From Mycenae to Troy

I want to tell the story of Troy, the legendary Troy of Helen and the Trojan War, but first I’ll tell about Mycenae, because it’s important to the back story.

the so-called Mask of Agamemnon funeral mask, found at Mycenae and now in the Archaeological Museum in Athens

the so-called Mask of Agamemnon funeral mask, found at Mycenae and now in the Archaeological Museum in Athens

Mycenae is located in the eastern Peloponnese, about 80 miles from Athens. Some 3500 years ago, it was a powerful presence in the eastern Mediterranean. According to legend, Mycenae was ruled at its peak by Agamemnon, a son of the cursed Atreidae dynasty. He was a deeply flawed character, whose bad decisions perpetuated the kind of bloody family saga the ancient Greeks did so well.

Agamemnon’s ancestor, Tantalus, offended the gods by serving them his own children for dinner and by stealing their famous nectar, ambrosia. Eternal torture for Tantalus was not sufficient punishment for his crimes; his descendants were doomed to lives of violence, betrayal and crushing tragedy.

Agamemnon’s brother was Menelaus. The brothers were married to two sisters, Agamemnon to Clytemnestra and Menelaus to Helen. Yes, that Helen. Before she was Helen of Troy, she was Helen of Sparta, widely considered the world’s most beautiful woman. Helen’s father was the king of Sparta, and when the time came to find her a husband, the royal halls were jammed with suitors. After considering his options, the king decided the least messy way to settle the matter was to draw straws. However, knowing that a few sore losers were inevitable, he first had all suitors vow to support the winner of Helen’s hand if her honor were ever challenged. With that out of the way, straws were drawn. Menelaus won the hand of Helen in marriage and also succeeded his father-in-law as the king of Sparta.

Sometime later, Paris, prince of Troy, visited Sparta, accepted the hospitality of Menelaus, and then ran off with his wife. The real beginning of this story, involving the revenge of a spurned goddess, explains Paris’ audacity, but more about that in my next post. For now, it’s enough to know that Paris either abducted or seduced Helen away to Troy.

ancient pot dipicting the abduction of Helen

ancient pot depicting the abduction of Helen

Agamemnon, the more powerful and aggressive of the Atreus brothers, invoked the oath made by Helen’s suitors, the warrior kings and princes of Greek states, to stand with Menelaus to defend Helen’s honor, and his own. A great war fleet was assembled and set sail, only to get lost and scattered on the way to Troy. Eight years later they reconvened off the coast of Greece and tried to set out again, but the goddess Artemis, who had been offended by Agamemnon, had the ships trapped in the harbor by the wind. With more than 1,000 ships sitting idle, Agamemnon consulted a prophet, who advised him to sacrifice his daughter Iphigenia to appease Artemis, and so he did. Remember I mentioned Agamemnon’s bad decision-making? Well, in the short run, he got what he was after, sailing conditions favorable to advance his war. In the long run, many chapters and more than a decade down the line, he will pay.

Check back next time for the exciting conclusion!

Today at Mycenae, you can see some impressive royal tombs, cyclopean walls (so called because the stones are so large they must have been placed by the one-eyed giant Cyclopes), the grand Lion Gate, and footprints of a palace and associated buildings. Some of the tombs yielded a trove of golden treasure, including the famous and misnamed Mask of Agamemnon, which dates to an earlier period than the Agamemnon we have come to know. The artifacts are not at Mycenae but at the Archaeological Museum in Athens.

Lion's Gate, Mycenae, Greece

Lion’s Gate, Mycenae, Greece

tholos or beehive tomb, Mycenae, Greece

tholos or beehive tomb, Mycenae, Greece

tholos or beehive tomb interior, Mycenae, Greece

tholos or beehive tomb interior, Mycenae, Greece

fresco in the archaeological museum at Mycenae, Greece

fresco in the archaeological museum at Mycenae, Greece

Mycenae makes an easy day trip from Athens or an essential stop on a longer exploration of the Peloponnese.

Click to see our Greece tours that include Mycenae.

You Can’t Trick Fate or Cronus’ Come-Uppance

Two reputed shelters of the infant Zeus - Zas Cave on Mount Zas on the island of Naxos and Ideon Cave on Mount Ida on the island of Crete.

Two reputed shelters of the infant Zeus – Zas Cave on Mount Zas on the island of Naxos and Ideon Cave on Mount Ida on the island of Crete.

Most stories about Zeus have him spending his youth in hiding on the island of Crete, while some place his refuge on Naxos. As the mighty, thunderbolt wielding father of the Olympians, I suppose there’s enough of Zeus to go around and will not question the claims of either island. I will instead tell you why he was hiding; on that, there is wide consensus.

Zeus was the youngest child of the Titans, Cronus and Rhea. The Titans were a race of giant gods that preceded the Olympian gods in ancient Greek religion. They were conceived by mother earth Gaia and father sky Uranus. Cronus grew up to overthrow his father and assume the role of sky god. Thereafter riddled with guilt and paranoia, and haunted by a prophecy that he would in turn be toppled by one of his sons, Cronus swallowed all of his children as soon as they were born.

After watching her husband gobble her first five babies – Hestia, Demeter, Hera, Hades and Poseidon – Rhea hatched a plan to save her next chick child. After delivering Zeus, she hid him away. When Cronus came to swallow the newborn, Rhea gave him a stone wrapped in blankets instead, which he promptly washed down with some ambrosia, none the wiser.

Zeus grew up somewhere safe, maybe Crete, maybe Naxos. He was raised by his grandmother Gaia or by a goat or by a nymph or… In any case, he was protected and nurtured and grew into a mighty young god. When he reached the age of majority, first on his agenda was to rescue his siblings from the gut of his father. The last in was the first out – the stone, which had taken Zeus’ place. That became the Omphalos, the stone marking the center of the world at Delphi. Next, one by one, Poseidon, Hades, Hera, Demeter and Hestia were coughed up. Then the children of Cronus, with sweet, fresh air in their lungs and vengeance in their hearts, pulled the throne out from under their monster of a father, and took all the other Titans down with him for good measure.

Zeus went on to lead the dysfunctional family of Olympian gods and preside over the weather and affairs of state among mortals. He was quite a decent ruler, by all accounts wise and just. He was, however, a shameful philanderer, much to the dismay of his wife Hera. He fathered children all over the place, but, unlike his own father Cronus, he never devoured any of them.

NAME THAT COUNTRY

 

In the south west of the Peloponnese peninsula, Gialova lagoon is one of the most important wetlands in Europe. It’s a nationally protected area and a wildlife refuge. Over 250 species of birds have been documented in the lagoon, including herons, osprey, terns, flamingos and sandpipers. Many thousands of migrating birds stop in the lagoon each year as they travel between Africa and Europe in spring and fall and some 20,000 hang around all year long.

Can you name that country? 
See below for answers.

Continue reading

Apollo Was Here: Daphne & the Laurel Tree

Previously on Apollo Was Here, the four-day old Olympian god had just killed the serpent/dragon Python and claimed the sacred ground on Mt. Parnassus for his own sanctuary. He was very pleased with himself.

When next he saw the cherubic Eros (aka Cupid), with his mini-bow and mini-arrows, Apollo laughed in his face and taunted him, “I slayed a terrible monster with my bow. You couldn’t hurt a fly with your useless little toy!” Continue reading

Apollo Was Here: Delos & Delphi

In the throes of labor, the Titaness Leto searched desperately for a place to bear Apollo and Artemis. Zeus was the father of the twins and his (justifiably) vengeful wife Hera had vowed to curse any piece of land that allowed Leto to give birth. As an extra bit of enforcement, Hera sent the serpent/dragon Python in pursuit of Leto. (Where was Zeus during all of this? That’s what I’d like to know. Apparently he sent the North Wind to help her along, but really, that seems like a pretty feeble gesture under the circumstances.) Continue reading