Chapter 02

Historical Background of Greek Mythology


The study of classical mythology, especially Greek legend or saga with its basis in historical fact, is enhanced by a survey of the history of Greece in the Bronze Age, our knowledge of which has continually been expanded since the time of Heinrich Schliemann.

Heinrich Schliemann (1822–1890), Founder of Modern Archaeology. Schliemann fervently believed in the historicity of Homer’s picture of the age of heroes and amassed a great fortune before he turned to archaeological excavation to prove the truth of his seemingly romantic convictions. His extended excavations at Troy, Mycenae, and Tiryns, begun in the 1870s, confirmed that these cities had achieved a stature in wealth, power, and influence that accords well with Homer's depiction of the Mycenaean world.

Sir Arthur Evans in Crete. Subsequently the archaeologist Sir Arthur Evans discovered the Bronze Age civilization that existed on the island of Crete. In 1899 he began his excavations at Cnossus, the center of power for the legendary King Minos, and thus the period of the Bronze Age in Crete is designated as “Minoan.”


  • Stone Age

Paleolithic (Old Stone Age) before 70,000 B. C.
Neolithic (New Stone Age) ca. 6,000–3,000 B. C.
The Bronze Age (named Minoan for Crete, Cycladic for the Cyclades, the islands of the Aegean, and Helladic for mainland Greece, Hellas).

  • Early Bronze Age (3000–2000 B. C.)

Early Minoan

Early Cycladic

Early Helladic


  • Middle Bronze Age (2000–1600 B. C.)

Middle Minoan

Middle Cycladic

Middle Helladic


  • Late Bronze Age (1600–1100 B. C.)

Late Minoan

Late Cycladic

Late Helladic (also called Mycenaean because of the powerful city of Mycenae)

Paleolithic Age. Greece was inhabited at this time, but our knowledge remains scanty.

Neolithic Age. A migration of people from east and north of Greece settled into agricultural communities to judge from the archaeological remains: the foundations of dwellings, pottery, tools, and graves. The presence of small female “fetishes” or icons with exaggerated feminine characteristics have fostered the notion that this civilization worshiped a mother goddess. Smaller numbers of male statuettes have been interpreted by some as her lesser male consort.

Bronze Age. The Bronze Age followed the Neolithic period with inhabitants moving into Greece, Crete and Cyclades from the east. To these peoples are attributed the construction of Minoan civilization on Crete.

Minoan Civilization. Named after the legendary king Minos, Minoan civilization reached its zenith during the Late Bronze Age (1600–1100 B. C.). The large palatial complexes (especially the one at Cnossus) that have been unearthed reveal a sophisticated and wealthy civilization. Excavations at Cnossus and Phaestus confirm the historical and mythological tradition that Minoan Crete by its control of the sea extended a cultural hegemony throughout the Aegean islands and mainland Greece and support the interpretation that the mythological stories about King Minos and Theseus’ slaying of the Minotaur in its labyrinth as a kind of quasi-historical remembrance. The collusion of the archaeological record and legend has continued to fascinate: the importance of the bull motif, especially provocative in the frescoes that depict the bull-leaping ritual or contest; the double-headed axe, or labrys, and its connection with the non-Greek word labyrinth; the complexity of the palace of Cnossus, suggesting a labyrinthine structure; the significance of the fertility mother goddess; the exaction of tribute by an ascendant Cretan power from lesser Greek states.
Cretan power was undone by about 1400 B. C., though there is no consensus regarding the exact reasons. Generally speaking, scholars find themselves divided between those who hold that the Mycenaean Greeks assumed control over Crete and those who do not. The former hypothesis seems the more likely.
For some, the cause of the eclipse of Cretan power is to be found in the volcanic eruption on the island of Thera (modern Santorini, some seventy miles northwest of Crete), though the archaeological remains seem to date the destruction of the island earlier than that of Crete. Some scholars also see in the eruption of Thera and the destruction of its sophisticated culture the seeds of Plato’s myth of the destruction of Atlantis in his Critias and Timaeus.

The Mycenaean Age. In the Middle Bronze Age an invasion or migration from the north and possibly the east brought into mainland Greece the first Greek-speaking people. The civilization that they established reached its peak in the Late Bronze Age and has been called Mycenaean, after one of its principal centers of power, Mycenae. Mycenaean civilization, although influenced by the earlier Minoan, differs from it in some striking ways. Mycenae, excavated by Heinrich Schliemann, seems to have lived up to its most famous Homeric epithet “rich in gold.” Surrounded by monumental walls (called Cyclopean because they were said to have been built by the Cyclopes) and entered through the Lion Gate (with its relief above the entrance of two lions or lionesses flanking a single column), Mycenae was built, as were Cretan communities, around a complex palatial structure. Just inside the gate, Schliemann discovered a circle of shaft graves, which contained a considerable treasure. Also excavated were tholos tombs, beehive structures below the palace complex and typical of Mycenaean centers in general.
Schliemann’s finds established the generally accurate picture of the Homeric account of the sophistication and wealth of these Mycenaean Greek communities. Homer composed epic songs celebrating a heroic age, and it must be about these communities that he, and other poets, would continue to sing hundreds of years after their collapse.
Of great significant is the work of Carl Blegen (1887–1971), who discovered the Mycenaean palace of the legendary King Nestor at Pylos. Particularly impressive is its well-preserved megaron, or central room, with an open hearth, a feature found in Mycenaean but not in Minoan palaces.
In the sphere of religion, the Mycenaeans with their worship of a supreme sky-god Zeus differed fundamentally from the Minoans, who worshiped a fertility mother goddess. In many respects, Greek mythology can be seen as the synthesis of the tension between Minoan and Mycenaean culture.

Linear B. In the excavation of Mycenaean civilization, clay tablets inscribed with writing have been found; an especially rich hoard was discovered at Pylos, preserved by the fire that brought destruction towards the end of the Bronze Age. These tablets, deciphered in 1952 by Michael Ventris, in collaboration with John Chadwick, have been found to be the earliest form of the Greek language that we possess. The script is called Linear B, to distinguish it from the earlier Minoan script (as yet undeciphered) found on Crete. On Linear B tablets, mention is made of deities familiar to us from later Greek mythology: Zeus, Hera, Poseidon, Hermes, Athena, Eileithyia, and Dionysus. Also recorded is the word paean, which would be a later epithet for Apollo, and the name Enualios, to be identified with Ares. The appearance of the word potnia (mistress or lady) suggests that the Mycenaeans worshiped a goddess of the mother-fertility type, in addition to their sky-god Zeus.

Troy and the Trojan War. Schliemann and Wilhelm Dörpfeld conducted pioneering archaeological campaigns from 1871 to 1894 at Troy. The site was reexamined by Blegen from 1932 to 1938. In 1988 Manfred Korfmann began new excavations of the site, which are in progress today.
Nine successive settlements have been identified on the hill of Hisarlik, the site of Troy. Troy I dates from the Early Bronze (ca. 2920–2450 B. C.). Troy VIII or Ilion was an important city between ca. 700 B.C. and 85 B. C. Under Augustus, the Romans, who traced their ancestry back to the Trojan Aeneas, began a large-scale restoration of the city (Troy IX, Ilium 85–ca. A. D. 500). A viable city survived there until the late 12th or early 13th centuries.
At the level of Troy II (ca. 2600–2450) Schliemann unearthed a horde of treasure, which he inaccurately identified as belonging to Priam and the city of the Trojan War. This “Gold of Troy” was lost during World War II but rediscovered in the 1990s residing in the Pushkin Museum in Moscow.
Subsequent excavations have identified Troy VI or Troy VIIa or both as the Troy of the Homeric epics.
Dörpfeld claimed that Troy VI (Troia or Ilios, ca. 1700–1250), with its monumental walls, was the city of Priam. The current excavators under Korfmann, however, tend to believe, along with Blegen’s earlier assessments, that an earthquake destroyed Troy VI. For Blegen Troy VII (Troy VIIa to be exact) showed signs of siege and fire and was to be identified as the city of epic song. There was a continuity of culture between Troy VI and Troy VIIa and the remains, taken together, show evidence of human destruction and may represent Priam’s Troy at different stages of the conflict.
 Archaeology places the eclipse of Troy VI and VIIa at 1250–1150 B. C., which would coincide nicely with the traditional date of 1184 B. C. for the fall of Troy. The citadel at Troy VI reveals a place of prestige and power with significant fortification walls. The whole settlement, both citadel and lower area of habitation, was ca. 200,000 meters square, with a population of ca. 7000. The presence of hasty burials and piles of long-range weapons indicates the last struggles of Troy, the losing side in the war against the Mycenaean Greeks. Evidence suggests commercial ties between the two powers. Troy's strategic position guarding access through the Hellespont and her imposition of tolls suggest economic causes for the conflict.
Hittite texts reveal close ties between the Hittites and a city called “Wilusa,” which has plausibly identified with Ilios or Troy. Another text names the god Appaliunas, almost certainly to be identified with Apollo, one of the principal divine defenders of Troy in the Iliad.
Excavations have also tended to confirm Homeric geography. Most tantalizing of all has been the discovery of a Mycenaean cemetery, contemporaneous with late Troy VI or VIIa, on the original seashore at the time of the Trojan War. It surely is more than a romantic notion to identify here the camp of the Greek invaders.

End of the Mycenaean Age. Towards the end of the Late Bronze Age, the eastern Mediterranean experienced widespread upheaval. Within a generation, nearly all the centers of Mycenaean civilization suffered devastation. There are signs of siege and internal dissension. The tradition that the destruction of Mycenaean power coincided with an invasion of the Dorians from the north, though widely held, has come under fire. Some have attempted to attribute the end of Bronze Age Greece to the invading “sea peoples” mentioned in Egyptian records. Certainty has proven elusive.

Homer. Greece now entered an Age of Iron; there is a decline in population, a loss of literacy, and a much-impoverished material culture. By the eighth century B. C., Greece began to re-emerge from its Dark Age, with the composition of the Iliad and the Odyssey. Through an uninterrupted oral tradition from the Bronze Age to the eighth century B. C., bards transmitted their poetic songs glorifying the earlier epoch. “Homer,” whoever he was, or at least the material of the two epic poems, belongs to Asia Minor or one of the coastal islands.
The Homeric question or questions, details about the composition and development of the Homeric epics, cannot be finally answered. Both poems convey a Greek point of view and are recorded in an epic language, an amalgamation of Greek dialects created by the bardic tradition. Though the poems glorify the Bronze Age heroes, they also portray the world of the later period, down to the eighth century B. C. At some point the Homeric poems were committed to writing, but when this occurred or to what degree writing itself played a part in their composition is a much-disputed question. The end of the Dark Age sees the development of a system of writing much more flexible than Linear B. By borrowing from the symbols of the Phoenician script, but distinguishing in a new way both vowels and consonants, the Greeks invent the first true alphabet. 

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