in our e-book
by H. Peter Aleff
Volume 1: its siblings Senet and Snake Game,
and its surviving sequel the Royal Game of the Goose
An old but still useful book that should be included in all Disk- decipherment discussions isJohn Chadwick's "The Decipherment of Linear B". Only pages 27 to 30 deal with the Disk1, but they are more pertinent to the linguistic approaches than most of the weighty and well- meant tomes that present its purported translations.
Chadwick describes the basic approach used in many of these efforts:
"[T]his method is a popular one among the dilettanti. Each sign is first identified as an object, however vague the resemblance; this object is then given its name in the language assumed, and the sign is solved. (...) Others advanced further by using the ‘acrophonic’ principle: this means that the sign may represent only the first part, or the first letter, of the word."
That method produces translations such as these excerpts from Chadwick’s sampling:
"... the lord walking on wings the breathless path, the star smiter, the foaming gulf of waters, dogfish smiter on the creeping flower; the lord, smiter of the horse-hide (or 'the surface of the rock'); the dog climbing the path, the dog emptying with the foot the water-pitchers, climbing the circling path, parching the wineskin ..."
Another imaginative puzzler obtained this mixture of sacred hymn and kitchen recipe:
"Supreme - deity, of the powerful throne's star,
Some of the more recent entries which I collected still fit this traditional mold:
Dettmer Otto: "Das Rätsel des Diskos von Phaistos: Das schwerste Kreuzworträtsel der Welt"2. Mr. Otto’s first contact with the Disk occurred when he read in his daily paper that "Science" had given up on the possibility of deciphering it. He decided this was intolerable and labored for over two years on reversing this defeat, using the well-worn acrophonic method. This enabled him to read the signs as an invocation in some "rare form of Greek". Thanks to his efforts, we now know that
"Talaio, king of the Pyliaegaeaetians, to the praise of the gods blesses the soil of the common origins of the Cretans, the survivors of the earthquake, the essence of the Pyliaegaeaetians, the Cretans before the earthquake perdition. So many Danaians sent post-prayers to Crete."
Said king also asked the earth goddess Gea in the cave of Ino to prevent earthquakes and to accept the steaming blood of his sacrifices (pages 108 and 109). This is just a partial summary of the grammatically coherent sections, but it conveys the drift.
The next example bears witness to how fast our world is accelerating: whereas Mr. Otto had to devote two years of intensive labor to this task, a mere nine years later one of his compatriots achieved an essentially identical result in just two hours:
Derk Ohlenroth: "Das Abaton des Lykäischen Zeus und der Hain der Elaia"3. This book has 484 pages and cost DM186, and I did not read it. However, according to an article in the German newsweekly "Der Spiegel", (January 6, 1997), Dr. Ohlenroth, a Professor of Middle High German, had a sudden inspiration that the signs were ancient Greek writing. Once he had realized this breakthrough, he figured out the meanings of the signs within two hours of his "Eureka!" moment.
According to that inspiration, the inscriptions are free verse in a "special dialect" of Greek, and they deal with two sanctuaries in mainland Greece. One side is an execration text that curses anyone who enters the cult area of Zeus. It also cruelly condemns said felon to lose his shadow. The other side is a magical invocation of the night goddess Elaia and contains such exhortations as the following which the author finds "poetically exciting".
Now, poetry is notoriously difficult to translate, so I apologize if this undoubted but subtly hidden quality of his German translation does not come through fully in my English rendering:
"Light up wood that is smoothed all around;
forming a circle around the sacrificial smoke,
beat on the ground, and all of a sudden
neigh wildly like a pair of horses."
The article does not state what kind of smoke that was, nor how much of it Professor Ohlenroth had inhaled.
On the other hand, the decipherment in the next entry leaves no doubt about what drove its author:
Kjell Aartun: "Die Minoische Schrift -- Sprache und Texte, Band I, Der Diskos von Phaistos, die beschriftete Bronzeaxt, die Inschrift der Tarragona-Tafel"4. Like a hilarious hoax, this book exposes some gullible experts as emperors with no clothes, whether that was Aartun’s intention or not. He produced a mightily impressive and learned-looking opus that begins with seven pages of abbreviations he will use in the text and concludes its foreword with thanks to a number of foundations and other academies for their help, particularly to several professors whose valued suggestions had improved his work.
Aartun’s book offers indices for words in 19 different ancient languages, including some of which my dictionaries are unaware, and bibliographies for quotes in twelve. The publisher is a highly reputable firm with an exclusively scholarly catalogue; the printing was supported by the Norwegian Research Council for Science and the Humanities as well as by the Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters.
These blue-ribbon institutions and experts seem here to have been lulled by the fancy appendix apparatus and the tediously arcane exposition which imitates the technical jargon of some highly specialized archaeo-linguists for that area. This jargon is an acquired taste, limited to a very select group of connoisseurs, and its consistent use in Aartun’s book may explain why apparently neither the publisher nor the sponsors ever bothered to read the translation of the Disk they printed or endorsed.
This lack of attention on their part allowed Aartun to slip in a spoofy-looking cuckoo egg. He introduces himself as having worked for more than 40 years on linguistic and cultural problems of the ancient Near East, particularly its fertility texts and iconography. He got interested in the Disk when touristing friends sent him its picture on a postcard from Crete and challenged him to decipher it. This and a similar incident shortly thereafter motivated him to solve the puzzle.
Aartun studied the Disk on and off for six years, using as his motto a quote from a latin-titled book about "Sex in the ancient world" that concludes in his Introduction with this guiding insight: "The key to understanding the ancient world and its culture is its eroticism!" [All the exclamation points in this and further quotes are his, not mine.]
Despite Aartun’s presumed age after those 40 years of arduous fertility studies, his version of this eroticism reads like some hormonally overboiling adolescent’s lurid fantasy of a fertility ritual mating, graphically rendered as a steamy sex scene in the throbbing- flesh images of twentieth- century pulp porn. To make it sound pseudo- ancient, he stilted the language a bit, but the vocabulary remains as transparent as the veils of the fertility priestesses in his mental reconstructions, if they wore anything at all.
There are 42 lines, all similar in tone to the ten-line sample from side B which I translate here as faithfully as I can from his German:
This hieroglyphic heavy-breathing continues to build up for another nine lines with much talk about irrigation, watering, and wetting.
Said lines also refer to a consummation with "my little virgin" which involves a plow. (That plow got addressed on Side A as "o you who shove and thrust" and was there repeatedly described as pulled or driven by a team of two.) The final climax occurs at the center of side B:
I almost expected to find anAppendix LXIX with Aartun’s offer to give away the movie rights to this decipherment for free if he gets to play the leading role.
As fertile and exceptionally ardent as Aartun may be, he is not alone with his imagination. The late Leon Pomerance told me fifteen years ago that a computerized analysis of the Disk at the University of Budapest had declared it to be a sex manual.
If I added those works to my website, I could probably charge on a pay-per-view basis for X-rated pictures of that racy Phaistos Disk with its four famously topless and hothothot Minoan maidens. Oh, là, là.
I should mention here that Pomerance’s own book about the Disk,"The Phaistos Disk: An Interpretation of Astronomical Symbols"5, does not belong in the same category as the above translation attempts. He knew that most of his astronomical interpretations were unconfirmable speculations, and he realized that the signs are not necessarily phonetic or syllabic writing just because some modern specialists said so.
With irrefutable logic, Pomerance chastised Chadwick, then the weather- making chief authority on Minoan writing, for claiming the Disk as the exclusive preserve of linguists "when we don’t even know whether it is ‘written’ in a ‘language’"(page 41).
Pomerance suggested we should rather understand the signs on the Disk "as a barbarian"(page 11), meaning as a pictorial form of symbolic communication and not as phonetic or syllabic writing signs because "memorized symbols were immediately recognized as a message before they came to represent individual sounds".
Accordingly, he interpreted the "head with rays emanating from it" as the sun, citing many pictorial and written parallels, and he drew attention to its positional changes relative to its neighbors (page 46), as well as to those of several other signs which he calls "the oxhide" (pages 46 to 49), the "eagle" which occurs only together with the "serpent" (pages 14 to 17), and the "dog’s head" (page 66).
Pomerance’s most valuable contribution to the debate is his detailed examination of the Disk’s physical features. He claims it puts to rest the longstanding myth about the "movable type" printing on the Disk which Chadwick, among others, had propagated. Pomerance found with a magnifying glass significant differences in line and design between supposedly identical symbols on his museum-quality cast of the Disk.
The enlarged photographs in Pomerance’s book of a few adjacent "sun head" impressions suggest indeed that they had not been made by the same stamp. They led me to further magnify a sharp photograph of the Disk and to count the number of rays in the crowns of a half dozen clearly lit impressions of such heads on both sides. I found 11, 12, 12½, 13, 13, and 14 rays, as well as the major differences in the shape of the head and position of the ear which Pomerance had noted.
These differences are greater than those which varying angles and depths of stamping might explain, and they are great enough to lay the movable-stamp theory to rest.
They oblige us instead to credit the Disk maker with full Gutenberg technology since the latter’s invention was not the movable stamp which had long existed in the form of seals. His idea was to assemble stamps for all the letters on a given page into a form or frame where they could not move, even if that meant making duplicates of letters which occurred more than once on that page.
Pomerance came to the conclusion that the entire design had been
"... cut into a soft limestone matrix for each side and then impressed on a pancake of soft clay. The two Disks of clay were then trimmed around the edges, not quite accurately, placed back to back, and joined with slipped clay."
He says this joint is most obvious on the plaster cast (where it could result from the parting line between the halves of the rubber mold typically made for such casts) but can also be seen on the original(pages 51 to 55).
Pomerance may well be right about the two Disk halves joined because it would have been difficult to stamp the second side of a single disk while the clay of the first side was still wet: turning it over and applying pressure from the second side could easily have deformed the impressions on the first.
However, the limestone matrix theory would promote the Disk maker from the Gutenberg level to that of precast linotype.
The signs and lines on the Disk are recessed into the clay. Such impressions would have required raised relief signs and sharp, brittle ridges in the mold; sculpting these from a small stone slab would have been highly impractical, if feasible at all.
If each sign was indeed made by its own seal-like stamp, the method of mounting these together to form the design we see must have been different. (Sticking the seals sign-side-up into a slab of wet clay might have been sufficient once that slab was dry.)
Whatever the true answers may be, Pomerance’s merit is to have questioned the "writing" dogma of the scholarly community, and to have drawn attention to the physical features of the Disk that can be objectively examined and mined for information.
Another attempt to decipher the Disk is briefly described byHans Blohm, Stafford Beer, David Suzuki in their book "Pebbles to Computers - The Thread"6:
"In a boldly adventurous piece of yet unpublished work, Rudi Haas interprets the Disk at several levels. He finds it to be a calendrical device, on which daily activities in the palace were scheduled for two months ahead. He also finds an exact sequence of stellar events which actually happened between 21 December and 19 February for a year in that era (1700 BC). Further yet, he finds a code that predicts the site plan of the palace erected on the site of the ruins in which the Disk was found!"
The fruits of those translators’ labors, when compared with the actual treasure lode of information preserved on the Disk, suggest that the Disk matches closely what the Greek god Hermes said about his lyre, as reported in the mid-seventh century BCE Homeric Hymns:
"Whoever with skill and wisdom expertly asks, to him it will speak and teach him all manner of things joyful to the mind (...).
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