Women, Property, and Linear B

In Greek antiquity, few issues concerning women created as much regional controversy as women’s abilities to command and control property. Control of property for women in Archaic and Classical Greece varied broadly from site to site with no real consistency across states. While Classical Athenian wives would own only their clothing and jewelry, the Gortyn law code offered protections to the interests and property of heiresses, and then of course there is Aristotle’s famous formulation in Book 2 of the Politics commenting on Spartan women’s ownership of more than a third of Spartan land, linking such ownership to female lawlessness and the collapse of the state. But one major gap still stands in scholarly assessments of women’s economics – the women of Mycenaean Greece as represented in the Linear B tablets.

My overall project looks at the composite evidence for women in the tablets from Pylos and Knossos in the macro institutional categories of production, property holdings, land tenure, and religion. Throughout, I challenge the notion that women’s societal roles and activities were shared throughout the Mycenaean polities and argue that local histories, exigencies, and ideologies may have produced idiosyncratic and site-specific gender structures at each site. So the questions I’m bringing to the Mycenaean evidence are: did women control property, what kinds of property (moveable not moveable, etc.), which women, and are the patterns the same between the two states — questions I’ve been  working on for the past two months here at the Center and in a recent talk at Bryn Mawr College.

As I sift through the texts (using approximately 100 tablets on women’s property holdings at the two sites), a pattern in the Pylian evidence emerges: all but one of the women at Pylos who exercise control over property (textiles, personnel, foodstuffs, leased land, and bronze) are strongly affiliated with cult, either as cult functionaries or as more “ordinary” women performing cult services or acting in cult locations.  In contrast, no such link between religious service and property holdings can be seen for the women of Knossos, and women throughout the social spectrum are attested with access to property, including textiles and (non-leased) land.

As a parallel situation with Pylos was in effect in Classical Athens, with priestesses not only exempt from other restrictions on women but also attested with directing personnel and managing cult space and property,[1] the question arises as to how religious service at two very different time periods in Greek culture comes to be the factor that most offers women an entry point to an autonomous economic and civic standing as well as to ask why such broad differences as the ones witnessed between near-contemporary Knossos and Pylos emerged and continued in the Late Bronze Age.


[1] Joan Breton Connelly,  Portrait of a Priestess (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2007), passim but especially, 61-66 and 197-213.