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The Mycenaeans

Around 2000 BC Greek-speaking immigrants moved into the Aegean. Skeletal remains confirm they were tall and well built. The newcomers looked first to the sea for food and later found that the dry and rocky soil was well suited for growing olives and grapes. It seems these people were a war-like lot, ruled by military leaders. In many ways they resembled the Vikings that would plague Europe some 25 centuries later- pirates, raiders and traders- who after a time settled down and became civilized. The term Mycenaean has been given to this civilization, derived from Mycenae, the site first excavated by Heinrich Schliemann after his discovery of fabled Troy.

The Mycenaeans began to trade and have cultural contact with the Minoans. The latter influenced the development of their cities, the production of trade goods and improvements in agriculture. Unlike Minoan cities, which had no or minimal fortifications, the Mycenaean settlements were heavily fortified with colossal perimeter walls. Since they periodically raided and looted towns in Hittite and Egyptian territory the massive fortifications were likely seen as a cost of “doing business”. The art themes depicted on Mycenaean artifacts (scenes of warfare and hunting) make a sharp contrast with the pastoral content of Minoan artwork. Their militaristic approach worked well for the Mycenaeans bringing power and prosperity. Between 1600 and 1200 BC their culture flourished.

Their religious beliefs seem to have been very similar to those of other ancient civilizations of the time and share in two important characteristics- polytheism and syncretism. Polytheism is a belief in many gods and syncretism reflects a willingness to add foreign gods into the belief system-even if the new additions don't exactly fit. When the Mycenaeans first arrived in the Aegean they likely believed in a pantheon of gods headed by a supreme Sky God common to most Indo-European peoples. His name was Dyeus which in Greek became Zeus. Following contact with the Minoans and their earth goddesses, these goddesses were incorporated into the pantheon and that is likely the path followed by Hera, Artemis and Aphrodite.

It was the Mycenaeans that Homer immortalized in his two epic poems the Iliad and the Odyssey . The question that is often asked is “How much, if any, of those tales are true?” and the answer is that it is unlikely that that question can be completely answered in our lifetimes, if ever. Myth, history and archaeology - all different - but there are examples where they coincide remarkably, and others where they cannot be made to meet, despite the most earnest coaxing. Homer and his forefathers nursed the Mycenaean legends through the tunnel of the Dark Ages into the light of the later Greek world. How much was dropped off and added on in that journey is the subject of speculation and the stuff of debate. What is evident is that some of the content is clearly true and some is the product of imagination. Sorting one from the other has become a task for the ages.

Mask of beaten gold accompanied the dead Mycenaean king to his grave.
Mask of beaten gold accompanied the dead Mycenaean king to his grave.
Copyright: Thomas Sakoulas,
Used by permission of © 2001-2006

So what happened to the Mycenaeans? The answer is that sometime around 1200 BC, when the Mycenaean civilization was at its peak, it suddenly appears to have collapsed. Some scholars feel we will never know with certainty what happened and why. There are lots of theories: their history of military violence finally caught up with them; natural disaster in an area plagued with earthquakes and volcanic eruptions; the possibility of drought and famine followed by civil uprising. There is evidence of a lot of migration.