Who hasn’t heard of Perseus, son of Zeus and Danae, the daughter of the King of Argos. Greek mythology describes how he slayed the gorgon Medusa and rescued Andromeda from the Aethiopian sea monster.
Perseus had many adventures and it was later, following his grandfather’s death, that he would give up his claim to Argos. Instead he built a new city, instructing Cyclopes (one-eyed giants) to build its walls with stones no human could lift. That city was Mycenae and under Perseus’s direction became one of the most powerful of the time.
Mycenae in history
Its mythological beginnings aside, Mycenae’s origins remain unexplained to this day. Archaeological studies suggest, however, that the area was first occupied in the Neolithic Age dating back to about the 7th millennium B.C. Mycenaean civilization flourished in the Late Bronze Age (c. 1700-1100 BCE), and dominated most of mainland Greece and several islands.
Mycenaean culture played a vital role in classical Greek culture and was most evident in their myths of Bronze Age heroes like Achilles and Odysseus. The Megaron, part of palace buildings, would also influence the design of later Greek temples. Given its historical importance in the development of Ancient Greek civilization, that period in Greek history is referred to as Mycenaean.
Mycenae today – visiting the archaeological site
Mycenae is located between the sloping hills of Mount Sara and Profitis Ilias in Peloponnese, Greece. The citadel, built on a hill, is one of the civilisation’s great cities. At its peak in 1350 BC, the citadel and lower town had a population of 30,000.
Grave Circle B
Leading up to the citadel and located outside the walls of Mycenae was the residential area. It contained Grave Circle B, the graves of the earliest kings of Mycenae and their families. A tholos tomb, known as the Tomb of Klytemnestra (Agamemnon’s wife) was also discovered in that area during restoration work in 1951.
The main feature of Mycenae is a great central hall called the megaron and a main chamber surrounded by a complex of buildings including: archives, shrines, armouries, workshops and storerooms. The huge ‘Cyclopean’ walls of the citadel also encompassed residential houses and shrines for the Mycenaean elite
The Lion Gate
The citadel’s main entrance was the Lion Gate, named for the sculpture above it. The two lions arranged symmetrically around a column suggest that it represented something important like a family crest.
The gate was closed by a double, heavy wooden door secured by a sliding bar.
Grave Circle A
One of the most impressive and important features of the archaeological site is the excavated Grave Circle A. This was a funerary enclosure housing graves for the Mycenaean elite. Many funerary artefacts were excavated and are on display at the Mycenae and National Archaeological museums.
Around the site
The Tomb of Agamemnon
Mycenae is perhaps best known in mythology as the city of Agamemnon, the son of Atreus. King Agamemnon famously led the expedition against Troy during the Trojan War and Homer recounted it in his epic poem the Iliad.
The Tomb of Agamemnon is a large tholos tomb with an entrance passage leading to a circular burial chamber with a beehive-shaped roof. It is the largest and most elaborate of the nine tholos tombs at Mycenae and stands alone away from the other tombs located beside the citadel. Archaeologists believe that its location ensured that the great king’s tomb would be seen by anyone approaching Mycenae.
Mycenae at Ancient Delphi
Although priests from Knossos, Crete brought the cult of Apollo to Delphi in the 8th century B.C., Delphi’s roots go back much further. Archaeological evidence suggests a Mycenaean settlement and cemetery once existed within the sanctuary area. That sanctuary may have been destroyed by a rock fall at the end of the Bronze Age.
Like the Minoans, Mycenaean artists also loved natural forms and flowing design in pottery and other works of art. Their work, however, tended to be less life-like and some items excavated from the site are on show at the Delphi Archaeological Museum.
Mycenaean civilization would so inspire the later Classical Greeks that its period of dominance was called a golden age. Many of the legends we read about today have their origin in this period with names like Agamemnon, Achilles and Odysseus, all Mycenaean Greeks. The impact of Mycenaeans are immortalised in sculpture, pottery and literature such as Homer’s Iliad and their abandoned cities promise many more discoveries. What would Greek mythology have been without them, I wonder?