Karpathia the Procrastinating Priestess, and other stories

I recently joked that a priestess called Karpathia, who’s recorded in a Linear B tablet from Pylos as failing to work properly, should be the patron of Twitter, and a lot more people seemed to like the idea of a procrastinating Mycenaean priestess than expected – so I thought I’d write a bit more here about Karpathia and her fellow priestesses, and what we know about them from the Linear B records.

First of all, here are the actual texts about Karpathia’s “procrastination”:

ka-pa-ti-ja , ka-ra-wi-po[-ro pa-]ḳị-ja-pi , e-ke-qe , to-so-de pe-mo ke-ke-me-no , ko-to-ṇọ⌞ ⌟dwo , o-pe-ro-sa-de , wo-zo-e , o-wo-ze  GRA[ 4

Karpathia klawiphoros sphagiamphi (h)ekhei-kwe to(s)son-de spermo kekeimeno ktoino dwo ophellonsa-de wordzehen ou-wordzei GRAIN [ 4

Karpathia the key-bearer at Sphagianes has this much seed and although she is obliged to work on two kekeimeno plots of land, she is not working. [4] units of grain [i.e. land]” (PY Eb 338)

ka-pa-ti-ja , ka-ra-wi-po-ro , e-ke , ke-ke-me-no , o-pe-ro-sa , du-wo-u-pi , wo-ze-e , o-u-wo-ze ,  to-ṣọ[ pe-mo GRA ]4 (PY Ep 704.7-8)

Karpathia klawiphoros (h)ekei kekeimeno ophellonsa duwouphi wordzehen ou-wordzei to(s)son spermo GRAIN 4

“Karpathia the key-bearer has two kekeimeno [plots of land]: although she is obliged to work on both of them, she is not working: so much seed: 4 units of grain [i.e. land]”

The reason we have two very similar, though not quite identical texts, referring to this situation is that information relating to landholding at Pylos was first collected by one scribe on a series of long, thin ‘palm-leaf’ shaped tablets, with one person’s landholding per tablet: then another scribe compiled all of these individual records together onto longer ‘page-shaped’ tablets with related entries grouped together. Having both the initial and final records is unusual, and a great opportunity to see the way in which scribes interacted with each others’ work, but that’s something for another post!

P1080511compressed (2)
Models of different shapes of Linear B tablets from Knossos and Pylos

So what do we learn about Karpathia from these texts? Well, first of all, she’s an important person – she has the religious office of ‘keybearer’ (it’s not entirely clear what this involved), and she’s individually named as controlling property, which are both signs of high status. Rather than owning this land, though, she’s holding it as a lease, which is what most of the landholding records from Pylos deal with – individuals could lease land to other individuals, and so could the damos, a word that in classical Greek refers to the ‘people’ or ‘citizen body’ but in Mycenaean seems to be something like a ‘local authority’ (we’ll meet them again later). Presumably these leases came with some obligation to work the land (which was measured in terms of the amount of seed that could be sown on it/the amount of grain it could produce) and give the lessor a certain amount of the produce, and this is what Karpathia is failing to do – because she’s too busy? or sick? or refusing to work? or just lazy? We don’t know, and we don’t know what the outcome would have been, or even who (if anyone) might have been able to enforce this ‘obligation’ to work.

Now let’s meet another priestess who’s having issues with her landholdings, Eritha:

e-ri-ta , i-je-re-ja , e-ke , e-u-ke-to-qe , e-to-ni-jo , e-ke-e , te-o ,̣ da-mo-de-mi , pa-si , ko-to-na-o ,  ke-ke-me-na-o , o-na-to , e-ke-e , to-so pe-mo GRA 3 T 9̣  (PY Ep 704.5-6)

Eritha (h)iyereiya (h)ekhei eukhetoi-kwe etonion theoi damos-de-min phasi ktoinahon kekeimenahon onaton (h)ekhehen to(s)son spermo GRAIN 3 T 9

Eritha the priestess has and claims to have an etonion [landholding] for the god, but the damos says she has a lease of kekeimena plots of land: so much seed: 3 whole units 9 T units”

Here we’re told that the damos, the ‘local authority’, is where Eritha has her land from, and that they’re having a dispute over what kind of holding she’s got: Eritha says it’s an “etonion for the god”, while the damos say it’s a “lease of kekeimena land”. Although we don’t know exactly how to translate either of the two key words here, it’s clear from context that an etonion is a lot better for the leaseholder, presumably imposing fewer obligations towards the lessor, than the other (much more common) type of lease (which is also what Karpathia has): obviously the damos thinks Eritha should be fulfilling obligations towards it in return for this land, which she thinks she shouldn’t have to. Whether this is a genuine misunderstanding (possibly relating to whether this land is being held by Eritha in conjunction with her religious role or not? If that is what “for the god” implies), or whether the damos is out to cheat Eritha, or she’s out to cheat the damos, we don’t know.

For me these records sum up perfectly why the Linear B texts are simultaneously fascinating and frustrating. We have the names of these two women who lived three thousand years ago, their religious roles, details of the disputes they were having over their landholdings. From other similar texts we know that women frequently held religious roles and that those women often possessed landholdings – in fact, these are the contexts in which the vast majority of individually named women in the Linear B texts appear, so that the religious sphere seems to have been the main one in which women could achieve high status and control significant amounts of land or goods. And yet actually we still know very little in many ways. Who were Karpathia and Eritha, apart from being priestesses? How did women gain religious roles, and was this by virtue of being high-status to begin with (e.g. as members of elite families) and/or was their status acquired through those roles? What did the role of ‘priestess’ or ‘keybearer’ actually involve? (and for that matter, what was a ‘key’ in the Bronze Age anyway?). Who would have been responsible for resolving issues like these, and how did/would they have dealt with Karpathia’s failure to work and Eritha’s dispute with the damos?

Ultimately, what these texts are primarily interested in is recording the amounts of land leased by and to different individuals, and disputes like these are just extra information about the transactions being recorded – so this kind of glimpse into other aspects of Mycenaean society is almost accidental, and leaves plenty of gaps that we have to try and reconstruct, whether that’s through combining the evidence of lots of different texts, looking at archaeological evidence that might back up (or contradict) the written evidence, or, sometimes, when we can’t do anything else, by speculating. We’re unlikely ever to know any more for certain than we already do about Karpathia and Eritha, but that doesn’t mean we can’t keep trying to imagine what lies behind these brief written records of one small aspect of their lives.

For more about women in the Linear B texts, see B.A. Olsen, Women in Mycenaean Greece. The Linear B Tablets from Pylos and Knossos (London/New York: Routledge, 2014), and reviews here and here.



Author: Anna P. Judson

Classics researcher at Cambridge

11 thoughts on “Karpathia the Procrastinating Priestess, and other stories”

  1. Hi Anna, Nice post and food for thought. But there are always going to be disputes over land especially here in Crete Greece. I myself have a dispute with my neighbor who is claiming half my garden, of course, now we have it all neatly arranged with lovely trees growing where when we bought our house there was no garden at all only a rubbish tip. This has been going on for 8 years even though we have our legal documents .Maybe this attitude is inherited from the Mycenaeans eh. Thanks for sharing your knowledge.

    Liked by 2 people

      1. I’m sure there any many more ancient parallels for this! I know there are Roman-period laws about boundary disputes in various places, including I think Messenia, and I bet there are similar disputes in the ancient Near East, Egypt, etc…

        Liked by 2 people

        1. Oh that’s interesting! The sad thing is that disputes over land continue to this century and people get murdered now and then especially in rural Greece. It’s over two decades that we are trying to complete the land registry and it’s a nightmare with all the legal disputes etc

          Liked by 1 person

            1. It’s a long and sad story indeed! I don’t know if you are aware of the old custom of “vendetta” in Crete but many such incidents started off as disputes over land.


          1. I agree Michael but they are always changing the laws here in Crete .As soon as you get used to one law they change it again. It’s difficult to keep up. However, for all that we still love living in Crete.

            Liked by 1 person

            1. I work for the regional government and we have trouble keeping up with the changes of law. I am glad that you enjoy living in Crete despite the shortcomings of the state.


    1. lol, all over the world, across the ages, Rita. We brought a cheap metal detector we got off of Amazon with us when we moved back to Egypt so we could find the buried corner posts and prove that our neighbors had usurped some of our property. Really p’o’d the neighbors, but we proved our boundaries and set up 2-meter chainlink fencing immediately!

      What a great post, Anna, you breathed some life into the mysterious ladies of Mycenaean Greece – Thanks!


      1. Good Idea the metal detector Kathleen . John used to have one but we disposed of it because we thought it was illegal here. Might think about getting one again though.
        Looking forward to more of your wonderful posts Anna.Thanks.


        Liked by 1 person

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