An Aethiopian at Pylos?

The decipherment of Linear B shed new light not only on the Late Bronze Age world it so elliptically recorded, but also on the development of the Greek language.  Reconstructed proto-forms featuring digamma and labiovelars were spectacularly confirmed, and a window was opened into a new historical dialect from centuries before the Homeric poems were put to writing.  But the tablets offer only brief snapshots of their world, and even when the linguistic data are clear, it can be tough to know what to do with them.  This is not a problem, in and of itself, but it becomes one when people try to use the simple fact of a word’s appearance in Linear B as evidence for some concrete aspect of Mycenaean society.  That we have a ϝάναξ does not mean we had Agamemnon, nor anyone who looked at all like him constitutionally.  As spectacular as the correspondence with the Iliad seems, anyone who wants to understand the Bronze Age on its own terms must be very careful about using evidence from the Homeric poems; likewise, the tablets are not always a sure guide to words in those later works.

Nowhere is this more clear than when we come to a man named a₃-ti-jo-qo, who held office and land at the Pylian district of Sphagianes.  Here he is, on PY Eb 846 (top row, first word):


(Photo taken from the CaLiBRA database and copyright the University of Cincinnati.)

While it is often difficult to be sure of names due to the elasticity of Mycenaean spelling rules, his is distinctive: the ‘doublet’ a₃ has to be the dipthong αι, and the final -jo-qo shows the typical treatment of a (labio)velar, which alone of Mycenaean consonants are recorded at the end of syllables alongside a ‘dead’ vowel, matching that used in the syllable before (-jo-qo).  Even the -ti-jo offers little room for misunderstanding, since dentals are (uniquely) marked for voicing in the syllabary (hence the voiced d- series and unvoiced t- series).  Given all of this, plus context which guarantees the nominative case, a reading Αἰθίοκʷς is all but assured, which corresponds exactly to historical *Αἰθίοψ following the loss of the labiovelar (the same general phenomenon is at play in πέντε, cognate with Latin quintus).

The problem here, often insufficiently addressed, is that we have simply no idea what to think Αἰθίοψ meant in the Bronze Age.  Etymology may be thought to help, but the question is vexed.  There is no doubt that, past a certain point, the historial Greeks interpreted the word as the LSJ records: “burnt-face”, from αἴθω, I kindle/burn, and *ὤψ, face (the certain but unattested nominative; the Homeric poems have it frequently in the accusative singular and compounds).  That this is the true etymology of the word is frequently asserted; Stephanie West, commenting on Odyssey 1.22, notes that it is “a properly formed Greek compound, and, despite some uncertainty about its derivation, the interpretation ‘with burnt face’ is the most probable.”  The uncertainty is greater than she allows.  The case against it was most recently and fulsomely laid out by Beekes (1995/6), though he is not as novel in his doubts as he claims:


So J. R. R. Tolkien in 1932.  But Beekes’ doubts are essentially the same: αἴθω means to ignite or to burn, not to be burnt, -οψ with a short vowel cannot mean face, and the -ι- is at any rate unexplained.  His article is not a masterpiece; many of his arguments strain credulity, and there is a nasty racial undertone in places, but the etymological discussion is sound.  Those with access to JSTOR may certainly profit by reading it in full, but it may be summarized:

  • There is no word with the root αἰθ- with a passive sense (i.e. ‘burnt’) except the rare αἰθός, which seems to have this sense when used by Aristophanes (Th. 427: a slave is singed, and exclaims “αἰθὸς γεγένημαι”, “I am burnt!”).  But in Pindar (Pythian 8.47) and the Iliad (in the form πάναιθος, 14.372) it must have the sense “shining”.  That it might have a sense closer to “burning” (should we imagine the slave’s skin glowing red?) in the Aristophanes passage is therefore a possibility.
  • The -ι- has been explained as the so-called Caland-i, a phenomenon in the Indic languages whereby -ρο- can alternate with -ι- in compounds.  Beekes does not believe this applies here; I will return to this point later.
  • There is no word in Greek where -οψ means face.  While it is true that we do not have the nominative singular *Αἰθίοψ preserved, so a form *Αἰθίωψ is possible, we do not see the ablauting pattern -ωψ, -οπ- in other compounds that definitely contain *ὤψ (so ἑλίκωψ, -ωπος) or in *ὤψ itself (acc. sing. ὤπα).  Since the ancients interpreted the word in light of *ὤψ, it is unlikely that they would have treated this word any different from other words with the same element.

The most fulsome rebuttal to these points is by Simon Pulleyn, in his edition and commentary on Iliad 1 (pp. 229-31).  He is not convinced by any of them, and ultimately defends the traditional interpretation.  As with Beekes’ article, it should be read in full by those with a deeper interest.  Summarizing again:

  • The active, transitive sense of αἴθω is not guaranteed in a compound; the epithet τερπικέραυνος given to Zeus can hardly mean “he who delights the thunderbolt.”  Further, “shining faces” could refer to the sheen of a black person’s skin, rather than the specific colour; the Aithiopes are listed alongside Libyans and the Μέλανες (literally “Blacks”) in a fragment of Hesiod’s Catalogue (150 M-W).  Aeschylus also has compounds where the verbal element must be passive (βλαψίφρων, “whose mind has been harmed”, Septem 725), so “burnt faces” might be possible.  We might also think of the first element as an adjective *αἰθι-; no such word exists, but αἰθός with the sense burnt is attested in Aristophanes (though cf. above; we shall return to this).
  • Given the adjective αἶθρος, there is no reason to think the -ι- can’t be a Caland-i.
  • In light of the unattested nominative singular, we might well imagine that it was *Αἰθίωψ, and the short vowel in the oblique stems is by analogy with ἡγεμών, -όνος vel sim. There would then be no problem deriving the second element from *ὤψ.

These are not arguments to be dismissed lightly, least of all by an amateur.  But there is, I will suggest, enough uncertainty to give us pause.

The first argument, that the verb can be taken intransitively, is I think convincing.  The sense should be “people whose faces shine/burn”, not the absurdity “people who burn their faces.”  The Aeschylean βλαψίφρων also suggests against being too dogmatic in claiming the first element cannot be taken passively, though it is a tragic hapax and from later than we should like.  As for “shining face” being taken as a reference to the sheen of their skin, this is largely unfalsifiable.  The Hesiodic associations adduced as evidence for black skin are, moreover, less than straightforward:

Αἰθίοπάς⌋ τε Λίβυς τε ἰδὲ Σκύ⌊θ⌋ας ἱππημο⌊λγού⌋ς. (Fr. 150 M-W, 15)

“He saw the Aithiopians and Libyans and mare-milking Scythians”

Though linked with the Libyans, the presence of the Scythians speaks against too straightforward a geographic interpretation here.

. . . . . . . .] Μέλανές τε καὶ Αἰ[θ]ίοπες μεγάθυμοι
ἠδὲ Κατου]δαῖοι καὶ Πυγμαῖ[οι] ἀμενηνοὶ
. . . . . . . .] κρείοντος Ἐρικτύπου εἰσὶ γενέθλης. 
(Fr. 150 M-W, 17-9)

“… the Blacks and the greathearted Aithiopians,
the Subterraneans and feeble Pymies
… are descended from mighty Poseidon.”

Here the groupings are genealogical, so again the association of the Aithiopes with the Blacks is not necessarily meaningful (the existence of the Blacks as a separate people does not guarantee that the Aithiopes could not also have had black skin, but it certainly does not favour that argument).  Moreover, the one character in Homeric poetry who is almost certainly black, Eurybates, Odysseus’ herald, μελανόχροος, οὐλοκάρηνος (“black-skinned and wooly-haired”, Od. 19.246) has nothing at all to do with the Aithiopes.

As for a potential adjectival root *αἰθι-, this is possible but again not immensely likely.  If it existed, we should still expect it to mean “shining/burning”, as αἰθός did before Aristophanes (and perhaps even there).  The usage of αἰθός in Aristophanes is also late – certainly after the Aithiopes were identified with the historical Ethiopians, and the sense “burnt” for αἰθός may then be derived from the very folk etymology it is now used to support.

I do not mean to suggest that none of Pulleyn’s suggestions is possible; I merely wish to stress that there are grounds for doubt.  Moreover, any explanation of one element is still contingent on the other two being likewise explained.  We must walk a very fine line.

The classification of the -ι- as a Caland-i relies on the adjective αἶθρος, and moreover depends on this being an adjective in -ρο- form from the stem αἰθ-.  The trouble is that there are many derivatives of αἰθ- that feature ρ, and it may be better grouped with them.  The noun αἰθήρ means “clear, bright sky” (so Beekes), and αἶθρος is almost certainly more closely related to this than αἴθω.  The word only appears in a clear context once:

… τοῦ γὰρ φίλος υἱὸς ἐπελθὼν
αἴθρῳ καὶ καμάτῳ δεδμημένον ἦγεν ἐς οἶκον,
χειρὸς ἀναστήσας, ὄφρ᾽ ἵκετο δώματα πατρός. (Od. 14.317-9)

“… for his son came to me
brought low by cold and weariness, and taking me by the hand
led me homewards, until he reached his father’s halls.”

The development of the sense is traced by Arie Hoekstra, commenting on 14.318: from “clear sky” it came to mean the attendant temperature; in winter, of course, the coldest days are the clearest:

Cold(Aἶθρον ἦμαρ ἐν Ϝιννιπέγι.)

The relation to αἰθήρ is further supported by the adjective αἴθριος, which refers to a clear sky in Herodotus.  It seems unlikely, therefore, that αἶθρος is derived directly from αἴθω in the way that required for the Caland system to be at work in Αἰθίοπες.  Doubt must remain.

Pulleyn’s final argument is quite reasonable.  The ablauting system that yields a long vowel in the nominative stem but a short one in the oblique forms is incredibly common in Greek, and even Beekes admits that we should expect it in a compound of this form. A nominative *Αἰθίωψ is thus highly possible.  But, unhelpfully, other nouns with this element have in fact standardized the long vowel across all forms, so ἑλίκωψ, -ωπος, not ἑλίκωψ, -οπος.  I find it hard to explain why a noun thought to contain the same element would be treated differently, either maintaining the original pattern or else remodeled on analogy with a completely different word like ἡγεμών, -όνος.

Where does this leave us?  Pulleyn, I think, presents a strong case that the traditional interpretation is not as untenable as Beekes would have us believe.  It is certainly possible.  But it relies on a confluence of factors that are perhaps more more possible than probable. To return to the original question: where does this leave our friend a₃-ti-jo-qo?  The answer must be: in a state of some uncertainty.  Etymology cannot provide a sure guide.

Can we turn to Homeric poetry for recourse?  The answer, of course, is yes, but this is a solution of despair.  It is no sure guide to the Bronze Age.  And here we may be especially sure that he has nothing to offer, for the Homeric Αἰθίοπες are not citizens of the world but dwellers on Ocean, who truck rather with gods than mortals:

Ζεὺς γὰρ ἐς Ὠκεανὸν μετ᾽ ἀμύμονας Αἰθιοπῆας
χθιζὸς ἔβη κατὰ δαῖτα, θεοὶ δ᾽ ἅμα πάντες ἕποντο. (Il. 1.423-4)

“For Zeus went yesterday to Ocean, to feast among
the noble Aithiopes, and all the gods with him.”

… εἶμι γὰρ αὖτις ἐπ᾽ Ὠκεανοῖο ῥέεθρα
Αἰθιόπων ἐς γαῖαν, ὅθι ῥέζουσ᾽ ἑκατόμβας
ἀθανάτοις, ἵνα δὴ καὶ ἐγὼ μεταδαίσομαι ἱρῶν. (Il. 205-7)

“… For I will go to the land of the Aithiopes
on the shores of Ocean, where they make hecatombs
to the gods, so I too may share in the feast.”

ἀλλ᾽ ὁ μὲν Αἰθίοπας μετεκίαθε τηλόθ᾽ ἐόντας,
Αἰθίοπας τοὶ διχθὰ δεδαίαται, ἔσχατοι ἀνδρῶν,
οἱ μὲν δυσομένου Ὑπερίονος οἱ δ᾽ ἀνιόντος,
ἀντιόων ταύρων τε καὶ ἀρνειῶν ἑκατόμβης. (Od. 1.22-5)

“But [Poseidon] is visiting the Aithiopes far away,
The Aithiopians, a divided and distant people,
Who live, half at the sun’s setting, half at its rising,
And offer hecatombs of bulls and rams.”

This, it should be clear, can tell us nothing about a historical person; if anything, it may be clear that in these poems the Aithiopes are not, in fact, conceived of as a historical people.  We have already seen what little Hesiodic poetry has to add.  It is certainly irresponsible to use the appearance of the name in Linear B to flesh out the picture, as all too many have.  So again Stephanie West’s comment on Odyssey 1.22: “Negroes are depicted in frescoes from Cnossus and Thera… So the Mycenaeans must have had a word for ‘negro’, and there is nothing against supposing this to have been the original meaning of Αἰθίοψ.”  But this is surely disingenuous.  We must imagine that the Mycenaeans met black Africans and coined a name for them, “Burnt Faces,” that transparently meant black-skinned.  Then, we must suppose, both the fact that they were real people and the transparent meaning of their name were forgotten.  Much was lost in the aftermath of the Mycenaean collapse, but an understanding of the Greek language was surely not among the casualties.  After an interval of many centuries, the Greeks must then have encountered black Africans again and suddenly remembered they had a name for them which they had most spectacularly misplaced.

The absurdity of this situation is all the more remarkable for the popularity of its variants.  Here is Wolfgang Kullmann in 2005 (p. 15): “Does not the etymology of the name Aithiops, “burnt face”, and its Mycenaean attestation, suggest that a realistic geographic knowledge of people with black skin was originally responsible for the name?” And here is Bruno Currie in 2016 (p. 60, n. 130): “Although the Ethiopians are removed from the world of the heroes in the Iliad, this does not necessarily reflect an older strand… the personal name Αἰθίοψ is found in Mycenaean.”  All of this presupposes a great deal about the rather over-taxed a₃-ti-jo-qo.  The fact is that we do not now enough about the Aithiopes of early myth to suggest what the word might have meant in the Bronze Age, and we do not know enough about what the word meant in the Bronze Age to illuminate its meaning in early myth.

The appearance of a word so explicitly linked with the Greek mythic tradition in Linear B is always fascinating, and we cannot rule out that a₃-ti-jo-qo was indeed an Aithiop as the later Greeks came to understand the word.  It would not do to rehash Beekes’ argument (1995/6, p. 29) that a black African could not have risen to the status of a₃-ti-jo-qo in the Bronze Age Peloponnese.  This assumes knowledge of Mycenaean race relations that we simply do not have, and can only be stated on anachronistic (if not racist) grounds.  But the word Αἰθίοψ is elusive, and no context shines brightly enough to illuminate another.  So we are as Tantalus, endlessly enticed by remarkable possibilities that must remain ever beyond our grasp.  Such is the joy and frustration won by the decipherment of Linear B.



Beekes, R. (1995/6). “Aithiopes.” Glotta 73, pp. 12-34.

Currie, B. (2016). Homer’s Allusive Art. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Heubeck, A. and A. Hoekstra (1989). A Commentary on Homer’s Odyssey, Vol. 2: Books IX-XVI. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Heubeck, A., S West, and J. Hainsworth (1988). A Commentary on Homer’s Odyssey, Vol. 1: Books I-VIII. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Kullmann, W. (2005) “Ilias und Aithiopis.” Hermes 133, pp. 9-28.

Pulleyn, S. (2000). Homer: Iliad I. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Tolkien, J. R. R. (1932). “Sigelwara Land.” Medium Aevum 1, pp. 183-96.



2 thoughts on “An Aethiopian at Pylos?

  1. Thanks for a fascinating post. I think there’s a typo in the first paragraph though – surely the sentence
    ” That we have a ϝάναξ does mean we had Agamemnon, nor anyone who looked at all like him constitutionally. ” should read ” That we have a ϝάναξ does NOT mean we had Agamemnon, nor anyone who looked at all like him constitutionally.”?

    Liked by 1 person

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