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Three Ladies With No Heads

I've posted about the Ladies In Blue fresco before, back when I did a watercolor reproduction of the trio.


In researching the Saffron Goddess and Tiryns Double-S frescoes, I learned something intriguing about the Ladies In Blue that I'm surprised and a bit embarrassed that I hadn't noticed before.

Nothing of the Ladies' heads survives.

That's right.  Look at the patches of original fresco material.  You may even have to find a larger image of the fresco if you can't click on the one above and blow it up.  Not a single piece comes from any of the three Ladies' heads.  We know that there are three ladies, we know how they're oriented, and how they're dressed.  We even have an idea of part of the hairstyle from a surviving piece of the shoulder tress, but the rest of it--the elaborately coiffed hairdos with the pearls, the bandeaux, and the pin curls--that comes from the conjecture of Sir Arthur Evans and the Gillierons.

The faces, hairdos, and other, added details came from comparable works discovered elsewhere at Knossos.  The three faces come from the male figures of the Cupbearer Fresco; it's difficult to tell because of the color difference, with the males being rendered in reddish-brown, the ladies in chalk white.

It was for this sort of thing and other, worse infractions such as outright forgery that gave Evans and the Gillierons the dubious reputation they now have in the archaeological community.  Evans shaped the popular perception of the Minoans in a way that reflected his own sentiments, and that we still haven't been able to fully shake off.  The original Ladies In Blue fresco as painted by its ancient Minoan artist might very well have looked just like the "reconstituted" view of them, but we can't say for sure.
My latest painting is a reproduction of Emile Gillieron Sr.'s watercolor rendering of the Double-S and Papyrus Frond fresco found during the 1910-12 archaeological excavations at Tiryns.

P1040107 (2)
Gillieron was educated in Basel, Munich, and Paris before moving to Athens to become an archaelogical illustrator; he also designed the commemorative stamps for the 1896 Athens Olympic Games.  He worked for Heinrich Schliemann, then for Schliemann's successor, William Dorpfeld.  Eventually, he and his son came to work for Sir Arthur Evans reproducing frescoes from Knossos.

It was this work at Knossos that garnered both Gillierons an unfavorable reputation for forgery.  They may very well have contributed to the forgeries that came out of the Minoan excavations, but as they were in Sir Arthur's employment the blame for that ultimately rests with Evans himself.  Gillieron Sr. in fact had an excellent eye for piecing together delicate fresco fragments, and his work on this Tiryns fresco, large portions of which have survived, attest to his skill.  The original watercolor is a riot of spirals and fan shapes.  Originally the fresco got me to thinking of cogs and wheels, but I wasn't looking at it in a Mycenaean context.  This isn't how the Minoans rendered papyrus fans; the Mycenaeans had their definite ideas about what kind of decoration they liked in their palaces.

Frescoes like this formed the friezes the Mycenaeans preferred and used as decorative dadoes in their palaces.  You can tell the work is Mycenaean by the colored bands at the top and bottom, which you don't really see in Minoan artwork.  While you might argue that certain frescoes at Knossos bear this distinction, it's important to remember that the last great phase of the Knossos cult-administrative center was headed by Mycenaeans with Mycenaean tastes.

My version is more brightly colored, as it might have been when first painted.  And, yes, it IS straight when properly photographed and adjusted.  I'm not sure I like the result.  Mycenaean decoration seems very garish to my modern eyes.

The Griffin Warrior of Pylos

In the summer of 2015, archaeologists working in a previously unexplored field near the palace of Nestor at Pylos in southwestern Greece discovered an intact, early Mycenaean shaft grave burial dating to around 1500 B.C.  Within the tomb lay a single individual, a man surrounded by a wealth of weapons, gold jewelry, and other prestige objects.  He might have been an early Pylian king, or a prominent local leader of some kind who helped found the early Pylian state, and he lived around the same time as the kings, queens, and other elite of the Mycenae Grave Circle A shaft graves; he may even have known some of them.

The man, dubbed "the Griffin Warrior of Pylos" from an ivory plaque bearing a griffin found on his body, was 30-35 years old at the time of his death.  Because the shaft grave roof had collapsed in antiquity, crushing his skeletonized remains, forensic anthropologists could not determine his cause of death or what diseases or injuries he might have had.  Remarkably, however, his skull was intact enough to do a facial reconstruction.

Among his grave goods were many gold, bronze, and silver vessels, but no ceramics.  He had six combs, including a very fine ivory one (below).  Perhaps he, like later, Classical warriors, attached great importance to combing out his hair before battle.  He had a boar-tusk helmet, at least two swords, a gold-hilted dagger, hundreds of semiprecious and gold beads, numerous carved seal stones, a bronze mirror, and several gold seal rings in the Minoan style, including one that is the second-largest such ring ever discovered.


The seal ring above particularly fascinates me.  There's a wealth of detail and iconography in this image of worshippers encountering divine figures at a seaside shrine.  Just look at the workmanship of the waves!  Initially I thought this and the other rings were included in the burial as shiny objects acquired on a raid (this was the period when Mycenaeans might have raided Minoan coastal sites prior to the 1450 B.C. takeover of Crete), but upon later research and reflection I see a different view.

Of all the Mycenaean kingdoms, Pylos had the strongest economic, aesthetic, and cultural ties to Crete.  The Griffin Warrior was buried with objects corresponding to scenes depicted on the seal rings.  The Pylians understood Minoan religious iconography and incorporated it into their own culture.  These rings must have belonged to the Griffin Warrior all along.

The prospect of the Griffin Warrior owning rings depicting goddesses troubles me because I haven't been able to wrap my head around these intricate status objects. If you check out my earlier posts about Aegean Bronze Age seals, I talk about portrait seals and how they only depict men.  Does that mean that only men used them?  Did the Minoans understand portraiture as we do?  The portrait seals depict such individuals that they must be of real people.

I've thought about this.  Why no portrait seals of women?  In the Minoan and Mycenaean worlds, a woman's likeliest route to power was through the priesthood.  Women controlled access to the spirit realm.  Rings have been found showing priestesses carrying vestments, either to clothe a goddess or to don them herself in order to channel one.  A priestess whose job it was to bring about the epiphany of a goddess would be the likeliest candidate to own a seal ring depicting an interaction with a goddess; she has no need for an individual portrait seal.

A prominent figure like the Griffin Warrior would have been both warrior and priest, especially if he was a king.  He owned and wore a goddess seal ring.  So I must be wrong, unless the Minoans and Mycenaeans viewed the matter differently.  He also had a seal ring depicting a bull, a symbol of male potency.  The later rulers of Mycenae, warrior-king-priests also, set two lionesses rather than lions above their citadel gate.  Gender differences seem not to have mattered when it came to the great powers.  In the ancient world, you feared and took care to placate both the gods and the goddesses.

So I'm back to Square One trying to understand this particular class of seal rings.  How and by whom were they commissioned?  Was it just a matter of being able to afford one, or did you have to be one of the priestly elite?  We think of the wealthy and powerful as having just one, recognizable seal, such as those pressed into red wax to seal important letters or to sign weighty documents such as the Magna Carta.  Why did the Griffin Warrior have six, then?  How would he have used them?


Before reading Woven Threads and working on the Saffron Goddess from the last post, I hadn't known that the Minoans used murex purple in their frescoes.  Yet having also learned that murex shells could yield quite a bit more purple dye than previously assumed, I was pleased to find traces of it in the blouse of the Saffron Goddess and elsewhere.

If you blow up the image you can see the crocus stamens picked out in light purple on the seated goddess's pale blue sleeves.

Traces of fresco purple have been found at Knossos, Akrotiri, and Pylos, the Mycenaean kingdom with the closest ties to the Minoan world.  The Mycenaeans didn't use purple in their frescoes, but then, the quality of their wall art doesn't match the Knossians or Therans in terms of intricacy and delicacy; as imitators in this particular instance, they're copying form without substance.  You can see it here, in a procession of women from Thebes.

women fresco

Purple may have been too expensive for the Mycenaeans to use for wall decoration, or they may have had other ideas about decorating their palaces.

However, the Mycenaeans must have used purple elsewhere, probably in their textiles, because they had a word for it: po-pu-re-yo, which is very close to the later Greek puperea, which is the Linnean species name of the murex which produces the dye.

The Saffron Goddess

This week, I attempted some artwork to relieve the space between painting pieces of miniature furniture.  The subject I chose was the Saffron Goddess from Xeste 3 in Akrotiri.  From previous posts, you know I've developed an interest in the elaborately patterned textiles the Minoans and Therans produced, but it wasn't just the decoration I wanted to highlight.

Oftentimes, frescoes are reconstructed based on very little surviving material, at times so fragmentary or scant that I have to wonder how the restorers know what the missing parts of the fresco looked like.  The Procession Fresco at Knossos, for example, was reconstructed with only a narrow strip of surviving fresco on the bottom (the darkened, shaded areas) to hint at what's happening above.

Sir Arthur Evans had to look to better preserved images elsewhere to reconstitute this particular fresco.  A good deal of that happened at Knossos; you can never be sure whether you're looking at a genuine Minoan image or a modern construct.

The Akrotiri frescoes are much better preserved due to the volcanic nature of their burial.  The Saffron Goddess fresco is more complete than what I show, and even extends to the left with a blue monkey and young female worshipper offering crocuses in a field of saffron.

As I said above, I wasn't just interested in the intricately patterned textiles, but the nature of reconstructing anicent imagery from fresco fragments:

What also fascinates me about this image and one other from the Xeste 3 group is how sheer some of the fabric is.  In the original, you can see how meticulously the artist depicts the color of the sheer linen and how its very pale blue distorts the color of the underlying textile.  You can get a better sense of the sheerness from the Necklace Bearer:

I haven't seen anything like this from the Knossos or Mycenaean mainland frescoes, even though such fine weaves were possible with existing looms.  I wonder if the Therans specialized in the manufacture of diaphanous cloth.

If you think you've seen the Saffron Goddess depicted here before, you have.  I used her as the basis for a painting of Danae a few years ago.
I am currently reading Woven Threads: Patterned Textiles of the Aegean Bronze Age, by Maria Shaw and Anne Chapin.  It's a scholarly, more budget-friendly alternative to Bernice Jones' Ariadne's Threads, but lest you think it's a lesser book, it isn't.  The emphasis here is on pictorial depictions of Aegean patterned textiles, many from fresco fragments that have never been published.  The evidence is there for various fabric techniques, including quilting, tablet weaving, sheer linens and wools, embroidery, and possibly beading.  Did you know that the Mycenaeans favored more practical decorative bands on plain garments to the elaborately patterned textiles worn by the Minoan elite?  It reminds me of our more recent ancestors, who, in an age before mass-produced, store-bought clothes, regularly recycled laces, ribbons, and other trims.

It turns out that you could squeeze a good deal more purple out of murex shells than previously thought.

How did those fresco artists depict those wonderful patterned fabrics? With Egyptian-style grid-lines incised into fresh plaster, of course.  And how do the Minoans and Mycenaeans differ in their depictions of luxury textiles?  Mycenaean artists copied Minoan styles in the beginning, with the flounced skirts and elaborate processions, but you can see Mycenaean fashions creeping into the scene, with a stiffness the Minoan paintings don't have, until finally the artwork is fairly crude, heavily outlined, simplified, lacking the earlier richness of detail.

I love rich textiles, though my skills at embroidery and beading are rudimentary at best.  One day I'd love to write about a woman working in the Aegean textile industry, but meanwhile I have managed a bit of description.

Once, a scribe showed me the sign for woman: a curve suggesting a face, a loop for the dress and arms, two dots for the breasts.  That is how the tally takers record women of our kind in clay and wax; only the high-ranking women, the priestesses, have their names recorded.

There are other signs for us, too--we are the workers in wool or linen, spinners, finishers of cloth, and the palace must keep track of how many rations we receive--but the kindly old scribe who showed me the woman-sign got in trouble for indulging me even that much.  I am sure there is even a sign for my name, though I would not know what that looks like.

My mother called me Arachne, for the spider that was once a woman, who once challenged Potnia Athena to a weaving contest and lost.  I suppose my mother thought she was being clever, or hoped I might have more talent at the loom than she, or had been told that "Arachne" was a good Hellene name for a weaver's daughter.  She was one of the many women of Asia the old king brought back to Pylos, and knew no better.


The Minoans and Mycenaeans loved scent.  Those who could afford it wore frankincense, myrrh, and saffron.  There was also expensive oil of lilies and oil of roses, but other, less exotic ingredients such as coriander and thyme were widely available.

The Mycenaeans acquired their perfumed oil industry, complete with its ubiquitous stirrup jars, from Minoan Crete and Cyprus.  Perfume manufacturers would have used olive oil rather than alcohol as their base, but for some scented products there is evidence that certain perfumers, known as "unguent boilers," manufactured fragrant creams.  From the Linear B tablets, we know that perfumed oil was known as we-a-re-pe (used with the corresponding ideogram for oil, OLES), and cream was called po-ro-ko-wa, (with the ideogram for unguent, AREPA.)  Sometimes cream was listed as a liquid measure, where it might have had the consistency of a lotion, where not as much solid fat was used.

Pylos tablet Un 267 records a transaction between Alxoitas and an unguent boiler named Thyestes:

Thus, Alxoitas gave to Thyestes the unguent boiler aromatics for unguent destined for boiling: coriander AROMATIC 576 liters, cyperus (cypress) AROMATIC 576 liters...16 units, FRUITS 240 liters, WINE 576 liters, HONEY 58 liters, WOOL 6 kg, MUST 58 liters.

There's no mention of olive oil, and the fact that Thyestes is producing unguent means we're dealing with scented cream.  Some of the listed goods must have been Thyestes' fee for his services, but we're looking at large quantities of ingredients and product here, so this was evidently a large order, possibly meant for export.

Halloween 2016

As I mentioned in last week's post, I am working on my surprise Halloween costume which I will immediately find fault with the second I see myself wearing it in the photographs my mother took.  Yes, I tried it on before the photo shoot, and everything seemed okay, but that darned camera lens just adds fifty pounds...

Enough with the kvetching and onto the costume.  This year, I chose the most bad-ass female from ancient times you could possibly think of.  No, not Boudicca, which I might do sometime because I think I might make an awesome Boudicca, etc.  A Saka-Scythian Amazon warrior horse archer.  Now there's a costume NOBODY else is doing!  The kind of costume where people look at it and in bewilderment ask, "What are you supposed to be?"  I used to get that a lot as a kid.  Nothing much has changed since I started doing costumes again.

A Saka-Scythian warrior woman because, why the hell not? I know how to shoot, and an Amazon from the Eurasian steppes doesn't require boob armor, the wearing of which would kill any woman dumb enough to fight in it.  The costume itself is easy to assemble, though in parts I had to be resourceful.

I made the tunic, sleeves, and leggings from scratch.  The tunic is the work of a few hours.  If you're smaller, an oversized t-shirt works just as well; all you have to do is apply the large rick-rack trim.  You can buy tribal leggings, but if you want matching sleeves you'll have to make the set from scratch.  All you need is about 2 1/2 yards of the right stretchy cotton-polyester fabric and a pair of close fitting jeans or leggings you already own to trace the pattern.

The boots came from my closet, the Turkish silver necklace and earrings from World Market at a deep discount, and the rabbit-trimmed leather bag from a Ren Faire many, many years ago.  The leopard skin cape is just printed fabric cut to mimic an animal skin, with the paws tying the cape in front.  I made the cap from scratch, too, from felt, fake fur, and coin trim.  The quiver with strap is an old UPS box covered with colored paper and red duck tape, and felt.

The belt was the big project.  Amazon women in Greek myth always have amazing war belts.  Mine is felt applique, hand-worked embroidery, and beads and mirrors on felt backing.

The bow is a real bow--a toy, actually, bought from a mall kiosk for $10--and it shoots.  I painted and decorated it with tribal-looking artwork.

The tattoos on my face and hands are from a blue eyeliner pencil.  I experimented with it before settling on a design.


So there you have it.  Whether I will win any awards for this, I can't say, but I thought while looking in the mirror that I looked pretty bad-ass.

Until the camera went and added fifty pounds, that is.

What's New, Kangaroo?

Yes, I know I've been absent almost a month, but it's for a good cause.  I'm busily finishing my costume for this year's Take Back Halloween contest.  I'm not telling you what it is, only that my fingers are sore from embroidering all those felt-applique deer.  Time will tell if I look bad-ass or ridiculous.  You can enter your guesses below, or wait until Halloween to see how many extra pounds the camera adds.

The Heanos

Look up the subject of Minoan fashion and you'll inevitably come across that website/article/comment claiming that the Minoans were the first people to make and wear fitted garments, as evidenced by the tailored open bodice.  I made this mistake, too, when writing Helen's Daughter; there's a scene where Helen fits Hermione with a wedding bodice.

It took the publication of Bernice Jones' book Ariadne's Threads and some further digging into ancient costume to figure out that the Minoans didn't tailor their clothing; what you see in the artwork is an idealized representation.  What the women are actually wearing is a garment called a heanos.

The heanos is a knee-length shift with a deep vee that can be pulled open to reveal the breasts, or closed, depending on the occasion.

In my sewing room I have a half-finished heanos, but I'm not about to photograph myself wearing it.  Nobody wants to see my cholecystectomy scars, really.

This is how it would have looked when worn, as demonstrated by the ladies in the left hand side of the artwork:

You would have wrapped the flounced skirt around the waist of the heanos.  So Minoan women's clothing was much looser and probably more comfortable in the Mediterranean climate than a fitted ensemble would have been.  And a heanos is very simple to make.

The Agamemneion

The Agamemneion is a shrine located on the left bank of the Chavos river at Mycenae.  It was first erected in 700 B.C., though it is unclear whether Agamemnon was the original focus of devotion.  The first votives, such as the inscribed pot below, appear much later, after the shrine was refurbished in the fourth century B.C.

Agamemnon had hero-cults elsewhere in Greece.  One of the most curious comes from Amyklai, Sparta, where from 700 B.C. he was worshipped along with Cassandra (known locally as Alexandra).  Strange, to find Agamemnon receiving honors alongside a Trojan princess in Sparta, when his wife, Clytemnestra, was herself a Spartan princess.

Orestes also had a hero-cult in Sparta.

Human Sacrifice in the Mycenaean Age

A recent archaeological find on Mount Lykaion in central Greece has caused quite a buzz.  The remains of a young man, missing the top portion of his skull, laid on an east-west axis in an ash altar suggests that rarity of rarities in Greece: evidence of a human sacrifice.

The altar and the young man date back to the end of the Mycenaean period, about 1100 B.C.  A sensational find of a Bronze Age Minoan sacrifice interrupted was found in the late 70s at Anemospilia, on Crete.  That dated from circa 1700 B.C.  No such find has ever been made on the Greek mainland till now.

Days ago, when this story broke, I posted links on Twitter, only to have one angry Greek follower insist that the news was propaganda and a hoax, and that the Greeks never practiced human sacrifice.

Yet for a culture that supposedly never carried out human sacrifices, the Greeks certainly dwell on it enough.

While the Greeks seem to have abandoned the practice of human sacrifice by Classical times, there are certainly hints that in times of distress their forebears might have offered a human to the gods.  The legends abound with tales of human offerings: the sacrifices of Iphigenia and Polyxena that served as tragic bookends to the Trojan War, Achilles' gruesome offering of twelve Trojan youths at Patroklos' funeral, Minos' tribute of Athenian youths to the Minotaur, the maenads tearing apart Orpheus, Pentheus, and so forth.

Legends, you say, are not archaeological facts.  Yes, but legends don't arise from nothing; there is usually a kernal of truth to such tales.  Aeschylus, Euripides, Homer, and others told of a distant past in which men sacrificed other men (and women) to the gods--although, in their contemporary age, their distaste for these ancient rituals comes through.  Euripides, for example, was so troubled by the Iphigenia story that he wrote two plays about her: Iphigenia in Aulis and Iphigenia in Taurus.  He renegotiates the Iphigenia story so that Artemis spares the young woman's life by substituting a deer on the altar, yet the goddess also spirits the princess of Mycenae away to serve as high priestess of her cult in Taurus, where the people regularly sacrifice strangers to the goddess.

Back to the archaeology, one of the Pylos tablets refers to offerings to Zeus and Hera: one gold bowl and human for each.  Certainly, it's enigmatic.  The man and woman being given might be intended as human sacrifices, but to serve in a sanctuary.  It's not definitive evidence, no, but given that this tablet was produced just a few days or weeks before Pylos was burned and abandoned, at a time when the entire eastern Aegean was going through a catastrophic upheaval, it is possible that the Pylians tried to avert disaster by making a rare human offering.

Another such possible offering was discovered in the ruins of a house near Therapne, Sparta.  The skeleton of a woman with her hands behind her back as if tied (the restraints would have disintegrated long ago) suggests she might have been a sacrifice.  Alternatively, she might also have been a murder victim.
I mention the cult of Zeus Lykaion in my most recent novel, Danae.  This was a werewolf cult, in which the adherents believed that through ritual they could for a time become werewolves.  According to legend, in ancient times King Lykaion ruled the area.  He instituted the worship of Zeus on the mountain that bears his name, but a time came when his hubris overruled his good judgment, and he prepared a feast for the god containing both human and animal meat, to see whether the omnipotent god could tell the difference.  Angry, Zeus either slew Lykaion and his sons, or transformed Lykaion into a wolf.

According to Plato and others, a sacrificed boy would be cooked along with a sacrificial animal, and those who partook of this grisly feast would become a wolf for nine years.

The indigenous, prehistoric peoples who predated the Mycenaeans were known as Pelasgians,  Arcadia, where Mount Lykaion is located, was a holdover of Pelasgian culture long after much of Greece was Hellenized.  So those who offered the young man to Zeus Lykaion lived at the end of the Mycenaean period, but may not have been Mycenaean themselves.

Minoan Names

Another entry on the work Richard Vallance has been doing on the decipherment of Linear A.  One of the most fascinating aspects of the research has been the various eponyms, or personal names, that have turned up.  With these names come questions:

  1. Are the names male or female?  With some, I think we can say that they're definitely male.  Dumirewe the shepherd, for example.  With many others, however, it's unclear, because we don't know how the Minoan names differentiated between men and women.  Is "Turunuseme" a man or a woman?  What about "Adunitana?"

  2. How do we normalize these names?  Linear B is an early form of Greek, so it's much easier to normalize, or get the spoken/regular form of the name, because Greek is still a living language.  E-ke-ro, for example, becomes "Hector."  A-pi-er-a becomes "Amphiera," a woman's name. What do we do about the names we find on Linear A tablets.  Was "Siramaritai" (which I suspect is a woman's name) pronounced just so, or might it have been pronounced "Sirmarta," or "Siramarti?"  (Personally, I think "Siramaritai" is pretty just as it is."

Hopefully one of my readers who has more insight into Linear A and B can speak further as to this question.

Linear B, Knossos & Mycenae

It's taken me this long to talk about Richard Vallance's Linear A and B linguistics blog because it's not only dense with the kind of material that makes aficionados of ancient languages go weak at the knees, but also a bit intimidating for the average layperson. I remember taking a semester of linguistic theory for my Master's, and even my eyes glaze over at the talk of supersyllagrams and ideograms. If you're thinking Michael Ventris as I mention all this, you're on the right track. Richard's blog even has material relating to the late pioneer in the decipherment of Linear B.

Linguistic technobabble aside, there are some fascinating things to learn about Linear A and B from Richard's blog. Prior to this, I did not know that Linear A tablets differ in appearance from Linear B tablets; Linear A tablets are a bit taller than long, shaped more like Mesopotamian cuneiform tablets than Linear B tablets, which are more rectangular and cigar-shaped. Richard also has some beautiful photographs of parts of the various phases of the Knossos palace that you don't often see; he chose to photograph more of drainage gutters and different kinds of masonry than decorated rooms.

Richard's recently done some work in attempting to decipher Linear A based on, I believe, the similarities between certain Linear A and B signs.  I say I believe because I'm not knowledgeable enough about ancient languages or decipherment to fully understand how he gets from point A to point B, but Richard is the kind of guy who thoroughly documents his process and rationale, he's affiliated with a number of respectable academic institutions and individuals, and his work does look promising.  Minoan Linear A seems to be more of the same kind of inventorying that we see in Mycenaean Linear B.  If you're into linguistic geekery, check out his work:

Linear B, Knossos & Mycenae

Trojan War Playing Cards

Well, my Kickstarter donation to Greek Myth Comix finally paid dividends, and I received my pack of Trojan War Playing Cards today.

These are slick, professionally packaged cards, glossy and colorful, and as durable as any traditional casino pack you might buy.  Check out the spread:

The deck is laid out thus:
Spades: the Greek Army
Hearts: the women of the Trojan War
Clubs: the Trojan Army
Diamonds: the gods
Jokers: various Muses

Some of the cards are beautifully tinted, and all have the characters' names written in English and Greek.  I was happy to see that I can actually read the names in Greek.

I don't know when Greek Myth Comix will offer these packs again, but since we follow each other on Twitter I'll keep you updated.

Clytemnestra, by the way, demonstrated her relief that Agamemnon's finally come home.  There is a Clytemnestra card in the deck, too.


The Menelaion

A few days ago when I posted about Bronze Age Sparta, I also posted an image of the Menelaion which some readers took to be the ruins of Menelaus's royal palace. The Menelaion was but one of several constructions in the area; the royal site of Therapne contains a number of Mycenaean ruins spread over the neighboring hills.

The Menelaion is a type of monument known as a heroon, which is dedicated to the practice of cult hero worship. A reader asked me why the ancients would worship Helen, who brought such destruction and suffering to her people. It's important to remember that the ancient Greek definition of "hero" is not our Judeo-Christian one. Greek heroes (and heroines) were often of semi-divine birth--definitely not ordinary folk like you or I--who performed great deeds and were subject to great suffering; they were not worshipped because they were nice people, but because people believed they could intervene in a crisis. Agamemnon, for example, had a hero cult at Mycenae. Herakles had a hero cult, as did Theseus and Orestes. Helen was one of the few women who had hero-cult status.

There is an apocryphal story about Helen from Classical Sparta which illustrates the kind of power the ancient Greeks believed she had. Once upon a time there lived a very ugly girl whose nurse took her to a shrine to leave an offering for Helen. While there, the pair encountered a most mysterious and beautiful woman who kissed the girl on the brow and blessed her. From that day forward, the girl grew in beauty, and was held to be so lovely that she eventually married one of the Spartan kings. Helen could bestow beauty and kharis, also known as charisma, or what we commonly refer to as sex appeal. She might also have been worshipped as a kind of fertility goddess.

Why was Menelaus, a second-rate warrior and history's most famous cuckold, worshipped?  Because of his association with Helen.  One version of myth holds that, as Zeus's son-in-law, Menelaus is assured a place with Helen in the Elysian Fields--although, if yet another variation on myth plays out, he's going to have sit by while Helen marries Achilles.

The Menelaion monument tourists visit today was erected in the fifth century B.C. Under this limestone construction are strata containing remains of earlier shrines. Around the monument, archaeologists have discovered many votive objects specifically dedicated to Menelaus and Helen. One vessel, an arbyllos, is inscribed: "ΔΕΙΝΙΣ ΑΝΕΘEΚΕ [ΕΛΕΝΗΙ, ΣΥΖΥΓΟΝ] ΜΕΝΕΛΑΪ" (Deinis offered to Helen, wife of Menelaus). Hairpins have been found dedicated to Helen. A stone tablet found in a cistern was dedicated to Menelaus.

Elsewhere, on a nearby hill, archaeologists discovered Mycenaean ruins dating to the twelfth and thirteenth centuries B.C. These appeared to be the remains of a very small, second-rate palace that many archaeologists doubted could be that of Menelaus and Helen. However, the hill on which these ruins stand is prone to wind and erosion; what remains are probably the storerooms/basement of a much larger structure that has since dropped off into the ravine below. If you are interested in the palace of Therapne, Bettany Hughes in her 2005 documentary Helen of Troy visits the site and discusses its condition.


Bronze Age Sparta

When we think about ancient Sparta, an image of Frank Miller's 300 inevitably comes to mind.  So when we talk about the story of the Trojan War and the beautiful Helen coming from Sparta, it's easy to assume that she came from a society where the boys were taken from home and enrolled in military barracks at age seven, and where even the girls physically trained to prepare them for their state duty: producing as many strong, powerful Spartan babies as possible.

This question of Spartan culture became important when I was researching Helen's Daughter way back in 2010-11.  What sort of world did Helen and Hermione inhabit?  How did it relate to its neighbors in Pylos and Mycenae?

Let's start with the familiar idea of hardcore, badass Sparta.  The Sparta of King Leonidas and Thermopylae was Classical Sparta, the militaristic Greek state created by the quasi-mythic Lycurgus in the seventh-eighth centuries B.C.  The Sparta of the Trojan War was a Bronze Age kingdom from the thirteenth century B.C., four hundred years earlier.  Assuming that ancient writers like Plutarch were not exaggerating the extremes of Classical Spartan militarism, the two Spartas had nothing in common except that they occupied the same piece of real estate.

The Menelaion, with the snowy peaks of Mount Taygetus in the distance.  In the Classical period, the Spartan elders of the Genousia allegedly threw defective babies into a chasm on Mount Taygetus.  This chasm has never been found, nor has any archaeological evidence of such extreme infanticide.

A French classicist, François Ollier, argued in his 1933 book The Spartan Mirage that "a major scholarly problem regarding Sparta is that all the surviving accounts of Sparta were written by non-Spartans who often presented an excessively idealized image of Sparta."  The consensus among historians today is that Sparta was not as hardcore as earlier thought.

So when we imagine Helen of Sparta, we should forget about the Sparta made infamous through Plutarch and later sources.  Helen's Sparta would have been part of the Mycenaean Koine.  Helen would have worn jewelry made by Cretan artists, wearing scented oils imported through, perhaps, the port of Tiryns or Pylos, worshipped before idols made, perhaps, in a workshop near Mycenae.  She would have feasted on red meat and wine, rather than the notorious melas zomas, the black blood broth of legend.

Thirteenth century B.C. Sparta belonged to what is known as the "Mycenaean Koine," or shared culture.  Mycenaean kings like Agamemnon, Menelaus, and Nestor shared the same taste in architecture, decoration, and material objects.  Homer in The Odyssey describes Menelaus's palace as being decorated with silver and gold.  This was not merely hyperbole.  Surviving evidence reveals the garishness of the Mycenaean palaces.  These two Cretan-manufactured cups from a Spartan site named Vapheio, for example, speak to a culture that Leonidas and Lycurgus would have frowned upon:

A few years ago, I don't recall exactly when or where, I encountered a powerful idea that's stayed with me.  It concerns Homer's Odyssey, and its hero, Odysseus.

Odysseus is arguably the most unreliable narrator in Western literature.  His reputation is built on cunning and deceit.  All we know about the period between the time he left Troy and the time he washed ashore on Phaeacia is what he tells us.  He could be lying about everything, and we, the audience, would never know because there are no other survivors to contradict him.

Zachary Mason's odd little tome, The Lost Books of the Odyssey, captures some of that spirit.  Working on the conceit that archaeologists have discovered forty-five "lost" fragments of the Odyssey, Mason presents forty-four short works that reimagine, reinterpret, and play with Homer's original text.  There are alternate episodes in which Odysseus returns to Ithaca to find the island mysteriously abandoned, or his wife Penelope remarried, or dead.  Odysseus meets his own doppelganger.  He finds himself in a sanitorium unable to remember anything, in a cabin on an icy mountain.  We learn why no two people describe Helen the same way, and why King Death wants her.  We meet Polyphemus, an innocent shepherd blinded by a stranger.  We enter a world where Agamemnon rules a vast subterranean kingdom mirroring Troy above.  We cross paths with Theseus, Ariadne, and the Minotaur.  We meet a golem Achilles.

If you have never heard of The Lost Books of the Odyssey, you can check it out on Amazon.  It's a short book, but best read piecemeal, one or two chapters at a time, to better process the multiple variations on the Odyssey theme.


The Captain of the Blacks Fresco

Some of the most iconic images from Knossos, such as the Priest-King of the Lilies and the Blue Ladies, continue to mislead lovers of Minoica and distort our modern views of the ancient Minoans.  Sir Arthur Evans, having convinced himself that the Minoans were a peace-loving, matriarchal society of idealists and artists--and having subconsciously done this to escape the atrocities and upset of the Balkan Wars and Great War of the last turn of the century--employed a father-son team of artists both named Emile Gillieron to reconstitute the fresco fragments he found during his excavations to reflect his view of ancient Knossos.

In a much earlier post, I mentioned that the Priest-King fresco was cobbled together from pieces of at least three separate frescoes.  In this post, I examine a fresco which has excited debate among archaeologists and Afrocentrics, and everyone in between: The Captain of the Blacks fresco.

This particular fresco is taken as evidence that black Africans were present and enjoyed positions of military authority at Knossos.

I want to state right now that this blog is no place for racist rhetoric.  Leave any negative comments to yourself.  This post has nothing to do with the racial origins of the Minoans, or racial superiority, or any such nonsense.  I have never looked at either the Minoans or Mycenaeans in terms of their race.

That said, I have no doubt that Minoan Crete, being a crossroads linking Asia, Africa, and Europe, routinely saw black Africans coming from Libya, Nubia, and farther afield.  Even though no physical evidence of negroid-type human remains have been found at Minoan sites (intact Minoan burials are very rare to begin with), black Africans would have come to Crete as other peoples did, as traders, mercenaries, and settlers.  I see no reason why blacks would not have been among the Minoan military elite; the Nubians were great archers, and in later times the Cretans became renowed for their excellent archers.

It's very possible that the "Captain of the Blacks" fresco depicts black Minoan soldiers under the command of another, but a great deal of the reconstructed fragment is hypothetical.  You have to look closely to see which parts are the actual fresco fragments.  There is evidence for the one black soldier in the surviving piece depicting the thigh and kilt edge, and in the uppermost piece showing a dark neck and back of the head, but the third man, the black man who is just a pair of legs and a kilt, is a complete invention.

The Gillierons did this sort of thing with Evans' consent and complicity; the latter knew perfectly well that a number of the ivory figurines finding their way into American and Canadian museums were frauds, because in his multivolume The Palace of Minos he goes out of his way to talk around the objects' lack of provenance.  He is also known to have visited the workshop where the forgeries were produced; in the 1960s archaeologist Leonard Woolley collected anecdotes of Evans' questionable practices and published them as part of his book about Minoan and Mycenaean archaeology: The Bull of Minos.

In short, Evans had a preconceived notion of the Minoans in general and Knossos in particular.  His father, Sir John Evans, had been disciplined and objective, but the younger Evans tended more toward sentimentality and subjectiveness.  He created in Knossos his vision of a Minoan world that probably never existed.  He created a cult of a great Cretan Mother Goddess to replace the mother he had lost at a very young age, goddess who may or may not have existed as Evans imagined her.

There must have been black Africans at Knossos, just as there were probably Egyptians and Hellenes and Canaanites and Libyans and Babylonians, even though the physical evidence for them living in Crete is scant, indeed.  What we see at Knossos is more the modernist reinterpretation of one man that a reflection of the world the Minoans themselves experienced.

The House of Atreus Makes Death Metal

I've known for a while about Virgin Steele and their metal compilations, The House of Atreus I (1999) and The House of Atreus II (2000), both based on Aeschylus's The Oresteia.  Not knowing much about metal, however, I simply haven't known how to present the material until now.

I still don't know anything about metal, and though I've listened to some samples from these albums, I'm no judge of how good the music is.  The reviews are mostly positive.  Nevetheless, the cursed House of Atreus is as excellent a subject as any for a metal album.

If you're interested in reading reviews of these albums or checking out the lyrics, head here.  I'm not sure if these are still in print, but you might be able to score some copies on Amazon or ebay.

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