The Women of Mycenaean Pylos and Knossos

Fresco from Mycenae (1250-1180 BCE). Photo by Mark Cartwright, Archeaological Museum Mycenae

By Judith Weingarten / 11.27.2016

Eritha, A Mycenaean Uppity Woman

Around the year 1300 B.C.E., a priestess named Eritha argued a law suit against the governing council of the district of Pa-ki-ja-na (= Sphagianes, “the place of ritual slaughter”).  Eritha was high-priestess of the religious sanctuary at Sphagianes where she served the great Mycenaean-Greek goddess, Potnia (meaning “Our Lady” or “Mistress”).  

Eritha the priestess claims that the land she holds is a ‘freehold’ on behalf of her divinity, but the damos [district council] says that she holds a plot of leased communal land.

Fresco of the “Mycenaean Lady” from the Cult Centre, Acropolis of Mycenae. / National Archaeological Museum, Athens

Eritha v District of Sphagianes

The legal issue is clear: if Eritha had leased the land from the commune as an individual person, it would be taxable.  Eritha asserted, however, that she held it as “freehold” on behalf of her goddess, and thus it was free of all fiscal and service obligations.  This was no trivial dispute.  The amount of land involved was substantial.  It was also prime arable land located not far from the town of Pylos, where the king (the wanax) who then ruled over this part of Greece had his palace.

We know about this legal case because it was recorded on a clay tablet (PY Ep 704) written in Linear B (the earliest known form of Greek) by a bureaucrat working in the palace of Pylos.  Faced with two powerful, competing entities — a senior priestess versus her local governing council — the scribe either lacked the will or the authority to decide whose claim took priority and simply recorded both claims as items to be dealt with at some later date.  In time-honoured bureaucratic form, he “kicked it upstairs”.  Presumably, the king himself would have decided the case … had not the mortal enemies of Pylos chosen this time to attack his capital.  And so it happened that, in the year that Eritha challenged the district council, the palace went up in flames and the kingdom collapsed.

Death and Taxes

The fire that destroyed the palace unexpectedly baked and thus preserved the Eritha v District of Sphagianes tablet. Like so many other ancient court cases, we do not know how this dispute was resolved nor even if the king had time to hear any arguments before disaster overtook him.  All we really know is that Eritha had an active dispute with the local government of Sphagianes and had challenged them over the classification of a large chunk of land.

Presumably, every landholder in the community of Sphagianes shared the obligation to pay a certain amount of annual tax to the palace.  If Eritha’s property wasn’t taxable, the missing amount would have been shared out among the other landholders when the taxman came to collect whatever was due to the king.  The prospect of heavier burdens for the rest of the community (not to mention for themselves) must have prompted council members  to object to Eritha’s claim.  Eritha, however, was trying to protect the interests of her goddess and sanctuary (though it’s not impossible she had also slipped a bit of private land into the divine freehold).  Both the district council and the sanctuary had the wherewithal to act as independent legal entities.  And both sides tried to get the most out of the system for their supporters and also possibly for themselves.


This seemingly everyday squabble is actually of huge importance in women’s history because it tells us, first of all, that Eritha must have had legal access to both private and official land holdings; otherwise there could be no dispute.  Clearly, despite being a woman, Eritha could legally own, or lease, arable land — the most important commodity in an agrarian economy and the basis of all status and power.  Eight centuries later, Greek women — at least those of whom we know anything, like the ladies of Classical Athens — no longer had such rights: they could own personal effects like jewellery, clothes, and household goods, but (with very few exceptions) nothing more.

Second, Eritha apparently had the authority to plead her own case.  No husband, guardian, or son is mentioned.  Remarkably, she was able to defend her own economic interests against her local governing council. And she did so in public. Again, no later Greek woman, not even a priestess, would have been able to represent herself in a legal dispute, let alone challenge public authorities.  Such audacity cannot have been common.  In fact, we hear of no legal case brought by a male official or landowner.  It is extraordinary (at least from the viewpoint of gender politics) that this is the only law suit recorded in the entire Linear B corpus.

Eritha thus has the dubious distinction of having argued the first legal case ever known in Europe.

“Goddess with Sheaves of Grain” / Room of the Frescoes, Citadel House, Mycenae. Nauplion Museum.

An Uppity Woman

As chief priestess of “Our Lady”, the great goddess Potnia, Eritha had an exceptionally high status.  She held leases in her own name on rather a lot of different tracts of land in the district, as well as having the authority to disburse some of this land to her own subordinates.  For example, she made a grant of land as a ‘gift of honour’ to a woman named Huamia, who was described as a ‘servant of the divinity’ (PY Eb 416; PY Ep 704).  Apparently, she had the right to reassign her own land holdings in accordance with her personal wishes.  Other tablets tell of two of her slaves (or servants) who each held a small allotment of public land: her high rank meant that even her lowly underlings qualified for official land holdings (PY Eb 1176; PY En 609).

Behind every uppity woman is a power base, in this case the cult sanctuary at Sphagianes.  Potnia and her shrine were closely linked with palatial cult and power.  The king of Pylos made monthly offerings to the great goddess and lesser deities connected with her sanctuary.  A unique tablet (PY Tn 316) records gifts to the gods in connection with a religious ritual.  Found in the  central archive of the palace, the tablet lists gifts of thirteen gold vases and ten human beings (8 women, 2 men) to female and male deities in order of descending importance.  Potnia takes pride of place  She is clearly the principle deity for the royal house at Pylos, at least at this time of year [July-August?]:

During the Month of Sailing.
And he [the king?] is performing a holy ceremony.
And he is bringing and carrying gifts to the shrine at Sphagianes.
To Potnia: 1 gold goblet, 1 woman [servant?]

Two-handled gold goblet, the so-called ‘Cup of Nestor’ from Shaft Grave IV (Grave Circle A), Mycenae. 

Then, four minor goddesses who reside with Potnia at her shrine are given simpler gold bowls (plus two woman servants).  From the language used, it appears that the primary activity of the event was a procession and ritual performance at which the king offered gifts of gold vessels and female servants to Potnia and associated goddesses.

Beware of Mycenaean-Greeks bearing gifts

Which brings us back to the land at the centre of the dispute between the priestess Eritha and the damos of Sphagianes.  Can it have begun with a lavish royal gift of land given by the king to Potnia? The palace certainly had the power to tax the land of Sphagianes.  Perhaps the king simply comandeered a parcel of their communal land, declared it free of taxes, and presented it as a religious offering to the goddess.  If so, the district council’s protest may have been aimed not so much at the alienation of land as the fiscal consequences — a problem which only the king could resolve.  Thus, the dispute might have involved not two but three centres of power: the king, the damos, and Eritha fighting her corner on behalf of the shrine of Potnia.

No wonder the palace scribe ‘kicked it upstairs’ for a royal decision.

A One-And-Only Eritha

This post was meant to review a marvelous new book, Women in Mycenaean Greece: The Linear B Tablets from Pylos and Knossos, by Barbara Olsen (Associate Professor of Greek and Roman Studies at Vassar College).  For better or worse, I got carried away by the extraordinary implications of Eritha v District of Sphagianes.  Eritha, however, was an altogether exceptional woman.  She was not representative even of other high-born women at Pylos, let alone those of the middling or lower classes.  What rights had they?  What kind of lives did they lead?  We’ll turn to that in the next post.  Consider Eritha’s story, thus, as a kind of trailer for my upcoming review Barbara Olsen’s fascinating study of the women at Pylos and Knossos.

The Essence of Woman

Fresco fragment, the ‘White Goddess’ from the NW slope, Pylos; end 14th C BCE.

The Linear B tablets found in the palaces at Pylos on the Greek mainland and Knossos on Crete are the oldest documents ever written in Greek  They are without exception administrative records (inventories, accounts, and lists of names and personnel).  While they record information on some 5,000 men, they also document the palaces’ interest in more than 2,000 women.  In fact, these tablets are one of the largest sets of evidence for real women’s lives in any period of Greek antiquity.

Unfortunately for us, the palaces were not interested in reporting on their private lives (loves, friendships, family).  Rather, women are only documented because they are, in some way, connected with the economic institutions of the palace — whether involved in commodity production, property holdings, land tenure, or cult practice.  The result is that, at Pylos and Knossos, scribes recorded women’s economic activities in public or civic — rather than domestic — contexts.  Women (like men) are listed either as individuals with names or titles, or as undifferentiated members of collective groups.

Who are these 2,000 women?  How do they compare in status and power to the men who are recorded in the Linear B tablets?  Prof. Barbara Olsen (Vassar College) has brought together for the first time all of the references to women in the Linear B tablets from the two best-documented Mycenaean sites (1400-1200 BCE).  As far as written sources are concerned, it is the low-down on everything there is to know — or possibly ever will be known — about Myceanean women.

The Belated Death of Matriarchy

Fresco fragment, ‘La Parisienne’ from the Campstool Fresco, Knossos; 14th C BCE.

The numbers alone (5000:2000) should be the first red alert: the tablets reflect societies where men’s production and holdings were more important than those of women.  Of course, it might also be possible for women to hold the same types of commodities and property as men — but at approximately 30% of the amount, reflecting their proportion in the tablets.  Alas, as Prof. Olsen irrefutably demonstrates, this is not at all the case. The documents reflect societies where men’s production and holdings were much more significant to the palaces than those of women.

The palaces of the Late Bronze Age Aegean were not egalitarian in matters of gender.  If any of my readers still believe that there was a feminist tilt at that time, get over it now.  This book is ruthless in its incidental demolition of any such idea.  Women’s holdings differed from men’s not just in scale but also in substance.  As a sex, women held significantly less property and received fewer commodities (whether slaves or livestock, foodstuffs, textiles, leather goods, bronze, or precious objects such as gold vases and ivory) than men.

The archives from both palaces reveal strictly gendered societies where an individual’s sex opens or limits access to various occupations and to specific commodities or resources and ultimately governs his or her access to civic office, control over property, and public functions.  In short gender is constructed at both Bronze Age palaces in a way so that men and women largely experience their societies in very distinct ways.

Women at both sites had more limited access to commodities, were excluded from the highest political offices, and were socially and economically subordinate to men.  In short, the palaces were patriarchal in their social, economic, and political organizations.  The only ray of light is in the religious sphere, but we’ll get to that in a moment.

First the gloom.

Separate and Unequal

On the left is The Mycenaean Woman as expressed by a scribe writing in Linear B.*

Lazy bureaucrat that he was, he used a shorthand picture (ideogram) instead of writing out the whole word: just a semi-circle for her head, a skirt, and dot breasts was quite enough to make it clear that he meant ‘Woman’.

What could be simpler?

Except that no Mycenaean scribe ever drew such a neat, clean ideogram.  What Mycenaean scribes actually sketched was much sloppier; like this:

A Rag, a Bone, and a Hank of Hair

Who were these carelessly-drawn women?  They could not have been further from the high-priestess Eritha (Part I) in rank, status, and — especially — autonomy.  Never personally named or differentiated in any way as individuals, they belong to single-sex female work groups that were assigned by palace officials to menial, labour-intensive work.  They are the anonymous women who, day after day, would card wool, spin thread, weave, sew, and decorate cloths.  These are not Penelopes but some of Penelope’s nameless maids.  They are flour-grinders (a perpetual, unhealthy task), sweepers who clean the palace, water-carriers and bath attendants, launderers, or simply personal servants.  For which work, the women (along with their minor children) received standard subsistence rations of wheat and figs.  And that’s it.

In a word, they are slaves.

The Slave Women of Pylos

At Pylos, 7 women wool-carders, 4 girls, 4 boys: wheat 240.4 litres, figs 230.4 litres; 1 supervisor(?)

Such servile low-status women make up by far the largest group of women documented in the Linear B tablets at Pylos (more than 750 out of nearly 900 women).  There is no evidence for extra-palatial craftswomen who might have conducted economic activities in their own right.  In contrast to Pylian men, not a single free, economically independent women is listed in any craft or trade.  Female workers always appear without any property of their own, labouring in collective work groups in return for bare subsistence rations.

Except for just one woman — Kessandra (the meaning of whose name hints at a future Cassandra, “who speaks solemnly to the men”**).  Kessandra receives more than 25 times the amounts of wheat and figs that a workgroup woman would get as rations.  This is the largest, and perhaps only, real property attributed to a Pylian woman who is not expressly in cult service.  Clearly, Kessandra (who appears on five tablets) is a very different mess of pottage compared to the menial laborers who are no more than ideograms to us.  The best explanation is that she is one of the female supervisors whose job may have been to dole out rations to the female workgroups.  Whatever her exact role or status (slave, free, or freed), she is the only such woman in the Pylos archive, an exception that proves the rule.

The Seven Merry Wives of Pylos

“Women in a loggia” from ramp house deposit, Mycenae. 

Only a handful of named women appear on the tablets without any religious titles.  Six women listed on a single tablet (PY Vn 34+) are all pendants to their husbands: the man’s name comes first, followed by the woman’s name and the number one. Each couple apparently receives one portion or piece of whatever is being distributed.  Three of the men are known from other sources where we are able to identify them as prominent elite Pylian officials.

[Their] wives would appear to occupy a high level of prestige — presumably they were aristocrats — but their high social status does not translate to a similarly high level of economic status.  Put simply, these women have no major property holdings allocated to them as distinct individuals … and consequently no real economic authority or autonomy.

One couple, however, Metianor and his wife Wordieria (‘Rosie’), pop up again as recipients of leather goods from the palace storerooms: he gets 1 prepared hide and 3 red-leather hides; she gets 10 pigskins, 2 deerskins, 1 ox-hide, and two (pairs?) of sandals with matching ox-hide laces.  A second woman  — perhaps a merry widow since no man’s name is appended — gets pigskins, deerskins and something with fringes(?).  Those skins and sandals are the only non-edible goods, as far as we know, allocated to any woman outside of the religious sphere.  With the best will in the world, we cannot magnify a pair of sandals into female economic power.

Let There Be Light

Priestess, Keybearer, Servant of the god, Servant of the Priestess, or Servant of the Keybearer

Fresco fragment, Woman with a decorated ivory box (pyxis): reconstruction of figure from Women’s frieze Tiryns.

The five titles of female cult officials specifically identity 120 Pylian women as religious functionaries.  These are the only women both named and titled in all of the Pylos texts.  And they differ in nearly every way from their lay sisters.

Religious officialdom not only lends to Pylian women a visibility not accorded to their secular peers but also provides for functionary women an exceptional status where many of the usual restrictions on women’s access to resources and economic power are lifted.

First and foremost, these are the only women who exercise control over land at Pylos even if they did not achieve full parity with men.  While all five categories of cult-affiliated women are known to have held land-leases, none is attested as land-owner.  Nonetheless, they shared the ability to redistribute sanctuary resources and land.  The priestess Eritha was at the very top of the pile, able to challenge her community council in a legal dispute over land and to represent herself to make her case.  Other priestesses and keybearers had access to bronze (the key raw material of the time) and received textiles and other goods intended either for use in the cult or for their personal use.  They supervised low- and mid-ranked personnel, owned slaves, both male and female — one priestess is granted 14 female slaves “on account of the sacred gold” — and appear on tablets (PY An 1281, Fn 50, Jn 829) alongside male officials listed in ways analogous to the men — among the very rare cases when both men and women are recorded on the same tablet.

So at Pylos, as eight centuries later in Classical Athens, religion lent certain women an exceptional status in that economic restriction and subordination were overruled for them by the requirements of cult.  Priestly women had, at least to some extent, economic autonomy.  But, of course, it was also the only place where women had any economic power in their own right. As Prof. Olsen puts it, “religion functioned as an economic wildcard in terms of Pylian gender roles.”

So much for Pylos! You wouldn’t really expect more from those Mycenaean-Greeks; would you? But what about Knossos in the Mycenaean period (after 1450 BCE)?  What was the status, what were the rights of the post-Minoan women of the Knossian state? Were there any real or significant differences between the gender biases of Pylos and those of Mycenaean Knossos where the conquerors governed a mixed Mycenaean and Minoan population?

The next section follows Barbara Olsen to Crete as she examines the “wildcards” that were played out in the daily lives of women at Knossos under Mycenaean rule.

The Great Minoan Tradition

‘Dancing Lady ‘from the Queen’s Megaron, Knossos.

During the period that archaeologists call Late Minoan I (ca. 1600-1450 BCE), Crete was at the height of its glory and riches.  The island  was split into at least four regional powers, each ruled from one of the main palaces: Khania in the west, Phaistos/Ayia Triada in the south, Zakro in the east and — richest of all —  Knossos in the north.*  Despite the damage and shock caused earlier by the volcanic eruption at nearby Santorini, Crete was still peaceful and  prosperous, continuing to trade all over the Aegean and farther afield, with Egypt, Syria, and the Levant.  Palace scribes were keeping their typically Minoan, slightly messy records written on clay tablets in the Linear A script (to this day, undeciphered).  Traditional, distinctively Minoan styles of art and architecture were blossoming; religion and social organization seemed unchanged.

Gold ring from Nemea, CMS V Suppl. IB 113.

The women of Minoan Crete were always held in high regard — though it’s a mistake to think they ruled the roost.  Very many images clearly show that they held positions of great honour … and they could appear quite comfortably together with men.**  In matters of ritual and cult, women were probably the supreme gender.  Yet it must be admitted that their public appearances — as preserved in art — were apparently limited to religious (and related athletic) activities.

Gold ring from Arkhanes-Phourni.

Aristocrats — whether male or female is unknown — were busy sending messages from one end of the island to another, using exquisite Minoan gold rings to seal their missives.  Large gold rings — especially those showing the bull-leapers of Knossos — were surely used by high officials of the ruling and religious elite.  And someone at Knossos, perhaps of subversive temperament, was exporting such rings to the Mycenaean mainland where many are found in elite burials.

True, there were some clouds on the horizon.  Possibly, the rulers of Knossos had got too close to the Mycenaean powers.

Whatever the proximate cause, this attractive Minoan world came crashing down in a few short years around 1450 BCE — when palaces, towns, and settlements across the island were destroyed in a rage of violence.  The perpetrators were almost certainly Mycenaean invaders from the Greek mainland.  When the fires stopped burning, there was only one palace left: Knossos.  And the language spoken in its halls was no longer Minoan but Mycenaean Greek.  Knossian bureaucrats now wrote in Linear B, and the administrative set-up of the economy was remarkably close in all its outward manifestations to that of Pylos.***

Yet the Mycenaean-administered palatial state of Knossos is an entity unparalleled on the Mycenaean mainland.  At Mycenaean Knossos, we encounter not a state like Pylos, where an ethnic Mycenaean population is governed by a Mycenaean administration, but rather a hybrid society of both ethnic Minoans and ethnic Mycenaeans under the authority of a Mycenaean administration.

The Aftermath of Conquest

Female taureador (her skin is white, following the Minoan convention [derived from the Egyptian] of picturing females as white, men as red) dressed in male athletic garb: Bull-leaping panel from Court of the Stone Spout, Knossos. / Heraklion Museum

The Linear B records that remain date from about 100 years after the conquest.  We read of men with  Minoan names who are lower in status (for example, many shepherds) than men with Greek names who occupy most of the warrior and official ranks.  That’s hardly surprising: to the victor go the spoils.

But what was it like for the women of Crete?  What happened to their status and rights when the Mycenaeans — whose women had relatively low status — came to rule over a Minoan society which had accorded women a higher social status?

To answer this question, Prof. Barbara Olsen looked closely at the gender patterns to be teased out of the written records of Knossos.  Were Minoan gender roles and practices assimilated into Mycenaean ones?  Or were there important differences that might argue for the continuation of at least some aspects of a freer, more Minoan approach to women’s rights?  Her findings form the third part of our review of her new book, The Women of Mycenaean Pylos and Knossos.

The Women of Knossos

Detail from a Linear B tablet Ap 639 from Knossos recording women textile workers and their children, around 1375-1350 BC. / Ashmolean Museum

At least 1200 women identified by the ideogram ‘Woman’ appear in workgroups at Knossos.  In most cases, these lists are very similar to those recording groups of low-status and slave women at Pylos.  However, the women identified by this ideogram are often also listed by name — which never happens at Pylos.  For example, the 22 women recorded on tablet KN Ap 639 (note the ideogram, generally the first sign on each line) probably worked in the textile industry, though their exact tasks elude us.  Some bear the name of their home towns (e.g. Phaistia, “she of Phaistos”), which suggests their servile status.  Most personal names are Minoan in origin but five are certainly Greek (e.g. Philagra and another ‘Rosie’).  One is named ke-ra-me-ja — from which comes our word for ‘ceramics’; the lady is a potter or from a potter’s family.  Since it is likely that all 22 women are slaves, such Greek names might have been given them by a Greek master who couldn’t pronounce their own funny Minoan names — a common phenomenon in slave cultures.

From Rags to Rags

More than a thousand such low-status women worked in the Knossos textile industry.  However, the women were not concentrated in and around the palace as at Pylos, but laboured in the many towns and villages of central Crete under the control of their Mycenaean overlords.  The cloth industry was far and away the most important business organized by the palace.  The sheer size of the industry is staggering: over 100,000 sheep, along with their shepherds and shearers (male, mostly Minoan names) are tracked in obsessive detail from the grazing lands to the allocation of their wool, and on through the setting of cloth production targets until the final delivery of the many sorts of finished cloth.  All the work of producing the cloth was assigned to women.

While some of these women were certainly slaves, not all of them were.  Rather, the system made use of obligatory corvée labour.  Groups of local women were set specific production targets for different kinds of cloth.  The system was forced, of course, but though labouring for the palace, they remained in their local villages.  While pretty gruelling, this was not slavery.  When they had finished their assigned tasks — varying from an estimated three to six months of work annually — they were presumably free for the rest of the year.  This allowed the women to sustain themselves and their families at home.

At Knossos itself, there is no sign of the full-time year-round menial females who did the dirty work at the palace of Pylos.  Slaves who performed the unenviable endless tasks for the palatial elite — maintaining the water supply, personal attendance, and food-processing — must have been, in some sense, a private concern.

Reconstruction of the fresco panel from Casa VAP,  LM III Ayia Triada / Heraklion Museum

At the other end of the social scale are the priestesses.  Given their   prominence in art, documentation of the women who officiated in cult is surprisingly sparse.  A ‘priestess of the wind’ is mentioned three times: one was at Knossos(?), another at Utanos, and a third at Amnisos. Each received a monthly distribution of olive oil as did a number of other cult officials and divinities alike.  That oil was probably intended for cult purposes rather than for their personal use.  Then, there are the enigmatic groups of ki-ri-te-wi-ja women at Knossos, Amnisos, and Phaistos.  These are low-ranking religious personnel, but above the level of slaves and servants.  Trying to guess their function from their name gives bizarre results.  It could mean ‘barley-women’ — perhaps those who served an otherwise unknown ‘deity of barley’, or women who received or distributed that rather low-grade grain.  Other interpretations are more hopeful (if no more certain), the name perhaps derived from ‘chosen’ or ‘annointed ones’.  Whatever their cult function, each group received a very large monthly ration of wheat — enough to have fed 500 women of a  workgroup for a month.

Detail from Ayia Triada sarcophagus.

There is no mention of land or other goods being assigned to priestesses or the ki-ri-te-wi-ja women.

In fact there is little indication of the priestesses having a broader economic role in the Knossian state; and no personnel, land, or shrine property are associated with female cult officials…. In contrast to Pylos, where we see nearly all of the property attributed to women in the hands of cult officials, the majority of the property associated with women at Knossos is linked with low- to middle-status women.

She Stoops to Conquer

A key difference with Pylos is that some women at Knossos who are not connected with cult exerted control over textiles, foodstuffs such as wheat and oil (sometimes in very large quantities), wool, linen, and, above all, land — in the form of orchards. We’ll go back to the land in a moment but, first, let’s have a look at a woman with the unlikely name of po-po.

Po-po appears in a supervisory capacity with control over fairly large quantities of raw materials for cloth-making in three tablets (twice linen, once wool).  Her name appears again on two more fragmentary tablets and then on a tablet (Kn L 513) that records her obligation to send a sizeable amount of textiles to the palace: the phrasing indicates that po-po is the person in charge and seems to confirm that she is a workshop supervisor.  The same may be true of other women listed on the textile tablets who have some stated responsibility for the collection or allocation of cloth.  A number of men appear on some of the same tablets with exactly the same obligations as the women: there is no obvious distinction and their obligations are described in the same way.

Unfortunately, Knossos lacks the careful, detailed records of land-tenure as kept by the scribes of Pylos. We therefore know next to nothing about the land-owning system, and who owned what. Just one series survives: 20 tablets record the ownership or stewardship of groves of fruit-trees. This is enough to show us, however, that men and women held these orchards in a completely analogous fashion.  The phrasing is the same: “[The man] Eriklewes holds an orchard plot”.  “[The woman] Perijeja holds an orchard plot”.  In another case, a man and a woman are said to have the same kinds of orchards but her holding is five times the size of his.  In short, though the sample is small, the few texts from Knossos look remarkably egalitarian — with men and women incorporated into the land-holding system in exactly the same way.

So, overall, Prof. Olsen’s analysis strongly suggests that the gender organization of Mycenaean Knossos was not the same as that of Mycenaean Pylos.

Various women were also attested as having massive amounts of food-stuffs …raw and finished textile products, and luxury goods …. These women were also held personally accountable for missing property — further underscoring the notion that the property in question was considered that of these women rather than of their husbands, fathers, or other male relations.  Importantly, none of these property holders were attested to in any context that might suggest they held a religious affiliation, nor were they listed as wives of ranking men.


Bronze statuette of female worshipper, c. 1600-1500 BC, Middle Minoan III-Late Minoan I Crete.  / Cleveland Museum of Art

Nonetheless, they were decidedly the lesser sex.

The property holdings of Knossian women were significantly limited in both size and scope compared to those of men.  Knossian men of all social rankings controlled a wide range of commodities, most of which never appear with a woman’s name attached.  On the contrary, men had access to every commodity that women had and, then too, lots more.  The palace never seemed to give women exotic goods such as spices or ointments, objects made of horn or ivory,  metals or metal vases, nor (obviously) weapons, horses, armour or chariots — the ‘must have’ status symbols of the ruling elite.  In short, men controlled far more property than women.

Still, Knossian women were better off than their Pylian sisters.

First of all, it is likely that the women in the textile workgroups — except for those specifically identified as slaves — were commandeered for only part of the year as corvée labour.  If so, they were in some senses ‘free’ and their social standing would have been significantly higher than the slaves of the Pylos groups.  Similarly, there seems to have been legal space for some women to run workshops and take responsibility for their own economic identity.

At Pylos, the only women who controlled significant property belonged to the ranks of priestesses, the only institution that elevated  a few women to an exceptional status.   Even so, they did not achieve parity with men since they did not own the land but held it on lease.  In contrast, Knossian women who had no apparent religious affiliation owned their own land, and the palace recorded their holdings in exactly the same way as for male land holders. It would seem that this was the expected norm

Quite simply, even a century after the conquest of Crete, mainland institutions do not appear to be governing women’s role in the economy.  Differences in gender practices between the states of Pylos and Knossos imply that cultural assimilation was partial and far from complete.  So, where did these differences come from?

I suggest that these differences may likely be holdovers from an earlier period — for would Mycenaean Greeks introduce gender practices not their own — and that the most likely source of those holdovers would be Neopalatial Minoan Crete, where women have long  been suspected of enjoying a more egalitarian  status than other women….