Mycenae: Behind the Myths

Susan C. Wilson

The author of a new novel on Clytemnestra writes about the ancient city that was central to so many myths.
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Mycenae: Behind the Myths

Most ancient Greek myths take place during a heroic age, when men fought with monsters and gods walked among us. The roots of these myths are in an often-overlooked period of Greek prehistory: the Bronze Age. The Greek poet Hesiod identifies five Ages of Man:

  1. The Golden Age, when humans lived free from grief, labour and old age;
  2. The Silver Age, a time of sinners who wronged each other and forgot to honour the gods;
  3. The Bronze Age, not be confused with what we moderns identify by the same name—this was an era of war and violence;
  4. The Heroic Age, also a period when men loved war, but they were nobler;
  5. The Iron Age, Hesiod’s own time, one of toil and sorrow.

Apollodorus, author of the Bibliotheca, tells us that Zeus sent a flood to destroy the people of the third age. The subsequent Heroic Age began with the survivors, Deucalion and Pyrrha, repopulating the earth by throwing stones over their shoulders. Deucalion’s stones turned into men, Pyrrha’s into women. The Heroic Age ended with the homecomings of the Greeks who fought in the Trojan War.

If the Trojan War was a real event, the most widely accepted date is between 1194 and 1184 BCE. This corresponds with the destruction of the citadel known as Troy VIi (previously labelled Troy VIIa), at Hisarlik, Turkey. The Greeks who fought at Troy would have been those of the Late Bronze Age, which lasted on the mainland from approximately 1700 to 1070 BCE. Today they are known as the Mycenaeans, named for the prominent citadel of Mycenae.

Late Bronze Age Greece was a time of kings and hierarchies, of thriving international relations, of piracy, trade and diplomacy. The Mycenaeans were a warlike people, evoking those of Hesiod’s overlapping Heroic Age. But despite the assertions of Hesiod and others, the gods did not walk among men.

As a devotee of historical fiction, I wanted my Greek mythological novel, Clytemnestra’s Bind, to take place in a realistic setting. The story world is Mycenae, in the north-eastern Peloponnese. This citadel crouches between two roughly triangular hills: Prophet Elias (height 805 metres) and Zara (660 meters), which I call ‘Arachne’s Peak’ (from Aeschylus’ Agamemnon) and ‘Holy Mountain’. The main entrance is the monumental Lion Gate, my ‘Gate of the Sacred Lionesses’, which features a famous sculpture of two heraldic lionesses above its lintel.

Once inside the Lion Gate, the next most conspicuous feature in Mycenae citadel is Grave Circle A, a cemetery some 27.5 metres in diameter. This contains six shaft graves and at least twenty-one grave stelai, carved with such imagery as hunting scenes. In Clytemnestra’s Bind, this cemetery is called the ‘Circle of the Ancestors’. Here, Clytemnestra and others pray for guidance from long-dead queens and kings. Dating from around 1600 to 1500 BCE, Grave Circle A was incorporated into the citadel during an expansion of the fortification walls in around 1250 BCE. If such a man ever existed, the architect of this building project might have been King Atreus, father-in-law to Clytemnestra.

South of the cemetery is the Cult Centre, which I call the ‘sacred quarter’. It consists of two courtyards and five buildings often referred to as temples and shrines. ‘Temples’ of the Mycenaean age bear very little resemblance to those familiar from later Greece. As with the Minoans of Crete, iconography suggests that the Mycenaeans performed many of their religious activities outdoors, often at sites associated with sacred trees, stones and pillars. The Cult Centre buildings in Mycenae consist of numerous rooms, which variously include altars, hearths, basins, platforms for displaying the comparatively small Mycenaean idols, storerooms, upper storeys and basements. In Clytemnestra’s Bind, I give these so-called temples the more modest name of ‘Houses of the Gods’.

The names of several Bronze Age Greek deities are preserved on inventory tablets discovered in various Mycenaean palaces. These clay tablets survived the fiery destructions that swept through the sites towards the end of the Late Bronze Age. As with later Greece, the Mycenaean deities (including supreme deities) varied from place to place, but the tablets suggest a rather different pantheon or pantheons from what we might expect. For authenticity, I have tried to limit the deities in Clytemnestra’s Bind to those confirmed by the tablets. However, when the story demands it, I have imagined pre-Hellenic versions of unattested early deities.

Among the familiar names identified on the tablets are Poseidon, Zeus, Hera, Artemis, Dionysus, Ares and Hermes. Some names are epithets of later deities, for example Paean (an epithet of Apollo) and Enyalius (of Ares). Goddesses are often referred to by their titles alone, combining Potnia (meaning ‘Lady’) with an attribute. Examples include Lady of the Horses and Lady of the Grains. In my novel, I use a similar method to produce such titles as ‘Lady of the Black Earth’ and ‘She Who Reaps’.

The supreme goddess (and earth mother) in Clytemnestra’s Bind is Mater Theia, who also appears on the tablets. Her name means ‘Mother Goddess’ or ‘Mother of the Gods’. I give her Poseidon as a husband, often referring to him by his later cult title of ‘Earth Encircler’. They have a daughter, a dual goddess: She Who Reaps (goddess of the underworld) and the Spring Maiden. This daughter resembles the later Persephone-Kore. My inspiration for this mother-father-daughter triad was the linguist John Chadwick’s interpretation of the ‘two queens and the king’ from a Pylos palace tablet, whom he identified as Demeter, Persephone and Poseidon.

Vengeance is a key theme in Clytemnestra’s Bind and the succeeding books in The House of Atreus trilogy. The Erinyes were the goddesses of retribution in later Greece, who pursue Orestes relentlessly in Aeschylus’ Oresteia for the crime of matricide. The Mycenaean tablets attest to a deity called Erinys, in the singular. Accordingly, the characters in my novel believe in Erinys, not the Erinyes.

Beyond the Cult Centre, a great ramp climbs through the terraces of Mycenae, terminating at the palace. The palace megaron, which I refer to as the ‘hall’, is the basic architectural structure most familiar from the Mycenaean Age. Megarons in palaces typically consist of a throne room with a raised central hearth and with four pillars supporting a gallery. The throne room is entered through a columned aithousa (‘porch’) and a prodomos (‘vestibule’). The megaron structure loaned itself to later Greek architecture.

Clytemnestra’s ‘throne room’ in Clytemnestra’s Bind is the room identified by archaeologists as either a throne room or guest room. For obvious reasons, I prefer the former. My ‘heir’s wing’ is the eastern wing of the palace, specifically the once-impressive House of Columns, named by archaeologists for the ruins of a colonnade in its central courtyard.

But my favourite room in the novel is the one I call the ‘Red Bathroom’. All that remains is a corner of red-stuccoed floor, a drain, and some steps or benches along the sides of the room. According to the architect George E Mylonas, locals speculate that this was the location of Agamemnon’s murder. In the House of Atreus trilogy, it is the recurring scene of more tragedies besides.

Susan C Wilson is the debut author of Clytemnestra’s Bind, the first book in The House of Atreus trilogy.