The temperature gauge in our rental car—a petulant Fiat Panda—tops out at 38 degrees as we drive onto the small parking lot at Mycenae’s archeological site. There’s plenty of space… We find a spot under a tree, arrange our necessaries (water, sunblock, hat) in the backpack and step gingerly out. Moving carefully from tree to tree, shade-robbers seeking cover, we oil past the refreshment stand and up the path to the ticket office.
It’s been a while since I first learned about Mycenae and its mythical ruler, King Agamemnon, commander-in-chief of Greek forces during the Trojan Wars fought for ten long years over the lovely Helen, wife of Agamemnon’s brother Menelaus. Reading from a four-part potted summary of European mythology that also included Arthurian and Nordic legends, I spent several weeks reimagining myself as a mixture of Freya, Guinevere and Helen. But it was the re-telling of Greek legend, based on Homer’s epic Iliad, that stuck: its conflation of the divine and the human, of chivalry and cunning, passion and revenge evidently most likely to lift a young reader up and far away from the detached boredom that reigned in suburban Essex.
It was the Iliad, and mention of Agamemnon as King of Mycenae, that brought self-taught 19th century German archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann here in the 1870s, convinced that these ruins held historical evidence of the mythical king’s existence. Relying heavily on the work of Greek colleagues, he unearthed rich burial sites and was sure he’d tracked Agamemnon down. But short of a thunderbolt from Zeus confirming these assumptions, Schliemann’s theories were – and are likely to remain – conjecture. Mycenae was destroyed around 1200 BCE. Its rulers, however opulently buried, are officially nameless.
And yet, and yet … recent scholarship considers that a major “Trojan War” probably was fought in Asia Minor some three thousand years ago (http://archive.archaeology.org/) and somebody had to have fought it. And since (to misquote Aristotle) history abhors a vacuum, I find myself, like many others, looking out from the shin-high ruins of Mycenae, and finding that the views over the great planes of Argolis are a perfect projection space. Not only for Agamemnon’s ambition, stretching south across fertile lands to the Argolic Gulf. More than Agamemnon, I see his wife Queen Clytemnestra, stir-crazy as she paces year-in and out under a blinding sun, whetting her dagger, planning Agamemnon’s murder in revenge for the daughter he sacrificed at the war’s outset.
And here I now hover, between stones that have been turned over more than once, looking for a toehold. Waiting for myth to turn to reality.
But the information panels intra mures stick to the facts. There’s no mention of Agamemnon inside the massive city walls. It’s only once I’ve made my way down along a sandy path leading to massive burial domes nestled in the grassy hillside below the city that wayside markers abandon caution. Here, they say, is the Tholos burial site of the (mythical no longer) Queen Clytemnestra. And next to it, that of lover Aegisthus, with whom she plotted her revenge whilst her consort dallied with the spoils of war.
Visitors seldom bother with this descent. Yet these domed graves are the only perfect places in ancient Mycenae: layer upon layer of brick rising in the empty, long since pillaged rounds, shot with beams of white light from phosphorus entrance ways. Projection spaces bar none.
Imagination, heat-battered up on the city hill, runs riot here. Did Clytemnestra, deceived and deceiving wife, commission these beehived structures for lover to lie by lover? Was this a queen choosing her own grave in self-appointed territory? A woman staking out the power she had claimed?
The male gaze of 5th century BCE Greek tragedians tended to misogyny when it came to Clytemnestra. She did badly at their hands. Would things have gone better if they’d come to Mycenae? As I come back out into the light, I find that a wind has risen. Far above me, a newly disgorged busload struggles up the incline. Eyes to the ground or in guidebooks, the men walk with a warrior’s purpose and determination. There’s work to be done. The women stop, raise capacious hats to catch the breeze and turn to consider the vistas. I take off my own hat and wave and a couple wave back.
The view – may possibly be better from down here.