According to Evy, the winter in Greece has been unbelievably mild (to their great relief–they can save on heating costs). But count on us to arrive as Athens decides to have a late bout of COLD and RAINY weather! I get the feeling I have somehow incurred the wrath of Athena, and she has loosed her weather gods to vex us!
But apparently Athena must have wanted us to see Mycenae, the legendary site of an ancient civilization, revered by the Greeks of the Golden Age (we’re talking 1600-1100 B.C. here, so a full millennium earlier than 5th-century Athens). Our trip to the Peleponnese Peninsula took place on a day of some clouds, but no rain, and only mild winds. We also had the great good fortune to have as our guide Eleni Paleologu, an old friend of Evy’s who has worked at Mycenae for some 30 years and conducted many of the digs that have uncovered the objects in the site’s museum. She probably knows more about Mycenean culture than anyone else around. And she is Evy’s lovely, dedicated friend as well!
We started by picking up Eleni in the village outside the Mycenean ruins, where she had taken pity on two Dutch travelers who couldn’t get to the site–so we took them in the car. She’s that kind of person.
As we entered the site, Eleni first pointed out the hill behind us. From here, she said, the message of the victory at Troy was communicated by fire from Athens. Just to set the tone of where we are: deep into the ancient past. All the names of places resonate with mythological and legendary significance. And then there we were, at the Lion’s Gate! (See us above!) As we learned, this was the entrance to the royal complex of Agamemnon. The method of building, with these enormous conglomerate stones, is specific to Mycenaen culture, by which we mean the civilization that was here in a period from 1600-1100 B.C. Because the stones are so huge, people believed that the walls were made by Cyclops, hence the term Cyclopean. Eleni explained as well that the stone, with its conglomerate texture, was easy to cut flat, so favored by these early builders.
We were so lucky to have with us someone who knew the significance of the clumps of rocks and walls we were looking at, since otherwise we would not have been made so cognizant of the actual people who lived here so many millenia ago. Eleni is also aware of all the many interpretations that Classical scholars have made about Mycenae over the
years, and has her own interpretations gleaned from years of practical experience on the digs. This was particularly helpful as we came to the gravesites where Heinrich Schliemann actually dug up the famous Golden Mask, amazing all scholars of the time by finding such a site (in 1876). He, of course, declared the mask to be Agamemnon’s,
which it certainly was not, but the discoveries caused tremendous excitement, and led to more advanced methods of archeological work. I was surprised that Eleni was as forgiving of Schliemann’s charlatanry as she was. She also gave us several explanations for what the double stone walls surrounding the graves might mean. Her interpretation is that these were added at a much later date, as a kind of deliberate memorialization of the heroic figures buried here.
Because we were with Eleni, we were also able to enter the space that is believed to be Agamemnon’s quarters and throne room. While not so impressive now, their location, looking out across the plain to the sea, must have been glorious at the time. From here, one can also look out to the source of the palace’s water, which was piped into the complex through an advanced system of gravity-induced canals.
Walking down to the hill to the site’s museum, Eleni told us about other digs across the plain that she was still working on–so discoveries continue to be made. The Museum is a delight, filled with objects found on site, from oxhide shields to frescoes to articulated votive offerings. It is nearly impossible to comprehend the age of these objects, and I kept thinking about Alois Riegl’s ruminations on the origin of ornamentation and how such simple decoration can be traced across cultures.
Although nearly faint with hunger–we were sustained by freshly-squeezed orange juice from the kiosk in the site’s parking lot–we were now to experience the most powerful part of the day: The Tomb of Atreus.
Predictably, the tomb’s connection to Atreus is spurious, a name erroneously applied by Schliemann, since the archeological evidence indicates that the ruler buried here was from a much later date than Atreus would have been. No matter, the tomb is unbelievably impressive, with a stone lintel above that weighs 120 tons. Our visit was somewhat disrupted by hordes of chattering teenagers, on a field trip and out of control. Still, the space feels sacred and awe-inspiring. Some have felt that it was frightening in its size and space, but I was just overwhelmed by its architectural power. And again, those stones!
We continued our trip to the lovely seaside town of Napflion, home of the First Hellenic Republic, site of the writing of the Greek Constitution after the Revolution of 1821. Alas, I am now in the land of very bad internet connectivity issues, so cannot reliably upload any photos to include. So I will have to wait until we are on firmer cyberspace surroundings to recount our time since Mycenae.