Emerging from the Secret Cistern in Mycenae. It’s bloody dark down there.
I mentioned before that only a scrap of mythic Mycenae remained in Nafplio. Specifically, that scrap exists in the foundations of the Akronafplio, the old Acropolis of the city. In fact, for a long time the acropolis was the city, until the Venetians came along and created the lower city. As with the Palamidi fortress, nearly everything that’s there now is Venetian, and though there are odd chambers and hidden passages still visible amid the foundations, it’s hard to explore them far among all the restoration work.
In contrast, half an hour away by bus, the citadel of Mycenae is almost pure myth. This is Homer’s Mycenae, the city of Agamemnon, founded by Perseus, the son of Zeus. Although it was never forgotten during the dark ages between its height and the rise of Athens and Sparta, what history it had faded into folktales. The stones of the walls and gateways were so massive that it was thought that Perseus had called on the cyclopes to help him build the city.
Through painstaking excavation and the decipherment of scraps of Linear B script from the site, we know a lot more than the Greeks did about how Mycenae operated: its rule by a “Wanaka” and the trade links that stretched all across the Mediterranean and even as far as the British Isles and the Baltic Sea. There are records among the Hittites, Egyptians and other ancient civilisations of contacts with the “Ahhiyawa”, and there we can even glimpse a few names, though their exact provenance is hard to determine. In general, we know no more of the personages themselves – the kings and queens, heroes and villains – than Homer did when he spoke of “gold-rich Mycenae” and its king.
This kind of thing fascinates me and always has: the point in time where history fails us and the only point of reference we have is half-remembered stories of great events and turning points. Be they ever so twisted for dramatic effect or to provide a moral point, they’re as much truth as we have. It still happens too: think of the tales of George Washington and the cherry tree or Abraham Lincoln and his log cabin. Closer to Ireland, was there ever a Cuchulain, or was he just a recasting of an older tale or a folk hero with no basis in fact?
Stories have their own gravity, and myths are just those stories that have been around long enough to solidify into a bedrock for other tales. The Iliad and Odyssey dragged in heroes from other stories, just as King Arthur and Cuchulain became the dominant stories of a nation and more: stealing the narratives from other tales and recasting them as their own. What then happens to those stolen stories?
In some cases, their fate is to be buried, as with the Akronafplio. Larissa Fortress near Argos, another famed ancient city, has Mycenean stones among its foundations too, but the rest of the edifice is of much newer make. Argos had the good fortune though of being celebrated through its heroes, both in Homeric fashion and into historic times. Other sites have not been so lucky.
One such can be seen closer to Nafplio. The citadel of Tiryns is, if anything, even larger than Mycenae. However, it’s in poorer repair and sits on a less imposing outcrop. More importantly, it features in few stories now. The people of Tiryns left behind a monument in stone, but the age that they lived in is the one we now call the Mycenean Age. A tribute as much to Homer and his skills as it is to the greatness of that city and its peoples, whom we remember now only through his tales.
The Omphalos, centre of mythic Greece.
If there’s a place in Greece that stands on the border between myth and history, it’s Delphi. Its origins are lost in legend and folktale, but the fact of its influence and wealth can be seen in the incredible physical remains of the place.
According to one tale, the Omphalos above marks the spot where two eagles that Zeus released from the edge of the world finally met. According to another, it was the stone that Rhea fed to Chronos instead of the infant Zeus, and Delphi is where it fell when Chronos vomited it up.
Neither tale did anything more than burnish the already hallowed reputation of Delphi. The sanctuary of Apollo was where kings and emperors sought out the wisdom of the Sibyl, known as the Pythia, when they wished to know what the future held. When Leonidas of Sparta was told that a king’s blood must water the earth of Thermopylae if Greece was to resist Xerxes’ Persians, he strapped on his shield and went for a walk, taking only 300 bodyguards with him. Or so the story goes.
That the priests of Apollo were able to keep this gig going for centuries can be seen in the fact that the sanctuary was rebuilt at least twice, each time more magnificent than before. Until the Christian Era at last put an end to pagan superstition, Delphi endured. Even now, there’s something special about the place. Perched high in a valley above the Gulf of Corinth, bees still buzz in the trees there, and olives are grown in the soil below, much as they must have been in ancient times.
If you go there yourself, go at dawn or dusk, preferably the former. Sunrise over Delphi is something special, and it’ll keep you out of the worst heat of the day. Walk the same path that pilgrims seeking Apollo’s wisdom once did and savour having the place to yourself before the tour buses arrive.
The Tholos of the Santuary of Athena at Delphi.
If I’d stuck to the plan I made yesterday, I’d be mentioning Thebes now, home of legendary Oedipus, that most complex rex, but also Epaminondas and Pelopidas, two very historical figures who broke Sparta’s power at the Battle of Leuctra. Sadly, either the bus didn’t stop there or Alexander the Great did a too-thorough job when he razed it, as I didn’t see anything resembling a city, ancient or otherwise.
Instead, I did a Chicago, passing swiftly through Athens, across the Corinthian isthmus to Nafplio. If Delphi is half myth and half history, Nafplio has only a scrap of myth left to it. There are Mycenean walls beneath one of its fortresses, but the most of the stone here is nailed down to well-understood history. The imposing Fortress of Palmidi, which rears high above the city, is less than three hundred years old, for all that several of its many fortifications have been named for figures of Greek myth and legend.
The climb to Palmidi isn’t for the faint of lung, but the view is worth it. I got to the top just in time to watch the sun going down over the mountains on the far side of the bay and sat there looking at the much older city acropolis below until I was ready to try the stairs again.
All that exertion is done for the day though. As I write this, I have a beer in front of me on a balmy Aegean night. Not long ago, I was strolling along the waterfront enjoying a (real Italian) gelato in the dying light of the day. If that isn’t what a holiday is supposed to be, I’m not sure I want to be part of it.