The Early Greeks on Mainland Greece

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The Early Greeks on Mainland Greece

The Discovery of the Mycenaeans.

On the mainland, our study of religion has more guideposts than in Minoan Crete, for classical Greece inherited a wealth of mythology which told of a Greek Bronze Age society where Mycenae was the dominant kingdom, and the other kings owed a sort of allegiance to the high king of Mycenae. This was Greece's age of heroes, which continued to haunt the imaginations of the Greeks and inspire their poets. There is another reason, too, why the label "Mycenaean" is attached to this prehistoric civilization. Mycenae was the site that revealed it to the modern world in 1874, when the pioneer German archaeologist, Heinrich Schliemann, fresh from his discovery of ancient Troy four years earlier, started excavating inside the main gate of the Mycenaean citadel, and uncovered a circle of graves with rich burials. Archaeologists have discovered many more Bronze Age sites in Greece since then, but the term "Mycenaean" is still applied to the whole civilization.

The Mycenaean Golden Age.

The great age of Mycenaean civilization was between 1400 b.c.e. and 1200 b.c.e., after the Minoan civilization had fallen victim to some sort of disaster, and only the palace at Knossos continued to be inhabited. These last inhabitants of the Knossos palace wrote in the same "Linear B" script that the Mycenaeans used, which was deciphered in 1952 and shown to be an early form of Greek. Hence there is good reason to think that Greek-speaking Mycenaeans took over the Knossos palace in its final years. There is good archaeological evidence to show that the Mycenaean Greeks ranged far and wide. They carried on trade with Sicily, Italy, and even Sardinia in the west, and with the Levant in the east, until they fell victim to a general upheaval in the eastern Mediterranean that took place about 1200 b.c.e. and left evidence of folk migration and violent destruction throughout the region.

The Mycenaean Temple.

It was once thought that the Mycenaeans built no temples and religious life was centered in their palaces, which Mycenaean barons built in imitation of the palaces on Crete. This was not the case, however. A temple has been recently discovered at Mycenae that is connected to the palace on the acropolis by a processional way leading down to a building that was clearly used for religious rites. In front of the entrance was an altar and a table for offerings—limestone blocks with dowel-holes for table-legs are all that survive, but the interpretation is likely. Near it was a circular enclosure filled with ash. This forecourt gives on to two rooms, one of which, the front room, has a great horseshoe-shaped altar made of clay, and beside it was a stone block, possibly intended for slaughtering sacrificial victims. A stairway from the forecourt leads down to a second courtyard where there is a round altar with the remains of many sacrifices, and next to it is a subterranean building that has been called the "House of Idols." The idols, up to sixty centimeters—almost two feet—tall, are both male and female, and some have painted mask-like features that grimace horribly. They are hollowed underneath so that poles could be fitted to them for carrying in procession. Close to the "House of Idols" was another house, so-called the "House of the Frescoes" from the fresco in the main room showing two goddesses—or perhaps a god and a goddess—on either side of a column, and a woman, either a priestess or a goddess, holding ears of grain. This complex was clearly a place of worship, but it is unlike any classical Greek temple.

The Evidence of the "Linear B" Tablets.

The "Linear B" tablets found at Mycenaean sites reveal that all the Olympian gods that the later Greeks worshipped were known in the Mycenaean world, except for Aphrodite who seems not yet to have reached Greece. At Pylos, where the largest cache of "Linear B" tablets was found, Poseidon, the god of the sea, seems to have been more important than Zeus. In addition there is a goddess whose name is the feminine form of "Poseidon"—a "Mrs. Poseidon." Similarly for Zeus: there is a goddess named Diwija who is "Mrs. Zeus," and these goddesses had their own places of worship. Men played a greater role in religious rites than they did in Minoan Crete, where priestesses dominated. But at Pylos, a ijereu is mentioned frequently; in classical Greek the word is hiereus and it designates a man who holds an official position as a priest.

The End of the Mycenaean Kings.

Raiders destroyed Pylos about 1200 b.c.e. and the other Mycenaean palaces did not last much longer. The kings who ruled in these palaces disappeared with them. The word for "king" was wanax. In classical Greek, which loses the w-sound, the word becomes anax and it is used to address a god, not a mortal king whose title was basileus. That fact may suggest that there were god-kings in the Mycenaean world, but there is no good evidence to support that theory. The Mycenaean wanax prayed to the gods in a spirit of give-and-take: he made offerings to the gods and expected the gods to be grateful and show their gratitude by keeping the kingdom from harm. He was an intermediary between the gods and mortal men, and in that sense, he was semi-divine. In the end, this religious system failed to protect this culture. The little Mycenaean realms fell victim to raiders who came, plundered and burned, and then left—there is no evidence for new immigration immediately on the heels of raiders—and the shock to the religious mentality of the age must have been as great as the trauma that the political structure suffered.


Bernard C. Dietrich, The Origins of Greek Religion (Berlin; New York: de Gruyter, 1974).

S. Marinatos, Crete and Mycenae (London, England: Thames and Hudson, 1960).

William A. McDonald and Carol G. Thomas, Progress into the Past: The Rediscovery of Mycenaean Civilization. 2nd ed. (Bloomington, Ind.: Indiana University Press, 1990).

Nancy K. Sandars, The Sea-Peoples (London, England: Thames and Hudson, 1978).

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The Early Greeks on Mainland Greece

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