Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Bronze Age Operatics

I took another tour today, but luckily far fewer people wish to check out the Mycenaean Age. There were only about two dozen in the small bus, along with our guide, Effi, who had big hair, big sunglasses, and verbal diarrhoea. But she and the group were pleasant enough, and I saw some amazing sites, in between a few stops I could have lived without.

The big highlight was visiting the archaeological site of Mycenae. I could have chosen a tour to Corinth, or Delphi, or any number of other extraordinary sites. And that’s just the Classic Age. There are so many layers upon layers in Greece, that it’s hard to keep a handle on it all, much less choose what to focus on. From my Interlink guide book:

‘The face of Greece’, wrote Nikos Kazantzakis, ‘is a palimpsest bearing twelve successive inscriptions: Contemporary; the period of 1821 [War of Independence]; the Turkish yoke; the Frankish sway; the Byzantine; the Roman; the Hellenistic epoch; the Classic; the Dorian middle ages; the Mycenaean; the Aegean [or Minoan]; and the Stone Age. Pause on a patch of Greek earth and anguish overcomes you. It is a deep, twelve-levelled tomb, from which voices rise up calling to you.’

A drive in the Peloponnese

In order to reduce this anguish, I chose to check out the Mycenaean Age as a contrast with the Classic with which I had been concerned so far. My choice was made easy when I read about the site at Mycenae and its connection to the stories of Homer. It is said to be the site of the palace of Agamemnon, where Clytemnestra murdered him and his mistress Cassandra whom he brought back from Troy. Well, you can understand how that was irresistible. The ensuing murder of Clytemnestra in revenge, by her son Orestes, egged on by his sister Elektra, is the story behind Richard Strauss’s opera Elektra, so how could I pass it by? It is a suitably fraught opera, in keeping with the horrendous story of this most spectacularly dysfunctional family.

Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey were written around the 700s BC, and told stories about events around 1300 BC. They were probably oral stories not written down until later, and in fact Homer could have been several people. Nevertheless, they were very influential because all young Greek noblemen learnt them off by heart. Alexander the Great is said to have slept with a copy of the Iliad under his pillow (if they had pillows then). The stories were also perpetuated in the Classic Age by the great early playwrights, particularly Euripides. 

The mask of Agamemnon,
one of the best known pieces shown in the museum.
For ages everyone thought they were pretty much fiction; but a certain 19th century German dilettante (thank goodness for dilettantes) named Heinrich Schliemann was convinced they were based on truth. In pursuit of his theory, he managed to dig up Troy (in modern-day Turkey). He then turned to Mycenae, and dug it up too, discovering a hoard of 15 kilos of gold in the site, which Homer has described as ‘full of gold’. The gold objects are now in the National Museum in Athens, which is still on my ‘to do’ list. http://www.namuseum.gr/ Schliemann was certain that Agamemnon was a real king; but I wonder if all the details of his family history are factual. If so, ugh!

Just to fill you in, Mycenae was a Neolithic settlement which reached its zenith in between 1300 and 1200 BC. The founding king mentioned by the lore was Perseus, who was famous for slaying the Medusa (she had snakes for hair and turned anyone who looked at her into rock. But Perseus, showing his smarts, used his shield as a mirror and was able to hack off her head.)  Atreus took over shortly after, and he was a very bad lot. His twin brother Thyestes and his wife had an affair, and in revenge he killed his brother’s children and cooked and fed them to their father. This was so incredibly horrific that the gods cursed his family, and it showed. Thyestes and his daughter Pelopia later had a son (yes, you read right – lots of incest went on) named Aegisthus who killed Atreus in revenge.

Atreus’ son was Agamemnon, married to Clytemnestra. They had several children including a son Orestes, and daughters Elektra and Iphigenia. Agamemnon was the commander of the Greeks who dashed off to Troy to rescue Helen, the beautiful ‘face that launched a thousand ships’, abducted by the Trojan Paris. Helen was the wife of Agamemnon’s brother Menelaus, and sister of Clytemnestra – they were Spartan princesses.
A 'grave circle' at Mycenae

The unfortunate Iphigenia was sacrificed by her father in order to propitiate the gods before the war with Troy. This may have been why her mother, Clytemnestra, was a tad upset with Agamemnon, to say nothing of his having been away for ten years and then bringing home the concubine Cassandra, one of his spoils of war. In any event, she and her lover – none other than Aegisthus (who had killed Atreus) - lay in wait and murdered both of them. The stories differ about who killed whom, but we can gather that it wasn’t pretty. From Aeschylus’ ‘Agamemnon’ 1379-1392:

             I stand now where I struck him down. The thing is done,
Thus have I wrought, and I will not deny it now.
That he might not escape not beat aside his death,
As fishermen cast their huge circling nets, I spread
Deadly abundance of rich robes, and caught him fast.
I struck him twice. In two great cries of agony
He buckled at the knees and fell. When he was down
I struck him the third blow, in thanks and reverence
To Zeus the lord of dead men underneath the ground.
Thus he went down, and the life struggled out of him;
And as he died he spattered me with the dark red
And violent driven rain of bitter savoured blood
To make me glad, as gardens stand among the showers
Of God in glory at the birthtime of the buds.

But the horrors were not over. At the urging of his sister Elektra (one wonders why you would name your tourist restaurant after her), Agamemnon’s son Orestes took revenge for his father’s murder by killing the murderer – his own mother. This is the bit that Strauss’s opera concentrates upon, and tortured it is too (though glorious music for the sopranos Elektra and Clytemnestra, if that is any consolation.) http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8pqWSKty5FI

To cut a long story (which Homer is) short, Oreste came out of the thing best, most probably, because he was wracked with remorse and underwent purification and was eventually redeemed. But that is getting beyond the site of Mycenae.

The Lion Gate at Mycenae
With all of this in mind, I looked at the few remaining stones from the Late Bronze Age which are roped off amongst the olive trees at Mycenae, with different eyes. The great gate is the most extant bit left, and features a carving of two lions (someone has long since nicked their heads, which were probably made of metal, but remarkably no one has tried taking the carvings themselves). They stand above a massive lintel, set into a ‘cyclopean’ wall – that is, it is so huge that the ancients thought that the builders would have needed the giant Cyclops to help them build it. Although I haven’t (yet) been able to find a direct reference, I assume that lions roamed the countryside of ancient Greece, otherwise the choice of animal for the carving is unexplained. I didn’t think Effi would know the answer – or she would make one up – so I didn’t ask her.

The rest of the site is impressive also, not least because it is well over three thousand years old. There are particularly good remains of circular burial grounds, a deep cisterns system, and a strange, huge beehive tomb – which Schliemann was convinced was Agamemnon’s tomb itself, but he had less luck in convincing everyone of that.

La Callas as 'Medea' at Epidaurus, 1961
The day also held a wonder of the much later Classical Age – the glorious theatre at Epidaurus. Built around 330-320 BC, it is in excellent nick, considering. Epidaurus is said to be the best preserved ancient theatre in Greece, and it is still used for performances. In another opera-related coincidence, the glorious Maria Callas sang there in 1961 – Cherubini’s  ‘Medea’, appropriately enough. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5PHT_zt2tfU&feature=related  Medea (if you haven’t had enough of Greek myths) was the wife of Jason the Argonaut, who fetched the Golden Fleece. She was an enchantress and he cheated on her, and she took revenge...I’ll leave you to imagine or look up the rest.

Epidaurus, Greece

I couldn’t help but compare this theatre with that at Bosra in Syria – this one is said to hold 14,000 people, and Bosra only 8,000, but they give a similar impression of scale. Epidaurus is certainly beautiful, but I think Bosra is a superior experience – it is more intact, having the good fortune of having its scenery and wings and so on still preserved. Epidaurus is built into the natural auditorium of a hillside, whereas Bosra is free-standing, and it is Roman and much younger (about 2nd century AD, I think). 

Bosra, Syria (March 2010)
(in what is clearly my visiting-ancient-theatres shirt)
Approaching one of these magnificent theatres is, I think best done from the top, so that your first sight is down into the extraordinary auditorium. This is possible at Bosra, but perhaps would only happen if you have the good fortune to be accompanied by a particularly eccentric co-traveller, as I was.

There is a great deal more I could tell you about both sites, but enough is enough, and I haven’t had my dinner.

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