EREPATO in Mycenaean Greek. Is this the word for “ivory” or “slain in war”? Extensive Circumstantial Evidence for the case against the latter

Here we have Gretchen Leonhardt’s translation of Knossos tablet KN V 684 (Click to ENLARGE):

KN V 684 Leonhardt spoils of war

From the very outset, when I ran across Ms. Gretchen Leonhardt’s highly unusual, irregular translation for the Mycenaean Greek word in Linear B, EREPATO (here latinized for most folks visiting our blog, who cannot read Linear B), my first reaction was to be totally confused, bordering on dazed. I just couldn’t wrap this decidedly esoteric translation around my head. I was stumped. Was Ms. Leonhardt on to something no other researcher has even remotely entertained as a possible translation of EREPATO in the past 62 years since the decipherment of Linear B by the brilliant Michael Ventris? OK, I thought, I will give her the benefit of the doubt, but when my own doubts starting piling up one on top of the other, the benefit of the doubt simply vanished in a puff of smoke. I hasten to add that my doubts as a Linear B researcher and translator, hopefully as adept as Ms. Leonhardt most certainly is, over her newly coined decipherment of this one word alone are founded, not on mere speculation, but on truly practical, experimental and logical factors which together conspire to cast serious doubt on, if not almost certain evidence strongly mitigating against such a translation.

To put a fine point on it, either one or the other of our translations, but not both, can reasonably be said to be close to the mark if not on it.

My reservations are based on the following factors impinging on Ms. Leonhardt’s highly imaginative – and I stress, imaginative – decipherment of EREPATO, and subsequently on the huge impact her translation has on the entire text, warping the meaning of the tablet way out of kilter.  Since I have spent months on end ruminating over her translation, I have come up with more and more practical and/or logical objections to it, and there are many. So please bear with me. These are:

[1] Given the minimal context surrounding the word EREPATO on this tablet, it would seem, at least on the surface, that Ms. Leonhardt is perfectly justified in entertaining a newly coined translation that makes sense, once it passes closer scrutiny. So where context is minimal, I must grant Ms. Leonhardt the prerogative to translate this word as she sees fit.

However, there is one Linear B tablet from Pylos containing the very same word, EREPATO, in which context is not minimal at all, but extremely precise.  And here it is Click to ENLARGE:

PY SA 794 English
I posit that in the context of the Pylos tablet, bearing on craftsmanship alone, EREPATO can mean one thing and one thing only, “ivory”. Certainly not “slain in war” or “slain by Ares” or more properly “slain by Ares in war”, unless the translator of the Pylos tablet consciously sets out to radically change the meaning of almost all the other words, to force them to conform with his or her pet decipherment of just one single word on the Pylos tablet. But this is patently a very risky, if not outright dangerous, route to pursue, since it is bound to warp huge chunks of Mycenaean vocabulary way out of joint, the more and more one relies on it and pursues it to the exclusion of most if not all other impinging factors for any and all Linear B tablets one intends to translate.

In this light, I would like to ask Ms. Leonhardt if she truly believes the Pylos tablet, of which the context is very precise, namely, the fine craftsmanship of chariot wheels, can be rendered any other way than it has already been. Is it even possible, let alone feasible and – I fear I must say it again -  practical or logical to pursue this method of decipherment of this particular tablet?

With all this in mind, I really have no other choice but to invite her to do precisely that, i.e. to decipher this detailed tablet as she sees fit, and to come up with a really convincing alternate translation. When I say “convincing”, I certainly do not mean to me alone (even if it does convince me, even partially) but convincing as a practical alternative substantial version to the community of Linear B translators at large of the very kinds of things Linear B scribes were so bent on tallying, almost exclusively in the domain of inventories or statistics.

[2] This brings us right to our next point, the overarching rôle of inventory keeping and statistical analysis which the Linear B scribes were fixated on, to the exclusion of practically any other consideration, almost without exception. I can hear Ms. Leonhardt proclaim, “But my translation is an inventory.”  Fair enough. But here lies the rub... an inventory of precisely what? To her mind, it seems pretty obvious – to a strictly military matter. But it is surely in this regard that the entire translation, let alone the rendering of EREPATO as “slain in war” or “slain by Ares” simply crumbles to pieces. And here is why. It is not a question of tabular context at all, since Ms. Leonhardt has frequently informed me that, to her mind at least, context is not an over-riding factor in the decipherment of any Linear B tablet. Again, fair enough. I’ll buy that, at least for the time-being.

But what Ms. Leonhardt has failed to seriously take into account is the level or frequency of occurrence of Linear B tablets specifically and solely concerned with military matters as their primary focus. And I hate to say this, there is not one single tablet or fragment in the 3,000 (give or take a few) that I have meticulously examined from Scripta Minoa that deals with anything like something as specific as Ms. Leonhardt’s translation, relating  - and I emphatically stress – to sweeping up the spoils of war from the battlefield. Not even remotely. But there is more, a lot more to take into account.

[3] In my recent exhaustive statistical analysis of the occurrence of the primary, over-riding concern of the huge cross-section of 3,000 of the Linear B tablets out of some 4,000+ (i.e. 75 %!) I closely examined from Knossos, I was astonished to discover that no fewer than 700+! or 20 %+ of all of them put together deal exclusively with sheep, rams and ewes, and nothing else. Here are the published results of my survey of sheepish tablets (pardon the pun!) Click to ENLARGE:

Linear B Tablets Knossos sheep rams ewes

In fact, the pre-occupation of the Linear B scribes with sheep at Knossos and everywhere else is nothing short of obsessive. Once we get past sheep — I stress again — every other agricultural, economic area of Minoan society, in short, any and all concerns otherwise addressed by the Linear B scribes, at least at Knossos, all come a very distant second to sheep. The Linear B scribes were utterly obsessed with sheep, and the reason is obvious. Sheep raising and husbandry was squarely at the heart of the Minoan/Mycenaean economy. It was, plainly put, the underpinning of their entire socio-economic platform. Now, what really amazes is that not even the consideration of wool, which is the end-product of sheep raising, plays anywhere near the rôle as do the sheep themselves on the 3,000 tablets and fragments I examined. There are only about 100 tablets or 3.3% zeroing in on wool in the entire inventory of 3,000. The situation gets worse and worse, even where other areas of the agricultural economy are concerned, which is after all the real underpinning of Minoan society (however huge the sheep subset is). This includes all other livestock, pigs, bulls and cows etc. regardless. These tablets and fragments account for something like 50 or a mere 1.65 % of all Linear B media.

When it comes to military matters, the situation is positively dismal. Of the 3,000 tablets and fragments at Knossos, only about 125 or a little over 4% deal with military matters whatsoever, all inclusively, from top to bottom, leaving nothing out, including the inventory of chariots as such, some 25 or about 0.8%, and then falling dramatically where the tablets and fragments deal specifically with things such as chariot wheels in working order or in need of repair, chariot bodies (5 as far as I can recall), horses etc. etc.  And of all the tablets specifically dealing with military matters, there is not a single one which zeroes in on gathering the trophies and spoils of war. Not one.

Why is this so? Well, I think one of the reasons for this state of affairs is that Knossos itself was a peaceful city, rarely, if ever involved in any wars (except when conquered by the Mycenaeans, if it ever was in the first place), to the extent that it was unwalled and practically undefended.  Granted, even if we still allow for Ms. Leonhardt’s highly imaginative translation, the Minoan Linear B scribes at Knossos would have inventoried the spoils or war only for their Mycenaean overlords (if that is even who they were) and for no other reason. Inventories of the actual spoils of war would be of such little concern to the scribes at Knossos that the whole business would have amounted to nothing more than a hill of beans, if that. Yet nowhere else than on this single tablet KN V 684, if we are to grant Ms. Leonhardt’s translation the benefit of the doubt, are military matters the subject of any great concern on any Linear B tablet, except for fixing broken wheels and chariots and boring things like that.

Come to think of it, practically everything the Linear B scribes so loved to inventory (at least at Knossos, where by far the greatest trove of extant tablets is found) sounds crashingly boring to us nowadays. But I put it to you, are not all inventories boring, even ours today? Yet the sole purpose of the Linear B tablets (with paltry exceptions few and far between) was to keep inventories on absolutely everything pertaining to the Minoan agri-economy. I have to say I was not prepared at all for their overwhelming obsession with sheep to the exclusion of so much else in their social fabric. In fact, I was astonished. But there you have it. Boring, yes, but to the Minoan scribes at Knossos, absolutely essential to the smooth functioning of their entire economy from top to bottom. Unfortunately, concern for inventory keeping for military matters was practically at the bottom of the barrel.

Such statistical evidence, if we are to put our faith in statistics, and in the case of Mycenaean Linear B literacy, there is nothing else to rely on, greatly mitigates against the possibility, even remote, of the decipherment Ms. Leonhardt attributes to KN V 684.

So what does this tablet really say?  Linear B translators, including myself, decipher it as follows (give or take a few picayune variations). This is my own translation, which in fact Ms. Leonhardt challenged to me decipher (Click to ENLARGE):

Linear B Tablet Knossos Kn V 684

As you can see, it is just another boring inventory, in this case of smashed ivory, as opposed to the perfectly intact ivory on the Pylos tablet. But that is what inventories always are, nothing more or less, dull as concrete. This does not mean that they are not significant!  They are in fact the only real-time indicators of the Minoan agri-economy we have to go on. I say, thank God the Minoan scribes at Knossos were hell-bent on inventories. The reason is apparent. The King or “wanax” of Knossos and his own subalterns, the overseers of the scribal community, positively demanded it.

[4] I am far from finished. Regressive extrapolation of archaic Greek vocabulary from the Catalogue of Ships in Book II of the Iliad, where the most archaic Greek in the entire Iliad appears, backwards to Mycenaean Greek actually seems to confirm (if we are to accept the premise of regressive extrapolation, and I do) that the word EREPATO in Mycenaean Greek is the exact counterpart of “elephantos” in Homer, which meant only one thing, “ivory” and not “elephant”. If you want to assign it the meaning of elephant too, that is fine with me. But in the context of the Pylos tablet above, that translation is silly. Given the strict application of “ivory” to EREPATO, I am strongly inclined to reject Ms. Leonhardt’s hypothetical “slain in war” or “slain by Ares” out of hand.

[5] And there is even more. In the entire lexicon of the extant Mycenaean vocabulary, there are almost no abstract words. This cannot come as the least surprise, since after all the entire purpose of keeping records in Linear B was to inventory everything and anything the Minoan scribes were obliged by their overseers to keep track of at all cost. The very presence of several words for overseer in Mycenaean Linear B (wanaka = king, damokoro = village overseer or mayor, qasireu = viceroy, korete = governor, opidamiyo = accountable village administrator, rawaketa = general & tereta = master of ceremonies, among others) serves to firmly underscore this phenomenon.

Unfortunately, however, Leonhardt’s “slain in war” or “slain by Ares” flirts almost too closely, if not actually crossing the line, with the semi-abstract. In and of itself, this factor again mitigates against her translation of EREPATO. 

[6] But it does much more than just that. It practically invalidates her entire translation, from top to bottom, because she makes the whole thing hinge exclusively on one word only, EREPATO, as she envisions it. The result is that her translation warps the meaning of the integral text of KN V 684 way out of whack.

What particularly disturbs me is the summative, indirect way she translates the tablet. She does not translate it word by word, but instead comes up with a summary, an ideal translation as she envisages it, “I envision the scribe, or another person, roaming the battlefield to loot bodies and to gather... passim... (Greek words omitted) ‘lost things on the ground’ detritus such as weapons, armor and personal items.” OK, let us take a good hard look at this translation, which strikes me far more like a quotation from Homer than an inventory.
(a) Why on earth would a Minoan scribe working exclusively at Knossos, just doing his job, which was solely to keep inventories, be wandering around in a battlefield to loot bodies and to gather detritus? This fanciful scene stretches my powers of reason beyond credulity. And since the Linear B tablets are concerned only with statistical inventories, and nothing else whatsoever, why would the scribes even bother to mention booty they themselves might have pilfered off some bloody battlefield (which, as I say, they never would have done), let alone from soldiers slain by Ares? What on earth did Ares have to do with looting battle fields?... and here I mean, in the scribe’s own mind, not mine. Probably bugger all, if you don’t mind my saying (and even if you do, I am just having a bit of fun). By the way, the word Ares does not appear in Tselentis’ huge Linear B Lexicon.      
(b) Can we really imagine that some bloodied, possibly injured, messenger or soldier from the battlefield would come barging into the office of a bunch of bureaucratic scribes half bored out of their skulls to report such esoteric, if not insignificant, information to them? They would either have been horrified at the intrusion, and summarily kicked him out or laughed at him. Not a pretty picture.
(c) Such a herald or messenger would have been completely illiterate (analphabetic), and a member of a lower stratum of Minoan society. The scribes were the only literate people in that society, apart (possibly) from the nobility, and their sole function was to serve their overseers without question, not to kowtow to their own subalterns.
(d) Now here the waters get really muddy. Why does Ms. Leonhardt tell us that she envisions, i.e. imagines this entire scenario, when all we are asked for is a straightforward decipherment and translation of what is ostensibly an inventory, period?  The whole exercise of decipherment and translation of Linear B tablets cannot and must not be the demonstrable result of some imagined or fanciful notion of what the tablet appears to say to the mind of the translator, but instead must be the ostensible result of a thorough-going practical, logical contextual and, if at all possible, cross-correlated analysis of any and all tablets referring to any single Mycenaean word one wishes to translate. Otherwise, the whole exercise invalidates itself in a hopeless cycle of purely hypothetical, tautological reasoning, even if it is reasoning at all. Poetry is fine, as poetry. I am a frequently published poet myself. But inventories are as far removed from poetry as a stone is from God.

[7] Compare my own crushingly boring translation with Ms. Leonhardt’s, and you will instantly observe the multiple practical and eminently logical processes I followed to arrive at the run-of-the-mill inventory of smashed ivory that I did. First off (a) given the sparse context of KN V 684, it was even pretty much impossible to verify that EREPATO meant “ivory”. So we had to have recourse to another extant tablet, if such exists, which provides plenty of sound context for the very same word... which is precisely what I did by digging up the Pylos tablet illustrated above. 

And guess what? It means “ivory”. Period.

I put it to you that of our two translations, taken as a whole, one or the other must be right, but certainly not both.

I repeat: given the fact that Mycenaean words are almost exclusively concrete, preference for a concrete over an abstract translation of any Mycenaean word on any Linear B medium must take overwhelming if not absolute precedence over the (semi-)abstract. In fact, I would be willing to posit the relatively sound hypothesis, that translation of any Mycenaean word as semi-abstract or an abstract is fraught with so many difficulties, contradictions and loopholes that it is a risky venture at best.

Unfortunately, Ms. Leonhardt’s translation of EREPATO suffers from all of these defects, and because of this, it in turn tinctures the connotation of all the other words she translates, even though her translations are technically correct. The real issue here is that she has taken all of these concrete words, which admit only of denotation, and turned them on their heads, so that taken all together, as an ensemble, as a sentence, if you like, they end up transformed into semi-abstracts with inherent connotations, thus essentially violating their own concrete meaning. It is a flat-out contradiction in terms.  This, I venture to say, is a decided step backwards in the decipherment of any medium in Mycenaean Greek written in Linear B. Just read her translation, and you can immediately see that it is the product of her own imagination, rather than of a thorough scientific, linguistic analysis of the actual text, based on such principles as (a)(absence of) context, (b) cross-correlation to contextually (more) precise Linear B media in which context sets the matter aright; (c) with the Idalion tablet in the slightly younger cousin dialect of East Greek Mycenaean Greek, Arcado-Cypriot, composed in Linear C and (d) regressive extrapolation from the Catalogue of Ships in Book II of the Iliad, and other similar procedures.

[8] There still lacks but one final step, which is bound to nip in the bud the matter of the precise meaning of a great many Linear B words once and for all, and that is to resort to cross-correlation between Linear B tablets in Mycenaean Greek and Linear C tablets in Arcado-Cypriot. There are several reasons to adopt this strategy, which I cannot as yet do, as I am still trying to master Linear C, yet another syllabary, which bears no physical resemblance to Linear B, but for which the values of almost every single syllabogram and every single word are either practically identical with their Linear B counterparts, or very similar to them.  The fact of the matter is that East Greek proto-Ionic Mycenaean Greek and Arcado-Cypriot are as closely related and as strikingly similar as are Ionic and Attic Greek some five centuries later, give or take.

And there is more. Not only was Arcado-Cypriot written in Linear C (almost exclusively for about 700 years, from ca. 1100 – 400 BCE), it ended up being written solely in the Greek alphabet from ca. 400 BCE onwards, for reasons which we shall not enter into at this time. What happened then goes without saying. All of the Arcado-Cypriot Linear C tablets, including the extremely long famous Idalion tablet, a legal proclamation, were translated into alphabetical Greek. All of the vocabulary on the Idalion tablets and others instantly leaped into clear focus.

The impact of this revolutionary development on the completely accurate translation of the entire vocabulary of the Idalion tablet is enormous. Once we know the precise meaning of the 100s of words on this tablet it is but one small step for man and one huge leap for mankind to cross-correlate the precise meaning of each and every Arcado-Cypriot word which has an exact or close match to its Mycenaean counterpart (and these are in the clear majority), to settle once and for all time the precise denotation of a large number of concrete Mycenaean words, the meaning of which is currently somewhat or seriously ambiguous or in doubt. I can at least assure Ms. Leonhardt that EREPATO is not one of those words, so she is safe on that account... at least for that word, but not for any exclusively concrete Mycenaean word which I successfully match up with its Arcado-Cypriot counterpart. And rest assured, there will be plenty. I do happen to know that the word for “physician” in Arcado-Cypriot Linear C and Mycenaean Linear B (iyate) is practically identical. So no matter how much any Linear B translator struggles to decipher it otherwise, he or she is bound to fail by default. In anticipation of a counter argument I suspect Ms. Leonhardt will advance, that plenty of words on the Idalion tablet are bound to be (semi-)abstract, given that it is a legal decree, I have only this to say. I simply would not even bother to take these words into account, as they would perforce invalidate my own procedure of cross-correlation. A rose is a rose is a rose. I hasten to add that I have read the Idalion tablet in the Arcado-Cypriot Greek dialect.  

I am astonished that for the last 62 years no Linear B researcher, expert in decipherment or translator has even bothered to take into consideration the extremely close relationship between these two pre-Ionic East Greek dialects in order to extract the precise meaning from a (large) number of concrete, denotative Mycenaean words, just as one would extract a tooth, let alone that anyone would take the next obvious step, take the trouble to learn Linear C, read the Idalion tablet in both Linear C and in Greek, and methodically have at it, surgically analyzing and cross-correlating every single concrete word on the Idalion tablet that (nearly) matches up with its Mycenaean Linear B equivalent. 
This is precisely what I intend to do, to lay to rest any lingering doubts about the meaning of (hopefully) a substantial number of Mycenaean words, and again to cross-correlate the results of these translations to a great number of other (similar) Mycenaean words, based on the orthographic conventions & the syntactical structure (so often identical) of both of these dialects.  Once we have the alphabetical version of any concrete Linear C word matched with its Linear B counterpart, it is but one small step to applying the same or similar orthography to its Mycenaean equivalent, let alone to firming up the precise meaning of the word in both dialects. This is going to be hard work, but a lot of fun, because I am more than just reasonably certain the overall results will shock the daylights out of the Linear B research community.

For the time being, I am not going to bother targeting Ms. Leonhardt’s heavy reliance on the West Greek Doric dialect, which bears little resemblance to the East Greek proto-Ionic dialects, Mycenaean Greek and Arcado-Cypriot, since this factor does not directly impinge on the validity or lack thereof of the translation in the context of the methodology by which we are here considering it. This analysis will have to wait until a later post, as it also will require my strictest attention to most of the vocabulary Ms. Leonhardt translates on at least one Linear B tablet.   

Richard