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Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Mycenae and Me

My reason for spending a week on the Peloponnese sits atop a high hill (not a mountain by Taos standards!) looking across to the ancient fortress of Argos. Alongside my fifth-graders at Potomac School in McLean, VA more than twenty years ago, I took an imaginary walk through the Lion Gate you see below. The simple language of a children's version of Homer's Iliad, inspired my determination to one day walk, for real, through the same gate where Agamemnon set off for Troy. Could that walk bring alive the raw emotions of this epic tale of battle? I wanted to find out in person. Finally this May, I stood — with hundreds of fellow tourists — absorbing centuries of mythology and history that reverberated from Mycenae's massive walls, deep cisterns, and vast views over the Argolis plain.

No way to stand alone at Mycenae's Lion Gate.
Notice the Greek war helmet on my shirt. I couldn't keep myself from purchasing it when I learned that Troy was a stop on the Grand Circle trip I'd booked with Barbara, my dear friend and best travel buddy. The whole Iliad is written around the shirt in tiny print that forms that iconic helmet. I simply couldn't go to Troy without spending a day at Mycenae, the place the war began!

Walking through the gate, I stared up to the top of those cyclopean walls that lead to the citadel and palace. No fools, those Greeks! Enemies who managed to batter through the heavy wooden gate then faced a long exposed walk. There, they made easy targets for the spears and arrows of residents perched above. See the plan with the Lion Gate in the lower corner:
You'll see the Lion Gate in SE corner.
Several cisterns lie within the cyclopean walls. Some are fed by springs while one far below the city is served by a distant spring via an ingenious aqueduct system. If it looks dark at that doorway, imagine traveling a hundred yards in total darkness — the iPhone flashlight led me just far enough to realize that I didn't need to see a cistern at the end of a narrow, deep underground tunnel. This claustrophobe gave in to "seen one cistern, seen them all," on her retreat to natural light.

Able to withstand siege and assault, Mycenae served as both palace and worship center. Workshops for making weaponry and items for daily living lie not far from the markets of the agora. At the market, citizens might have purchased a vase decorated like the sherds you see below (1250-1050 B.C.). It depicts a chariot that likely resembles the one Achilles used to drag Hector around the gates of Troy.

Dates for the Trojan War are fuzzy - 12th or 13th century B.C. is as close as historians are willing to venture. Heck! — we can't even decide for sure if Homer existed or when his epic poems were composed.  Finding a modern translation selling online at Walmart suggest their popularity is a given, no matter when or by whom the stories were recorded.

What was life like for those ancient Greeks who sent thousands into battle, all for the sake of honor and the return of the most beautiful woman in the world. That question still sends tourists across oceans and continents to stand and reflect on the ground and within the walls where the battle call was first sounded.

Looking at artifacts inspires questions: could this woman, seen in the partial remains of an ancient fresco, be Iphigenia? It's intriguing to imagine this dutiful daughter whose sacrifice at Aulis was required before Artemis would allow the winds to blow the becalmed Greek fleet. Reading her story, told by Doris Gates in A Fair Wind for Troy, encouraged some lively discussions about sacrifice, parent-child obligations, and the inseparable nature of history and mythology in our study of ancient Greece.

Many objects in the exquisite small museum at this hilltop World Heritage Site transported me to the Mycenae of the BigA's: Agamemnon, Artemis, and Achilles. What an amazing variety of skills this culture shares with modern observers who marvel at both those cyclopean walls and these delicate small figurines (between 2-4 inches tall) from daily life and from the imagination.

Could my neighbor's morning cock-a-doodle-doo have descended from this Greek cousin?

This pair of sphinx-like figures — a skinny winged lion-man — intrigued and delighted.

This head cover caught my eye — just what every woman needs on a bad hair day atop a windy hill!

And what about that jointed body - some ritual puppet for goddess worship? Without explanation at the museum, I'm guessing no expert is willing to risk making an educated guess, at least not yet. 

No educated guessing on my travel intentions: return to the Peloponnese as soon as circumstances allow. A day at Epidaurus (click the history button to learn more) is a must.  Olympus calls to me, as well. There I'll honor the Greek Olympics, the celebration marking every Potomac fifth-grader's year-end with authentic costumes, games, and laurel wreaths. Turns out that my time at Mycenae didn't satisfy. I'll return with a good guide(book, if not a person) to complete this triad of Peloponnesian "must-do's."

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