As a former teacher of ancient history, albeit the sixth grade version, I was intrigued by a retelling of the story of Clytemnestra, in Oresteia by Aeschylus. I wondered why a literary talent like Colm Toibin would go there: what did he hope to add to or illuminate in the story? What I found was a kindred spirit, someone who, like me, found this connection to the ancients endlessly fascinating and relevant to our modern lives. The first chapter, Clytemenestra’s story, is chilling. “I have been acquainted with the smell of death. The sickly, sugary smell that wafted in the wind towards the rooms in the palace.” Prior to reading, I had no expectations, only excited anticipation, but reading those words left me goose-fleshed, and curiously, understanding of the wave of emotion that preceded those words. I don’t think I’ve ever had a murderous thought in my life, yet I completely understood what Clytemnestra was feeling at that moment, when her only focus was to eliminate the husband who shattered her existence by his betrayal. The one who, by lying to her, made her complicit in the death of their daughter, Iphigenia, who was sacrificed to appease the gods, to win their favor, and win a war. In what universe are those acts noble?
As I read, I was struck by Electra’s self-righteousness as she plotted her mother’s and lover, Aegisthus’s, deaths. Electra believed herself and her cause to be noble, because she had consulted the gods, unlike her mother, Clytemnestra, who had acted alone in the murder of Agamemnon, proclaiming that the time of the gods had past. Is this so very different from the news that consumes us daily, except that it is more personal because it is a single family’s story? Killing in the name of one’s god is so very timely in real life. And yet, in fiction, it seems crazy.
The first trip I ever took abroad was to Greece when I was 34 years old. The whole experience was magical to me because I was teaching sixth graders about this ancient society at the time. One of the side trips I took was to Mycenae, home of Agamemnon and Clytemnestra. I remember the Lion Gate and the Treasury of Atreus. Sadly, I could not locate my photographs from the trip, but the pictures here recall my memories of this inspiring place, where my feet trod in the dust of the ancients. Magical!
The Lion Gate is the main entrance to the citadel, named for the relief sculpture of the two lions or lionesses above the door (their heads are missing). It is the only surviving example of Mycenaen sculpture. It was so well-described in the writings of antiquity that it was known among archaeologists in modern times.
The remains of the ancient city of Mycenae were found by a native Greek and professional archaeologist, Kyriakos Pittakis, in 1841. Pittakis discovered the Lion Gate, but the real excavations would come 35 years later by a complete amateur, Heinrich Schliemann. Schliemann had already made his mark in the field of archaeology by discovering the remains of Troy in what is today Hisarlik,Turkey. In excavating Mycenae, he wanted to prove that world of Homer was based on archaeological remains.
Schliemann discovered a funerary mask which he mistakenly applied to King Agamemnon and signs that he couldn’t identify. Although he committed many blunders, archaeologically, Schliemann helped shape early understanding of the Mycenaean civilization, one that was around hundreds of years before Homer.
There wasn’t much mention of specific foods in the book, so I tried to think of what the ancient Greeks might have eaten based on my knowledge of contemporary Greek food. I imagine that tsatsiki is a very old dish, but I’ve already included that recipe from the book, A Separation. So, I chose a lovely, cooling summertime gazpacho using Greek flavors, based on an Ina Garten recipe.
2 thick slice day-old bread 1 red onion, chopped
3 lg. cloves garlic, chopped 1 small cuke, peeled, seeded, chopped
1 T fresh oregano 4 lg. ripe tomatoes, chopped
1 T flat leaf parsley, chopped ⅓ C kalamata olives, chopped
3 T red wine vinegar 1½ C tomato juice
3 T olive oil 2 tsp Kosher salt
½ red bell pepper, chopped ½ tsp freshly ground black pepper
½ yellow pepper, chopped 4 oz feta cheese, small dice
Process bread, garlic, oregano and parsley in a food processor until everything is finely chopped. Add the vinegar and olive oil and process until smooth. Place the mixture in a large mixing bowl.
Process the peppers, red onion, cucumber, and olives separately in the food processor until very coarsely chopped. Add to the mixing bowl. Add tomato juice, salt, pepper and stir well. Taste for seasoning, cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least three hours. Stir in the feta before serving.