Issue E023 of 1 September 2002

Minoan Origins of Athena

Virginia Hicks
B.A. (Class.)

Because of the purely accounting nature of the Linear B inscriptions that have come down to the present, it is necessary to go to the Minoan inscriptions of earlier centuries in order to understand the Minoan elements which the Mycenaeans adopted and handed down, however changed, to the later Greeks. The Mycenaeans already worshiped Zeus, Apollo and other gods of their own, as evidenced in several Linear B tablets. However, they also adopted the main goddess of the Minoan pantheon.

A-ta-na-po-ti-ni-ja (Mistress Athena) is referred to in the Knossos Linear B text V 2, cited by John Chadwick (Chadwick 1976; p. 88). (The full text refers to Athena, Enualios which is perhaps an early name for Ares, Paiawon which is perhaps an alternative name for Apollo,, and Poseidon.) This is the Mycenaean attempt to translate the name of the Minoan goddess, A-ta-no-dju-wa-ja. This name means Sun Goddess - the prefix atano is related to Luwian astanus = sun, and the final part is the Minoan spelling of what we know from Greek as Diwia (Mycenaean di-u-ja or di-wi-ja). The Mycenaeans even kept the Minoan word order at this early time; by the time of Homer, the name was Hellenized further, to Potni= Athenaie.

Concerning the connection she noted between the Minoans, worship and the sun, Lucy Goodison writes:

Thus, a closer look at early Cretan art suggests that the sun may have been one of the most common symbols. Many sun-like designs appear on seals (including motifs like the swastika which were used in other cultures to represent the sun) but scholars have been reluctant to connect these designs in any way with the sun. One problem is that it is hard to be sure which circular and radiant designs were actually intended to represent the sun, but we can get an idea from comparisons with contemporary Egyptian and Near Eastern solar symbols - which the Cretans knew - and from later Aegean pictures of the sun and moon together.

In several instances in the early Cretan material the sun appears to be playing a part in a cult scene, and in almost every case it is linked with a woman or women. In one seal engraving two women appear to be dancing to the sun.... An interesting clue is that the position of the arms on this seal is identical to the contemporary Egyptian gesture of sun worship. In his huge book, The Palace of Minos, the archaeologist Arthur Evans actually described Figure 4 as depicting >long-robed women...adoring a rayed solar symbol,= but he never incorporated such activities into his explanation of Cretan religion as a whole. (Goodison 1972; pp. 2)

To further show the connection in the Aegean of the Early Minoan period between the female, the sun and the holy, Lucy Goodison describes the so-called frying-pan objects, mostly found in the Cyclades, a neighboring culture that at times influenced and at times was influenced by the Minoans:

They are made of stone or pottery and are shaped something like frying-pans with a very short handle, although they certainly were not used for frying. Their weight and shape would make them unwieldy for daily use. They are found mainly in graves, and a number of ritual uses have been suggested for them.... Whatever their use, a study of the decoration on the outside of these mysterious objects reveals a tell-tale feature: just above the handle can often be seen a clear delineation of the female public triangle. And on the belly of the vessel in several cases there is a clearly depicted sun. (Goodison 1992; pp. 302-3)

This connection between female reproductivity and the sun is recognized most clearly in the person of the Minoan Athena herself, who may well be represented by all of these frying pans, in her duties as Kore, mistress of the Underworld, attested as A-ta-no-dju-de-ka on Za Z3, dekan being cognate with Hittite tekan (earth).

Another name of the main Minoan goddess is A-sa-sa-ra-me (or Ja-sa-sa-ra-me), my Lady (-me is an enclitic pronoun). The connection between Jasasarame and the Hittite term ishasarasmis was pointed out by Leonard R. Palmer (Palmer 1965; pp. 334-5). In an inscription found at Palaikastro [PK Za11] the goddess is addressed in both ways, as Atanodjuwae (vocative) and Asasarame - as Athena and as the Lady, for which Potnia is the Mycenaean translation.

The Hittites also worshiped just such a duo, the Sun Goddess of Arinna / Sun Goddess of the Earth. The original name for the Hittite city Adana - Ataniya, or, in the Minoan version A-ta-nu-wi-ja-wa (on HT Z159, a vessel fragment), also appears to be connected. A-ta-nu-wi-ja-wa means the city of Adana, or the city of the sun - the ending wa means city in either Minoan or Hittite.

In several Minoan religious inscriptions, Athena appears to be bemoaning her separation from another goddess, Ida. This story lives on in the myths about Demeter and Persephone (also known as Kore). The gods assemble, just as they do in Homer; but there are Minoan elements here which may have been believed by the Mycenaeans but were lost to posterity. Ida herself - Ida Mate(r) - was taken into Greek as Damater, later Demeter. (Since Greek tends to place the accent near or at the end of words, and the Greeks who borrowed Ida Mate(r) may have been no more aware of her origins than were those who borrowed Atano-djuwaja and lost the sun goddess connection, it makes sense for the name of the goddess to undergo further linguistic changes as a unit, not as the sum of its parts.)

Another myth (Grant and Hazel, 1993, p. 281) involves Poseidon, who "also took Demeter in the form of a horse, since she, to avoid him, had become a mare (perhaps she was his original consort, as the relationship between their names suggests), and she bore him the divine horse Arion and a daughter Despoina." Poseidon is a compound name, the first part (from posis) meaning husband, the second part apparently referring to the goddess Ida, who became Demeter. This myth is a remnant of the original mythology behind Demeter and Poseidon, even going so far as to list Athena by a Greek translation of her original title, Jasasara, the Lady.

Incidentally, John Chadwick mentions that in later times, there was a district outside of Thebes that was known as Potniai, "Ladies." In the classical period, this was understood to refer to Demeter and Persephone. Perhaps it is an echo of the confusion Chadwick found in the Linear B tablets, where he shows on the one hand that Potnia usually refers to the "Earth Mother," later known as Demeter - and yet often refers to Athena as well (Chadwick, 1976; p. 93).

John Chadwick also notes a connection between Athena and Hephaistos:

One of the interesting features of Mycenaean Potnia is that an adjective derived from her name is used to describe flocks of sheep at Knossos, and bronzesmiths at Pylos. The sheep were doubtless assigned to the goddess to provide an income for her shrines and attendants. But the association with smiths requires comment. In this aspect Potnia is probably the predecessor of Athena, though Hephaistos too can claim a share as the smith of the gods. (Chadwick, 1976; p. 93)

A hint of the original version of the Persephone - Hades story appears in the myth of Athena and Hephaistos. As told by Walter Burkert, "Hephaistos, the violent obstetrician, demanded to deflower the virgin whom he had brought into the world [by splitting the head of Zeus with an axe] and pursued her, spilling his semen on her thigh; she wiped it off and threw it on the earth: thereupon the earth gave birth to the boy Erichthonios - Erechtheus whom Athena brought up in her temple." (Burkert , 1985; p 143) It would appear from the Minoan inscriptions that originally, Hephaistos was far more successful.

Along with remnants of their stories in later Greek mythology, the Minoans left posterity with several inscriptions which refer to Athena or Demeter, or both at the same time. These amount to a high percentage of the Linear A religious inscriptions - no other goddess is referred to as often as either of them. Representative inscriptions are included here, to show Athena=s importance and some of the related mythology.

The inscription PK Za11 is incomplete; what we have of it reads:

Atanodjuwae adikitet(e)[...]  O, Sun Goddess, you were wronged (cf. Greek adikeo)
piteri akoane		      You are persuaded by the assembly (for piteri, cf. peitho; for 
                              akoane, cf. agon)
Asasarame unarukanati	      My Lady, you appear in a dream....(Unarukanati, perhaps better
                              written unargnati, appears related to onar = dream and gignomai= 
                              to be born or appear)
A-di-ki-te-t(e) alternates with a present form, a-dju-ki-ta-a (TY Zb4).

Athena is also mentioned in an inscription from Kophinas (KO Za1):

line 1: A-ta-no-dju-wa-ja tu-ru-sa du-ra2-re I-da-a
line 2: u-na-ka-na-si I-pi-na-ma si-ru-te

(Athena, distressed, lamented and Ida
appeared in [her] dream; the [one of] strong name tore her hair.)

tu-ru-sa:	      cf. truo
du-ra2-re:	      third singular past medio-passive, cf. duromai
-a:		      cf. Hittite enclitic "and"
u-na-ka-na-si:        unarkanasi - third singular past medio-passive (alternate conjugation)

I-pi-na-ma:	      cf. Iphi - nama
si-ru-te:	      cf. tillo (note s in place of t, just as in unarkanasi, where Hittite
                      has -ti in a parallel place; e.g. esati As/he sat@).  Another possible
                      relationship could be with siloo, to mock, if this is taken to mean that
                      she was so upset she mocked her mother=s attempt to comfort - or even
                      find - her.
Two axes from Arkalokhori (AR Zf1 and AR Zf2) are inscribed I-da ma-te - mother Ida.

Another inscription is PR Za1 (Praisos) (on a libation table):

Ta-na-su te-ke Se-to-i-ja A-sa-sa-ra-me
Tanasu established (this libation table) at Setoia, o my Lady.

Te-ke - same as in Linear B - surprised me as being entirely too Greek. More often, Minoan
verbs follow the more expected Hittite form.

KN Zc7 (a magic cup) is inscribed:
a-ka-nu-we-e du-ra2-re a-do-ra
Ja-sa-sa-ra a-na-ne wi-..[

Unperceived, you lamented, without gifts.
The Lady established....
a-ka-nu-we-e:     cf. agnoeo, agnos, - note the -e ending for the vocative case.
a-na-ne:          cf. ananesai [=katastesai(Hsch.)]

This last fragment could almost as easily have applied to Persephone=s time in the Underworld, in between the time when Hades kidnapped her and the time when she was finally located by her mother.

The Minoan Athena is referred to in various inscriptions as I-na-ja Pa-qa, meaning strong goddess; inaja is related to Luwian enaja (or Hurrian eni) and paqa is later Greek pege. Her sign is the double axe - so much so that that sign is used to denote the letter "A," even though her designation by the Mycenaeans as da-pu2-ri-to-jo Potnia (the Lady of the Labyrinth, or the Lady of the Double-Axe) points to a word for double axe that has a cognate in later Greek labrys. As W.K.C. Guthrie notes, "Nilsson sees her in a painting from Mycenae representing a goddess carrying a shield." (Guthrie, 1950: p. 106) These warlike attributes stay with Athena throughout her existence.

Other evidence of continuity between Mycenaean/Minoan and later worship of Athena comes from a Minoan description as o-su-qa-re, related to her festival, Skira, or the vine branches or oschai which were waved by young men during that festival. The inscription on a stone ladle from Troullos, TL Za1, reads in part:

A-ta-no-dju-wa-ja o-su-qa-re Ja-sa-sa-ra-me u-na-ka [faded] na-ma si-ru[...]
The sun goddess [of the Skira?], the Lady [appeared in ] a dream....

R.F. Willett describes the following religious scenes involving branches of sacred trees:

On a bronze signet from Knossos a goddess stands outside a shrine or enclosure of squared masonry with a sacred tree in or behind it. A female attendant seems to have climbed the wall of the enclosure and is pulling down a bough of the tree. Behind the goddess, stooping as if in sorrow, is an object shaped like a jar of the sort used for burials in many parts of Crete during the Middle Minoan period from c. 2000 BC onward. A gold signet ring of similar theme from a tomb at Arkhanes shows a goddess in the middle with an elaborately flounced dress. A man on the right attacks a tree in or behind a shrine. Another man on the left clasps an object like a large storage jar upside down in the way that burial jars were often set in tombs. The question is whether such scenes represent a rite or mourning for a dead god, while a search is made for a magic bough or fruit to restore him to life. (Willetts, 1995; p. 117)

This is a depiction of mourning, but not for a dead god - for a dead goddess. The inscriptions tell an important part of this story.

R.F. Willetts goes on to tell of other attributes of the Minoan goddess in the art of the period, not separating out Ida or Athena, or other incarnations:

She is represented with animals, birds and snakes, with the baetylic pillar and sacred trees, with poppies and lillies, with swords and double-axes. Huntress and goddess of sports, armed or presiding over ritual dancing, with the apparent dominion over mountain, sky, earth and sea, over life and death, she is at once a household-goddess, a palace goddess, vegetation and fertility goddess, a Mother and a Maid. (Willetts, 1995; p. 121)

Later, Athena was so closely interwoven with Greek civilization and worship that her Minoan roots were lost to memory. She had a new pedigree - coming from the forehead of Zeus, without a mother - to fit her into the new pantheon. Yet her Minoan attributes of bird, snake and sacred tree remain. Her "constant companion was the snake and [she] had her sacred olive-tree on the Acropolis which was burned down by the Persians and grew again in a single night." (Guthrie, 1950; p. 106-7) Her owl also was firmly associated with her - perhaps a local bird to replace the doves of Crete. Athena, however changed, retained evidence of her Minoan origins.

Appendix A
Further Information on the Minoan Language

As shown comprehensively by David W. Packard in Minoan Linear A (1974), the Linear A syllables can be read sensibly with linear B values. Two values he does not include are L 85 = dja, and L 88 = dju. Evidence for L 85 includes the alternation between da-s-85 (Ht 13, 85, 99, 122) and da-si-di-ja (HT 126), both referring to the same town. Evidence for L 88 = dju includes the alternation between Te-tu (HT 7, 13 and 85) and Te-88 (HT 8, 98). The man=s name Te-tu recurs with a form of the name Te-ki, whether or not the former is spelled with L 88.

L.R. Palmer, following the hypothesis that Linear A words could be read using Linear B sign values, showed in 1965 that some phrases could be understood if seen to be related to the Luwian language of Asia Minor. Besides his figuring out of Athena=s title Jasasarame, he also partially translated the libation table inscription, KN Za 10:

Ta-nu-a-ti ja-sa-sa-ra-ma / na da-wa-a- du-wa-na i-ja

According to Palmer, ta-nu-a-ti is the third person singular of the Luwian verb tanu-, meaning, "he erects." Ja-sa-sa-ra-ma is dative, paralleling the Old Hittite dative ishasara-ma. Na is the negative imperative in Luwian. (Palmer, 1965; p. 334-5) He had some difficulty with the rest of the second line, which reads as follows:

Do not take (na dawa-a, negative imperative) the offerings (du-wa-na, which as Palmer noted is related to Hittite duwa- or Luwian tuwa-, to put) from here (i-ja, recognized by Palmer as a probable adverb based on the demonstrative pronoun stem i-).

In the Minoan Linear A tablets, there are loan words from different languages: for instance, the abbreviation te, commonly used on the tablets, has convincingly been shown by Jan Best and Fred Woudhuizen to be an abbreviation of an expression telu which appears to be related to an Assyrian word meaning delivery. (Best and Woudhuizen, 1988; p. 24) These help to make sense of the inscriptions. It is also possible to tell approximately what should be on many tablets from context - like commodity signs that are shared with Linear B, or words such as ru-ja (pomegranates - KN W 26), ka-pa (olives - HT 6 etc.) and ma-lu (wool - HT 117) which are shared with Mycenaean or later Greek.

There is also evidence of inflection (nominative, genitive, dative and vocative), as follows:

nom. (masculine)  Dataro            Saro        Ineti (from the Psychro Stone)
genitive          Datara            Sara2
dative            Datare            Saru        Enete (in Greek letters from same)

nom. (feminine)   Atanodjuwaja      Sima
vocative          Atanodjuwae

The genitive is somewhat harder to attest than the dative - many tablets take the form of commodity delivered to X x amount, to Y y amount, etc. Sometimes I have found a form AX=s commodity@ - as in kapa Datara, Dataro=s olives, or kapa Sara2, Saro=s olives.

The evidence I have found for verb endings includes:

present active:         medio-passive:
3 per. -ati             -ri, -ati, -ta-a (TY Zb4: adikita-a_
past active:            medio-passive:
2 pers.                 -re
3 pers. -t(e), -e       -tet(e), -re, -asi

Words like kapa and ruja made me realize that there was a possibility that parts of the vocabulary were shared between Minoan and Greek. However, I have tried my best to analyze the tablets and inscriptions rather than try to force any one previously attested language into them. This has paid off, because for every inscription like tosa pureja (inscribed on a libation table or altar, PK Za16) - so many things brought, or offerings? - which is readable to those who know Greek (in spite of the u where a Greek student would expect an o), there are others like Sima ijat(e) = Sima made (the pithos she signed, PH Z4), that show a relationship to Hittite that is muted in Mycenaean and later Greek.

I have found it necessary to try to reconstruct a language which is related to both Greek and Hittite (and also Luwian) - with some help from loan words which show up in my Liddell and Scott=s as Cretan, attested by Hesychius. I believe others have been stymied because they looked for connections to one language alone, and ignored other evidence.


Best, Jan and Fred Woudhuizen. Ancient Scripts from Crete and Cyprus. Leiden: E.J. Brill. 1988.

Burkert, Walter; John Raffan trans. Greek Religion. Cambridge: Harvard University Press. 1985.

Chadwick, John. Linear B and Related Scripts. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press. 1987.

Chadwick, John. The Mycenaean World. Cambridge: University of Cambridge Press. 1976.

Godart, Louis and Jean-Pierre Olivier. Recueil des Inscriptions en Lineaire A. Vols. 1, 4, 5. Paris: Paul Geuthner. 1976, 1982, 1985.

Goodison, Lucy. Moving Heaven and Earth - Sexuality, Spirituality and Social Change. London: Pandora Press. 1992.

Grant, Michael and John Hazel. Who=s Who in Classical Mythology. New York: Oxford University Press. 1993.

Guthrie, W.K.C. The Greeks and Their Gods. Boston: Beacon Press. 1950.

Gurney, O.R. The Hittites. London: Penguin Books. 1990.

Packard, David W. Minoan Linear A. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press. 1974.

Palmer, L.R. Mycenaeans and Minoans. Second ed. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. 1965.

Willett, R.F. The Civilization of Ancient Crete. New York: Barns and Noble. 1995.

Revision of a paper presented at the April 2-4 (1998) conference on Athena in the Classical World, at Lincoln College, Oxford University.

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