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Ancient Greece Odyssey: The Citadel of Mycenae

Updated on January 14, 2015

Part Five of Ancient Greece Odyssey

My next stop on my Greek odyssey was the Bronze Age Citadel of Mycenae, home of legendary King Agamemnon. Read on for photos, information, and my memories of this ancient site, the Greek equivalent of Camelot!

First, of course, I need to get there, so I'll retrace our scenic day's drive from Delphi across the Bay of Corinth to the medieval city of Nauplion, the nearest modern city to ancient Mycenae.

This page is part of a classics and myth scholar's online travel diary chronicling a visit to Greece. If you'd like to start at the beginning, go to Ancient Greece Odyssey: A Traveler's Journal.

Around the Gulf of Corinth - Snapshots of the drive from Delphi to Nauplion/Nafplio

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Goats in the rain beside the road down from Mt. ParnassosThe Gulf of CorinthThe Corinth CanalNafplia Palace HotelSunset over the Bay of Argolis
Goats in the rain beside the road down from Mt. Parnassos
Goats in the rain beside the road down from Mt. Parnassos
The Gulf of Corinth
The Gulf of Corinth
The Corinth Canal
The Corinth Canal
Nafplia Palace Hotel
Nafplia Palace Hotel
Sunset over the Bay of Argolis
Sunset over the Bay of Argolis

The Road to Nauplion: From the Mountains to the Sea

Travel Diary, 5th May 2005, Nafplia Palace Hotel

The drive from sacred Delphi to worldly Nauplion [map of route] on the far side of the Isthmus of Corinth was long and sleepy. Haunting music in an ancient mode played over the bus' speakers as we dozed. It was a modern recording of a hymn to Apollo whose notes are inscribed on a stone from the Treasury of Athens.

The winding mountain road threaded olive groves and lonely towns, hugging steep, bleak hillsides cropped by sheep and brown goats. Hazy blue mountains slanted down to the sea. After a few hours we crossed an incredibly long suspension bridge spanning the Gulf of Corinth from northern to southern Greece (the Peloponnese). Halfway across, we gazed westward across the Ionian Sea towards Italy. One of the islands out there was rocky Ithaka, home of Odysseus.

On the Peloponnesian side of the Gulf, behind the blue peaks of the closest mountains, rose a long, snowy spine running parallel to the coast: Mt. Chelmos, called Aroania in ancient times. According to our guide Anna, the headwaters of the legendary Styx are hidden on its bleak slopes.

Nafplia Palace Hotel

Turning east, we hugged the opposite side of the Gulf for many hours, stopping at lunch to marvel at the canal now cutting through the isthmus of Corinth. Eventually we passed the site of Corinth itself on a high knob of land overlooking the sea. In ancient times Aphrodite's priestesses serviced sailors there, but later it became a bastion of Ares, a military outpost for whichever forces occupied this part of the world.

In late afternoon we reached the medieval city of Nauplion, with fashionable shopping, a modern hotel (meaning c. 1950), and a postcard view of the bay with its little medieval fort in the harbor built by Venetians guarding their trade routes. The gusty sea breezes blowing into our hotel balcony (left) are delicious.

Travel Diary, 6th May 2005

Mycenae, Treasury of Atreus -

Then the goddess the ox-eyed lady Hera answered:

"Of all cities there are three that are dearest to my own heart:

Argos and Sparta and Mykenai of the wide ways."

Iliad 4.50-52, Lattimore translation

In Ancient Greece Odyssey Part II, I showed you the treasures Heinrich Schliemann found in Mycenae, which now reside in the Athens National Museum. Now let me show you where they came from. Excerpt from my travel diary:

Today we pay our respects to the stern bastion of Mycenae, a short drive inland from the bay of Nafplion. We head into the surrounding farm country fenced by low hills, punctuated with knobby outcroppings. Orange groves scent the air just outside the city outskirts. As always, the profusion of flowers on banks and meadows is breathtaking, spilling into groves of dusty gray-green olive trees and stands of tall, dark cypress. Soon we take a road leading up into the hills.

Our first stop is the so-called Treasury of Atreus, an empty beehive-shaped tomb that Schliemann, ever the romantic, named for King Agamemnon's legendary father. It's a huge hollow structure covered over with earth and thick grassy turf. The interior is 48' across, 40' tall, not counting a side chamber closed to the public (to my frustration). Massive stones -- the lintel over 1,000 tons -- are a testament to ancient engineering.

They had not come up with arches yet, but relieved the stress on the lintel with a clever trick: a hollow space called a relieving triangle above the door, camouflaged by a thin facade of elaborate stone relief. Archaeologists have found fragments of the facade with its carved decoration: empty bands alternating with stripes of running spirals like those on the stelae of Grave Circle A, plus palmettes. There were also stacked sets of elaborately-decorated half-columns of colored stone, doweled into the doorframe (you can see the holes). Their shaped matched the column on the royal coat of arms seen on the Lion Gate of the main citadel (above).

The colorful facade is long gone, and bees swim in and out through the triangular opening; there are plenty of flowers outside. The tomb is truly a beehive now. It resonates to their humming when the tourists file out, and I can feel the buzzing in my bones.

Photo Gallery: Mycenae and Treasury of Atreus

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Citadel of Mycenae, Palace of Agamemnon on flanksTreasury of Atrus with figure for scale"Relieving triangle" which helps keep weight of massive ceiling off door lintelvaulted ceiling of "beehive" tomb humbs like real bees!Lion tholos
Citadel of Mycenae, Palace of Agamemnon on flanks
Citadel of Mycenae, Palace of Agamemnon on flanks
Treasury of Atrus with figure for scale
Treasury of Atrus with figure for scale
"Relieving triangle" which helps keep weight of massive ceiling off door lintel
"Relieving triangle" which helps keep weight of massive ceiling off door lintel
vaulted ceiling of "beehive" tomb humbs like real bees!
vaulted ceiling of "beehive" tomb humbs like real bees!
Lion tholos
Lion tholos

Mycenae Museum - Travel Diary, 6th May 2005

Before ascending Agamemnon's citadel, we stopped by the museum set discreetly in the slopes below the main site. Those who have not studied pre-Greek civilizations might be surprised by the simple artifacts from the age of Homer's heroes. That's partly due to looting and loss, but also, a close reading of Homer shows that the heroes of the Trojan war prized pots, livestock, pot-stands, cloaks and spears, and gave these as rich gifts. Those were simple times! We also read of King Odysseus leaving his men at the shore on Circe's island and heading into the woods to hunt down a stag to feed them (Od. 10.156). These ancient kings were more like Robin Hood than King Arthur.

On the other hand, many rich grave goods were hauled off by the early excavator of Mycenae, Heinrich Schliemann, and are on display at the Athens National Museum which I explored in Ancient Greece Odyssey Part III.

The Mycenae Museum displays artifacts found in more recent excavations of the citadel and its surroundings: pottery, stone weights once used to anchor the warp-threads of a hanging loom, stylize clay figures of farmers ploughing behind oxen, female figurines (goddesses, worshippers or dolls?) and unusual terracotta snakes. Both snakes and figurines were found in a small cluster of religious buildings within the citadel of Mycenae.

What did these serpents mean? We can only speculate. The Minoan snake-goddesses on Crete, a few centuries earlier, may be connected somehow, but the Mycenaeans weren't the same people; they were mainlanders who conquered the Minoan islanders and adopted some of their art styles and religious practices. The Mycenaeans were the ancestors of classical Greeks, and a few inscriptions naming Mycenaean goddesses have been matched to later Greek goddesses.

Athena may be one of them. Beyond that, we can't say much, except to admire these curious offerings.

Likewise, this fragmentary fresco is both familiar and intriguing. Many details are borrowings from the older Minoan civilization's art style, while others are uniquely Mycenaean. The most curious item is the long bronze (?) sword, point-downwards, which one of the two large female figures seems to be holding. The lady facing her is holding a staff -- or spear? The small male figures between them suggest the women are goddesses. Could one goddess be Athena? Is the other goddess a prototype of Demeter, called "the lady of the golden sword" in the Homeric Hymn to Demeter? But Demeter's name hasn't been found in Mycenaean inscriptions, and Athena's isn't certain. They could be other early goddesses who did not survive (or were much changed) in the classical period.

More Artifacts from Mycenae Museum - from a cult center c. 15th-13th century BCE

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More lovely pottery and necklaces.More pottery and figurines. The little ox-farmer figures represent ploughing. I wonder if they were toys.More worshipers or goddesses -- it's always hard to tell which is which. Penelope, wife of Odysseus, and Helen of Troy lived in this culture, yet we don't imagine portraying them like this!Grave steles that capped Grave Circle A, where lay the Mask of Agammemnon and many of the gold and silver treasures I photographed in the Athens National Museum. One depicts a king  hunting lions from a chariot. Evidently lions were associated with tAncient loom-weights hung from modern thread so you can see how they worked.
More lovely pottery and necklaces.
More lovely pottery and necklaces.
More pottery and figurines. The little ox-farmer figures represent ploughing. I wonder if they were toys.
More pottery and figurines. The little ox-farmer figures represent ploughing. I wonder if they were toys.
More worshipers or goddesses -- it's always hard to tell which is which. Penelope, wife of Odysseus, and Helen of Troy lived in this culture, yet we don't imagine portraying them like this!
More worshipers or goddesses -- it's always hard to tell which is which. Penelope, wife of Odysseus, and Helen of Troy lived in this culture, yet we don't imagine portraying them like this!
Grave steles that capped Grave Circle A, where lay the Mask of Agammemnon and many of the gold and silver treasures I photographed in the Athens National Museum. One depicts a king  hunting lions from a chariot. Evidently lions were associated with t
Grave steles that capped Grave Circle A, where lay the Mask of Agammemnon and many of the gold and silver treasures I photographed in the Athens National Museum. One depicts a king hunting lions from a chariot. Evidently lions were associated with t
Ancient loom-weights hung from modern thread so you can see how they worked.
Ancient loom-weights hung from modern thread so you can see how they worked.

The Citadel of Mycenae

Travel Diary, 6th May 2005, Nafplia Palace Hotel

Towering over the plain, the citadel itself commands a wide view. Cyclopean walls-- believed in antiquity to be built by giants-- still incite wonder. There is a veritable maze of lesser walls. Such a jumbled of scattered stones, strange little rooms; yet one believes that history happened here. Looking out beyond the walls, one imagines chariots struggling up a beaten track, beneath the lions' frowning gaze.

"Grave Circle A" stands inside the gate, a broad circle of stones with a deep shaft. There Schliemann found the Mask of Agamemnon and many treasures now lying in the Athens National Museum. At the back of the citadel, a deep stone tunnels burrows down into the hill. At the bottom is a cistern to which water was piped from a nearby spring. So they were secure against siege, at least for a while. It is too dark to go all the way in without a light.

Winds gust over the hilltop, rattling the leaves of pistachio trees and ruffling the poppies. It is not a huge mountain, but high enough to slow ancient armies. Behind the citadel, the mountainside rings now and again with the distant bleats of a lost goat.

Photo Gallery: Citadel of Mycenae

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Approach to the citadel of Mycenae. Here's the broad ways Hera loved.A Cyclopean wall. Classical Greeks had legends of how gods or giants had built them.The Lion Gate and the wear on the lintel and door-post from hinges and bars.More massive fitted walls outside, close by the gate, and inside.Grave Circle A in which Schliemann found the Mas of Agammemnon and many other grave goods.Pistachio trees grow up through the ruins.Climbing the citadel, looking back. Just try to sneak up on us, Tiryns! We see you over there.Continuing to climb the citadel.The Mycenaean countryside: lonely and gusty and sweet with orange blossoms.Poppies and wild grain on the upper slopes of the citadel, and the entrance of the tunnel leading down to the cistern.
Approach to the citadel of Mycenae. Here's the broad ways Hera loved.
Approach to the citadel of Mycenae. Here's the broad ways Hera loved.
A Cyclopean wall. Classical Greeks had legends of how gods or giants had built them.
A Cyclopean wall. Classical Greeks had legends of how gods or giants had built them.
The Lion Gate and the wear on the lintel and door-post from hinges and bars.
The Lion Gate and the wear on the lintel and door-post from hinges and bars.
More massive fitted walls outside, close by the gate, and inside.
More massive fitted walls outside, close by the gate, and inside.
Grave Circle A in which Schliemann found the Mas of Agammemnon and many other grave goods.
Grave Circle A in which Schliemann found the Mas of Agammemnon and many other grave goods.
Pistachio trees grow up through the ruins.
Pistachio trees grow up through the ruins.
Climbing the citadel, looking back. Just try to sneak up on us, Tiryns! We see you over there.
Climbing the citadel, looking back. Just try to sneak up on us, Tiryns! We see you over there.
Continuing to climb the citadel.
Continuing to climb the citadel.
The Mycenaean countryside: lonely and gusty and sweet with orange blossoms.
The Mycenaean countryside: lonely and gusty and sweet with orange blossoms.
Poppies and wild grain on the upper slopes of the citadel, and the entrance of the tunnel leading down to the cistern.
Poppies and wild grain on the upper slopes of the citadel, and the entrance of the tunnel leading down to the cistern.

The Journey Continues...

Recommended Books

Mycenae: A guide to its ruins and its history
Mycenae: A guide to its ruins and its history

Mycenae museum's official guide to the site, written by its director, George Mylonas. I referred to it for details while writing this lens.

 
The Art and Culture of Early Greece, 1100-480 B.C.
The Art and Culture of Early Greece, 1100-480 B.C.

Standard reference book for students of Bronze Age Greece. Large chunks of it available on Google Books; here's a section on Mycenaean civilization and the Trojan War.

 

© 2007 Ellen Brundige

Graffiti From Passing Travellers

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    crstnblue 5 years ago

    Excellent lens! Lots of good information and perfectly chosen photos.

    Waiting for your next lens... regarding Monemvasia - I was fascinated with that small island that preserves so well the medieval atmosphere. :)

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    Katie Harp 5 years ago

    blessed by a squid angel :) <3

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    Paul 5 years ago from Montreal

    Blessed for the Angels letter C quest!

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    sushilkin lm 6 years ago

    Very Good Lens. Thanks for Sharing

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    Tony Payne 6 years ago from Southampton, UK

    I always wanted to go to mainland Greece. So far I have only been to Corfu and Rhodes though, and that was some 20 years ago or more. I have always been fascinated by Ancient Greece and especially the Trojan War. Wonderful lens, blessings coming your way.

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    isabella lm 6 years ago

    Once again you have created a beautiful, well organized and informative lens. Thank you

  • isabella lm profile image

    isabella lm 6 years ago

    Once again you have created a beautiful, well organized and informative lens. Thank you

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    julieannbrady 7 years ago

    Oh my goodness gracious ... I do honestly think that I LOVE YOU! I love you for such brilliant work. I love you for showing me what I won't be having -- GREECE. I am SO sad that my trip will never be ... but that trip ended up in hubby's column on the equity distribution worksheet. BOO HOO!!!! BOO!