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“Agamemnon’s Deathmask,” or so Schliemann
thought! Funeral Mask: Found in a royal grave in Mycenae…dated to 16th
century BC. When Heinrich Schliemann uncovered it, he telegraphed back to
Prussia: “I have gazed upon the face of Agamemnon.” Mycenae: evidence of
archeological corroboration of the intersection of myth and
culture….Schliemann began the excavation that would uncover Troy (in what is
now Turkey) in 1872. Then he moved on to Mycenae in 1878.
Mycenae: Schliemann knew the place
existed because he read about it in Homer (it is known as the home of
Agamemnon, one of the leaders of the Greek expedition against Troy celebrated
by Homer and later authors). Schliemann was sure that Homer had left enough
clues for him to find it. And find it he did. Note the “Cyclopean Walls” –
rocks cut to size and placed one on top of the other with no mortar to hold
them together. Legend had it that only the Cyclopses could have done it.
Citadel and fortification walls predate the Archaic Age (when Homer wrote,
c.750 BC) and the Classical Age Greece (when the Athenian dramatists did, ca.
480-406 BC). Parts of the complex, including the royal grave circles, date as
far back as 1600 BC, but much of the citadel construction appears to coincide
with the historical date given to the Trojan War, 1183 BC. The Lions
decorating the relieving triangle space in the Gate (each resting a paw on the
propylon, the support of the House of Atreus), is taken to be the same lion
associated with the House by Aeschylus in the only surviving trilogy from
antiquity, The Oresteia.
The Theater of Dionysus at Athens:
The site of the Greater Dionysia, the festival celebrating the god Dionysus
and his invention of the tragic genre. Again, this shows an intersection
between the social and religious spheres.
Sculpture is another way that we
know how important mythology was to the ancients. This is a marble sculpture
by Praxiteles (Classical Age, fifth century BC), the proverbial best of the
best. It shows Hermes holding the baby Dionysus (probably wiggling grapes in
his face). It was found near the Archaic shrine to Hera in Olympia. This photo
shows it in its place of pride in its own room in the Olympia Museum.
Bronze Statuette of Zeus, from the
site of his oracular shrine in Dodona. Shows him about to hurl his lightening
bolt. Photo shows the statue on display in the Pergamon Museum in Berlin.
Sphinxes – note their use as
decoration on a ritually significant ceremonial cup (called rhytons, for
pouring libations, or liquid offerings to the gods). Sphinxes are only one of
many creatures in Greek mythology that are liminal: they blur the distinction
between man and beast (or other) and are thus quite frightening. Other liminal
creatures include centaurs, satyrs, Amazons, and sirens.
Architecture as Homage: The
Parthenon in Athens was dedicated to the patron goddess of Athens, Athena.
“Parthenos” means “virgin.” The architectural elements reveal mythic themes
associated with victory and strength.
Pedimental Sculpture: The West
pediment of the Parthenon once told the story of the contest between Athena
and Poseidon for the patronage of Athens. It was mostly destroyed in 1687
along with the rest of the building. But much of the East pedimental sculpture
survives – showing the pantheon of the gods. From the British Museum, Duveen
From John Keats’ Ode to a Grecian Urn
(the stanza concerning this marble): “Who are these coming to the
sacrifice? To what green altar, O mysterious priest, Lead'st
thou that heifer lowing at the skies, And all her silken flanks with garlands
drest? What little town by river or sea-shore, Or mountain-built
with peaceful citadel, Is emptied of its folk, this pious morn? And,
little town, thy streets for evermore Will silent be; and not
a soul, to tell Why thou art desolate, can e'er
return.” Keats: 1795-1821