Where Legends Were Born and Myths Died Hard: Peloponnese

The eastern entrance to the Canal of Corinth is considerably wider than its 21 m./70 ft. width.

The eastern entrance to the Canal of Corinth is considerably wider than its 21 m./70 ft. width at its narrowest.

Crossing the narrow isthmus of Corinth from Attica to the peninsula of Peloponnese felt as if I’d crossed into the lands and fertile imagination of my eight year-old world. Captivated by my 3rd grade text of Greek mythology, my absorption with Greek history, gods and wars grew along with my expanded reading, our family travels, and my father’s tolerance for answering endless questions. By the time I was 12, I knew far more European history – especially Greek – than I knew about my own country. To me, the legends and myths of Greece, the major wars between the dominant city states of Athens, Corinth and Sparta (as well as smaller wars between any of them and other Greek cities), the great Greek-Persian battles, were a living panoply of history, often re-enacted with childhood friends. (I usually chose to be a Spartan warrior – but only if I had to be a mortal…but…if I was feeling particularly democratic and less like a goddess, I’d opt to be an Athenian bull leaper in Crete. Go figure.)

Thus it was with awe I walked through the ancient cities of Corinth and Mycenae, strolling the same cobbled and marbled roads that kings Menelaus and Agamemnon had trod before they set sail for Troy. We even visited what is believed to be the site of Agamemnon’s tomb. However, I’m going to leave it to you readers to look up what aspects of Greek history and myth to refresh your memories, and will try to stick with mostly pictures and explanatory captions. (And maybe a legend or two!)

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The Corinth Canal connects the Saronic Gulf the east the Aegean Sea, to the Gulf of Corinth, in the west (which in turn leads to the Ionian Sea, then to the Adriatic Sea). Unable to cut through the meters-thick rock, the crafty Corinthians of old laid logs across the width of the isthmus, and charged mariners to drag their ships across land to the other side. It was either drag your ship across the isthmus 6 km/4 miles or spend 2-3 days sailing around the Peloponnesian Peninsula. Due its narrow breadth, the canal today is used primarily by pleasure craft or very small commercial freighters.

With beginnings tracing back to the 8th c. B.C., Corinth by its heyday in 5th c. B.C. was a power to be reckoned with. One of the three most powerful Greek city-states, along with Athens and Sparta, Corinth had a population of about 250,000 and was a bustling center of commerce and wealth.  As with much of southern Greece, Corinth took its lumps from various invading forces: the Romans, Venetians and other European powers, before being taken over by the Ottomans. Today its excavated ruins can only give a glimpse of the beauty and position of power Corinth once had.An

Now, as promised, more pictures and less words.

Ancient Corinth

Acropolis overlooking Ancient Corinth. Centuries later, various central and western Europeans built their own fortifications around or over the ancient ones, giving the fortress walls a medieval look.

Acropolis overlooking Ancient Corinth. Centuries later, various central and western Europeans built their own fortifications around or over the ancient ones, giving the fortress walls a medieval look.

An interesting blend of ancient ruins of Corinth in the foreground, with a Byzantine church if left background, and more modern buildings to the right, with a Byzantine style church in the left background.

An interesting blend of ancient ruins of Corinth in the foreground, with a Byzantine church if left background, and more modern buildings to the right, with a Byzantine style church in the left background.

Ancient amphiteater at Corinth

Ancient amphitheater at Corinth

Temple of Apollo. It held 30 Doric columns, the tallest monolithic columns of any ancient Greek temple.

Temple of Apollo. It held 30 Doric columns, the tallest monolithic columns of any ancient Greek temple.

Temple of Apollo (circa mid-6th c. B.C.) contains the tallest monolithic columns of any ancient temple in Greece, per Jordan. Originally there were 34 limestone, marble-stuccoed Doric columns; today seven remain standing – still an impressive sight.

Reputedly the bath house and boudoir of one of the leading courtesans of Corinth (there were several hundred).

Reputedly the bath house and boudoir of one of the leading courtesans of Corinth (there were several hundred).

Greco-Roman statuary recovered in the excavations; on display outside the small museum at ancient Corinth.

Greco-Roman statuary recovered in the excavations; on display outside the small museum at ancient Corinth.

Remains of shops lining Lechaion Road

Remains of shops lining Lechaion Road

Well-preserved metope from Corinth

Well-preserved metope from Corinth

The Lechaion Road, the central road of Corinth, once lead from the city of approx. 250,000 to the Gulf of Corinth.

The Lechaion Road, the central road of Corinth, once lead from the city of approx. 250,000 to the Gulf of Corinth.

The Lechaion Road originated in Lechaion,the port city of ancient Corinth, strategically located northwest of Corinth. The marble-paved road, 20 feet wide or more  in places, ended at the propylaia or monumental entrance to the heart of Corinth.

Mycenae

Allegedly built by the giant, Cyclops, the only being large and strong enough to haul the huge stones up the surrounding mountains, Mycenae’s mountain city-fortress has survived the centuries. The Mycenae dynasties ruled from this citadel 16th through 12th c, B.C. and spread its culture throughout the eastern and mid-Mediterranean rim. The Mycenaean royalty supposedly were descended from the Olympian gods, and thus were the source of legends, myths, poetry and art for centuries beyond their existence. Yet until little over a century ago, most of the world believed that the Mycenae, Troy and the casts of characters spawned by Homer’s epic poetry were simply myth coupled with artistic license. German archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann’s brilliant excavations both at Mycenae and in western Turkey proved that at least some of the events, people and cities of legends were real.

Citadel atop the hill upon which Mycenae was built.

Citadel atop the hill upon which Mycenae was built.

So what really started the Trojan War? Did some or all of these legendary people truly exist and live as depicted in legend: Agamemnon and his faithless wife Clytemnestra; his brother Menelaus, whose wife, the beauteous Helen, purportedly sparked the Trojan war when she ran off with Paris, prince of Troy; warriors Achilles and Ajax; vengeful siblings Electra and Orestes; the wandering Odysseus. No one is absolutely certain where the facts waned and the legends grew, but there is some truth in the epic tales. Jealous, spiteful gods, youthful indiscretions, testosterone-fueled pride, revenge, alliances and allegiances, lust and greed — all seemed to have played a part in this story – along with a lot of myth. Here’s a highly condensed version:

Barred from an Olympian wedding due to her disagreeable nature, Eris, the goddess of discord, threw a golden apple among the guests. Inscribed on the apple were the words, “For the most beautiful.” Three goddesses immediately claimed the prize and title: Hera, Venus and Aphrodite. Chicken that he was, Zeus, who happened to be married to Hera, turfed the decision to a mere mortal, Paris, one of the sons of the King of Troy. Both Hera and Athena tried to bribe Paris with practical gifts: wealth and power from Hera, great wisdom from Athena. Aphrodite promised Paris the love of the most beautiful woman in the world. What a surprise: Paris chose Aphrodite to win the coveted apple.

Helen, the most beautiful woman in the world, unfortunately was married to Menelaus, King of Mycenaean Sparta. Undaunted – and on the ruse of a diplomatic mission — Paris traveled to Sparta to scope out the scene and claim his prize. Aphrodite’s little helper, Cupid, struck Helen with a “love arrow;” she duly fell in love with Paris, and off the two absconded across the Aegean to Troy, on the western coast of what is now Turkey.

Humiliated and angered, Menelaus gathered his fellow Greek allies, including his brother, King Agamemnon, the King of Mycenae, Ulysses and others, and set sail for Troy. And while it would be convenient to say “the rest is history,” that wouldn’t be quite true. While most historians agree (1) there was a great city called Troy, and, (2) there was some kind of war between a Greek coalition, led by the Mycenaeans, and the Trojans, many also believe that this war had more to do with regional competition and wealth rather than love and revenge and the stuff of legendary heroes. And there are those who believe the whole story is a lot of Homeric bunk. But it is entertaining and certainly resonates, as it’s been retold for about 3000 years.

Barred from an Olympian wedding due to her disagreeable nature, Eris, the goddess of discord, threw a golden apple among the guests. Inscribed on the apple were the words, “For the most beautiful.” Three goddesses immediately claimed the prize and title: Hera, Venus and Aphrodite. Chicken that he was, Zeus, who happened to be married to Hera, turfed the decision to a mere mortal, Paris, one of the sons of the King of Troy. Both Hera and Athena tried to bribe Paris with practical gifts: wealth and power from Hera, great wisdom from Athena. Aphrodite promised Paris the love of the most beautiful woman in the world. What a surprise: Paris chose Aphrodite to win the coveted apple.

Helen, the most beautiful woman in the world, unfortunately was married to Menelaus, King of Mycenaean Sparta. Undaunted – and on the ruse of a diplomatic mission — Paris traveled to Sparta to scope out the scene and claim his prize. Aphrodite’s little helper, Cupid, struck Helen with a “love arrow;” she duly fell in love with Paris, and off the two absconded across the Aegean to Troy, on the western coast of what is now Turkey.

Humiliated and angered, Menelaus gathered his fellow Greek allies, including his brother, King Agamemnon, the King of Mycenae, Ulysses and others, and set sail for Troy. And while it would be convenient to say “the rest is history,” that wouldn’t be quite true. While most historians agree (1) there was a great city called Troy, and, (2) there was some kind of war between a Greek coalition, led by the Mycenaeans, and the Trojans, many also believe that this war had more to do with regional competition and wealth rather than love and revenge and the stuff of legendary heroes. And there are those who believe the whole story is a lot of Homeric bunk. But it is entertaining and certainly resonates, as it’s been retold for about 3000 years.

Now for some pictures.

Lions' Gate, leading to the inner city of Mycenae

Lions’ Gate, leading to the inner city of Mycenae

Detail of Lions' Gate

Detail of Lions’ Gate

Royal cemeteries or grave circles functioned as mass graves, where  layers of Mycenaean royalty were laid to rest over their elders.

Royal cemeteries or grave circles functioned as mass graves, where layers of Mycenaean royalty were laid to rest over their elders.

Mycenaean gold mask recovered from the royal grave pits at Mycenae.

Mycenaean gold mask recovered from the royal grave pits at Mycenae.

Entrance to tomb of King Agamemnon. A gold mask, one of several found (as the one above) in the royal grave circle at Mycenae, is believed to be that of Agamemnon and is in the National Museum of Archaeology in Athens.

Entrance to tomb of King Agamemnon. A gold mask, one of several found (as the one above) in the royal grave circle at Mycenae, is believed to be that of Agamemnon and is in the National Museum of Archaeology in Athens.

Entrance to one of the grave circles at Mycenae.

Entrance to one of the grave circles at Mycenae.

Gold necklace from Mycenae.

Gold necklace from Mycenae.

Swords found at Mycenae

Swords found at Mycenae

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Nafplion

Once the capital of Greece, Nafplion is a hidden beauty unfamiliar to many Europeans and most Americans. Its charming yet small waterfront on the Argolic Gulf of palm-fronted, open-air restaurants and cafes remind me of Nice and Cannes in the 60s.  As much of southern Greece, Nafplion fell under the dominion (post-Roman empire) of various European powers before being overtaken by the Ottoman Turks, then wrested back in the name of Christianity and re-established as the kingdom of Greece in the 1830s. The Europeans’ puppet king, Otto, a lesser Bavarian prince, promptly moved the capital to Athens and Nafplion slipped into the backwaters of history. The city is slowly being discovered by an increasing number of tourists, but still retains its small town charm and appearance. (In other words, not a lot of globalization is readily apparent.)

A portion of the Naplion waterfront in the foreground, with the small Venetian fort Bourtzi in upper left.

A portion of the Naplion waterfront in the foreground, with the small Venetian fort Bourtzi in upper left.

The Venetians defeated the ruling Ottomans here in 1540. They were building the Palamidi fortress-castle when the region was retaken by the Ottomans in 1715.

The Venetians defeated the ruling Ottomans here in 1540. They were building the Palamidi fortress-castle when the region was retaken by the Ottomans in 1715.

Part of Palmidi overlooking the Argolic Gulf.

Part of Palmidi overlooking the Argolic Gulf.

Epidavros

Another site we visited was Epidavros, once the center for healing in ancient Greece. Founded in the 6th c. B.C. to honor the god of healing, Asclepius, the sanctuary grew in reputation and wealth from grateful patrons cured of various maladies. Due to all the generous gifting from grateful patrons and patients, the site also became a center for the arts, with beautiful buildings designed by the bests architects, statuary from the best sculptors, and the construction of one of the most acoustically perfect amphitheaters of the ancient world — and one of the best preserved.

Unfortunately, invasions over the centuries from Romans, Goths and others destroyed much of the buildings and artwork. However, the amphitheater has survived quite well and is still used today for performances. A small museum displays many of the excavated items, including some interesting medical instruments, many of which have changed little over the centuries.

Medical Instruments from  3rd and 4th c. B.C.

Medical Instruments from 3rd and 4th c. B.C.

Statue of Asklepios, the god of healing (Aesclypsus in Latin).

Statue of Asklepios, the god of healing (Aesclypsus in Latin).

Amphitheater at Epidavros, still in use today. There were too many tour groups coming and going to try out the acousitics. Supposedly a coin dropped on stage can be heard throughout the stadium.

Amphitheater at Epidavros, still in use today. There were too many tour groups coming and going to try out the acoustics. Supposedly a coin dropped on stage can be heard throughout the stadium.

As a final word, I cannot begin to thank enough our driver-guide, Jordan Daigolou for the incredible tour he gave this day (along with his son guide-in-training, Nikolas) as well as his tour of Athens the day before. Our drives from site to site were full of historically sound information, Greek myths and facts, and spirited discussion. For any of you traveling to Greece and want a great driver-guide, here’s Jordan’s website and email: www.athens-tours.gr and jordantaxi52@hotmail.com.

Up next: Crete!

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