Phaistos Script


Brian E. Colless

The  characters on the Phaistos Disc are also found on some of the thirty or so administrative tablets from the palace of Phaistos (where the disc itself was discovered). That is my hypothesis, or discovery.

Here is a table of the 45 signs on the disc (after Arthur Evans and Jean Faucounau):

 Phaistos Clay Tablets

 Seven of the inscribed clay tablets will be displayed here, annotated with suggested correspondences with these signs. (The photographs and drawings are borrowed from GORILA 1, 286-319.)


 As time goes by, each of the Phaistos syllabograms will be studied here. But in summary we have seen the following matches.

PD 1: man striding (11 times on the disc; PH 8a, 12a) [LAB 46 YE?]

PD 10: arrow (4x; PH 15a -||||--->; PH 8a, no feathers; PH 9a) [LB 25 HA?]

PD 12: circle, with seven dots (17x; PH 9a) [LAB 78 QE?]

PD 14: fetter? (2x; PH 12a, 13b) [LAB 72 PE, pedé?]

PD 20: vase? (2x; PH 8a) [LAB 36 YO?]

PD 22: cuttlefish, sepia (5x; PH 12a, 15a)  [LAB 31 SA]

PD 24: tomb? (6x; PH 9b) [LAB 45 DE]

PD 27: ox-hide, talent ingot? (14x; 12a? 13a? 15b?)

PD 29: cat? (11x; PH 15a) [LAB 80 MA?]

PD 30: animal head (1x; 8a; 9b?) [LAB QI or QO?]

PD 33: fish (5x; PH 13c) [not LAB, and therefore significant]

PD 37: plant with dots on top strokes (4x; PH 13a??)  [LAB 28 I?]

PD 39: lily? plant with 3 leaves? (4x; PH 15a; 13a?) [LAB 27 RE?]

PD 42: caterpillar? (1x; PH 8a 2x) [LAB WE (werm, worm)?]

PD 43: triangle with dotted lines (1x; PH 9a?) (cp. LAB66 TYA?)

PD 45: 3 parallel wavy lines (6x; PH 26) [ LAB 76 RYA ??]

PD 6: bare-breasted woman (4x; PH 15b?)

PD 7: hive? breast? (14x; PH 9a?)

PD 18: right angle (12x; PH 9b?; 26?) [LAB 37 TI?]

PD 23: column, pillar? (11x; PH 9a?; 12b 2x?; 13a 2x?; 13c 2x?)

PD 25: boat (7x; PH 17a?; 12a?) [LAB PA?]

PD 35: branch? (1ox; PH 12c?; 13c?) [LAB 4 TE (tree?) ?]

It can be seen that the Phaistos Disc offers more possibilities for comparison (the fish and the strider being the most significant), but the Knossos script also shows many correspondences, apparently indicating that there was a connection between the two systems.

Note in passing that another accounting tablet from Phaistos seems to bear the northern script, the only question being whether its inscription is pictorial or linear. It is catalogued as PH Hi(eroglyphic) 01 (CHIC #122. p. 182). It is composed of numbers and ideograms (standing for commodities), but the first sign (top left) is the syllabogram YA, a door; now, the pictorial form always has a doorpost attached, but this one does not, and so it should be classed as Linear A.

The same form of YA appears on PH1, which was the tablet found near the disc, and although it is damaged it is unquestionably a Linear A document, with these syllabograms: ... DI RA DI NA ... YA.

Two other examples of the northern script in the south are: a seal impression from Phaistos (CHIC #151, p. 200) with a double ax and a jug (A-NE or NE-A); an impression from Hagia Triada (CHIC #155, p.202) with a two-handled vessel (YO), a human leg (RI), two lilies (RE RE or decoration?).

The double-bladed ax is a significant symbol in Cretan religion (note the three Arkalokhori axes, below) and an important sign in the Cretan syllabary (representing A); but it does not appear on the Phaistos Disc; nor does the door (YA). Now, there are only 45 signs on the Disc, compared with the 90 or so syllabograms of Linear A and B and of their pictorial ('hieroglyphic') predecessor; so we might find some of the missing letters in these clay documents from the Phaistos palace. The double ax (PG42, LAB11, PO) as distinct from the single ax (PD15, and PG43, LAB8, A) may have also been in the Phaistos inventory, as also the door (YA), and so Phaistos tablet 14ab, which has both, may not necessarily be classed as Linear A, though the remaining few signs (NI, MI) seem to confirm it as Linear A. Steven Fischer suggests that A  is represented on the Disc by the arrow (PD10); and it occurs to me that Linear B25 (A2, {H}A) resembles an arrow; Phaistos tablet 9a has what appears to be an arrow. Ph 9b has the head of a pig, not found on the Disc, but it is in the Knossos repertory (PG17, and among the PG13 miscellany) as AU (LAB85).

One unique Phaistos sign is the comb glyph (PD21), which apparently has no northern counterpart, and was found depicted on a lump of clay from the Phaistos palace (HM 992). The instrument may have been used for carding wool. However, with ingenuity we can always find a similar symbol at Knossos, and PG68 has two parallel lines with vertical strokes projecting to the left and right, but with no bar joining the two lines. My interpretation of this sign (PG68)  is the spine with ribs emanating from it, and representing MO,  as  does LB15 (which actually looks like a tool with teeth); the LA counterpart would be A327 and also A321 (both hitherto unidentified); the Cyprian sign for MO, a double grid, gives the clue for identifying the Linear A and Pictographic predecessors. Thus, PD21 and PG68 are so similar that they may represent the same thing, or else their resemblance is illusory and they are not another instance of the same sign in both scripts, the northern and the southern.

Arkalokhori Ax Inscription

There is another source for a pictographic script that resembles the Phaistos and Knossos systems alike: this is the pictographic inscription on a votive ax from the Arkalokhori cave, situated SE of Knossos, NE of Phaistos, and NW of Mount Dikte (associated with Zeus). 

The drawing is according to Torsten Timm and a table of the characters is available, with suggested comparisons from the Phaistos Disc and the Linear A syllabary.

The presence of three human heads in profile evokes the Phaistos Disc, but the sign with three dots in a vertical line (two slightly different versions here, in the left and central columns) is the Linear A syllabogram for NA. My understanding of the picture is an eye with teardrops flowing from it (cp. Greek nama, flow, which can refer to tears); I think this could correspond to the Phaistos sign PD3, a human head with a figure 8 on the cheek; Arthur Evans and others have interpreted this as a tatoo, but a tearflow can not be excluded from the possibilities; and it is could thus be a symbol that is shared by the two scripts (northern and southern). Note that Timm makes two signs of this similar pair, and he may be right; the example in the middle column has two bits at the top (a straight line and a curve), and this suggests the similar Linear A sign for TO (LAB5); this has two horizontal strokes and a vertical line (not a series of dots) which passes through the lower stroke. I see it is a bow and arrow (PG48), and I invoke Greek toxon, bow, as a local word that begins with TO; the Phaistos bow-sign (PD11) has no arrow (but PD10 is an arrow). However, if the character in the middle line has dots, and not a line, then it could not be TO; on the other hand, the NA sign can have two strokes or only one at the top, so both variants are apparently in evidence here.

The first sign on the right-hand column could be an arrow, but without the feathers of  PD10 (cp. PH 8a versus 15a, above); or it could be a spear. Timm equates it with LA304 (syllabic value not known), which also invites comparison with LA20, which has a single cross bar, equivalent to LB20 = ZO (DYO). But my view would connect ZO with ksois, sculptor's chisel, and the spear would be DO (doru) PG50, A304 and B14.

The three profile heads with spiky hair (Mohican style), would go with the Phaistos counterpart (PD2); this crest of hair is accepted as a Cretan feature, and we could connect it with the Greek word etheira, hair (in Homer it refers to a horse-hair crest on a helmet). The Linear A sign for E (L44) could well represent hair on a head or helmet, though its Linear B successor (LB38) has joined up the lines across the head. When looking for the original northern pictograph, we find a couple of heads (PG3) with hair or vegetation (a crown of parsley or olive?), but the enigmatic PG28 could be a crest, and stand for the vowel E.

Jan Driessen has kindly informed me that a Middle Minoan sherd with depiction  (relief applique) of a head with this typical crest of hair (as on the Phaistos Disc, character PD2, and apparently as also on the Arkalokhori Ax) has been discovered at Malia (Quartier Nu). This is an indication that this style of head-dress was known in the north and south alike.

But what do we make of the face in frontal view, which seems to have a royal crown or coronet? Timm decides on the cat-sign, MA in Linear A and B (AB80); the Phaistos Disc has a cat in profile (PD29); inscriptions in the northern script have very few cats, and these are considered to be merely heraldic or decorative, and so my feeling is that MA must have been represented by a different symbol, possibly the 'mammary' pictograh showing breasts with nipples (PG34). Note that the Phaistos inventory has a Cretan woman with bare breasts (PD6). However, the problem of this face with a crown is not yet resolved: possibly MA (cat); perhaps DU (Linear AB51, man with crook representing dunamis, power). Then again, it could be SE, if this is the head of a victor, as noted in the next paragraph.

The second character on the middle column is left unidentified by Timm; it has no obvious counterpart on the Disc (though it might correspond to 35 or 36), but PG26 (1x!) bears a close resemblance (also found over a human head in PG3), which is a candidate for SE, AB9 (cp. Greek selinon, parsley; Liddel and Scott, shorter lexicon: "the victors at the Isthmian and Nemian games were crowned with chaplets made of its leaves").  If it is not SE, then we can try PD42 as a possibility. Steven Fischer (p. 49) accepts it as a caterpillar, and proposes WE (from 'worm', cp. Latin vermis, German wurm). 

There are at least four other vegetal signs, apparently. The penultimate sign on the left column looks like an inverted lily flower; Timm has no suggestion for it, but it resembles PD39, and also PG23, which would be the predecessor of the syllabogram RE/LE, LAB27 (cp. Greek leirion, Latin lilium); cp. tablet PH 15a above.

 In the middle of the right-hand column is a plant that neatly matches the northern PG31, which seems to be the original character for the vowel I (LAB28) in my estimation (so Timm); PD37 could be its southern counterpart on the Disc, though it is narrower. 

At the bottom of the central column is a stem with four projections on each side, like a tree with branches (Timm: TE); this corresponds to the tree-sign PG25 which is probably the prototype of AB4, TE. The closest sign on the Disc is PD35, which has a stem with five leaves or buds.

The forked stick at the bottom of the RH column would go with AB1, DA (so Timm), which invariably has the projecting part on the right side, whereas the similar PD19 has it on the left; my choice for the pictographic original for the northern syllabogram would be PG29, which has leaves (though scribes would be quick to leave them off!); I tentatively connect the sign with Greek thalos, branch. Note that the V-shaped PD36 has leaves or blossoms; perhaps it is a herb like marjoram or rosemary; or we might invoke Greek lugos, a withy, or a willow twig.

There is another forked object, with thicker lines and the projection on the left, under the head on the LH column. Timm relates it to LAB31, the syllabogram for SA, emanating from PG19 (sepia, kalamari, cuttlefish).

The obscured symbol at the bottom of the LH column might be, as a guess, a saw or some other implement with teeth, PG45, AB74, ZE.

The letters on the Phaistos Disc seem to run leftwards (as in Semitic alphabetic writing), but Linear A texts go rightwards, as also on the Phaistos  tablets reproduced above. This does not assist us in orienting the writing on the ax, especially as the characters are regimented in columns. Moreover, even if we know which end comes first, whether left or right, we still have to face the possibility that the middle line starts at the bottom, if the writing runs in field-ploughing fashion (boustrophedon).

Here, then, is a highly hypothetical and infinitely inconclusive transcription of the signs (be warned, I am going to modify it eventually):

 (M) E WE? NA E SE? TE


Does any set of syllables look familiar? IDA reminds us of Mount Ida, north of Phaistos; as Semitic it could refer to "the one (zo) of Ida", meaning Zeus, or as Hellenic it might be referring to "Zeus (DYO) of Ida" . ESETE looks like the verb "be", either esete (imperative) "Be!", or  est (indicative) "is".

Now is the time to mention two other inscribed axes from Arkalokhori (AR ZF 1, 2), one gold, the other silver, both miniature; they bear the same Linear A text: I DA MA TE (plant, twig, cat-face, tree). This is very suggestive for interpreting the longer inscription on the bronze ax: if we allow the frontal face to be a cat and thus MA (so  Torsten Timm , who also reads MATE and IDA on this ax) then we have the same sequences as on the other two axes, IDA (R) and MATE (M bottom). MATE might be mante "mountain" (cp. Latin mont-); or it could be "mother"; and for those who think Phaistos tablet 15 (see above)  bears Linear A signs, the reading MATERE emerges, and we start thinking of Mother and possibly Demeter. [Speculating, we could envision the Arkalokhori cave as a shrine for a goddess, such as Rhea (mother of the gods), or Hera (consort of Zeus, here named IDA??), or Demeter (grain deity).]

If the face is MA, and not SE, then we can take the second sign in the middle row as SE (selinon) and try this reading:

(L)  E SA MA NA RI ZE   (M)  E SE NA E MA TE  (R)  DO I DA

Which of the ancient Cretan ('Keftian') scripts is employed on this particular ax?  The northern pictographic syllabary, mainly represented at Knossos and Mallia? The southern syllabary, as found on the stamped disc, and on some accounting tablets from Phaistos? Or a third system, which resembles the other two?

The location of its discovery, central but closer to Knossos than Phaistos, suggests it is northern; but its nature as a votive offering in a sacred locus allows it to come from anywhere.

In the case of the Phaistos tablets, the walker and the fish attest a clear connection with the disc (PD1 and 33). The inscription on this ax has the head with a crest (PD2), but the other signs can be given a companion syllabogram in the northern system. Consequently, I think it is written in the pictographic forerunner of stylized Linear A, which is the script on the other two axes.

This inscription has signs from both systems, therefore the northern and southern systems are closely related. Does that logic work? I am prepared to say that the Knossos and Phaistos scripts constitute a family, sharing a multitude of genes (or letters, as in DNA sequencing).

That there was cross-fertilization between the two syllabaries might be indicated by the presence of the cat representing MA in Linear A (as on the two small axes discussed here) and also in Linear B; it occurs frequently in Linear A documents, and likewise on the Phaistos Disc (11x); and yet it is not listed as a syllabogram in the CHIC inventory of pictorial signs, but only as decorative or heraldic. It may be that MA was normally represented by a breast sign (PG34) but the cat sign ("PG97") replaced it in Linear A, in line with the Phaistos syllabary. (Note that in one instance, CHIC document #295, the cat and the breasts both occur.)

However, the fact remains that the northern pictographic syllabary engendered the linear scripts of Crete and Cyprus; and the southern script, as yet attested only in the palace of Phaistos, was displaced by the northern system.

CHIC: Corpus hieroglyphicarum inscriptionum Cretae

GORILA: Louis Godart, Jean-Pierre Olivier, Recueil des inscriptions en linéaire A (1976-1985) 5 vols

Jean Faucounau, Le déchiffrement du disque de Phaistos (1999)

Steven Roger Fischer, Evidence for Hellenic Dialect in the Phaistos Disk (1988)