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Thursday, April 21, 2011

Schliemann and Agamemnon

Stepping into the National Archeological Museum in Athens, the first thing you see is the Mycenae gallery. (Actually the first thing we saw was a large tortoise roaming the area outside the bathrooms. After getting a picture, I notified a docent, who shrugged, laughed and indicated the turtle was a frequent and not unwelcome patron.)
The first thing you see stepping into the Mycenae gallery is the mask of Agamemnon.  (A quick thumbnail refresher: the earlier Minoan civilization was wiped out by the Myceneans - called the Acheans by Homer - and the legendary king of the Myceneans was Agamemnon, who sacrificed his daughter to Poseidon, fought at Troy, was murdered by his wife and was avenged by his son.)  And the burial mask of the star of this maelstrom - Agamemnon - gazes calmly at us through beaten gold.
Or at least it's supposed to be Agamemnon.
In 1876, when most scholars assumed the Illiad had all the factual basis of the Great Pumpkin, a retired German businessman in the Import-Export trade, put egg on everyone's face by sticking a shovel into the dirt in the place Homer declared Agamemnon had ruled. The intellectual elite were laughing up their sleeves at this. It was like looking for Cinderella's castle or the mine where the seven dwarves worked.
But then, just where Homer said, Schliemann began to unearth gold. Gold of unbelievably beautful workmanship.
With the touching modesty and self-effacement so common to German import-exporters, Schliemann notified the Greek King: "With great joy I announce to Your Majesty that I have discovered the tombs which the tradition proclaimed by Pausanias indicates to be the graves of Agamemnon, Cassandra, Eurymedon and their companions, all slain at a banquet by Clytemnestra and her lover Aegisthos."  He also said the finds would create the greatest museum on earth.
In little time, the know-it-all archeologists were laughing at Schliemann again. The graves at Mycenae were too late by hundreds of years to have belonged to Agamemnon.  Now in its display case, "Mask of Agamemnon" has quotation marks around it.  It turns out, if you get egg on your face, it washes off pretty easily.
Well, I don't care.  As far as I'm concerned, that is the mask of Agamemnon, right down to the whiskers. Him what digs it up gets to name it.  Them's my rules.
Agamemnon, who slew his daughter, sailed the wine-dark sea to bring down the mighty walls of Troy.  He who returned with a new concubine, Cassandra, good in bed but so boring. His whose wife killed him for the daughter, the concubine, and because she'd taken a lover herself, so what the hey.  That is Agamemnon, whom Orestes avenged. Agamemnon of Homer and Sophocles. Someone put a gold mask on him. No one mentioned that part, but it's Agamemnon nonetheless.

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