What Is the Phaistos Disk? – History and Meaning

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The most discussed inscription of Minoan Crete, the “Phaistos Disk” features mysterious writing stamped on clay, which can be read spirally from the edge to the center. The disk consists of 45 different symbols, with a total of 242 symbols on both sides, separated into 61 sign-groups. There’s no consensus of what it may mean, making it one of the most famous mysteries in history. Here’s a look at the history and possible interpretations of the Phaistos disk.

Phaistos Disk Meaning and Symbolism

History of the Phaistos Disk

In 1908, the mysterious “Phaistos Disk” was found on the Greek island of Crete. Historians date it to the First Palace Period, before 1600 B.C. The disk is known as the earliest “printed” text and was named after the ancient city where it was discovered – Phaistos. Phaistos was also the home of a Bronze Age civilization called the Minoans.

Most archeologists and scholars agree that the symbols on the disk represent an early writing system. Some of the symbols on the disk can be recognized as human figures, plants, animals, and various tools like arrows, axes, weapons, shields, and vases, while others are mysterious, undecipherable marks. 

According to some historians, the symbols are the letters of an alphabet, similar to the language of the Phoenicians, while others compare them to Egyptian hieroglyphs, which are composed of pictographs that represent a word or phrase. One issue, however, is that the number of symbols on the disk are too many to be considered an alphabet, and too few to be a pictograph.

It is generally accepted that the disk be read from the edge to the center, where oblique lines group the symbols together into words or phrases. Most scholars concluded that the text can be read syllabically, and it is likely a song, a poem, or even a religious chant or hymn.

Unfortunately, the writing has nothing in common with Greek, Egyptian or any other known language. No one knows exactly what language the Minoans had in the Bronze Age.

Archeologists believe that the symbols were stamped, not individually carved, which implies that more than one disk might have existed—although nothing similar has been found to date. Today, the Phaistos Disk is displayed at the Heraklion Archaeological Museum in Greece.

Meaning and Symbolism of the Phaistos Disk

There have been many studies conducted to decode the meaning of the mysterious writing—both in terms of what each symbol represents and its linguistic meaning. But these studies are unlikely to be successful unless more examples of identical writing come up somewhere.

Here are some of the conceptual meanings associated with the Phaistos disk:

  • Mystery – the disk has come to represent an undecipherable mystery, tantalizingly out of reach. Simply seeing the image of the Phaistos disk evokes associations with enigmas and mysteries.
  • Greek identity – the symbol of the Phaistos disk is a reminder of Greece’s rich history and a representation of Greek identity.

Here are some of the scholarly interpretations on the Phaistos disk:

  • A Prayer to a Minoan Goddess

Dr. Gareth Owens, in collaboration with John Coleman, professor of phonetics at Oxford, suggests that the disk is a prayer to a Minoan goddess of fertility, Aphaia and Diktynna. According to him, it is a Minoan Lyric Hymn with a poignant message from the Bronze Age. His studies posit that the Phaistos Disk consists of eighteen verses about the goddess.

  • A Story Based on Kharsag Epic and Nursery Rhyme

Christian O’Brien, a geologist and ancient history and language specialist, believed that the disk was a Cretan artifact carrying a story which had originated in Kharsag, revealing a connection between Cretan and Sumerian civilizations. According to him, the symbols on the disk are similar to the Sumerian cuneiform of the Kharsag Epics. The biblical Garden of Eden was known as “Kharsag,” which means ‘head enclosure’.

O’Brien believed that the disk told the story of a ‘pastoral disaster’ such as the loss of a harvest or some similar disruption of agricultural life. He compares the message on the Phaistos disk to the centuries-old English nursery rhyme “Little Boy Blue,” which narrates an everyday story of country folk and a ‘pastoral disaster’.

  • Other Interpretations

Without concrete evidence, various theories have been proposed that the disk could be a royal diary, calendar, fertility ritual, adventure story, musical notes, or even a magic inscription. Unfortunately, there aren’t enough contexts for meaningful analysis, which makes these interpretations just more theories, and are unlikely to be considered as conclusive facts.

  • A Modern Hoax

Because of the inability to decipher the meaning of the Phaistos disk, some scholars believe that it’s a modern hoax. Many requests have been made to the Greek government to allow testing on the disk. This would help to accurately date it, but these requests have been turned down on grounds that the disk is a unique artifact that could be irretrievably damaged from the tests.  However, the majority of scholars believe in its authenticity.

Phaistos Disk in Jewelry and Fashion

The mystery of the Phaistos Disk has inspired fashion and jewelry designs. In fact, it has become a trend in Greek jewelry from necklaces and bracelets to rings and earrings, adding a touch of culture and history to one’s look. Phaistos jewelry ranges from antiqued look to minimalist, modern designs, which can also be worn as a good luck charm.

If you want to add a bit of mystery into your style, think of Phaistos-inspired prints on dresses, t-shirts, jackets, and bandana scarves. Some designers feature the disk print on their collections, while others make it more modern and unexpected with deconstructed symbols.

In Brief

The Phaistos disk might still be a mystery, but it has made its mark on the modern world. Some believe that it influenced the Modern Greek Alphabet, even though it remains incomprehensible. The Phaistos Disk may always be a mystery, but what we do know is that it’s a fascinating key to the past and a message from the ancient world.