Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2012.04.03

Ioannis Fappas, Έλαιον ευώδες, τεθυωμένον: Τα αρωματικά έλαια και οι πρακτικές χρήσης τους στη μυκηναϊκή Ελλάδα και την αρχαία Εγγύς Ανατολή (14ος -13ος αι. π.Χ.). Κρητική Εστία, 13 (2009-2010).   Χανιά:  Ιστορική, Λαογραφική και Αρχαιολογική Εταιρεία Κρήτης (Ι.Λ.Α.Ε.Κ.), 2010.  Pp. xli, 576.  ISBN 9789608563834.  €20.00 (pb).  

Reviewed by Panagiota A. Pantou, SUNY Buffalo (

Perfumed oil industries played a major role in the political economy of the Mycenaean palaces and over the years have been the subject of several important studies.1 Ioannis Fappas’ book, entitled in English “Well-scented, Perfumed Oil: Perfumed Oils and Practices of Use in Mycenaean Greece and the Ancient Near East (14th-13th cent. BC),” rather than examining the organization of the industry and the manufacturing process and trade of perfumed oil, which have been the primary focus of the previous studies, explores the occasions on which perfumed oil was used and the ideology that accompanied this practice in Mycenaean Greece and the Near East during the 14th-13th centuries BCE. Fappas discusses the use of perfumed oil in Mycenaean Greece in light of textual evidence from contemporary Near Eastern cultures, which is more informative on the subject than the strictly administrative Linear B tablets. Anthropological theories, ethnographical and archaeological data, and references to Greek and Near Eastern literature complement the analysis of the Linear B and cuneiform records. The author succeeds in pulling together a massive and diverse body of data and the reader obtains a comprehensive picture of the use of perfumed oil in the Eastern Mediterranean during the period under study.

The book is a revision of the author’s doctoral dissertation (Aristotle University of Thessaloniki 2009) and is organized into three parts discussing the Mycenaean and Near Eastern records with the third part being the synthesis and conclusions. In total, the volume comprises 14 chapters, 14 appendices, 26 plates with maps, plans, and photographs, and a lengthy and fully up to date (2010) bibliography on the subject of perfumed oil in Mycenaean Greece and the ancient Near East. The compilation of two separate lists of bibliography, one with Greek and a second one with international sources, is somewhat distracting for the reader. Particularly useful are the 16 comparative tables throughout the book summarizing the textual data. While the Modern Greek language may render the book inaccessible to many readers, both the comparative tables and the five-page English summary make part of Fappas’ work available to a wider audience. Overall, this is a dense and technical book that would mostly be of interest to specialists. The publisher (Κρητική Εστία) has produced a beautiful volume almost free of typographical or other errors. The only noteworthy error observed is the omission from the bibliography of Aravantinos et al. υπό έκδοση which is listed in a footnote on page 257.

After the Introduction, which explains the purpose and layout of the book, Part 1 begins rather abruptly with a discussion of the organization of the perfumed oil industry in the Mycenaean palaces at Pylos, Knossos, and Mycenae. An overview of our present state of knowledge of Mycenaean society and ritual would have been in place at the beginning of the book and would have aided the reader to situate Fappas’ work within the context of current research.

In Part 1 (Chapters 1-4), Fappas examines all the Linear B tablets with references to oil or aromatic plants from the Mycenaean palaces at Pylos (Fr, Un 249, Un 267, Un 592, Un 616), Knossos (Fh, Fp, Ga, Gg), and Mycenae (Ge, Fo). The organization of the Mycenaean perfumed oil industry is discussed (Chapters 1-2) and different types of perfumed oil are identified (Chapter 3). The ways in which perfumed oil was used in Mycenaean Greece are discussed in Chapter 4. Based on the preserved Linear B records, perfumed oil was used in religious rituals, most commonly as an offering to deities, the wanax, religious personnel, and cult places, but also for libations or sprinkling, and anointing objects and the human body. In addition, perfumed oil was used during ceremonial feasting events and as a medium of gift exchange. Evidence for the use of perfumed oil in Mycenaean funerary ritual is only inferred by the presence of stirrup jars in graves.

In Part 2 (Chapters 5-11), Fappas discusses all the published cuneiform tablets that include references to perfumed oil from Hattuša (Chapter 5), Ugarit (Chapter 6), Emar (Chapter 7), Amarna (Chapter 8), Nuzi and Alalak (Chapter 9), Aššur (Chapter 10), and Nippur (Chapter 11). This is a major task and the author succeeds in providing the reader with an abundance of information on the ways perfumed oil was used in the ancient Near East. Each chapter opens with a brief but neat introduction to the culture discussed including references to the excavation history and the available archaeological data followed by the presentation of the texts. Important records are discussed in length and are fully translated (in Modern Greek) in the corresponding appendices. In short, the evidence shows that the use of perfumed oil in the Near East was most common in religious ritual and rites of passage (birth, marriage, death, slave emancipation, and initiation of priests and kings).

In Part 3 (Chapters 12-14), the author discusses the Mycenaean textual data in light of the evidence presented from Near Eastern cultures. In his introduction Fappas had already acknowledged that this comparison can only inform the reader about what could have happened in Mycenaean Greece by providing Near Eastern parallels which by no means can fill the gaps in the Linear B records (9-10). The author is also correct in noting that even within the same culture community practices often carry different meanings depending on the agents who perform them and their social aspirations.

The side-by-side consideration of a number of Near Eastern and Mycenaean texts in Chapter 12, clarifies some ways in which perfumed oil may have been used in Mycenaean Greece especially during feasting festivals. The textual analysis is complemented by references to archaeological and, to a lesser extent, literary data. Unfortunately, this evidence is mostly discussed in footnotes which somewhat weakens its significance.

In Chapter 13, Fappas discusses the ideology that accompanied the use of perfumed oil in the Near East. The belief that in religious rituals perfumed oil attracted and appeased the gods and that its use could create common social bonds, bestow power and honor to the receivers or purify appears to have been widespread among Near Eastern societies. Additionally, the use of perfumed oil in rites of passage was thought to symbolically mark and seal the change of status of an individual within society. According to the author, the similarities in both the ways and the occasions on which perfumed oil was used in Near Eastern cultures point to a common ideology.

In the final chapter, the author admits that Mycenaean society differed fundamentally from the Near East but sees the difference in the political organization and administrative practices rather than ideology (312). Fappas believes that through their international exchanges Mycenaean palatial elites became familiar with and adopted aspects of Near Eastern ideology which they subsequently used to serve their own political agenda (317-320). Drawing upon anthropological theories on social exclusion/inclusion, collective memory, and the importance of exotica in creating social power, the author suggests that influential Mycenaeans used perfumed oils and the Near Eastern symbolism to create common bonds among particular groups and to demonstrate their access to foreign religious beliefs and ritual in order to improve their position within society.

In the final remarks (321-325), the author raises two important issues neither of which is satisfactorily addressed. The first pertains to Crete and the role that Minoan elites could have played in the formulation of an ideology related to the use of perfumed oil in the Aegean since such industries have been documented in Crete as early as MM IA (ca. 2050/2000-2000/1950 BCE). The second question raised has to do with the possible production of perfumed oil outside the Mycenaean palaces given the wide distribution of small stirrup jars in non-palatial contexts. Fappas states that perfumed oil for small-scale private use might have been produced by local industries that were not palatially controlled. In contrast, the palaces produced and used perfumed oil mainly for religious purposes and rites of passage for the elite, although some quantities could have been gift exchanged in elite networks or distributed to non-elites (322). There is nothing wrong with this statement other than it gives a picture of the Mycenaean palaces as all functioning similarly. Indeed, differences between the Mycenaean palaces arising from the data, both textual and archaeological, in the way perfumed oil was ultimately used and dispersed remain in Fappas’ book largely unexplored.2 These disparities may reflect subtle variations in the economic and ideological systems of the Mycenaean palaces and merit more attention.

In sum, the value of Fappas’ book rests not so much in the interpretation of the data as in the sheer amount of information that exists in its pages. The author compiled a meticulously researched volume that will be useful for students of Aegean Prehistory and anyone interested in the perfumed oil industry and ritual in Mycenaean Greece and the Near East during the 14th-13th centuries BCE.


1.   Foster, E.D. 1974. “The Manufacture and Trade of Mycenaean Perfumed Oil.” Ph.D. diss., Duke University; Killen, J.T. 1983. “On the Mycenae Ge Tablets.” In Res Mycenaeae, edited by A. Heubeck and G. Neumann, 216-32. Göttingen: Vandenhoeck and Ruprecht; Shelmerdine, C.W. 1985. The Perfume Industry of Mycenaean Pylos. SIMA 34. Göteborg: Paul Åströms Förlag.
2.   On quantitative differences in the final disbursement of perfumed oil at the palaces of Knossos and Pylos based on the Linear B tablets see Bendall, L.M. 2007. Economics of Religion in the Mycenaean World: Resources Dedicated to Religion in the Mycenaean Palace Economy. Oxford: Oxford University School of Archaeology. On the significance of these differences in association with archaeological data see Galaty, M.L. 2009. Review of Economics of Religion in the Mycenaean World: Resources Dedicated to Religion in the Mycenaean Palace Economy, by L.M. Bendall. AJA Online Book Review 113:2 (especially page 3). See also Schon, R. 2011. "Redistribution in Aegean Palatial Societies. By Appointment to His Majesty the Wanax: Value-Added Goods and Redistribution in Mycenaean Palatial Economies". AJA 115: 2: 219-227.

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