Mighty Mycenae

Of the three early Greek Civilizations (Minoan, Cycladic, & Mycenaean) it was the Mycenaeans who embodied the immortal images of Greek Mythology and history. The peoples of the Cycladic islands were influenced and changed by both Minoans and Mycenaeans. The Minoans could have become the people of Greece if it hadn’t been for those pesky volcanic eruptions of Thera and the ensuing tidal waves. And so we are left with the Mycenaeans -Indo-European immigrants, known as Achaeans, to the Peloponnesus, who inherited the rich heritage of the both the Minoans and the Cyclades.

Most of what we know about his culture comes from two sources. The earliest source is Homer, the late 8th century BC epic poet/bard who authored and probably sang the Iliad and the Odyssey. (Now that had to be a long song!) He tells the story of the Achaeans rallying together to battle the people of Troy way over on the northwestern coast of modern-day Turkey. The Iliad recounts the drama and tragedy of the ten-year war. Tens of thousands of Achaean Greeks travel by sea, an incredible task in its own right, rallying around one king in particular: Agamemnon, King of Mycenae. Many historians place the date for this war somewhere around early to mid 11th century BC. At the end of the war, (this won’t ruin the book for you, but the Achaeans win) the Greek warriors head back home. Then in the Odyssey, Homer tells the fantastic story of Odysseus’ ten-year journey home, the coming-of-age of his son Telemachus, and the faithfulness of his wife, Penelope. It is a must-read. I recommend the translation by Fagles. It’s readable and beautifully poetic. Anyway, all the Achaeans go home. Agamemnon returns to Mycenae only to find that his wife has taken a lover in his absence. He actually learns this while at a welcome-home feast when the lover runs him through with a spear. His surviving troops are slaughtered, but Agamemnon’s son, Orestes, eventually avenges his father’s death, killing both the lover and his own mother, Clytemnestra. Homer gives detail to Agamemnon’s heroics and cowardice, his generosity and selfishness, as well as his repentance and pride. He’s a “real” person, flawed just like the rest of us. All the other generals seem too heroic or self-sacrificing to humanly identify with. Agamemnon’s foibles as general of the Achaeans lead many historians to believe that he was more than just myth; he was a real live person. There’s a lot more Homer has to say about these people, about 900+ pages more, but this is a good place to start.

Our second major source of information about the Mycenaeans comes from amateur archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann. In 1876 he uncovered the ancient city of Mycenae - Agamemnon’s hometown. He found a great walled city set on a hill overlooking fertile plains with views to the sea in one direction and snow covered mountains to the other. It is beautiful. There are several other Mycenaean ruins in the area - all with their defining super-sized walls. The stones in these walls are so large, some weighing as much as six tons, that legend has it that Cyclopes were the only beings strong enough to move them into place. The term used to describe the enormity of the wall construction of these Mycenaean city-states is appropriately referred to as “cyclopic.” That’s pretty cool!

Aside from walls, Schliemann also found several shaft tombs - narrow cylindrical paved tunnels down into the ground. In one of these he found the now famous gold “Death-Mask of Agamemnon.” Along with this mask Schliemann also found several bronze swords, gold funerary ornaments, libation cups and pottery. It is the Greek equivalent to King Tut’s treasure except not quite as ornate or near the same quantity. All the same it’s amazing! It is in the National Archaeological Museum of Athens. But it turns out that it doesn’t belong to Agamemnon at all. It predates him by about 300 years. If Agamemnon is buried here at all he is probably in one of the tholos tombs. These tombs in Mycenae match up with the probable dates for Agamemnon’s life. They are beehive shaped mounds. They were probably earthen hills that were paved over with foundation stones and bricks to create a dome. The dirt was then dug out from the paved area to create an empty room, the tomb. There are several of these being excavated in and around the ancient city. It seems unlikely we’ll find Agamemnon’s body since he was killed by enemies in his own home. His body was probably disrespectfully dumped somewhere just to spite him even more. That might explain why in the Odyssey, his ghost talks to Odysseus from Hades where he roams without rest. He was not buried properly to move on in the afterlife. Bummer for Agamemnon.

Mycenae’s ruins are pretty ruinous. The limestone foundations remain, walls are pieced together here and there, and some artifacts are in the on-site museum. But, most of the cool artifacts of pottery and gold are now in the Archaeological Museum of Athens. What strikes me most about this place is that anything at all remains. The weather here is harsh, and even though it’s on a hilltop, it’s still pretty damp. The moisture is really taking its toll on the limestone construction. Add to that the warlike nature of the Mycenaean city-states. There’s a reason they spent their time building walls! It’s the whole picture of the place that really stands out for me. The stories of real people like Agamemnon walking the palace pathways, rallying and marching his troops across the plain to their ships at harbor, returning home the victor only to be murdered here in his own palace. It’s no longer an epic myth. It’s real, a little embellished, but earthy, beautiful and real.

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