Mycenae - view of the city

Mycenae – view of the city

The road to Mycenae climbs gradually upwards until it just peters out at the site of the ancient city that is hard to pick out against the mountain side until you are nearly on top of it.

Mycenae - outer walls

It is only as you get closer to the city’s walls that you start to get a sense of the site and the skill of its builders. The stones they used for the “Cyclopean walls” (as the encircling city walls are called in Greek) are massive, some of the biggest weighing several tons.

Mycenae - outer walls detail

It is an astonishing feat of engineering which raises questions about how the Mycenaeans learnt their masonry skills and how they managed to quarry and move such enormous stones. Clearly this could not be achieved by trial and error: they must have had some way of planning and calculating how best to build on such a massive scale.

Mycenae - Lions' Gate from the city side

The entrance to the city is through the Gate of the Lions, an impressive gateway with huge stone uprights and lintel, surmounted by what appears to be two lions rampant. Actually there is some dispute as to whether the animals depicted are lions at all or something more exotic like gryphons. Whatever they are, it is also claimed that the heads were made of precious stone – which may account for the fact they they are now missing, perhaps the victims of later looting.

Mycenae - Lions' Gate

The original city doors were made of wood and you can still see holes in the walls where they fitted. Just inside the city gates there’s a hollowed out space in the rock that could be a sentry box or perhaps a shrine room.

The road into the city is up a steep ramp and as you climb, you pass, on the right, a grave circle where Schliemann found a skeleton wearing a gold mask that he called the ‘mask of Agamemnon’. One problem with his excavation of Mycenae is that he was keen to fit the archaeology to the ancient myths, rather than interpreting Mycenae in the light of the archaeology on the ground.

Mycenae - Grave Circle A

A series of steep ramps lead to the top of the site which is occupied by the megaron (palace complex).

Mycenae - olive tree

The ruins are difficult to interpret and is not well signed. The site itself is much smaller than I had imagined: the megaron occupies the largest area of the city and there are comparatively few houses, most with tiny rooms.

Mycenae - inside the city

So it looks as if the city was meant for the leader (or king) and his household: the nobility’s houses are believed to have been at the front of the site and perhaps some artisans houses at the rear. It does not look as though it was a city built to house a whole cross-section of Mycenean society. So where did they draw on the manpower for their mammoth building works?

As you climb up to the megaron you also get a clear view of the surrounding countryside and to the south-west, standing on its own rocky promontory, you can see the ancient site of Argos.

Mycenae - Argos

The rear of the site has some really interesting features. At one point in the city walls there is an entrance which originally must have been some form of gateway access. The gap today shows how thick the city walls actually are.

Mycenae - wall thickness

Then there is a postern gate with massive stone uprights and a lintel, similar to the Gate of the Lions, but without any decoration.

Mycenae - postern gate

But the most impressive feature is the entrance to a water cistern which shows Mycenean building skills at their most impressive. Steps cut in the rock lead down to a corbelled entrance, again with stone uprights and lintel, and then down a steep passage to the cistern itself. Clearly the Mycenaean were very concerned to protect their water supply against enemy attack.

Mycenae - cistern entrance

The cisterns demonstrate the Mycenaeans’ mastery of building skills and use of technology to move the building material. You can even still see at various points the marks of their chisels on the face of the rocks.

Mycenae - cistern entrance-2It quickly becomes pitch black beyond the lintled doorway and I only manage to get to the cistern at the bottom because I follow some German visitors who have a flashlight with them.

The well designed museum displays many of the items found on site, though the more prestigious items (the mask of Agamemnon and other gold items, swords, armour, etc.)  are now in the National Archaeological Museum in Athens. There are some amazing carved figures, some of which are jointed like puppets., and cult objects similar to the Minoan snake goddess figures found at Knossos. The bright colours used and the fragments of frescoes found show the influence of the Minoan civilisation of Crete. Mycenean culture only lasted for a short period of time (1500-1100BC) after which the city was abandoned, although there is archaeological evidence shows that the site had been inhabited since 6000-5000BC.

Its strange to think that this from this small site the Mycenaeans once dominated mainland Greece. It has also had such an enormous influence on European culture through its links to the ancients stories about the house of Atreus, Agamemnon, the sacrifice of Ifigenia, the murder of Clyemnestra, Electra, Orestes and the Furies. Of course it’s impossible to tell how these stories were linked to Mycenae historically and what events they were actually based on.

Not far from the museum and outside the city walls lies a tholos, a beehive tomb, called the Lions’ Tomb. It provides an excellent example of Mycenaean building skills: massive uprights and a stone lintel, smooth stones, a very high structure built in the shape of a beehive which would have been topped off with a massive stone. It is not the easiest structure to build and we can only wonder why they chose this particular shape to memorialise their dead.

Back down the road leading up to Mycenae lies what is referred to as the Treasury of Atreus (the name was give to it by the 1st century AD traveller, Pausanias). This is another massive tholos with a long formal entrance way, huge beehive structure and side chamber (possibly an ossuary). No one knows what the structure contained as it was looted in antiquity, though some of the decorations from the exterior of the entrance are now in the British Museum.

Mycenae - Entrance to the Treasury of Atreus

Mycenae - interior of Treasury of AtreusThese massive structures and the size of the grave circle in the city itself seem to indicate that the Mycenaeans practised some form of ancestor worship which drove them to devote so much time, energy and resources to the building of tombs for their dead.

The area is dotted with other smaller, but still impressive reminders of Mycenaean building skills. We came across this bridge up in the mountains that doesn’t seem today to be very important in terms of its location, but which must have taken a long time to build. Clearly, though, they thought it was worth the effort.

Mycenaean bridge_

Letters of introduction in white, red and blue

In Artemis Cooper’s wonderful recent biography of Patrick Leigh-Fermor, she describes how, in the course of his walk across Europe in the 1930s, he managed to meet and stay with a succession of eccentric and often brilliant aristocratic families in Germany and middle Europe. In the main this was thanks to some letters of introduction provided by a friend of his landlady’s in London. And, of course, as he stayed with more people they provided further letters of introduction to their friends and relatives to help him further along his route to Constantinople.  

It reminded me of the only time in my life (to date – who knows what may happen tomorrow?) when I was given a couple of letters of introduction.

Nearly 40 years ago I was living in France and working as an English language assistant in a lycee in Grenoble. On my university course I was also studying Russian and the wife of my professor, with whom I took some translation classes, finding out where I was going to do this stage in France, gave me a letter of introduction to a White Russian family by the name of K—– (can’t resist the anonymising device of old Russian novels) who lived in Grenoble. One there, I hung on to the letter for quite a while, as there were so many other distractions in my life at that time. And then one day decided to make contact with them.

Details at this distance in time are hazy. I recall there seemed to be quite a few people in the flat and I never quite worked out who they all were. The reason for the introduction was so that I could speak Russian to them. Remember, this was the early 1970s so access to native Russian speakers in those days was rare. My Russian at that time, even though I was studying it at university, was to say the least not good. In fact to me it was mainly a written language and my main exposure to it was via nineteenth century literature. In the circumstances, and given the fact I felt very self-conscious about speaking it, It was hard  to make conversation in the language, so we spoke mainly in French.

I remember that they sort of invited me to a party or event that may have had some connection with the (Orthodox) church. Looking back, if I had had any sense I would have tried harder to speak Russian and to make friends with them. However, I didn’t and that was undoubtedly my loss. One of the main things that sticks in my memory though about that one and only meeting with them was when we got onto the subject of politics.

Pompidou was nearing the end of his presidency and life – he died in April 1974. But in the last few months of his life there was much speculation about his health. Magazines and newspapers showed pictures of him with a very swollen face. Clearly something was wrong with him, but of course he denied it. There was therefore much talk of an upcoming election and after so many years of Gaullism, a sense that the country was going to take another direction, specifically a lurch leftwards. My White Russian family, mindful of the Russian Revolution and its upheavals (and who knows what personal tragedies it brought them), were horrified at the prospect of a Communist government coming to power in France. In fact they were so frightened of it, they told me that if it happened they would pack their bags and leave the country.

I thought at the time they were being alarmist. I remember people in England saying the same sort of thing at the prospect of a Labour government in the early 60s. But looking back and knowing a bit more about that period now than I did at the time, I can appreciate why they felt the way they did.

The main leftwing parties in France at that time had united under Le Programme Commun, driven mainly by the Communist Party. I remember buying a copy of it, a book the size of an average paperback, though I never did get round to reading it.  However, this leftwing coalition, in order not to alienate too many leftist sympathisers, had the sense not to elect a leader from the Communist Party. Instead they selected François Mitterand who, ironically when he did become president in 1984, started to drift as far away from the left as you could imagine.

Fast forward a few weeks and it is a warm evening in the Stade de Glace in Grenoble. It is 4 May and the last night of the quick presidential election campaign called following Pompidou’s death in office. I am sitting up in the balcony with a couple of English friends surrounded by several thousand fervent French leftwingers. We are waiting for Mitterand to appear and give his last address of the election campaign. Grenoble was no doubt  chosen for the climax of the campaign because at the time it was a socialist stronghold, with a forward thinking socialist mayor called Hubert Dubedout who was doing great things for the city.

We have had a few warm up speeches, including one from Pierre Mendès France, a longstanding leftwing politician. He was an anticolonialist who in the late 40s had started French disengagement from Indo-China by negotiating an armistice with Ho Ch Minh. Later he clashed with de Gaulle over government policy on Algeria. Then amazingly a slight woman with black hair and wearing a long black dress emerges on the stage, trailing a single red rose (the symbol of the leftwing alliance). The audience goes wild. It is Juliette Gréco, and she proceeds to give us some of her great songs.

However, it is getting late. By law electioneering has to stop at midnight. It’s now gone eleven and there’s still no sign of Mitterrand. Even Juliette is struggling to hold the audience’s attention. When it gets past 11.30, the audience are boiling with frustration at Mitterrand’s non-appearance. Then suddenly there he is on stage, giving a speech which is greeted almost hysterically by the audience. At one point we sing the Marseillaise. I say ‘we’ because I jumped to my feet and joined in, giving it full voice, whilst my English comrades pointedly remained seated. I enjoyed that bit enormously but was later treated to a bit of lecture about the dangers of mob hysteria.

Then it was midnight and, like Cinderella, Mitterrand slips away. Amazingly this election turned out to be one of the closest in French history. The Gaullist candidate, Valéry Giscard d’Estaing failed to get a majority in the first round and it went to a second ballot where he won by about 400,000 votes – or a whisker as we psephologists prefer to say. No doubt my White Russian family breathed a huge sigh of relief.

My second letter of introduction was to a French nun. At the time I was going through my Catholic phase and before leaving for France had been taking instruction from a Jesuit to ’embrace the scarlet woman’, as they used to say. In spite of the Jesuit’s urging I had refused to be stampeded into a decision. Somehow and from a Catholic friend I imagine I had managed to get this introduction. I held on to it for a long time, not sure what I would have in common with a nun. Eventually out of curiosity I rang her up and she invited me to the convent one Saturday afternoon.

As it turned out, she was quite entertaining. She was a teacher of English and I was able to help her out be recording some pieces from her textbooks for her classes. We had tea and cake in the communal area of the convent with some of the other nuns, who all seemed very calm and quite jolly.

One event stays in my memory all these years later. She invited me to the convent one Sunday afternoon for an outing. In the boxy convent Renault we drove up into the mountains, my nun friend driving, another nun beside her and me sat in the back with the Profesor of Astrophysics from Birmingham University, on a visit from CERN. I have no idea how he knew these nuns. Perhaps he too had a letter of introduction…

Up and up into the mountains we went, each hairpin bend revealing more and more dramatic views, until at one point flat part we stopped and the nuns pointed at some wild flowers by the side of the road. We got out of the car and walked over to them. They turned out to be gentians. I can still see their intense blue colour, smell the heady scent of pine resin, and feel the freshness of the air in these high mountains. For some reason it remains an intense, clear experience across the years.

Epidauros – Asklipios and ancient medicine

Statue of Asklipios - Epidauros

Statue of Asklipios – Epidauros

Although it seems strange that the theatre at Epidauros is in such a remote place, the theatre is in fact a side-show to the main attraction. The theatre was built from the donations of people who came to Epidauros primarily to be cured at the Asklipeio and to provide entertainment.


Epidauros was said to be the birthplace of Asklipios, the god of healing, an honour also claimed by Trikala in Thessalia. Asklipios was the son of the god Apollo and Koronis and was killed by a thunderbolt from Zeus for bringing Ippolitos back from the dead and was eventually made a god. His family embodies different aspects of healing: his wife is Ipioni – goddess of the soothing of pain and his daughters are Igeia (goddess of health, cleanliness and sanitation), Iaso (goddess of recuperation from illness), Akeso (goddess of the healing process), Aglaia (goddess of beauty, splendour, glory, magnificence and adornment) and Panakeia (goddess of universal remedy).

I find the cult of Asklipios and its practices fascinating for several reasons.

Asklipeio at Epidauros

Asklipeio at Epidauros

The practices used by the priests of the cult are at the origins of medical treatment. At the small on site museum and at National Archaeological Museum in Athens there are large number of medical instruments on display that were used by the priests as part of their treatment of the sick.  Many people were trained in healing and it must also have helped to create a corpus of knowledge and experience about diseases, different treatments and what worked and didn’t work.

Secondly, there is a curious link with modern psychoanalysis in the way that treatments were determined. After undergoing ritual purification practices, mostly involving water and eating communal meals, the sick were taken by the priests of the cult to a building called the Avlaton. Here they laid down to sleep amongst sacred snakes and waited for the god to appear to them a dream to give them a sign for their cure. Also the sick were read stories about those who had found incredible cures, so perhaps there is an element of subconscious suggestion and prompting about the dreams.  The dream sign of course had to be interpreted and the appropriate cure administered by the priests.

Asklipeio and Abaton

Avlaton at Epidauros

Avlaton at Epidauros

In the iconography of Asklipios he is usually shown holding a staff around which curls a snake – this is the origin of the caduceus – still used to indicate European pharmacies.


At Epidauros there are examples in the small museum of the types of problems cured. For example a man with a poisoned toe dreamt that the god touched his toe and he was cured. Also there are thank offerings for cures and replicas of statues that stood in the Asklipeio, the originals long since moved to Athens.

The Asklipeio at Epidauros is enormous. In addition to the buildings of sacred and ritual significance, there are huge buildings used to house the large number of visitors who came in search of a cure for their illnesses.

There is one round building on the edge of the site whose function is not clear, it has an underground section which may have been used as a labyrinth for priestly initiations or as a sacred snake pit. It has even been conjectured that this snake pit / labyrinth was used to administer shock therapy to people suffering from what we would call today mental illnesses.

Stadium at Epidauros

Stadium at Epidauros

The Asklipeio was looted by the Romans. It managed to survive, for several years alongside a Christian church, until eventually it was closed down during the Theodosian campaigns against paganism in the 4th and 5th centuries AD.