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The Lion Gate at Mycenae.
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Location Argolis, Greece
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Type Settlement
Periods Bronze Age
Cultures Ancient Greece
Official name Archaeological Sites of Mycenae and Tiryns
Type Cultural
Criteria i, ii, iii, iv, vi
Designated 1999 (23rd session)
Reference no. 941
State Party Greece
Region Europe and North America

Mycenae (Greek: Μυκῆναι Mykēnai or Μυκήνη Mykēnē) is an archaeological site in Greece, located about 90 kilometres (56 miles) southwest of Athens, in the north-eastern Peloponnese. Argos is 11 kilometres (7 miles) to the south; Corinth, 48 kilometres (30 miles) to the north. From the hill on which the palace was located, one can see across the Argolid to the Saronic Gulf.

In the second millennium BC, Mycenae was one of the major centres of Greek civilization, a military stronghold which dominated much of southern Greece. The period of Greek history from about 1600 BC to about 1100 BC is called Mycenaean in reference to Mycenae. At its peak in 1350 BC, the citadel and lower town had a population of 30,000 and an area of 32 hectares.[1]


A view of the citadel.

Although the citadel was built by Greeks, the name Mukanai is thought not to be Greek but rather one of the many pre-Greek place names inherited by the immigrant Greeks.[2][3]

Legend has it that the name was connected to the Greek word mycēs (μύκης, "mushroom"). Thus, Pausanias ascribes the name to the legendary founder Perseus, who was said to have named it either after the cap (mycēs) of the sheath of his sword, or after a mushroom he had plucked on the site.[4]

The earliest written form of the name is Mykēnē (Μυκήνη), which is found in Homer.[5] The reconstructed Mycenaean Greek name of the site is Mukānai, which has the form of a plural like Athānai. The change of ā to ē in more recent versions of the name is the result of a well-known sound change in later Attic-Ionic.


The Tomb of Aegisthus outside the walls of the citadel.

Neolithic to Middle Bronze Age

Mycenae, an acropolis site, was continuously inhabited from the Early Neolithic (EN) down through the Early Helladic (EH) and Middle Helladic (MH) periods; EN Rainbow Ware constitutes the earliest ceramic evidence discovered so far.[6] Pottery material spanning the entire EHI through EHIII period was discovered in 1877–1878 by Stamatakis at a low depth in the sixth shaft grave in Grave Circle A; further EH and MH material was found beneath the walls and floors of the palace, on the summit of the acropolis, and outside the Lion Gate in the area of the ancient cemetery.[7] An EH–MH settlement was discovered near a fresh-water well on top of the Kalkani hill southwest of the acropolis.[7] The first burials in pits or cist graves manifest in the MH period (circa 1800–1700 BC) on the west slope of the acropolis, which was at least partially enclosed by the earliest circuit wall.[7]

Late Bronze Age

View from the acropolis, or high city.

During the Bronze Age, the pattern of settlement at Mycenae was a fortified hill surrounded by hamlets and estates, in contrast to the dense urbanity on the coast (cf. Argos). Since Mycenae was the capital of a state that ruled, or dominated, much of the eastern Mediterranean world, the rulers must have placed their stronghold in this less populated and more remote region for its defensive value. Since there are few documents on site with datable contents (such as an Egyptian scarab) and since no dendrochronology has yet been performed upon the remains here, the events are listed here according to Helladic period material culture.

Late Helladic I (LHI)

Outside the partial circuit wall, Grave Circle B, named for its enclosing wall, contained ten cist graves in Middle Helladic style and several shaft graves, sunk more deeply, with interments resting in cists. Richer grave goods mark the burials as possibly regal. Mounds over the top contained broken drinking vessels and bones from a repast, testifying to a more than ordinary farewell.[8] Stelae surmounted the mounds.[9]

A walled enclosure, Grave Circle A, included six more shaft graves, with nine female, eight male, and two juvenile interments. Grave goods were more costly than in Circle B. The presence of engraved and inlaid swords and daggers, with spear points and arrowheads, leave little doubt that warrior chieftains and their families were buried here. Some art objects obtained from the graves are the Silver Siege Rhyton, the Mask of Agamemnon, the Cup of Nestor, and weapons both votive and practical.

Museum replicas of Mycenaean swords and cups.

Late Helladic II (LHII)

Alan Wace divided the nine tholos tombs of Mycenae into three groups of three, each based on architecture. His earliest – the Cyclopean Tomb, Epano Phournos, and the Tomb of Aegisthus – are dated to LHIIA.

Burial in tholoi is seen as replacing burial in shaft graves. The care taken to preserve the shaft graves testifies that they were by then part of the royal heritage, the tombs of the ancestral heroes. Being more visible, the tholoi all had been plundered either in antiquity, or in later historic times.

Late Helladic III (LHIII)

At a conventional date of 1350 BC, the fortifications on the acropolis, and other surrounding hills, were rebuilt in a style known as cyclopean because the blocks of stone used were so massive that they were thought in later ages to be the work of the one-eyed giants known as the Cyclopes (singular: Cyclops).[10] Within these walls, much of which can still be seen, successive monumental palaces were built. The final palace, remains of which are currently visible on the acropolis of Mycenae, dates to the start of LHIIIA:2. Earlier palaces must have existed, but they had been cleared away or built over.

The construction of palaces at that time with a similar architecture was general throughout southern Greece. They all featured a megaron, or throne room, with a raised central hearth under an opening in the roof, which was supported by four columns in a square around the hearth. A throne was placed against the center of a wall to the side of the hearth, allowing an unobstructed view of the ruler from the entrance. Frescos adorned the plaster walls and floor.

Examples of tholos, outside the citadel of Mycenae: Treasury of Atreus, outside view (left), tomb of Clytemnestra, inside view (right).
The Lion Gate (detail); two lionesses flank the central column, whose significance is much debated.[11]

The room was accessed from a courtyard with a columned portico. A grand staircase led from a terrace below to the courtyard on the acropolis.

In the temple built within the citadel, a scarab of Queen Tiye of Egypt, who was married to Amenhotep III, was placed in the Room of the Idols alongside at least one statue of either LHIIIA:2 or B:1 type. Amenhotep III's relations with m-w-k-i-n-u, *Mukana, have corroboration from the inscription at Kom al-Hetan - but Amenhotep's reign is thought to align with late LHIIIA:1. It is likely that Amenhotep's herald presented the scarab to an earlier generation, which then found the resources to rebuild the citadel as Cyclopean and then, to move the scarab here.

Wace’s second group of tholoi are dated between LHIIA and LHIIIB: Kato Phournos, Panagia Tholos, and the Lion Tomb. The final group, Group III: the Treasury of Atreus, the Tomb of Clytemnestra and the Tomb of the Genii, are dated to LHIIIB by a sherd under the threshold of the Treasury of Atreus, the largest of the nine tombs. Like the Treasury of Minyas at Orchomenus the tomb had been looted of its contents and its nature as funerary monument had been forgotten. The structure bore the traditional name of "Treasury".

The pottery phases on which the relative dating scheme is based (EH, MH, LH, etc.) do not allow very precise dating, even augmented by the few existing C-14 dates due to the tolerance inherent in these. The sequence of further construction at Mycenae is approximately as follows. In the middle of LHIIIB, around 1250 BC or so, the Cyclopean wall was extended on the west slope to include Grave Circle A.[12] The main entrance through the circuit wall was made grand by the best known feature of Mycenae, the Lion Gate, through which passed a stepped ramp leading past circle A and up to the palace. The Lion Gate was constructed in the form of a "Relieving Triangle" in order to support the weight of the stones. An undecorated postern gate also was constructed through the north wall.

One of the few groups of excavated houses in the city outside the walls lies beyond Grave Circle B and belongs to the same period. The House of Shields, the House of the Oil Merchant, the House of the Sphinxes, and the West House. These may have been both residences and workshops.

Citadel Facts and Figures
Circuit length: 1105M
Preserved height: up to 12.5M
Width: 7.5-17M
Minimum stone required: 145,215 Cu.M or 14,420 average stones (10 tons)
Time to move 1 Block using men: 2.125 days
Time to move all Blocks using men: 110.52 years
Time to move 1 Block using oxen: 0.125 days
Time to move all Blocks using oxen: 9.9 years
Based on 8-hour work day.

The largest stones including the lintels and gate jambs weighed well over 20 tonnes; some may have been close to 100 tonnes.[13]

Somewhat later, toward the end of LHIIIB,[when?] another extension to the citadel was undertaken. The wall was extended again on the northeast, with a sally port and also a secret passage through and under the wall, of corbeled construction, leading downward by some 99 steps to a cistern carved out of rock 15 m below the surface. It was fed by a tunnel from a spring on more distant higher ground.

Already in LHIIIA:1, Egypt knew *Mukana by name as a capital city on the level of Thebes and Knossos. During LHIIIB, Mycenae's political, military and economic influence likely extended as far as Crete, Pylos in the western Peloponnese, and to Athens and Thebes. Hellenic settlements already were being placed on the coast of Anatolia. A collision with the Hittite Empire over their sometime dependency at a then strategic location, Troy, was to be expected. In folklore, the powerful Pelopid family ruled many Greek states, one branch of which was the Atreid dynasty at Mycenae.


By 1200 BC, the power of Mycenae was declining; finally, during the 12th century BC, Mycenaean dominance collapsed entirely. The eventual destruction of Mycenae formed part of the general Bronze Age collapse in the Greek mainland and beyond. Within a short time around 1200 BC, all the palace complexes of southern Greece were burned, including that at Mycenae. This was traditionally attributed by scholars to a Dorian invasion of Greeks from the north, although many historians now doubt that this invasion caused the destruction of the Mycenaean centres. Displaced populations escaped to former colonies of the Mycenaeans in Anatolia and elsewhere, where they came to speak the Ionic dialect.

Emily Vermeule suggests that the disruption of commercial networks at the end of the 13th century BC, was disastrous for Greece and this was followed by the coming of the mysterious "Sea Peoples", who caused chaos in the Aegean.[14] According to Egyptian records, the "Sea Peoples" destroyed the Hittite Empire then attacked the 19th and the 20th dynasties of Egypt, (circa 1300–1164). They may be related with the destruction of the Mycenaean centers (the records of Pylos mention sea-attack). However at the end of LHIIIB period, the Mycenaeans undertook an expedition against Troy, which meant that the sea was safe with no indication of destruction in the Aegean islands.[15]

Another theory has drought as the primary cause behind the Mycenaean decline, but there is no climatological evidence to support this. Manolis Andronikos claimed that internal conflicts involving social revolutions were the sole cause behind the destruction of Mycenaean sites,[16] but this is contradicted by the fact that all the Mycenaean centers throughout Greece were destroyed almost simultaneously.[17] George E. Mylonas noticed that after 1200 BC, some attempt was made for recovery in Mycenae. He believes that in the Argolid there was internal fighting, and this was followed by the Dorian invasion. It seems that the Dorians moved southward gradually in small clans, until they managed to establish themselves.[18]

Amos Nur argues that earthquakes played a major role in the destruction of Mycenae and many other cities at the end of the Bronze Age.[19] However, no conclusive evidence has been brought forward to confirm any theory of why the Mycenaean citadel and others throughout Greece fell almost simultaneously at this time.

Whatever the cause, by the LHIIIC period (whose latest phase is also termed "Submycenaean"), Mycenae was no longer a major power. Pottery and decorative styles were changing rapidly with craftsmanship and fine art undergoing a decline. Although settlements were significantly reduced in size, the citadel remained occupied but never regained its earlier importance.

Archaic and Classical Periods

A temple dedicated to Hera was built on the summit of the Mycenaean citadel during the Archaic Period. A Mycenaean contingent fought at Thermopylae and Plataea during the Persian Wars. In 468 BC, however, troops from Argos captured Mycenae, expelled the inhabitants and razed the fortifications.[20]

Revival and Abandonment

Mycenae was briefly reoccupied in the Hellenistic period, when it could boast a theatre (located over the Tomb of Clytemnestra). The site was subsequently abandoned, and by the Roman period in Greece its ruins had become a tourist attraction. The ancient travel writer Pausanias, for example, visited the site and briefly described the prominent fortifications and the Lion Gate, still visible in his time.[21]

Political organization

It appears that the Mycenaean state was ruled by kings identified by the title 𐀷𐀙𐀏, wa-na-ka ("wanax') in the Linear B inscriptions at Knossos and Pylos. In the Homeric poems, the word form is anax (ἄναξ), often translated in English as "lord". Some inscriptions with a list of offerings indicate that the king was probably divine, but the term "for the king" is usually accompanied by another name.[22] It is doubtful that the wanax was responsible for religious matters, but probably his title indicates that his right to rule was given by the god.[23] The term 𐀣𐀯𐀩𐀄, qa-si-re-u (cf. βασιλεύς, "basileús"), which was later used in Greece for "king", was apparently used for the "chief" of any group of people, or for a provincial official. (Homer mentions many basilees in Ithaca).[22]

The land possessed by the king is usually called 𐀳𐀕𐀜, te-me-no (τέμενος, "témenos"), a word that survived in classical Greece (the temenos placed by Hephaestus on the shield of Achilles is called "royal").[23] Other important landowners were the 𐀨𐀷𐀐𐀲, ra-wa-ke-ta ("lāwāgetas"), the leader of the people, and the 𐀳𐀩𐀲, te-re-ta ("telestai"), the officials. Lawagetas is placed next to the king and he could be the leader of the army, but this is not confirmed by the inscriptions.[22] Leonard Robert Palmer suggests that the "telestai were the men of telos- the fief holders".[23] The 𐀁𐀤𐀲, e-qe-ta (equetai, "companions" or "followers") were a group of nobles (aristocrats), who followed the king in peace and war. There is also at least one instance of a person, Enkhelyawon at Pylos, who appears titleless in the written record but whom modern scholars regard as being probably a king.[24]

From the existing evidence, it seems that the kingdom was further subdivided into sixteen districts. The 𐀒𐀩𐀮, ko-re-te was the "governor of the district" and the 𐀡𐀫𐀒𐀩𐀮, po-ro-ko-re-te was the "deputy". It is possible that the real names were koreter and prokoreter. The 𐀅𐀗𐀒𐀫, da-mo-ko-ro (damokoros) was an official appointment but his duties are not very clear. The communal land was held at the hands of 𐀅𐀗, da-mo (literally, "people", cf. δῆμος, dễmos), or "plot holders". It seems that "damo" was a collective body of men, representing the local district.[22] It is suggested that qa-si-re-u had a council of elders, a 𐀐𐀫𐀯𐀊, ke-ro-si-ja, (later "γερουσία", gerousia), but Palmer believes that it was an organization of "bronze smiths".[23]


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Much of the Mycenaean religion survived into classical Greece in their pantheon of Greek deities, but it is not known to what extent Greek religious belief is Mycenaean, nor how much is a product of the Greek Dark Ages or later. Moses I. Finley detected only few authentic Mycenaean beliefs in the 8th-century Homeric world,[25] but Nilsson suggested that the Mycenean religion was the mother of the Greek religion.[26] Through oral tradition, Homer transferred the beliefs during the Dark Ages, but he kept in memory the confederacy of the Greeks under the powerful king of Mycenae.[27] when gods walked along friendly with men, and the "Heroic Age" when great heroes dominated the scene. The belief in gods as embodiments of power, the heroic outlook inherited from a distant past together with the local chthonic cults, were later fitted into the frame of the city-states.

From the history traced by Nilsson and Guthrie, the Mycenaean pantheon consisted of Minoan deities, but also of gods and goddesses who appear under different names with similar functions in East and West.[28] Many of these names appearing in the Linear B inscriptions can be found later in classical Greece like Zeus, Hera, Poseidon, Athena, Hermes, Eileithyia and Dionysos,[29] but the etymology is the only evidence of the cults.

There are several reasonable guesses that can be made, however. It seems that originally the Mycenaeans, like many Indo-Europeans, considered divine any object that inherited an internal power (anima). Certain religious beliefs were mixed with the beliefs of the local populations as it appears in the old cults of isolated Arcadia, which survived up to classical Greece. In these cults, Poseidon appears usually as a horse, representing the river spirit of the underworld as it usually happens in northern-European folklore. The precursor goddesses of Demeter and Persephone are closely related with the springs and the animals, and especially with Poseidon and Artemis who was the first nymph.[30] Mycenaean religion was almost certainly polytheistic, and the Mycenaeans were actively syncretistic, adding foreign deities to their pantheon of deities with considerable ease. The Mycenaeans probably entered Greece with a pantheon of deities headed by some ruling sky-deity, which linguists speculate might have been called *Dyeus in early Indo-European. In Greek, this deity would become Zeus (pronounced Zeus or Dias in ancient Greek). Among the Hindus, this sky-deity becomes "Dyaus Pita". In Latin he becomes "deus pater" or Jupiter; we still encounter this word in the etymologies of the words "deity" and "divine".

Later in some cults, Zeus is united with the Aegean Great Goddess, who is represented by Hera in a "holy wedding" (hieros gamos). At some point in their cultural history, the Mycenaeans adopted some Minoan goddesses like Aphaea, Britomartis, Diktynna and associated them with their sky-god.[28] Many of them were absorbed by more powerful divinities, and some like the vegetation goddesses Ariadne and Helen survived in Greek folklore together with the cult of the "divine child", who was probably the precursor of Dionysos.[31] Athena and Hera survived and were tutelary goddesses, the guardians of the palaces and the cities. In general, later Greek religion distinguishes between two types of deities: the Olympian, or sky deities (including Zeus), which are now commonly known in some form or another; and, the chthonic deities, or deities of the earth. Walter Burkert warns: "To what extent one can and must differentiate between Minoan and Mycenaean religion is a question which has not yet found a conclusive answer."[32] He suggests that useful parallels will be found in the relations between Etruscan and Archaic Greek culture and religion, or between Roman and Hellenistic culture.

The pantheon also included deities representing the powers of nature and wildlife, who appear with similar functions in the Mediterranean region.[28] The "Mistress of the Animals" (Potnia Theron), later called Artemis, may be identified as the Minoan goddess Britomartis/Dictynna.[33] Poseidon is the lord of the sea, and therefore of storms and earthquakes, (the "Earth shaker" in Linear B tablets). He may have functioned as a pre-Hellenic chthonic Zeus, the lord or spouse of the Earth goddess.[34] Athena whose task was to protect the olive-trees is a civic Artemis. The powers of animal nature fostered a belief in nymphs whose existence was bound to the trees and the waters, and in gods with human forms and the heads or tails of animals who stood for primitive bodily instincts. In Arcadia were depicted animal-headed gods, indicating that in the remote past the gods were conceived as animals and birds, in a surrounding of animal-headed daemons.[30] Later the gods were revealed in human forms with an animal as a companion or symbol. Some of the old gods survived in the cult of Dionysos (Satyrs) and Pan (the goat-god).

The Mycenaeans adopted probably from the east a priest-king system and the belief of a ruling deity in the hands of a theocratic society. At the end of the second millennium BC, when the Mycenaean palaces collapsed, it seems that Greek thought was gradually released from the idea that each man was a servant to the gods, and sought a "moral purpose". It is possible that this procedure started before the end of the Mycenaean age, but the idea is almost absent or vague in the Homeric poems, where the interference of the gods is not related to the rightness or wrongness of men's actions.[28] Later, Hesiod uses a lot of eastern material in his cosmology and in the genealogical trees of the gods,[35] and he introduces the idea of the existence of something else behind the gods, which was more powerful than they.[36] This is the powerful Fate (Moira), who in the Homeric poems is acting in parallel with the gods and predestinates the events.[37] Hesiod complies to the Greek desire of an order in the universe, and tries to bring the gods under a rule comparable to the rule which controls the lives of men. In Greek mythology this power is named Ananke (necessity).[38]

The Olympian Pantheon is an ordered system. The Greek divinities live with Zeus at the helm and each is concerned with a recognizable sphere. However, certain elements in some Greek cults indicate the survival of some older cults from a less rationalized world: old cults of the dead, agrarian magic, exorcism of evil spirits, peculiar sacrifices, and animal-headed gods. In the Homeric poems, the avenging Fate was probably originally a daemon acting in parallel with the gods.[37] Later, the cult of Dionysos Zagreus indicates that life-blood of animals was needed to renew that of men.[39] A similar belief may be guessed from the Mycenaean Hagia Triada sarcophagus (1400 BC), which combines features of Minoan civilization and Mycenaean style. It seems that the blood of a bull was used for the regeneration of the reappearing dead.[40] Probably most of these cults existed in the Mycenaean period and survived by immemorial practice.

A secondary level of importance was the cult of the heroes, which seems to have started in the Mycenaean era. These were great men of the past who were exalted to honor after death, because of what they had done. According to an old Minoan belief, beyond the sea there was an island called Elysion, where the departed could have a different but happier existence.[41] Later, the Greeks believed that there could live in human form only heroes and the beloved of the gods. The souls of the rest would drift unconsciously in the gloomy space of Hades. Gods and men had common origins, but there was an enormous gap between the immortal gods and mortal men. However, certain elements indicate that the Myceneans probably believed in a future existence. Two well-preserved bodies were found in Shaft Grave VI, and Wolfgang Helbig believed that an embalming preceded the burial.[42] In the shaft graves discovered by Heinrich Schliemann, the corpses were lightly exposed to fire in order to preserve them.[43]

Mycenaean religion certainly involved offerings and sacrifices to the deities, and some have speculated that their ceremonies involved human sacrifice based on textual evidence and bones found outside tombs. In the Homeric poems, there seems to be a lingering cultural memory of human sacrifice in King Agamemnon's sacrifice of his daughter, Iphigenia; several of the stories of Trojan heroes involve tragic human sacrifice. In the far past, even human beings might be offered to placate inscrutable gods, especially in times of guilty fear. Later sacrifice became a feast at which oxen were slaughtered. Men kept the meat, and gave the gods the bones wrapped in fat.[44]

Beyond this speculation we can go no further. Somewhere in the shades of the centuries between the fall of the Mycenaean civilization and the end of the Greek Dark Ages, the original Mycenaean religion persisted and adapted until it finally emerged in the stories of human devotion, apostasy, and divine capriciousness that exists in the two great epic poems of Homer. It was the beginning of the religion which later the Greeks considered Hellenic, and embodies a paradox. Though the world is dominated by a divine power that the gods bestow in different ways on men, nothing but "darkness" lay ahead and life was sometimes frail and unsubstantial.[45]

Mycenae in Greek mythology and legends

Perseid dynasty

Classical Greek myths assert that Mycenae was founded by Perseus, grandson of king Acrisius of Argos, son of Acrisius's daughter, Danaë and the god Zeus. Having killed his grandfather by accident, Perseus could not, or would not, inherit the throne of Argos. Instead he arranged an exchange of realms with his cousin, Megapenthes, and became king of Tiryns, Megapenthes taking Argos. From there, he founded Mycenae and ruled the kingdoms jointly from Mycenae.

Perseus married Andromeda and had many sons, but in the course of time, went to war with Argos and was slain by Megapenthes. His son, Electryon, became the second of the dynasty, but the succession was disputed by the Taphians under Pterelaos, another Perseid, who assaulted Mycenae, lost, and retreated with the cattle. The cattle were recovered by Amphitryon, a grandson of Perseus, but he killed his uncle by accident with a club in an unruly cattle incident and had to go into exile.

The throne went to Sthenelus, third in the dynasty, a son of Perseus. He set the stage for future greatness by marrying Nicippe, a daughter of King Pelops of Elis, the most powerful state of the region and the times. With her he had a son, Eurystheus, the fourth and last of the Perseid dynasty. When a son of Heracles, Hyllus, killed Sthenelus, Eurystheus became noted for his enmity to Heracles and for his ruthless persecution of the Heracleidae, the descendants of Heracles.

This is the first we hear in legend of those noted sons, who became a symbol of the Dorians. Heracles had been a Perseid. After his death, Eurystheus determined to annihilate these rivals for the throne of Mycenae, but they took refuge in Athens, and in the course of war, Eurystheus and all his sons were killed. The Perseid dynasty came to an end and the people of Mycenae placed Eurystheus's maternal uncle, Atreus, a Pelopid, on the throne.

Atreid dynasty

The people of Mycenae had received advice from an oracle that they should choose a new king from among the Pelopids. The two contenders were Atreus and his brother, Thyestes. The latter was chosen at first. At this moment nature intervened and the sun appeared to reverse direction by setting in the east. Atreus argued that because the sun had reversed its path, the election of Thyestes should be reversed. The argument was heeded, and Atreus became king. His first move was to pursue Thyestes and all his family - that is, his own kin - but Thyestes managed to escape from Mycenae.

The Return of Agamemnon, Illustration from Stories from the Greek Tragedians by Alfred Church, 1897.

In legend, Atreus had two sons, Agamemnon and Menelaus, the Atreids. Aegisthus, the son of Thyestes, killed Atreus and restored Thyestes to the throne. With the help of King Tyndareus of Sparta, the Atreids drove Thyestes again into exile. Tyndareus had two ill-starred daughters, Helen and Clytemnestra, whom Menelaus and Agamemnon married, respectively. Agamemnon inherited Mycenae and Menelaus became king of Sparta.

The Murder of Agamemnon, Illustration from Stories from the Greek Tragedians by Alfred Church, 1897.

Soon, Helen eloped with Paris of Troy. Agamemnon conducted a 10-year war against Troy to get her back for his brother. Because of lack of wind, the warships could not sail to Troy. In order to please the gods so that they might make the winds start to blow, Agamemnon sacrificed his daughter Iphigenia. According to some versions of the legend, the hunting goddess Artemis replaced her at the very last moment with a deer on the altar, and took Iphigenia to Tauris (see Iphigenia by Euripides). The deities, having been satisfied by such a sacrifice, made the winds blow and the Greek fleet departed.

Legend tells us that the long and arduous Trojan War, although nominally a Greek victory, brought anarchy, piracy, and ruin; already before the Greek fleet set sail for Troy, the conflict had divided the gods as well, and this contributed to curses and acts of vengeance following many of the Greek heroes. After the war, Agamemnon, returning, was greeted royally with a red carpet rolled out for him and then was slain in his bathtub by Clytemnestra, who hated him bitterly for having ordered the sacrifice of their daughter Iphigenia (although the life of the latter had been saved). Clytemnestra was aided in her crime by Aegistheus, who reigned subsequently, but Orestes, son of Agamemnon, was smuggled out to Phocis. He returned as an adult to slay Clytemnestra and Aegistheus. He then fled to Athens to evade justice and a matricide, and became insane for a time. Meanwhile, the throne of Mycenae went to Aletes, son of Aegistheus, but not for long. Recovering, Orestes returned to Mycenae to kill him and take the throne.

Orestes then built a larger state in the Peloponnese, but he died in Arcadia from a snake bite. His son, Tisamenus, the last of the Atreid dynasty, was killed by the Heracleidae on their return to the Peloponnesus. They claimed the right of the Perseids to inherit the various kingdoms of the Peloponnese and cast lots for the dominion of them. Whatever the historical realities reflected in these stories, the Atreids are firmly set in the epoch near the end of the Heroic Age, leading up to the arrival of the Dorians. There are no established stories of a royal house at Mycenae later than the Atreids, and this could reflect the fact that not much more than fifty or sixty years seem to have separated the fall of Troy VIIa (the likely inspiration of Homeric Troy) and the fall of Mycenae.

Atreids in Asia Minor

Map showing the Hittite empire and the Ahhiyawa (most probably the Achaeans).

On March 5, 1223 BC, there was a total eclipse of the sun in the Aegean, which Atreus might have twisted into a setting of the sun in the east. However, this date does not solve all unknowns.

A late date is implied for the Trojan War, which would, in that case, have been against Troy VIIa after all. The Perseids would have been in power circa 1380 BC, the date of a statue base from Kom el-Heitan in Egypt recording the itinerary of an Egyptian embassy to the Aegean in the time of Amenhotep III (r. 1391–1353 BC or 1388–1351 BC). M-w-k-i-n-u (phonetic "Mukanuh"?) was one of the cities visited, a rare early document of the name of Mycenae. It was one of the cities of the tj-n3-jj ("Tinay"?),[46] The Homeric Danaans were named, in myth, after Danaë, which suggests that the Perseids were in fact in some sort of dominion.

Also in the 14th century BC, Ahhiya began to be troublesome to numerous kings of the Hittite Empire. Ahhiyawa or Ahhiya, which occurs a few dozen times in Hittite tablets over the century, is probably Achaiwia, reconstructed Mycenaean Greek for Achaea. The Hittites did not use "Danaja" as did the Egyptians, even though the first Ahhiya reference in the "Indictment of Madduwatta"[47] precedes the correspondence between Amenhotep III and one of Madduwatta's subsequent successors in Arzawa, Tarhunta-Radu. The external LHIIIA:1-era sources do, however, agree in their omission of a great king or other unifying structure behind Ahhiya and the Tinay.

For example, in the "Indictment of Madduwatta", Attarsiya, the "ruler of Ahhiya", attacks Madduwatta and drives him from his land. He obtains refuge and military assistance from the King Tudhaliya of the Hittites.[47] After the death of the latter and in the reign of his son, Arnuwanda, Madduwatta allies with Attarissiya and they, along with another ruler, raid Alasiya, that is, Cyprus.[48]

This is the only known occurrence of a man named Attarissiya. Attempts to link this name to Atreus have not found wide support, nor is there any evidence of a powerful Pelopid named Atreus of those times.

During LHIIIA:2, Ahhiya, now known as Ahhiyawa, extended its influence over Miletus, settling on the coast of Anatolia, and competed with the Hittites for influence and control in western Anatolia. For instance, Uhha-Ziti's Arzawa and through him Manapa-Tarhunta's Seha River Land. While establishing the credibility of the Mycenaean Greeks as a historical power, these documents create as many problems as they solve.

Similarly, a Hittite king wrote the so-called Tawagalawa Letter to the Great King of Ahhiyawa, concerning the depredations of the Luwiyan adventurer Piyama-Radu. Neither of the names of the great kings are stated; the Hittite king could be either Muwatalli II or his brother Hattusili III, which at least dates the letter to LHIIIB by Mycenaean standards. But neither the Atreus nor the Agamemnon of legend have any brothers named *Etewoclewes (Eteocles); this name, rather, is associated with Thebes, which during the preceding LHIIIA period Amenhotep III had viewed as equal to Mycenae.


A clay tablet from Mycenae, with writing in Linear B.

The first excavations at Mycenae were carried out by Greek archaeologist Kyriakos Pittakis in 1841 where he found and restored the Lion Gate.[49] In 1874, Heinrich Schliemann excavated deep shafts all over the acropolis without permission; in August 1876, a complete excavation of the site by Schliemann commenced with the permission of the Archaeological Society of Athens (ASA) and the supervision of one of its members, Panayiotis Stamatakis.[49] Schliemann believed in the historical truth of the Homeric stories and interpreted the site accordingly. He found the ancient shaft graves with their royal skeletons and spectacular grave goods. Upon discovering a human skull beneath a gold death mask in one of the tombs, he declared: "I have gazed upon the face of Agamemnon".[50] Christos Tsountas, another member of the ASA, cleared a significant portion of the citadel during his excavations of the site beginning in 1884 and ending in 1902.[49] Afterwards, Tsountas and the ASA gave permission to the British School of Archaeology (BSA) to excavate; the BSA conducted excavations from 1920 to 1955 under the supervision of Alan John Bayard Wace.[49] After Wace died in 1957, excavation work was finished by Lord William Taylor from 1958 to 1969, especially on the west slope of the citadel.[49] The ASA continued excavation work on the site with efforts led by Ioannis Papadimitriou and Nicolas Verdelis in the late 1950s and early 1960s, as well as by George Mylonas from 1957 up until 1985.[49] In 1985, excavation work was directed by Spyros Iakovidis who, as of 2009, is still overseeing the ASA's research mission in both fieldwork and publication preparation.[49]

Since Schliemann's day, more scientific excavations have taken place at Mycenae, mainly by Greek archaeologists but also by the British School at Athens. The acropolis was excavated in 1902, and the surrounding hills have been methodically investigated by subsequent excavations. The Athens Archaeological Society is currently excavating the Mycenae Lower Town (as of 2011), with support from Dickinson College and the Institute for Aegean Prehistory.[51]

See also



  1. Chew 2000, p. 220; Chapman 2005, p. 94: "...Thebes at 50 hectares, Mycenae at 32 hectares..."
  2. Beekes 2009, p. 29 (s.v. "Ἀθήνη").
  3. Chadwick 1976, p. 1. Although Chadwick states that the name "Mycenae" is derived from a previously unknown language(s) spoken in Greece, he admits that his supposition of a Greek language outside of Greece is "a hypothesis for which there is no evidence."
  4. Pausanias. Description of Greece, 2.16.3
  5. Homer. Iliad, 4.52, 7.180, 11.46
  6. Shelton 2010, p. 58.
  7. 7.0 7.1 7.2 Forsén 1992, "Mycenae – Argolid (A:5)", pp. 51–52.
  8. Velikovsky 1999, Edwin M. Schorr, "Applying the Revised Chronology: Later Use of Grave Circles".
  9. Komita 1982, pp. 59–60.
  10. French 2002, p. 56.
  11. An older view that it represents a goddess, now generally discounted, is to be found in W.K.C. Guthrie, in The Cambridge Ancient History (1975) Volume I, Part II, p. 864: "A frequent design on engraved Cretan gems is of the type made famous by the Lion Gate at Mycenae, a single upright pillar, flanked by a pair of guardian animals. Sometimes the same arrangement is preserved, but the anthropomorphic figure of a god or goddess takes the place of a pillar" (illustrations from Nilsson). More recent discussions of its symbolism can be found in James C. Wright, "The Spatial Configuration of Belief: The Archaeology of Mycenaean Religion" in S.E. Alcock and Robin Osborne (eds.), Placing the Gods, Oxford University Press, 1996, pp. 37–78. Here Wright suggests that the pillar represents the palace which in turn represents the state.
  12. Castleden 2005, pp. 95–96; French 2002; Luce 1975, p. 35: "The Lion Gate provides further testimony to the power of the Pelopids, for Mylonas appears to have shown conclusively that it dates from c. 1250. With the stretch of Cyclopean wall enclosing Grave Circle A it represents the climax of military and monumental construction."
  13. Scarre 1999.
  14. Vermeule 1960, p. 67.
  15. Mylonas 1966, pp. 230–231.
  16. Andronikos 1954, pp. 221–240.
  17. Desborough 1975, pp. 658–677.
  18. Mylonas 1966, p. 232.
  19. Nur 2008, Chapter 8: Earthquake Storms and the Catastrophic End of the Bronze Age, pp. 224–245.
  20. French 2002, p. 142: "The dedications continue at the Shrine by the Bridge into the fifth century, probably beyond the disablement of the walls by the Argives in 468 BC."
  21. French 2002, pp. 19, 146–150.
  22. 22.0 22.1 22.2 22.3 Chadwick 1976, pp. 70–77.
  23. 23.0 23.1 23.2 23.3 Mylonas 1966, pp. 206–208.
  24. Chadwick 1976, pp. 71–72.
  25. Finley 1954, p. 124.
  26. Nilsson 1967, Volume I, p. 339.
  27. Page 1976, "IV: The Homeric Description of Mycenaean Greece", pp. 118–177 (see especially pp. 122–123).
  28. 28.0 28.1 28.2 28.3 Dietrich 1973, pp. 65–66.
  29. Lua error in package.lua at line 80: module 'strict' not found.
  30. 30.0 30.1 Nilsson 1967, Volume I, pp. 479–480.
  31. Kerényi 1976, pp. 110–114; Nilsson 1967, Volume I, pp. 315–319. The child dies every year in order to be reborn. In the Minoan myth it is abandoned by his mother, and then brought up by the powers of nature. Similar myths are found in the cults of Hyakinthos (Amyklai), Erichthonios (Athens), Ploutos (Eleusis), and in the cult of Dionysos.
  32. Burkert 1987, p. 21.
  33. Hornblower, Spawforth & Eidinow 2012, "Artemis", pp. 175–176.
  34. Poseidon is pairing with the "Two Goddesses" (Demeter and Persephone) in Linear B tablets. There is a theory linking his name with elements meaning "husband" or "lord" (Greek πόσις (posis), from PIE *pótis) and another element meaning "earth" (δᾶ (da), Doric for γῆ (gē)), producing something like lord or spouse of Da, i.e. of the earth. His name may also be interpreted as "lord of the waters" (from PIE *potis and Sanskr. daFon: "water").
  35. Walcot 1966, p. 85f.; Jeffrey 1976, p. 38; M.L. West (Early Greek Philosophy and the Orient, 1971, p. 205) holds that such eastern material is more likely to be lingering traces from the Mycenaean tradition than the result of Oriental contacts in Hesiod's own time.
  36. Hesiod. Theogony, Lines 216–224: "Also she bore the Destinies and ruthless avenging Fates, Clotho and Lachesis and Atropos, who give men at their birth both evil and good to have, and they pursue the transgressions of men and of gods: and these goddesses never cease from their dread anger until they punish the sinner with a sore penalty."
  37. 37.0 37.1 Nilsson 1967, Volume I, p. 368: "Moira is not a god, because otherwise the will of the god would be predestinated. Compare Kismet in Muslim religion."
  38. Aeschylus. Prometheus Bound, Lines 515–518.
  39. Schachermeyer 1964, p. 128.
  40. Schachermeyer 1964, p. 241.
  41. Schachermeyer 1964, p. 141. Elysion may be affiliated with Eleusis, the city of the Eleusinian Mysteries.
  42. Helbig 1884, p. 53; Wunderlich 1974, p. 221.
  43. Wunderlich 1974, pp. 216–218, 221–222.
  44. Hesiod. Theogony, Lines 535–544.
  45. Pindar. Pythionikos, VIII.95–7: "Man's life is a day. What is he, what is he not? A shadow in a dream is man, but when God sheds a brightness, shining light is on earth and life is sweet as honey."
  46. For a fuller discussion of this statue base, the names on it and the pronunciation, Tinay, which appears related to Danaj-, see Documentary and Archaeological Evidence of Minoan Trade.
  47. 47.0 47.1 Beckman, Bryce & Cline 2012, "Introduction", p. 5.
  48. Popko 2008, pp. 121–122.
  49. 49.0 49.1 49.2 49.3 49.4 49.5 49.6 Gagarin 2010, "Mycenae: Archaeology of Mycenae", pp. 24–26.
  50. Schliemann 1878.
  51. Lua error in package.lua at line 80: module 'strict' not found.


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Further reading

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External links