Barbarians and Bureaucrats: The Myceneans

Mycenean Religion

Barbarians & Bureaucrats
The Greek Dark Ages
   In many ways we know Mycenean religion for much of it survives into classical Greece in the pantheon of Greek gods. But we really don't know how much of Greek religious belief is Mycenean, and how much is a product of the Greek Dark Ages or later. Like everything else about ancient cultures, it is hard to reconstruct a religious system from only ruins and a few fragments of writing.


   There are several reasonable guesses that we can make, however, Mycenean religions was almost certainly polytheistic, and the Myceneans were actively syncretistic, adding foreign gods to their pantheon of gods with surprising ease. The Myceneans probably entered Greece with a pantheon of gods headed by some ruling sky-god which linguists speculate might have been called *Dyeus in early Indo-European. This *Dyeus shows up in almost all Indo-European languages, suggesting that this god is a common heritage for all Indo-European peoples. In Greek, this god would become "Zeus," among the Hindus, this sky-god becomes "dyaus pitar" ("pitar" means "father"); we still encounter this word in the etymologies of the words "deity" and "divine."



Barbarians & Bureaucrats
Minoan Religion
   At some point in their cultural history, the Myceneans adopted the Minoan goddesses and associated these goddesses with their sky-god; scholars believe that the Greek pantheon of gods do not reflect Mycenean religion except for Zeus and the female goddesses. These goddesses, however, are Minoan in origin. In general, later Greek religion distinguishes between two types of gods: the Olympian or sky-gods (which you have all heard of in some form or another), and the gods of the earth, or chthonic gods—these chthonic gods are almost all female. The Greeks believed that the chthonic gods were older than the Olympian gods; this suggests that the original Greek religion may have been oriented around goddesses of the earth, but there is no evidence for this outside of reasonable speculation.


Barbarians & Bureaucrats
Homer
   Mycenean religion certainly involved offerings and sacrifices to the gods, and some have speculated that they involved human sacrifice based on textual evidence and bones found outside tombs. In the Homeric poems, there seems to be a lingering cultural memory of human sacrifice in King Agamemnon's sacrifice of his daughter, Iphigenia; several of the stories of Trojan heroes involve tragic human sacrifice. This, however, is all speculation.


   Beyond this speculation we can go no further. Somewhere in the shades of the centuries between the fall of the Mycenean civilization and the end of the Greek Dark Ages, the original Mycenean religion persisted and adapted until it finally emerged in the stories of human devotion, apostasy, and divine capriciousness in the two great epic poems of Homer.

Richard Hooker



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1996, Richard Hooker
Updated 9-15-97