For most people, Greece is the most obvious and commonplace of tourist destinations. But I’d never been until just a few years ago, before all the present troubles. I went for history, not sunshine, which was just as well, since it rained for most of our time there.
It was Mycenae that fascinated me most. So old, so mysterious. It seems to have been a civilisation with such charm; the elegant frescoes of long-tressed maidens, or snake-hipped graceful youths, the pottery playfully decorated with swirly octopuses, the delicate gold jewellery, the finely-chased swords. You can even see what they looked like now; in the museum there they’ve made reconstructions of the faces of some of the royals who were buried there; their surprisingly ordinary and familiar faces look out at you across centuries.
But one thing is missing – only one thing though it’s a big thing. For years their writing was a mystery . But now it’s been decoded, and what have we got? Shopping lists. Lists of tribute items, but essentially shopping lists. No stories, no poems, no prayers, no dedications. No names. These kings and queens, for all their elegance and sophistication are nameless and unknown.
Other civilisations at the time told stories – and wrote them down. The Egyptians left lots of stories. We know about Gilgamesh and Jehovah, and we feel that the people who wrote these stories down took pleasure in the telling.
So what happened to the Mycenaean stories? They must have had stories – it’s inconceivable that they didn’t. Maybe they wrote them on a material that didn’t last. Or – more likely – they were simply told orally, handed on and on by word of mouth , for the hundreds of years the civilisation flourished. And the problem with oral tradition is that once the voices die, then so do the stories.
After the Mycenaeans died out so did their scratchy laundry-list script. It wasn’t till many hundreds of years later that another generation of Greeks rediscovered another more adaptable form of writng and at last started to write those stories down. But by then so many years had passed that it was myth they were writing about, not history. Perhaps there really was a king called Agamemmnon and perhaps he really was killed by his wife, having come back from a long war. Perhaps. We’ll never know. Without those stories the Mycenaeans are just blurred ghosts.
Made me think how important stories are – fiction, history, myth. A civilisation without them is only half a civilisation. And it’s nice sometimes for us writers, in these days of publishing doom-and-gloom to realise that we’re part of that great story telling web that stretches back to….well, not to the Mycenaeans. If only it did.