major Cretan goddess became Demeter/Persephone when the Greeks toook over.


    • And I was thinking that — since one of the myths we “know” came from Crete concerns a labyrinth AND because Persephone goes into the Underworld and then returns — that the disk might be read from the outside in on one side of the disk and from the inside out on the other side.


      • Oh wow, what a fabulous thought, Nancy, the idea you are suggesting of in-flow and out-flow is magnificent. The Hymn to Demeter is also a labyrinth in my understanding — the center or pivot of going out and coming back is Demeter’s adoption of Demophoôn (L-226) — that compassion, even though it is not her daughter, that simple act of humility in becoming a nurse for someone else’s child is the pivot that unwinds the loss of Persephone into a return.


      • I like this idea too. The spiral dance is both in and out, and it is very very ancient.


  3. It makes a nice headline, but I think you have demonstrated that the actual scholarship is rather thin. Some additional data (= other artifacts ‘translated’ with his methodology, a ‘Rosetta stone’ for Cretan language) would be more convincing than Owens’ strained arguments. Thanks for posting this!


  4. Great job Carol debunking yet another expert who claims to have translated the Phaistos Disk. The mystery of the meaning of the Phaistos Disk has been sparking people’s imaginations for over a century now. Without a Rosetta Stone equivalent, it is likely to continue to remain a mystery for many more moons. Nevertheless, that should not stop us from speculating on the possibilities; so long as we acknowledge that it is speculation. Personally, I like to think of it as a message to the future from the last of the partnership civilizations of Old Europe warning us of the destructive nature that was about to consume their world, and reminding us that there is another way based on balance and harmony in all things. Not just the renewal of Spring, but a cultural transformation to a truly sustainable way of life that had thrived for thousands of years.


  5. Very interesting! I tend to trust the scholarship of Gimbutas and you and our friend Miriam Dexter more than I trust what I think of as mainstream “experts.” If Nick (immediately above) is right, maybe it is a message to us–about war and climate change?? Is it a message of comfort from the Goddess? As we all know, there are mysteries in the universe (not the detective-story kind) that we have to live with because they cannot be spoken or speaking of them can only be done in paradox. Maybe the Phaistos Disk is one of those mysteries. Thanks for writing this learned blog.


  6. Thank you for your feminine/feminist perspective, Carol. What you say makes great sense. It does appear that what’s being heralded as cracking the code is speculation born of a patriarchal point of view.


  7. The images really make you want to run your hands over it, and read it through the fingertips. Fascinating, the mystery of it all. Thank’s Carol!


  8. Thank you for this thoughtful reflection. Fascinating!


  9. Thanks, Carol, for his post on the Phaistos disk. I read as much as I could online about this supposed break-through and listened to Owens’ TedX talk. From what I could make out, he has “translated” one word, namely goddess, and then conjectured about two others. Otherwise, cracking the code consists of deciphering how the symbols might have been pronounced, not what the disk itself says. If this is so, we’re still very much in the realm of conjecture.


    • I would say Owens assumes that the text is addressed to a Mother Goddess and assumes further that pregnancy and birth are the major attributes of a Mother Goddess. He claims to have translated two words, ku-rja=lady and akka=mother. The “translations” require us to accept a) that his sound values are correct and b) that the language of the disk is Indo-European. From there he conjectures the meanings of two neighboring words.

      I did not mention a further problem: many scholars state that Linear B seems to be using a writing system that has sound values that do not suit or fit with Greek very well. This is because the words of Linear B seem like an early form of Greek, but with some unclarity of sounds. (For example, Carol might come out as ka-ru-lu or ka-ru, if a syllabic script did not have words ending in l.) This would be another argument in favor of Linear A not being Indo-European.

      In any case, scholars say that to prove a translation you have to have enough examples of the script to be able not only to make sense of the example you claim to translate but also to be able to substitute the translations you suggest into other texts and to show that they make sense there as well.

      Owens also claims to be working with similarities in the “scripts” (apart from translation) among Linear A, Cretan hieroglyphics, and the script on the Phaistos Disk. I have not evaluated his claims about this. If correct, these similarities do not conclusively prove that the same language is being used, and do not tell us from what language group–Indo-European or other–the three scripts are transmitting. However, this could be a step forward toward understanding the relation of the three scripts.


  10. .:.

    thank you Carol for highlighting the core issues and I completely agree with you that everything depends on an acceptance of the theories :

    a) that his sound values are correct

    b) that the language of the disk is Indo-European

    as far as point (a) is concerned it seems that he adopted the translation of those particular words from other linguistic scholars

    I would add a point (c) which you have dealt with already but haven’t added to this list

    c) that his meanings are correct

    it is point (b) that seems to have muddied the waters so much and which has drawn so much attention away from further in-depth exploration

    the word “akka” may have survived into some of the Proto-Indo-European languages but there is ample evidence that it is from an older and deeper Nostratic layer for it still exists in languages which are entirely un-related to Indo-European or Proto-Indo-European

    I work with Linear B and with the related Cypriotic script on a regular basis and am a translator of other languages from roughly the same period in time : ancient Egyptian and Ugaritic among others and there appear to be linguistic affinities between the phonemes of Linear A and those of ancient Egyptian – particularly the lack of an “l” sound

    (curiously enough the Cypriotic script has a series of characters which show that both “l” and “r” were present in their language even though there appears to have been a certain degree of common ground in terms of vocabulary)

    back to the ancient origins of the word “akka” and to its wide range of meanings

    you might find this comment thread on a post by Neorah Tremblay García to be of particular interest as it provides reliable primary sources on the subject of the word “akka”; a Nostratic word which seems to have had the primary meanings of “honoured kinswomen” and “matrilineal ancestress” and to have been given to female relatives of all ages at one time as a title of great respect

    Neorah Tremblay García


  11. Thanks Chiron, this is interesting and way beyond my knowledge base, but interesting that if the sound group Akka is correct and if it means Grandmother or female ancestress, that does not prove that the language of the Phaistos Disk is IE.

    For other readers, I found this in Wikepedia:

    The hypothetical ancestral language of the Nostratic family is called Proto-Nostratic.[1] Proto-Nostratic would have been spoken in the Epipaleolithic period, close to the end of the last glacial period.[2]

    I cannot evaluate the Nostratic controversy.

    However if DNA research tells us that all or almost all Europeans and Asians and Native Australians are related to ancestors who left Africa c. 100,000 BCE, it makes sense that before language groups in Europe and Asia separated, there was a single language or related group of languages, antecedent to the language groups we know today.


  12. Here are some of the high points of the thread Chiron tried to post.

    Bruce Rimell Take with a huge pinch of salt.I’m familiar with Owens’ work, having read his Daidalika and other writings. I’m wholly unconvinced. Owens has for years been insisting that the language of both Linear A and Cretan hieroglyphs must be Indo-European, and has variously over the years suggested a previously unattested branch, a language of the Anatolian branch and even an Indo-Iranian language, changing his thesis to fit the results haphazardly. He’s a vocal supporter of Renfrew’s Anatolian hypothesis against all the linguistic and epigraphic evidence. He refutes on the thinnest grounds the non-Indo-European nature of Eteocretan (his refutation really consists of little more than negation without presenting evidence to the contrary)

    His epipgraphic approach is haphazard at best, desparate at times. He rejects glottochronology and then uses glottochronological methods to achieve his results. His attempts to derive widely agreed ‘pre-Greek’ (ie – non-IE, Minoan and Helladic) words and names in Classical Greek are torturous. He once rejected all of Gimbutas’s ideas because she was ‘too feminist and too communist’ to have a clear picture of the situation (I kid you not!)

    The generally accepted view among real epigraphers is that there are not enough Linear A and hieroglyphic inscriptions to attempt a secure decipherment, and the common readings like I-DA-MA-TE and so on are gained through faking the reading through Linear B, which may not be secure, and definitely doesnt apply to the hieroglyphic inscriptions, least of all the Disk.
    October 30 at 2:09am · Like · 1
    Bruce Rimell On the surface, he seems to have used a very similar approach to Steven Roger Fischer, whose ‘decipherment’ of the disk (but not Linear A) as a very early dialect of Greek was rejected. I expect these will likely suffer the same fate…
    October 30 at 2:10am · Like
    Bruce Rimell All of that is not to say that his idea on the content – a prayer – might be correct. That’s long been suspected. But the decipherment looks problematic. Not least because the apparent conjugations of what appear to be verbs in the Linear A Minoan Libation Formula bear no resemblance to anything Indo-European…

    Yona Yavana .:.

    the researcher seems to be a bit out of his depth when it comes to his assessment of other languages and makes the silly mistake of regarding Mader-Akka as Germanic

    there is also the recurring issue of words which appear in Proto-Indo-European which may have been inherited from an even earlier language either as loanwords or as established roots

    when it comes to ancient kinship-terms the word Akka seems to exist in languages which are not directly connected with Proto-Indo-European

    in terms of the Nostratic macro-family the noun “akka” seems to have originally meant “female ancestress, female elder or honoured female relative”


    SOURCE :

    The Nostratic Macrofamily :
    A Study in Distant Linguistic Relationship
    by Allan R. Bomhard, John C. Kerns

    I tried to repost the link but it kept disappearing.


  13. I agree with the critics of Dr. Owens who regard his “translation” or even “sounding out” as pure guesswork, influenced by Sir Arthur Evans’ initial wild stab in the dark that the Disk may contain a hymn to the “Mother Goddess”. Another influence seems to be Owens’ funding from Cretan officials who like him to periodically trot out his “Mother Goddess” theory at various patriotic occasions.

    It turns out that Professor Haarman was indeed right in viewing the signs from the Disk as logographs, that is picture signs that mean what they depict and don’t need to be “read” in a “language”. Whereas the “writing” interpretations all suffer from the lack of parallels that would provide confirmations, the logograph view is splendidly confirmed by understanding the fields of the Disk to show the illustrations for the fields of a religious gameboard. This gameboard resembles the ancient Egyptian gameboards for Senet and the Snake Game which both simulate the passage of the player through life and death to rebirth or resurrection.

    The first clue to this view is the eight-leaved rosette which had in the ancient Near East a symbolic meaning of “birth, death, rebirth” and matches the bald head near and at the center on one Disk side since the lack of hair meant lack of life-force, as in the biblical story of Samson. This match, and the three-field interval from the first bald head with rosette to the one at the center, allow us to determine that the path ended there and thus went from the outside to the center. Indeed the other two rosettes are on the outside, one for the birth of the player, and of the sun god whose life that path represents, and the other rosette signals the midlife “initiation” or “renewal” of both that god and of the player who emulates his life cycle.

    For more on that interpretation and its many confirmations from external parallels, see http://phaistosgame.com, with links at the bottom of that page to a series of articles published quarterly since December 1, 2012, in the online journal popular-archaeology.com. My comment below the end of the first among these articles discusses also Dr. Owens’ method of determining the “sound value” of the “punk head sign” by repeated discussion with his friends and their final agreement on “reading” it as “I” although they then use it to construe that “akka” out of thin air.

    The fourth of those articles discusses the role of the female figure on the Disk as three aspects of the Triple Moon Goddess plus their uniting in the fourth one that encompasses them all. Her representations as the Spring Maiden with fertility symbols, the Summer Matron paired with the sun head and a no longer visible sign, and the Winter Hag with the “down” arrow and the “eclipse” sign evoke Robert Graves’ descriptions of the Triple Goddess, all spaced apart 18, 19, and 19 fields like the stations of the 56-year lunar standstill cycle, whereas the female in field 28 (the number of “lunar mansions”) with the “bough of life” and the “command scepter” appears to represent this triad as one, the united aspects of those three separate facets as the entire year.

    This interpretation as logographs has the advantage that none of it is based on guesswork but all is confirmed with external parallels and is internally coherent. For comparison, you might like the reviews of some “translations” like those of Dr. Owens, but with more variety than only ho-hum hymns, in the second half of the starting page http://phaistosgame.com/Instant-Reading.htm. Enjoy the reading!


  14. The Phaistos Disk is a royal genealogy on the recto side and a (mythical) flood narative on the verso side, with a war story thrown in for good meassure. Oh….and it’s Ugaritic, not Minoan. For more on this, please see: phaistosdisk.com


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