Greek legends

Exploring three cities of the ancient world where myths are set in stone

August 03, 2008|By Toni Salama | Toni Salama,Chicago Tribune

MYCENAE, Greece - As near as anyone can calculate, Hercules became a god in 1226 B.C.

He wasn't supposed to. His original destiny was to simply become king of Mycenae. But a series of behind-the-scenes treacheries put his evil twin, Eurystheus, on the throne. Worse yet, this bad brother-king required Hercules to perform a series of seemingly impossible tasks.

Greek mythology has a way of righting injustices, though, and the very labors meant to destroy Hercules served to make him a hero instead: The name of Hercules became synonymous with strength and daring. Nobody ever heard of Eury-something-us.

As for Mycenae, it remains, equal parts myth and stone, on a hilltop in Greece's Peloponnesian Peninsula. It's one of three essential stops on a circuit of classical Greece archaeological sites beyond Athens.

Olympia gets more coverage, especially during an Olympic Games year. And Delphi inspires more curiosity because of its oracle. Both of those places attract bigger crowds. But at Mycenae, the course of Western civilization shifted to embrace the heroic.

Between the mysterious doings of the Minoan culture of Crete, which ruled the Aegean before, and the hyper-logical mind-set of the Athenians afterward, Mycenae held sway. To pass through its much-photographed Lion Gate is to enter an age of giants.


The ruins of Mycenae (pronounced my-see-nee) sit on a hill that today faces a wide, flat valley of citrus and olive groves: the plain of Argolis. Its back is protected by a low mountain range in the eastern reaches of the Peloponnesian Peninsula. Getting here from Athens means crossing the Corinth Canal, the digging of which technically turned the peninsula into an island.

There's an eerie quality about Mycenae. Guides who elsewhere bellow for the attention of their followers speak more softly here. Tourists tread lighter on the walkways and whisper among themselves rather than prattle out loud. The midafternoon sun doesn't burn as hot as on other hillsides, for a stiff wind carries its heat away.

For a long time, the experts were sure Mycenae was just so much storytelling on the part of Homer. To accept it as historic fact also would have required at least entertaining the possibility that it was populated with larger-than-life characters.

Perseus, the fellow who beheaded Medusa, either founded Mycenae or fortified whatever town was already here. He settled down with his wife, Andromeda, a union that four generations later - roughly about the time the Lion Gate was built - would, by the calculations of Isocrates, produce Hercules.

Hardly anyone believed the people and place actually existed until a German archaeologist unearthed Mycenae in the 1870s.

The walls of the fortification are constructed of stones so huge that, as legend would have it, only the Cyclopes, the mythical one-eyed giants, could have put them in place.

Any enemies not discouraged by the battlements would have had to approach the Lion Gate as visitors do today, through a dog leg in a wall at least four times the height of a man, constructed of massive masoned blocks. The gate itself is formed by two gargantuan stone posts topped by a curved lintel cut from a slab even more massive. Above the lintel, a single triangle of stone is carved in deep relief with two facing lions rearing on their hind legs.

A ramp inside the gate winds uphill through sparse ruins to where they think Mycenae's palace stood. Only the floor remains, and some foundations of interior walls that likely would have separated the throne room from sleeping quarters. It's a good spot to take the measure of the city, understand its strategic position and get an unobstructed view across the plain of Argolis to another range of mountains whose distant ridgeline forms the profile of what area residents identify as the sleeping Agamemnon, a king who followed Hercules by a generation.

Sadly, the legendary king's golden funerary mask, at least the one popularly attributed to him, was excavated here but became a spoil of modern museum wars. It's on display front and center in the National Archaeological Museum of Athens, some 70 miles away.

Mycenae's not bad for a place that the Age of Reason said couldn't exist.


The road between Mycenae and Olympia traverses rugged terrain where the late-afternoon sun blesses craggy mountain tops with golden light. En route, curious roadside shrines show the way to remote churches - or more often mark the spot of deadly traffic accidents.

The passing scenery outside the bus windows includes a few of the 6 million trees in the region that produce the famous kalamata olives, prized for smallish fruits best pressed into oil.

On the western coast of the Peloponnesian Peninsula, Ancient Olympia spreads over a clearing in what today is a heavily wooded area - even after Greece's most ravenous forest fires on record took the lives of more than 65 people last summer and threatened to consume the stones scattered here like so many fallen dominoes.

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