As Cyrus Gordon describes in the accompanying interview, one of the most controversial aspects of his long academic career has been his work on Minoan Linear A, an ancient script found on the island of Crete.

The modern rediscovery of ancient Crete was in great measure the work of Sir Arthur Evans, an English author and adventurer who came to archaeology in middle age. Starting in 1894 and for several decades thereafter, Evans excavated at various sites on Crete and there discovered the great Bronze Age civilization that he called Minoan, after the legendary king Minos, described by Homer, Herodotus and other Greek writers as the ruler of Crete in the period prior to the Trojan War. Among Evans’s many important finds on Crete were several hundred clay tablets inscribed in two different, yet very similar, scripts. Evans called the older of the two scripts Linear A and the more recent one Linear B. Due to the number of signs in Linear A and Linear B, scholars assumed—correctly, as it turned out—that the two scripts were syllabaries and not alphabets—that is, each sign represented a syllable rather than a single letter.

Linear B was deciphered in the 1950s by the young and brilliant Michael Ventris (an architect by training), with the collaboration of John Chadwick (a professional philologian). Ventris and Chadwick showed that Linear B was Greek—not the classical Greek of the Iron Age (from 1200 B.C.E. onward), but an earlier variety from the Late Bronze Age (1550–1200 B.C.E.), which they called Mycenaean Greek. They presented their work in Documents in Mycenaean Greek (1956), a volume that was enthusiastically received and that opened many new avenues in the study of ancient Greek language and culture.

Gordon obtained his copy of Documents in Mycenaean Greek in December 1956 and immediately set out to decipher Linear A. His method was to apply the values of the Linear B signs, as determined by Ventris and Chadwick, to the Linear A texts.

Actually, Ventris and Chadwick had begun to do the same thing and had come to realize that the words in Linear A were not Greek but rather reflected some other language. Among the words that Ventris and Chadwick recognized on Linear A tablets were names for four kinds of vessels: qa-pa, su-pu, ka-ro-pa and su-pa-ra. They knew that these were words for vessels because they were followed by the pictograph for “pot” (circled in the drawing, opposite, left). They also deduced that the word for “total” in Linear A was ku-ro because this word was used repeatedly at the end of administrative tablets (opposite, right).

Gordon immediately identified the words followed by the pot pictograph as names of vessels in such Semitic languages as Hebrew, Akkadian and Ugaritic. Gordon equated qa-pa with Hebrew and Ugaritic kp and Akkadian kappu; su-pu with Hebrew and Ugaritic sp; ka-ro-pa with Akkadian karpu and Ugaritic krpn (the predecessor, incidentally, of “carafe”); and su-pa-ra with Hebrew and Ugaritic spl (the Linear A and B scripts do not distinguish l and r). The word for “total,” ku-ro, was obviously Semitic kull (again, with no distinction between l and r in the script).

Gordon continued to search for further connections between Linear A and Semitic. A startling example was the presence of the word ya-ne on a wine pithos (storage jar) from Knossos, on Crete (opposite, top), clearly the Minoan form of the West Semitic word for “wine,” as in Hebrew yayin and Ugaritic yn.

Gordon published a series of articles in the late 1950s and early 1960s arguing that the Minoan language was Semitic, with its closest relatives in the West Semitic branch. His work on the subject culminated in the monograph Evidence for the Minoan Language (1966).

Gordon’s view of Linear A led him to a very significant—but much disputed—conclusion: The Minoans, the creators of the high civilization of ancient Crete, were Semites. In fact, this would be in keeping with the ancient Greek tradition that Minos was brought to Crete by Zeus from Phoenicia. Gordon further believes that the Minoans played a key role in the interaction between Greek and Hebrew civilizations, a subject that has formed a major area of research during his career.

I hasten to add that most scholars have not accepted Gordon’s interpretation of Minoan Linear A as Semitic. Some believe that the material is Anatolian (a branch of Indo-European that includes Hittite, Luwian et al.), while other scholars believe the question cannot be answered given the limited evidence. But the data we have just reviewed are, in my opinion, plain and straightforward. The most telling objection to Gordon’s work is the view that the Minoans could not have been Semites simply because it could not be so. The prevailing attitude, that the Semites were landlubbers, associated more with the desert than with the sea, helped to foster this disbelief. But such closed-mindedness is the antithesis of scholarship, especially as practiced by Cyrus Gordon throughout his remarkable career. He taught his students, of which I am one, to follow the evidence wherever it should lead. And if the above sampling of words from Minoan Linear A points in the direction of Semitic, then such is the path that one should follow.

For a more detailed survey of Gordon’s work on Minoan, see Gary Rendsburg, “‘Someone Will Succeed in Deciphering Minoan’: Cyrus H. Gordon and Minoan Linear A,” Biblical Archaeologist 59:1 (1996), pp. 36–43. For more on the phonology of Minoan ya-ne and the comparative Ugaritic evidence, see Rendsburg, “Monophthongization of aw/ay > â in Eblaite and in Northwest Semitic,” in Eblaitica: Essays on the Ebla Archives and Eblaite Language, ed. Cyrus Gordon and Rendsburg (Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 1990), 2 vols., pp. 91–126, esp. pp. 96–97.