Linear B “To all the gods... ” There is much more than meets the eye in Rita Roberts’ Astute Translation: Click to ENLARGE

Rita Roberts Translation Linear B tablet to all the gods

Now that Rita has been translating tablets from Linear B into English for well over a year, she has come to learn quite a few tricks of the trade, and is well aware of the numerous pitfalls that beset translators of Mycenaean Greek, who can and all too often do fail to “read” everything that the scribes meant to convey, leaving unsaid what they all knew perfectly well they actually were saying to one another, regardless of inventorial context. This phenomenon occurs over and over on the majority of Linear B tablets, and always for the same reason: the scribes were forced to save as much valuable space as they possibly could on a very small, cramped medium, the Linear B tablet. They quickly became extremely adept at finding clever little shortcuts around the problem of cramming as much essential – versus inessential - information as they could into the little space afforded them.  

What Rita has assumed in the specific context of this text, which happens to be uncharacteristically religious for Linear B, is just this: the text does not merely read, “to all the gods oil 1”. That is a patently ridiculous, semantically stripped translation. This would be tantamount to an inventory nowadays stating something silly like, “for the car oil 1”, when we really mean,“1 refill can of type XX oil for our car.”

She is fully aware that the Linear B scribe who wrote this text was actually saying much more than that. The scribe was able to telescope or abstract the full content of his message into just 2 Linear B words + 1 ideogram + the numeral 1. So what exactly was he saying? Today, we no longer know, nor can we. But rest assured that all his fellow scribes knew exactly what he was saying, because they all followed the same “script”, consisting of the same formulaic, usually partial, phrases; the same logograms and ideograms; and the same supersyllabograms repeated over and over, from Knossos to Phaistos to Pylos to Mycenae to Thebes, you name it, anywhere where Mycenaean Greek was written down in Linear B. The Mycenaean Greek as composed in Linear B was by far the most uniform ancient Greek script, because it was an inventorial language, and nothing more, in other words, a finely telescoped subset of the Mycenaean dialect. No one has ever seen the Mycenaean dialect per se actually written out in full sentences, paragraphs and documents, because it never was. I repeat, Linear B is a small statistical inventorial subset of Mycenaean Greek. To view it any other way is tantamount to forcing it far beyond its clearly defined, restricted boundaries, and to twist it into something it was never meant to be, i.e. a dialectical script.

However, just because we can no longer really be sure nowadays what the formulaic language the Minoan/Mycenaean scribes actually conveyed in each and every specific context (agricultural, textiles, military, religious etc.), this does at all not imply that we cannot hazard various tenable reconstructions of their original intent... because in fact we can. In some cases, the underlying full context lies closely enough to the surface that only a few, possibly as many as four, truly tenable translations are likely to arise. That is the case with this tablet. Rita and I discussed at some length the putative meanings that could possibly be assigned to this text, and we could only come up with four. These are:

(a) Rita’s own translation, “To all the (our) gods an offering * of one gift of oil.”
(b) “To all the (our) gods one vessel (vial) of oil.”     
(c) “To all the (our) gods an offering * of one vessel (vial) of olive oil.”
(d) “To all the (our) gods a gift of one vessel (vial) of oil.”

OMITTED: any of these words: our, offering, gift, vessel, vial, olive oil & anyway, just who are “all the gods”! The scribes all knew. We don’t. Too bad. Tough.

The reason for the insertion of the Mycenaean Linear B word, * APUDOSIS * (offering) is transparent enough. It was frequently used on Linear B tablets in contexts just such as this, and so, if omitted, it can still be supplied. Secondly, the oil used by the Greeks was almost always olive oil, which of course had to be contained in some type of vessel. There are well over 20 Linear B ideograms for vessels. But why mention the vessel when (as I am sure any scribe would have told you) it is obvious to any idiot that you put olive oil in a vessel. Omit what it obvious to “everyone” (us scribes) & save lots of space. Great! Ergo... one thing is pretty much certain. At least one of the translations above has to be almost spot on, regardless of word order, which does not amount to much more than a hill of beans in Mycenaean Greek anyway, given that as much is left unsaid as is spelled out.

In our next post, we shall discuss in greater detail the profound implications this methodology of interpretation has on the decipherment and translation of practically all Linear B tablets right acrossthe board.

Richard