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The Lion Gate at Mycenae.

Mycenae (Ancient Greek: Μυκῆναι Mykēnai or Μυκήνη Mykēnē) is an archaeological site in Greece, located about 90 km south-west of Athens, in the north-eastern Peloponnese. Argos is 11 km to the south; Corinth, 48 km to the north. From the hill on which the palace was located one can see across the Argolid to the Saronic Gulf.

In the second millennium BCE Mycenae was one of the major centres of Greek civilization, a military stronghold which dominated much of southern Greece. The period of Greek history from about 1600 BCE to about 1100 BCE is called Mycenaean in reference to Mycenae.


The etymology of Mycenae most probably derives from the Greek word "μύκης" (mycēs) meaning mushroom, and also any knobbed mushroom-shaped body.[1] Pausanias describes how Megapenthes founded the city and named it from the cap(mycēs)from the sheath of his sword.[2] English words such as Mycena, Mycelium, Mycetozo etc, also derive from "μύκης".

The reconstructed Mycenaean Greek name of the site is Mukānai, which has the form of a plural like Athānai. The change of ā to ē is a development of later Attic-Ionic.

Although the citadel was built by Greeks, the name is not thought to be Greek, but is rather one of the many pre-Greek place names inherited by the immigrant Hellenes. According to John Chadwick:

"Names such as ... Mukanai ... are certainly derived from one or more unknown languages, previously spoken in Greece."[3] The pre-Greek language remains unknown, but there is no evidence to rule out a member of the Indo-European superfamily.



Only scattered sherds from disturbed debris have been found datable to the Neolithic (prior to 3500 BCE). The site was inhabited but the stratigraphy has been destroyed by later construction.

Early Bronze Age

It is believed that Mycenae was settled close to 2000 BCE by Indo-Europeans who practiced farming and herding. Scattered sherds dating to 2100-1700 BCE have been found, when Mycenae interacted with Minoan Crete. Other theories suggest the settling of Mycenae a thousand years earlier.

Middle Bronze Age

The first burials in pits or cist graves began to the west of the acropolis at about 1800-1700 BCE. The acropolis was enclosed at least partially by the earliest circuit wall.

Of the cist graves and the Middle Helladic Emily Vermeule said:

"...there is nothing in the Middle Helladic world to prepare us for the furious splendor of the Shaft Graves."

Late Bronze Age

During the Bronze Age the pattern of settlement at Mycenae was a fortified hill surrounded by hamlets and estates, in contrast to the dense urbanity on the coast. Since Mycenae was the capital of a state that ruled, or dominated, much of the eastern Mediterranean world, the rulers must have placed their stronghold in this less populated and more remote region for its defensive value. Since there are few documents on site with datable contents (such as an Egyptian scarab) and since no dendrochronology has yet been performed upon the remains here, the events are listed here according to Helladic period material culture.

Late Helladic I

Outside the partial circuit wall, Grave Circle B, named for its enclosing wall, contained ten cist graves in Middle Helladic style and four shaft graves, sunk more deeply, with interments resting in cists. Richer grave goods mark the burials as possibly regal. Mounds over the top contained broken drinking vessels and bones from a repast, testifying to a more than ordinary farewell.[4][5] Stelae surmounted the mounds.[6]

A walled enclosure, Grave Circle A, included six more shaft graves, with 9 female, 8 male, and two juvenile interments. Grave goods were wealthier than in Circle B. The presence of engraved and inlaid swords and daggers, with spear points and arrowheads, leave little doubt that warrior chieftains and their families were buried there. Some art objects obtained from the graves are the Silver Siege Rhyton, the Mask of Agamemnon, the Cup of Nestor, and weapons both votive and practical.

Mycenaean Treasure

Mycenaean swords and cups.

Late Helladic II

Alan Wace divided the nine tholos tombs of Mycenae into three groups of three each based on architecture. His earliest - the Cyclopean Tomb, Epano Phournos, and the Tomb of Aegisthus - are dated to IIA.

Burial in tholoi is seen as replacing burial in shaft graves. The care taken to preserve the shaft graves testifies that they were by then part of the royal heritage, the tombs of the ancestral heroes. Being more visible, the tholoi all had been plundered either in antiquity, or in later historic times.

Late Helladic III

At a conventional date of 1350 BC the fortifications on the acropolis, and other surrounding hills, were rebuilt in a style known as cyclopean because the blocks of stone used were so massive that they were thought in later ages to be the work of the one-eyed giants known as the cyclopes (singular: Cyclops). Within these walls, much of which can still be seen, successive monumental palaces were built. The final palace, remains of which are currently visible on the acropolis of Mycenae dates to the start of LHIIIA:2. Earlier palaces must have existed, but they had been cleared away or built over.[7]

The construction of palaces at that time with a similar architecture was general throughout southern Greece. They all featured a megaron, or throne room, with a raised central hearth under an opening in the roof, which was supported by four columns in a square around the hearth. A throne was placed against the center of a wall to the side of the hearth, allowing an unobstructed view of the ruler from the entrance. Frescos adorned the plaster walls and floor.[7]

Mycenae lion gate detail dsc06384

The Lion Gate (detail) - two lionesses flank the central column whose significance is much debated.[8]

The room was accessed from a courtyard with a columned portico. A grand staircase led from a terrace below to the courtyard on the acropolis.

In the Temple built within the citadel, a scarab of Queen Tiye of Egypt, who was married to Amenhotep III, was placed in the Room of the Idols alongside at least one statue of either LHIIIA:2 or B:1 type. Amenhotep III's relations with m-w-k-i-n-u, *Mukana, have corroboration from the inscription at Kom al-Hetan - but Amenhotep's reign is thought to align with late LHIIIA:1. It is likely that Amenhotep's herald presented the scarab to an earlier generation, which then found the resources to rebuild the citadel as Cyclopean and then, to move the scarab here.

Wace’s second group of tholoi are dated between IIA and IIIB: Kato Phournos, Panagia Tholos, and the Lion Tomb. The final group, Group III: the Treasury of Atreus, the Tomb of Clytemnestra and the Tomb of the Genii, are dated to IIIB by a sherd under the threshold of the Treasury of Atreus, the largest of the nine tombs. Like the Treasury of Minyas at Orchomenus the tomb had been looted of its contents and its nature as funerary monument had been forgotten. The structure bore the traditional name of "Treasury".

The pottery phases on which the relative dating scheme is based (EH, MH, LH, etc.) do not allow very precise dating, even augmented by the few existing C-14 dates due to the tolerance inherent in these. The sequence of further construction at Mycenae is approximately as follows. In the middle of LHIIIB, around 1250 or so, the Cyclopean wall was extended on the west slope to include grave circle A.[9] The main entrance through the circuit wall was made grand by the best known feature of Mycenae, the Lion Gate, through which passed a stepped ramp leading past circle A and up to the palace. The Lion Gate was constructed in the form of a 'Relieving Triangle' in order to support the weight of the stones. An undecorated postern gate also was constructed through the north wall.

One of the few groups of excavated houses in the city outside the walls lies beyond Grave Circle B and belongs to the same period. The House of Shields, the House of the Oil Merchant, the House of the Sphinxes, and the West House. These may have been both residences and workshops.

Citadel facts and figures
Circuit length: 1105M
Preserved height: up to 12.5M
Width: 7.5-17M
Minimum stone required: 145,215 Cu.M or 14,420 average stones (10 tons)
Time to move 1 Block using men: 2.125 days
Time to move all Blocks using men: 110.52 years
Time to move 1 Block using oxen: 0.125 day
Time to move all Blocks using oxen: 9.9 years
based on 8 hour work day
The largest stones including the lintels and gate jambs weighed well over 20 tonnes some may have been close to 100 tonnes.[10]

Somewhat later, toward the end of LHIIIB, another extension to the citadel was undertaken. The wall was extended again on the north east, with a sally port and also a secret passage through and under the wall, of corbeled construction, leading downward by some 99 steps to a cistern carved out of rock 15 m below the surface. It was fed by a tunnel from a spring on more distant higher ground.

Already in LHIIIA:1, Egypt knew *Mukana by name as a capital city on the level of Thebes and Knossos. During LHIIIB, Mycenae's political, military and economic influence likely extended as far as Crete, Pylos in the western Peloponnese, and to Athens and Thebes. Hellenic settlements already were being placed on the coast of Anatolia. A collision with the Hittite empire over their sometime dependency at a then strategic location, Troy, was to be expected. In folklore, the powerful Pelopid family ruled many Greek states, one branch of which was the Atreid dynasty at Mycenae.


By 1200 BCE the power of Mycenae was declining; during the 12th century, Mycenaean dominance collapsed. The destruction of Mycenae is part of the general Bronze Age collapse. Within a short time around 1200 BCE, all the palaces of southern Greece were burned, including the one at Mycenae.[7] This is traditionally attributed to a Dorian invasion of Greeks from the north, although some historians now doubt that such an invasion took place. Displaced populations escaped to former colonies of the Mycenaeans in Anatolia and elsewhere, where they came to speak the Ionic dialect. A further theory, mentioned by Egyptian hieroglyphs, is that the destruction of the palaces is related to the attacks of the mysterious Sea Peoples who destroyed the Hittite Empire and then attacked the 19th then the 20th dynasties of Egypt. Other theories have been that a drought caused the Mycenaean decline, but there is no climatological evidence for this. Amos Nur argues that earthquakes played a major role in the destruction of Mycenae and many other cities at the end of the Bronze Age.[11] However, no conclusive evidence has been brought forward to confirm any theory of why the Mycenaean citadel and others around it fell at this time.

Whatever the cause, by the LH IIIC period (whose latest phase is also termed "Submycenaean"), Mycenae was no longer a major power. Pottery and decorative styles were changing rapidly. Craftmanship and art declined. Although the settlement was much reduced in size, the citadel remained occupied though it never regained its earlier importance. A temple dedicated to Hera was built on the summit in the Archaic period. A Mycenaean contingent fought at Thermopylae and Plataea during the Persian Wars. In 468 BCE, however, troops from Argos captured Mycenae, expelled the inhabitants and slighted the fortifications.[12]

Revival and end

Mycenae was briefly reoccupied in the Hellenistic period, when it could boast a theatre. It was subsequently abandoned, and by Roman times its ruins became a tourist attraction.[13]


Much of the Mycenaean religion survived into classical Greece in their pantheon of Greek deities, but it is not known to what extent Greek religious belief is Mycenean, nor how much is a product of the Greek Dark Ages or later.

There are several reasonable guesses that can be made, however. Mycenean religion was almost certainly polytheistic, and the Myceneans were actively syncretistic, adding foreign deities to their pantheon of deities with considerable ease. The Myceneans probably entered Greece with a pantheon of deities headed by some ruling sky-deity which linguists speculate might have been called *Dyeus in early Indo-European. In Greek, this deity would become Zeus (pronounced zdeus in ancient Greek). Among the Hindus, this sky-deity becomes "Dyaus Pita". In Latin he becomes "deus pater" or Jupiter; we still encounter this word in the etymologies of the words "deity" and "divine."

At some point in their cultural history, the Myceneans adopted the Minoan goddesses and associated these goddesses with their sky-god; scholars believe that the Greek pantheon of deities does not reflect Mycenean religion except for the goddesses and Zeus. These goddesses, however, are Minoan in origin. In general, later Greek religion distinguishes between two types of deities: the Olympian, or sky, deities (including Zeus), which are now commonly known in some form or another; and, the chthonic deities, or deities of the earth, which are almost all female. The latter were believed by the Greeks to predate the former.

Walter Burkert warns:

"To what extent one can and must differentiate between Minoan and Mycenaean religion is a question which has not yet found a conclusive answer"[14]

and suggests that useful parallels will be found in the relations between Etruscan and Archaic Greek culture and religion, or between Roman and Hellenistic culture.

Mycenean religion certainly involved offerings and sacrifices to the deities, and some have speculated that their ceremonies involved human sacrifice based on textual evidence and bones found outside tombs. In the Homeric poems, there seems to be a lingering cultural memory of human sacrifice in King Agamemnon's sacrifice of his daughter, Iphigenia; several of the stories of Trojan heroes involve tragic human sacrifice. This, however, is all speculation.

Beyond this speculation we can go no further. Somewhere in the shades of the centuries between the fall of the Mycenaean civilization and the end of the Greek Dark Ages, the original Mycenean religion persisted and adapted until it finally emerged in the stories of human devotion, apostasy, and divine capriciousness that exists in the two great epic poems of Homer.

Mycenae in Classical Greek mythology and legends

Perseid dynasty


16th century painting of Perseus being armed by Hermes and Athena.

Classical Greek myths assert that Mycenae was founded by Perseus, grandson of king Acrisius of Argos, son of Acrisius' daughter, Danaë. Having killed his grandfather by accident, Perseus could not, or would not, inherit the throne of Argos. Instead he arranged an exchange of realms with his cousin, Megapenthes, and became king of Tiryns, Megapenthes taking Argos. From there he founded Mycenae and ruled the kingdoms jointly from Mycenae.

Perseus married Andromeda and had many sons but in the course of time went to war with Argos and was slain by Megapenthes. His son, Electryon, became the second of the dynasty but the succession was disputed by the Taphians under Pterelaos, another Perseid, who assaulted Mycenae and losing retreated with the cattle. The cattle were recovered by Amphitryon, a grandson of Perseus, but he killed his uncle by accident with a club in an unruly cattle incident and had to go into exile.

The throne went to Sthenelus, third in the dynasty, a son of Perseus. He set the stage for future greatness by marrying Nicippe, a daughter of king Pelops of Elis, the most powerful state of the region and the times. With her he had a son, Eurystheus the fourth and last of the Perseid dynasty. When a son of Heracles, Hyllus, killed Sthenelus, Eurystheus became noted for his enmity to Heracles and for his ruthless persecution of the Heracleidae, the descendants of Heracles.

This is the first we hear in legend of those noted sons, who became a symbol of the Dorians. Heracles had been a Perseid. After his death Eurystheus determined to annihilate these rivals for the throne of Mycenae, but they took refuge in Athens, and in the course of war Eurystheus and all his sons were killed. The Perseid dynasty came to an end. The people of Mycenae placed Eurystheus' maternal uncle, Atreus, a Pelopid, on the throne.

Atreid dynasty

The people of Mycenae had received advice from an oracle that they should choose a new king from among the Pelopids. The two contenders were Atreus and his brother, Thyestes. The latter was chosen at first. At this moment nature intervened. The sun appeared to reverse direction and set in the east. Atreus argued that because the sun had reversed its path, the election of Thyestes should be reversed. The argument was heeded, and Atreus became king. His first move was to pursue Thyestes and all his family - that is, his own kin - but Thyestes managed to escape from Mycenae.

The Return Of Agamemnon - Project Gutenberg eText 14994

The Return of Agamemnon.

In legend, Atreus had two sons, Agamemnon and Menelaus, the Atreids. Aegisthus, the son of Thyestes, killed Atreus and restored Thyestes to the throne. With the help of King Tyndareus of Sparta, the Atreids drove Thyestes again into exile. Tyndareus had two ill-starred daughters, Helen and Clytemnestra, whom Menelaus and Agamemnon married, respectively. Agamemnon inherited Mycenae and Menelaus became king of Sparta.

The Murder Of Agamemnon - Project Gutenberg eText 14994

The Murder of Agamemnon.

Soon, Helen eloped with Paris of Troy. Agamemnon conducted a ten-year war against Troy to get her back for his brother. Because of lack of wind, the warships could not sail to Troy. In order to please the gods so that they might make the winds start to blow, Agamemnon sacrificed his daughter Iphigenia. The hunting goddess Artemis replaced her at the very last moment with a deer on the altar, and took Iphigenia to Tauris The deities having been satisfied by such a sacrifice, the winds started blowing and the warfaring fleet departed.

Legend tells us that the long and arduous Trojan War, although nominally a Greek victory, brought anarchy, piracy, and ruin; already before the Greek fleet set sail for Troy, the conflict had divided the gods as well, and this contributed to curses and acts of vengeance following many of the Greek heroes. After the war, Agamemnon, returning, was greeted royally with a red carpet rolled out for him and then was slain in his bathtub by Clytemnestra, who hated him bitterly for having orderted the sacrifice of their daughter Iphigenia (although the life of the latter had been saved). Clytemnestra was aided in her crime by Aegistheus, who reigned subsequently, but Orestes, son of Agamemnon, was smuggled out to Phocis. He returned as an adult to slay Clytemnestra and Aegistheus. He then fled to Athens to evade justice and a matricide, and became insane for a time. Meanwhile, the throne of Mycenae went to Aletes, son of Aegistheus, but not for long. Recovering, Orestes returned to Mycenae to kill him and take the throne.

Orestes then built a larger state in the Peloponnesus, but he died in Arcadia from a snake bite. His son, Tisamenus, the last of the Atreid dynasty, was killed by the Heracleidae on their return to the Peloponnesus. They claimed the right of the Perseids to inherit the various kingdoms of the Peloponnesus and cast lots for the dominion of them. Whatever the historical realities reflected in these stories, the Atreids are firmly set in the epoch near the end of the Heroic age, leading up to the arrival of the Dorians. There are no established stories of a royal house at Mycenae later than the Atreids, and this could reflect the fact that not much more than fifty or sixty years seem to have separated the fall of Troy VIIa (the likely inspiration of Homeric Troy) and the fall of Mycenae.

Atreids in Asia Minor

Hittite Kingdom

Map showing the Hittite empire and the Ahhiyawa (possibly the Acheans)

In fact, there was a total eclipse of the sun in the Aegean on March 5, 1223 BCE, which Atreus might have twisted into a setting of the sun in the east. This date does not solve all the unknowns, however.

A late date is implied for the Trojan War, which would, in that case, have been against Troy VIIa after all. The Perseids would have been in power ca. 1380, the date of a statue base from Kom el-Heitan in Egypt recording the itinerary of an Egyptian embassy to the Aegean in the time of Amenophis III. M-w-k-i-n-u (phonetic "Mukanuh"?) was one of the cities visited, a rare early document of the name of Mycenae. It was one of the cities of the tj-n3-jj ("Tinay"?),[15] Homeric Danaans, named, in myth, after Danaë, which suggests that the Perseids were in fact in some sort of dominion.

Also in the 14th century BCE the Ahhiya began to be troublesome to numerous kings of the Hittite Empire. Ahhiyawa or Ahhiya, which occurs a few dozen times in Hittite tablets over the century, is probably Achaiwia, reconstructed Mycenaean Greek for Achaea. The Hittites did not use Danaja as did the Egyptians, even though the first Ahhiya reference in "Indictment of Madduwatta"[16] precedes the correspondence between Amenhotep III and one of Madduwatta's subsequent successors in Arzawa, Tarhunta-Radu. The external LHIIIA:1-era sources do, however, agree in their omission of a great king or other unifying structure behind Tinay/Ahhiya.

For example, in the "Indictment of Madduwatta", Attarissiya, the "man of Ahhiya" (i.e. ruler), attacks Madduwatta and drives him from his land. He obtains refuge and military assistance from the Hittite Great King Tudhaliya. After the death of the latter and in the reign of his son, Arnuwanda, Madduwatta allies with Attarissiya and they, along with another ruler, raid Alasiya, i.e. Cyprus.

This is the only known occurrence of a man named Attarissiya. Attempts to link this name to Atreus have not found wide support, nor is there any evidence of a powerful Pelopid named Atreus of those times.

During LHIIIA:2, Ahhiya, now known as Ahhiyawa, extended its influence over Miletus, settling on the coast of Anatolia, and competed with the Hittites for influence and control in western Anatolia. For instance Uhha-Ziti's Arzawa and through him Manapa-Tarhunta's Seha River Land. While establishing the credibility of the Mycenaean Greeks as a historical power, these documents create as many problems as they solve.

Similarly, a Hittite king wrote the so-called Tawagalawa letter[17] to the Great King of Ahhiyawa, concerning the depredations of the Luwiyan adventurer Piyama-Radu. Neither of the names of the great kings are stated; the Hittite king could be either Muwatalli II or his brother Hattusili III, which at least dates the letter to LHIIIB by Mycenaean standards. But neither the Atreus nor the Agamemnon of legend have any brothers named *Etewoclewes (Eteocles); this name, rather, is associated with Thebes, which during the preceding LHIIIA period Amenhotep III had viewed as equal to Mycenae.

Elsewhere, Muwatalli II (reg. 1296–1272) makes a treaty with Alaksandu (possibly Alexander), king of Wilusa (Ilium); and another document has Wilusa swearing by Appaliuna (Apollo). But the Alaksandu of the treaty is too early to be king of a city assaulted by Agamemnon, and besides, Priam was king of that city.


The first excavations at Mycenae were carried out by the Greek archaeologist Kyriakos Pittakis in 1841. He found and restored the Lion Gate. In 1874 Heinrich Schliemann arrived at the site and undertook a complete excavation. Schliemann believed in the historical truth of the Homeric stories and interpreted the site accordingly. He found the ancient shaft graves with their royal skeletons and spectacular grave goods. Upon discovering a human skull beneath a gold death mask in one of the tombs, he declared: "I have gazed upon the face of Agamemnon".

Since Schliemann's day more scientific excavations have taken place at Mycenae, mainly by Greek archaeologists but also by the British School at Athens. The acropolis was excavated in 1902, and the surrounding hills have been methodically investigated by subsequent excavations.


  1. Entry μύκης at LSJ.
  2. Pausanias, Description of Greece Paus. 2.16.3
  3. Chadwick, John (1976). The Mycenaean World. Cambridge University Press. p. 1. ISBN 0-521-21077-1 hardcover or ISBN 0-521-29037-6 paperback. 
  4. "Later use of Grave Circles." Varchive. Retrieved on 9 September 2007.
  5. Polos, John L. "Mycenae." Mycenae History. 28 August 2007. Retrieved on 9 September 2007.
  6. "Frames". Retrieved 2009-07-01. 
  7. 7.0 7.1 7.2 Rowbotham, William. "Mycenae and the Bronze Age." Odyssey Adventures. Odyssey. Retrieved on 9 September 2007.
  8. An older view that it represents a goddess, now generally discounted, is to be found in W.K.C. Guthrie, in The Cambridge Ancient History (1975) vol. I, part ii, p. 864 "A frequent design on engraved Cretan gems is of the type made famous by the Lion Gate at Mycenae, a single upright pillar, flanked by a pair of guardian animals. Sometimes the same arrangement is preserved, but the anthropomorphic figure of a god or goddess takes the place of a pillar" (and illustrations from Nilsson). More recent discussions of its symbolism can be found in James C. Wright, 'The spatial configuration of belief: the archaeology of Mycenaean religion' in S.E. Alcock and Robin Osborne (eds.), 'Placing the Gods', OUP 1996, 37-78. Here Wright suggests that the pillar represents the palace which in turn represents the state.
  9. Elizabeth B. French. Mycenae: Agamemnon's Capital.
  10. "The Seventy Wonders of the Ancient World" edited by Chris scarre 1999 (Thames and Hudson)
  11. Nur, Amos (2008). Apocalypse: Earthquakes, Archaeology and the Wrath of God. Princeton University Press. pp. 224–245. ISBN 978-0-961-01602-3. 
  12. *Elizabeth B. French. Mycenae: Agamemnon's Capital. Tempus, Stroud 2002, 143.
  13. *Elizabeth B. French. Mycenae: Agamemnon's Capital. Tempus, Stroud 2002, 146-150
  14. Burkert 1985, p. 21.
  15. For a fuller discussion of this statue base, the names on it and the pronunciation, Tinay, which appears related to Danaj-, see Documentary and Archaeological Evidence of Minoan Trade
  16. "Translation of the Indictment of Madduwatta". 2000-06-24. Retrieved 2009-07-01. 
  17. "Translation of the Tawagalawa Letter". 2000-06-24. Retrieved 2009-07-01. 


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Coordinates: 37°43′51″N 22°45′22″E / 37.73083°N 22.75611°E / 37.73083; 22.75611

This page uses content from the English Wikipedia. The original article was at Mycenae. The list of authors can be seen in the page history.

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