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Chapter 2: Historical Background of Greek Mythology

Heinrich Schliemann was responsible for opening up a whole new world for archaeology and history because of his faith in the truth of the stories told by Homer in the Iliad and Odyssey. Because of his excavations at Troy, in the 1870s, it has been proven through the reexamination of the site by subsequent archaeologists (Wilhelm Dörpfeld, Carl Blegen, and most recently Manfred Korfmann) that the Trojan War actually did take place. There remain some skeptics to be sure, but their arguments continue to lose strength as our knowledge increases, although many details in the legendary tradition will remain forever impossible to verify.

In recent years Schliemann has come under attack, both personally and professionally. He is criticized for his failure to give due credit to Frank Calvert, who anticipated his identification of Hisarlik as the site of ancient Troy; he is attacked for his crude archaeological methods, which allowed the ruthless destruction of valuable evidence; and he has been labeled a liar and a fraud because of inaccuracies and contradictions in his reporting of his finds, such as the “Treasure of Priam.” Nevertheless, Heinrich Schliemann is to be given pride of place as a brilliant pioneer, who made it possible for us to know the reality of the Mycenaean world.

Schliemann also unearthed significant finds at Mycenae: a magnificent palace with monumental walls and an impressive Lion Gate; a circle of shaft graves containing a wealth of gold objects and precious artifacts; and huge beehive (tholos) tombs built into the hillsides. Other excavations on the mainland of Greece by Schliemann himself and by his successors confirmed the world of the Greek heroes who mounted an expedition against Troy: Mycenae was the kingdom of Agamemnon. Carl Blegen, among those who refined the science and the art of archaeology, discovered the palace of King Nestor at Pylos and, in its ruins, such a horde of tablets inscribed with a script called Linear B that decipherment of this early form of Greek became possible. Tiryns, another palace, may be linked to the career of Heracles; and Mycenaean Thebes was once ruled by King Oedipus.

Sir Arthur Evans (ca. 1900) discovered at Cnossus in Crete a vast, complex palace and established the identity of Minoan civilization. Thus it became possible to discern links between the ruins and the legends about King Minos and the Athenian hero Theseus, the slayer of the Minotaur in its labyrinth.

The tradition of oral epic poetry was begun in the Minoan-Mycenaean period (1600-1100 B.C.) and continued for many years after; it was not until the eighth century that the masterpieces attributed to Homer, the Iliad and the Odyssey, were set down in writing.

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