Mycenae, Greece: Ghosts and Legends
I’m standing on the crest of Mycenae’s acropolis hill looking out over the ruined ramparts of the ancient citadel. It’s easy to evoke those long-past times and I let my imagination run wild recalling Homer’s tales and the tragedies of the dramatists, Aeschylus and Euripides. The series of treacheries, improper marriages and acts of vengeance that took place in Mycenae were characteristic of the dynasty and supplied the basis for the Classical dramas that told the stories of what might have happened there in the 16th century BC. The blind poet, Homer, wrote about Mycenae in The Iliad and although some of his accounts may have been fictional, recent finds prove that many of his details regarding Myceanean traditions and customs were correct.
Mycenae (Mykines), once the centre of the great Helladic civilisation, flourished (1550-1200BC) during the Bronze Age. According to legend it was founded by Perseus, the slayer of Medusa, the gorgon, then fell into the bloodied hands of the House of Atreus. The history of this violent period includes gruesome stories of murder and cannibalism beginning a tragic cycle in which the gods cursed the House of Atreus, including Atreus’ son Agamemnon. This was traditionally the capital city of King Agamemnon. The acropolis, which was the residence of the kings, stands on an isolated hill skirted by two deep ravines.
After Agamemnon’s victory at Troy he arrived home to a feeling of dark foreboding. The elders of the city had not forgotten how he had sacrificed his youngest daughter, Iphigenia, to appease his army; and while he was away at war, his wife Clytemnestra, had taken a lover, Aegisthus. Not only that, Agamemnon was bringing home Cassandra, the daughter of his vanquished foe, Priam. Cassandra, a prophetess, on arriving at the citadel proclaimed: “It is a house the gods hate. The floor is red with blood and I hear children crying.” Her prophecies were true, because soon afterwards Agamemnon was murdered by his wife and her lover. Then his children, Orestes and Electra, avenged their father’s death by killing Clytemnestra and Aegisthus.
Although nothing remains today of the dramas that took place there three thousand years ago, from the moment I entered the site through the massive Lion Gate and cyclopean walls of the citadel, I could somehow sense the presence of the ancient ghosts.
The palace, at the summit of the acropolis had been rebuilt in the 13th century BC. Although only ruins remain you can make out the different rooms. In the center is a wide court with terraces leading to anterooms and the big throne room. The smaller rooms are believed to have been royal apartments. In one of them are the remains of a red stucco bath which might have been the scene of Agamemnon’s murder.
Inside the walls is a grave circle believed to be the royal cemetery. It was here that the archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann found the golden funeral mask known as “the mask of Agamemnon”, although it seems the mask dates from about three centuries before the Trojan Wars.
Below the citadel are ruins of the ancient town with remains of merchant houses where quantities of pottery were found as well as Linear B tablets that record trade in spices and scented oils. Alongside the houses are remains of earlier graves and two circular chamber tombs dating from about 1500 BC, indentified by Schliemann as the tombs of Clytemnestra and her lover Aegisthus, dating from about 15oo BC.
I walk back down the hill to the beehive ‘tomb’ known as the Treasury of Atreus, an impressive monument built without the use of mortar. I enter the tomb through a long corridor, entering the camber under a doorway with a great lintel of stone. This beautiful tholos tomb is also known as the “Tomb of Agamemnon”. It was built around 1250 BC. No treasury was found here as it had been pillaged in ancient times but it is awe inspiring nonetheless.
The town of Mycenae is located two kilometers from the archaeological site, so if you go by bus you’ll be dropped off at Fikhti rather than in the village and there is a two kilometer walk uphill to the citadel. I opted to take a tour from Athens and not only got to explore Mycenae, but also Epidaurus ancient theatre, and an interesting pottery workshop near the town of Mycenae. The tour included lunch.
For travel to Mycenae from Athens
Tours from Athens to Mycenae:
Written by W. Ruth Kozak for EuropeUpClose.com