The Religious Center of Mycenae

Starting in 1968, British and Greek archaeologists resumed excavations at and around a large structure southeast of Circle A (Fig. 1, K) which Tsountas and Wace had partly cleared long before, In the process they discovered an LH III B religious complex of altars and sanctuaries unlike any previously known in the Mycenaean world.1 Until quite recently, scholars felt that the Mycenaean Greeks practiced their religion only at rustic shrines, or else in parts of the urban palaces where their kings served as priests. Those seeking to date the various institutions and objects which Homer described, decided that his references to an independent priesthood and to stone-built, roofed, freestanding urban temples, which he ascribed to the Mycenaean Age, were, in fact, anachronisms 500 years out of place.2 The recent discoveries of Late Bronze Age temples inside the cult center of Mycenae, at Kition on Cyprus, Ayia Irini on the island of Kea (which began in the Middle Bronze Age), and most recently in the lower citadel at Tiryns, now vindicate Homer.3

Those discoveries also add urban temples and an independent clergy to a staggering list of Homeric references which one can ascribe as easily to the thirteenth-twelfth centuries as to the eighth-seventh, but not to the period between. 4 Archaeologists face the additional problem that the ground plan of temples starting in the eighth century seems to be a throwback to the groundplan of Mycenaean palaces and temples,5 after a 400-500 year period which shows an abrupt abandonment of, and “an essential discontinuity” with Mycenaean architecture6—a Dark Age whose architectural forms also seem to be a 500-year throwback to pre-Mycenaean structures.7 With regard to Homer’s epics, for over a century now, archaeologists have “divided themselves into two parties as if engaged in a tug of war,” either championing his references as accurate, 500-years-old Mycenaean reminiscences retained in the poems, or else viewing them as a reflection of eighth-century reality.8

Literary critics have, as we noted for tripods, engaged in the same tug of war for over 2000 years now.9 Contemporary philologists, employing linguistic criteria in an attempt to determine the precise date of Homer’s allusions, and thereby resolve the debates of their colleagues, find themselves as perplexed as the other disputants, since they cannot neatly separate the manifestations of eighth-century Greek from those which they judge to be 500 years older, and find numerous cases of “Mycenaean” language describing late material and late language describing Mycenaean material.10

The philologists, trying to aid the archaeologists to establish dates, readily confess their consternation that “‘older’ and ‘younger’ elements (whether archaeological, linguistic, or social) interlock,”11 and that those same components, which “differ in age by more than half a millennium . . . are inextricably blended”—a fact which they term “most bewildering,”12 and for dating purposes, even “fatal.”13 Since the linguists’ attempts to separate the elements into distinct strata has met with failure,14 they send the problem back to the archaeologists. As Snodgrass remarked, the whole matter is “a sorely vexed question, but it cannot be shirked. It remains as true today [1971] as it has been for some years past, that there are only two positively and widely identifiable historical ‘strata’ in the world described in the Homeric poems,” the LH III period and the eighth century.15 For temples specifically, and for each of a number of other items, he saw “a pattern. . . emerging,” wherein they belonged either to the thirteenth-twelfth centuries or the eighth-seventh, but not between. ”16

The dating controversy still rages over temples and an astonishing number of other matters,17 with the recent discoveries of Mycenaean temples encouraging those who prefer to see all of Homer’s references as genuine Mycenaean memories rather than eighth-century anachronisms.18 But two gnawing questions arise: how did the LH III and eighth-century elements become so “inextricably blended” in the poems, if the epics grew through accretion; and why are those the only two periods in evidence? The second question goes to the very heart of the notion that oral poetry sustained Mycenaean memories through 500 years of illiteracy. If the epics in their original form were so sacrosanct that no poet, who transmitted them, altered them for centuries, why did an eighth-century hard feel that he could insert language, customs and objects of his own day in such a pervasive manner? On the other hand, if it is true that no oral poet memorizes another bard’s songs verbatim, or even sings his own tale twice the same way,19 then one should expect that those transmitting enormous, unwritten secular sagas for 500 years would gradually omit or alter many of the Mycenaean details, which would only have confused or had no meaning to themselves or their audience during the Dark Age; one would further expect that the bards between the LH III period and the eighth century would have added contemporary language and references to make their epics more relevant and comprehensible to their own day and their own listeners:20 yet they seem to have done neither of those things. Consequently, for Homer’s temples, as for other matters, the “tug of war” across a 500-year chasm continues, and the entire situation remains “most bewildering.”

Among the discoveries inside the cult center were two fairly large ivory figurines, representing a couchant lion and a very delicately modeled male head. Ivory carving in the round was very rare in Mycenaean times, and those two pieces struck the excavators “unique” among them. Since they come from a building of LH III 3 date, they can be no later than the thirteenth century B.C.21 The lion foreshadows a similarly-posed, lake seventh-century sculpture from the island of Corfu,22 and the face reminds one very much of archaic statuary of the seventh-sixth centuries, although, as we noted above, most critics agree that seventh-century sculptors began their art afresh, with no discernible ties to the bygone works of their ancestors.23 As for the material itself, ivory statuettes vanished towards the end of LH III only to reappear in Greece ca. 750 B.C.24 There is, moreover, an important deposit of ivory figurines from Ephesus in Asia Minor, dating to the late seventh-early sixth century, including lions, one of which bears some resemblance to the specimen from Mycenae, and a statuette of a priestess (?), which shows close similarities to the ivory head from Mycenae in the shape and piercing of the head, the facial features, and the modeling of the hair. The peculiar rendering of the eyes on the ivory face from Mycenae also foreshadows the similar, though slightly more realistic, eyes of an early seventh-century ivory sphinx from Perachora, less than twenty-five miles northeast of Mycenae.25 Between the two “unique” LH III B ivories and comparable works of the late eighth-sixth centuries lies the centuries-long Dark Age.

Other cult objects include quite a few terracotta figurines whose lower bodies were formed on a potter’s wheel as hollow tubes, in a typical Mycenaean process.26 They range in date from LH III A - late LH III B, i.e., the fourteenth-thirteenth centuries B.C. One of the thirteenth-century idols had a “curious” trait: the lips formed an “archaic smile”27—a feature which derives its name from its prevalence on seventh-sixth-century Greek sculpture, but is essentially unknown in Greece before that era.28 After the manufacture of fourteenth-thirteenth-century Greek cylindrical idols of Mycenae, and the recently-discovered twelfth-century ones from a shrine at Tiryns,29 there apparently follows a centuries-long break in their production throughout the Peloponnese, until ca. 700 B.C., when “wheel-made work in the old technique” suddenly makes a “strange revival;” terracotta figurines in general then started to become “universal throughout Greece once more,” as they had been during LH III, before their virtual disappearance during the Dark Age.30

In every case where the idols from the cult center still possessed their arms, they were “invariably raised,”31 as were those on the more schematized specimens from the shrine at Tiryns,32 and, in fact, most of the numerous handmade and wheel-made figurines of the LH III B-C period. That pose presumably designates a worshipper in the posture of supplication, or a deity in the set of epiphany or benediction. The type suddenly became extinct at the end of the Mycenaean Age. With the return of the Peloponnesian wheel-made figurines and female idols ca. 700 B.C., there is “a remarkable associated phenomenon, the reappearance of the goddess with raised arms,” which, like other features of contemporary terra cottas, made a “strange revival.”33 They then “kept reappearing spontaneously in widely separated parts of the country without any direct continuity that can be traced among the votive statuettes themselves. Something much more than an archaeological zeal on the part of the faithful needs to be invoked to explain this!”34


  1. W. Taylour, “Mycenae, 1968,” Antiquity 43 (1969), pp. 91-97; idem, “New Light on Mycenaean Religion,” Antiquity 44 (1970), pp. 270-280; G. Mylonas, “The Cult Center of Mycenae,” (English summary), Pragmateiai tes Akademias Athenon, 33 (1972), pp. 36-40. 

  2. R. Carpenter, Folk Tale, Fiction and Saga in the Homeric Epics (Los Angeles, 1946), p. 85; Lorimer, (1950), pp. 433-440; J. Myres, “Homer and the Monuments: A Review,” Antiquity 25 (1951), p. 73; M.I. Finley, The World of Odysseus (New York, 1954), p. 39; T.B.L. Webster in Wace-Stubbings,(1962), p. 454; Dickinson,(1973-4), p. 40; cf. Kirk,(1964), p. 179. 

  3. Hope Simpson-Lazenby,(1970), p. 2; Mylonas,(1972), p. 40; Snodgrass, (1974), p. 12. For Tiryns, see M.E. Caskey, “Newsletter from Greece,” AJA, 81 (1977), p. 511, and AJA, 82 (1978), p. 339. 

  4. Snodgrass, loc. cit.; idem,(1971), p. 26. cf. n. 25 below. 

  5. Tsountas-Manatt,(1897), p. 322; W.B. Dinsmoor, The Architecture of Ancient Greece (New York, 1950), p. 21; M.L. Bowen, “Some Observations on the Origin of Triglyphs,” BSA, 45 (1950), p. 123; W. McDonald, Progress into the Past (New York, 1967), pp. 423-424; Richter,(1969), p. 22; B. Schweitzer, Greek Geometric Art (tr. P. & C. Usborne) (New York, 1971 [pub’d posthumously]), pp. 223-224; Robertson,(1975), pp. 60-61; Cf. Snodgrass,(1971), pp. 409, 424. 

  6. Snodgrass, ibid., p. 369; cf. H. Drerup, Griechische Baukunst in geometrischer Zeit (Archaeologia Homerica II,0) (Göttingen, 1969) p. 77.

  7. Snodgrass, ibid., pp. 369, 383-384; Drerup, ibid., p. 82; Dinsmoor, (1950), p. 58; Starr,(1961), pp. 247-248; D.M. Robinson, “Haus” in Pauly-Wissowa’s Real-Encylopädie, Supp. 7 (1940), 235. 

  8. M. P. Nilsson, Homer and Mycenae (London, 1933), p. 121. 

  9. Cf. above “The Bronze Age,” ns. 17-21.

  10. Nilsson, (1933), pp. 120, 159, 211; Gray,(1954), p. 15; idem, “Homer and the Archaeologists” in Fifty Years of Classical Scholarship (ed. M. Platnauer) (Oxford, 1954), p. 29; Webster, (1964), pp. 212, 226; J. Davison, “The Homeric Question” in Wace-Stubbings,(1962), p. 257; G.F. Else, “Homer and the Homeric Problem” in Lectures in Memory of L.T. Semple I (ed. D. Bradeen et. al.) (Princeton, 1967), p. 331; E.A. Havelock, “Prologue to Greek Literacy” in Lectures in Memory of L.T. Semple II (ed. C.G. Boulter et. al.) (Princeton, 1973), p. 335; Kirk, (1976), pp. 37-38, 42-43; for the problem of dating the language, cf. Whitman,(1958), p. 61. 

  11. Davison, ibid., p. 257. 

  12. Nilsson, (1933), p. 159.

  13. Else,(1967), p. 331. 

  14. Havelock,(1973), p. 335. 

  15. Snodgrass,(1971), p. 389. 

  16. Idem,(1974), p. 123.

  17. Loc. cit.; Kirk,(1964), pp. 176, 178; Nilsson, (1933), pp. 121, 159, 211; Gray,(1954), p. 15; Vermeule, (1972), p. 309. In addition to the few items we already noted (silver-studded swords, chariots, tripods, corselets, temples) the list also includes references to Sicily, Egypt, Amazons, political geography, lamps, the brooch of Odysseus, helmets, greaves (leg guards), bows and arrows, thrusting spears, twin throwing spears, shields and shield devices, horse burials, hunting, fishing, farming, hording, overseas trade, ivory-inlaid furniture, even the principal characters in the poems and Homer himself - in fact nearly everything imaginable, where one side could favor the Mycenaean Age, the other the eighth/seventh century, and no one can make a good case for the intervening centuries. 

  18. Hope Simpson-Lazenby,(1970), p. 2. 

  19. J.A. Notopoulos, “Homer, Hesiod and the Achaean Heritage of Oral Poetry,” Hesperia, 29 (1960), p. 187; A. Andrewes, The Greeks (London, 1967), p. 40. 

  20. Cf. Dickinson,(1973-4), pp. 36-37, 43-44. 

  21. Taylour, (1969), p. 96, cf. p. 97 n. 14; (1970), p. 275. 

  22. Cp. Taylour, ibid., (1970), pl. 41 a-b to Barron,(1970), p. 16. 

  23. Taylour, loc. cit. pl. 41 c-d; cf. above “A Terracotta Figurine and a Terracotta Head,” ns. 6-7. 

  24. Snodgrass,(1971), p. 345. 

  25. Cp. Taylour, (1970), pl. 41 to Hogarth,(1908), pls. 21.3, 25.12 (lion) and 21.6, 22 (priestess), and to T.J. Dunbabin et. al., Perachora II (Oxford, 1962), pi. 171 (sphinx). 

  26. Taylour, (1969), p. 92 and cf. Nicholls,(1970), p. 3. 

  27. Taylour, loc. cit. 

  28. It appears much earlier in Egypt; the 18th and 19th Dynasty examples, by the revised chronology, inspired the Greek ones directly. It also apperies on the Enkomi bronze mentioned above. (see “A Terracotta Figurine and a Terracotta Head,” n. 16) 

  29. Caskey, (1977), p. 511 and fig. 7; (1978), pp. 339-340 and figs 2-4. 

  30. Nicholls,(1970), pp. 17-18. There were a very few Dark Age wheel-made figurines from Athens and Euboea, but despite their acknowledged similarity to Mycenaean specimens, they, too, seem to return to Greece after a centuries-long break—a fact which causes contention among experts (cf. above “Shaft Grave Art: Modern Problems,” n. 11, to which add Dietrich,(1970), pp. 21-22). Since the Greeks continued to fashion ceramic objects, including wheel-made pottery, and no one seriously doubts that their religious beliefs and practices remained essentially unchanged, the Greeks’ failure to fashion wheel-made or even handmade figurines between the peak periods of production in LH III and the eighth-seventh centuries lacks a convincing explanation.  

  31. Taylour, (1970), p. 277 and cf. pl. 42. 

  32. Cf. n. 29 above.

  33. Nicholls,(1970), pp. 17-18. 

  34. Ibid., p. 20; cf. Snodgrass, (1971), pp. 192, 399, and Dietrich, (1970), pp. 21-22. On Crete and Cyprus, the type did persist during the “Dark Age” (Desborough, (1972), p. 285; V. Karageorghis, “The Goddess with Uplifted Arms in Cyprus,” Scripta Minora [Lund], 1977-1978 [2], pp. 5-44)—a fact which Nicholls (ibid., p. 13) termed “inescapable.” Nevertheless, as in the case of the wheel-made figurines from those islands (cf. above “Shaft Grave Art: Modern Problems,” n. 11), he did not believe that the type returned from there after the 500-year gap in Greece itself. Closer to Mycenae, the sole intermediary example known is a crude bronze figurine from the island of Naxos, which falls sometime during the late eleventh-tenth century (Snodgrass, ibid, pp. 200, n. 34, 399). By the revised chronology, the Naxian statuette, as well as the early Cretan and Cypriote specimens—none of which comes from Greece proper—precede the Mycenaean examples which they supposedly follow.
    “The only simple explanation” for the revival which Nicholls offered (ibid., p. 20) is that the later figurines copied wooden models, which spanned the Dark Age, but unfortunately failed to survive. The “perishables theory” is a favorite one among historians who note very similar non-perishable remains on either side of the Dark Age (e.g., figurines, statues, architectural forms, writing, decorative motifs, etc, etc.) and try to bridge the intervening centuries. By this very nature it is a hypothesis which is incapable of proof or refutation, and fails to explain why the Greeks, who still modeled, painted and incised clay, did not continue to make imperishable figurines during that period. Even if the gap was real, which is the main issue of the present essay a still simpler explanation would be that art imitated life, i.e, that people from Mycenaean times onward prayed with both hands uplifted, and that sculptors showed that pose at those times when they did produce figural art in permanent materials.