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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.

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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.
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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.

Hermione

Hermione, daughter of Menelaus and Helen of Sparta, is the heroine of my novel Helen's Daughter.  All that is known about her is that she spent the duration of the Trojan War at Mycenae with her aunt Clytaemnestra, and was later married to both Neoptolemus, son of Achilles, and then to Orestes, to whom she bore a son, Tisamenus.  The reason I have not posted an image of her is because there are none to be found.  Beside her infamous mother and aunt, Hermione is a non-entity, an also-ran.  If she existed--and there is no reason to assume she did not--she must have lived a very quiet life.

There is more than one version of the Hermione-Orestes-Neoptolemus triangle.  In Books 4 and 5 of Homer's Odyssey, the Spartan court celebrates the wedding of Hermione and Neoptolemus; the marriage to Orestes is never mentioned.  Other sources state that Neoptolemus stole Hermione, either from her grandfather's house, or from Orestes himself.  Hermione herself is simply a commodity to be given away, stolen, or reclaimed.  Like their fathers, Orestes and Neoptolemus are reduced to fighting over a woman.

Euripides in his Andromache portrays Hermione and her father Menelaus as spiteful and murderous, plotting against Andromache and her newborn son; Jean Racine took up this thread many centuries later in his Andromaque, with Hermione as a treacherous and capricious cock-tease, goading a lovesick Orestes into murdering Neoptolemus, then changing her mind, rejecting Orestes, and killing herself.

Keep in mind that Euripides was an Athenian playwright working at the height of the Peloponnesian War, and Andromache is a piece of anti-Spartan propaganda.  Later, in his Orestes, he would portray Hermione as a docile creature who ends up a hostage as Orestes puts a knife to her throat while the palace of Sparta burns around them.

Ovid wrote about Hermione in his Heroides (the Heroines), a collection of "letters" written by fourteen heroines from mythology to their absent lovers.  In Epistle VIII, Ovid's Hermione writes to Orestes, urging him to save her from her forced marriage to Neoptolemus.  In these excerpts, Hermione complains that it is the lot of the women in her family to be abducted:

Hermione speaks to one lately her cousin and husband,

now her cousin. The wife has changed her name.

Pyrrhus, son of Achilles, proud, in his father’s image,

holds me imprisoned contrary to piety and justice.

I have refused what I could, so as not be held against my will,

a woman’s hand has not the power to do more....

 

Deafer than the sea, he dragged me under his roof,

my hair unbound, and I calling on Orestes’s name.

How could I have endured worse, as a slave in a captured Sparta,

if a barbarian horde were to seize a daughter of Greece?

Andromache was less abused by victorious Achaia,

when Greek flames might have burnt the wealth of Troy.

But you, Orestes, if my affectionate care for you moves you,

take possession of me, without cowardice, as is your right!

You’d surely take up arms if someone snatched your cattle

from the closed stable, will you be slower for a captive wife?

...

Don’t ready a thousand ships with swelling canvas

or hosts of Greek warriors: come yourself!

Yet if I too were won back in this way, it’s no shame for a husband

to have endured fierce war for his dear marriage bed.

Why, since Atreus, Pelop’s son, is our mutual grandfather,

even if you weren’t my husband, you’d still be my cousin.

Husband, I beg you, aid your wife, cousin aid your cousin:

both titles urge you to perform your duty.

...

I am violated, and my face swells with feeling,

and my inflamed emotions grieve me with hidden fires.

Who has not taunted Orestes in Hermione’s presence:

I have no power, there’s no cruel sword here!

Truly I can weep: I diffuse anger in weeping,

and tears flow like streams over my breast.

I have only these, always, and always I pour them out:

they wet my neglected cheeks, from a perennial fountain.

Surely, by the fate of my race, that tracks us through the years,

the mothers of Tantalus’s line are suited to be prey?

...

 

In this epistle, Hermione also reveals her feelings toward her mother:

 

Why must I complain that a troubled destiny harms me?

My childhood was motherless: father was at the war:

and while both lived, I was bereaved of both.

Not for you, my mother, the charming lispings of those tender years,

spoken by your daughter’s uncertain mouth.

I did not clasp your neck with tiny arms,

or sit, a welcome burden, on your lap.

You didn’t tend my dress, nor on my marriage

did I enter a new marriage bed, prepared by my mother.

When you returned I came out to meet you – I confess the truth –

my mother’s face was not familiar!

Yet I knew you were Helen, as you were the most beautiful:

you yourself asked which child was your daughter.

 

Such dramatic potential was what drew me to Hermione as a heroine.  There were many places where I had to fill in the blanks, or compromise between contradictory versions, but the result is, I think, a convincing portrait of a Mycenaean noblewoman who has known her share of resentment and love, and has had to fend for herself.


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