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Talking Location with Susan C Wilson – MYCENAE

19th May 2023

Susan C Wilson#TalkingLocationWith…. Susan C Wilson, author of Clytemnestra’s Bind, set in Mycenae (in the Peloponnese)

‘Golden Mycenae’, ‘wide-wayed Mycenae, ‘well-built Mycenae’: these are Homer’s epithets for the citadel where my novel Clytemnestra’s Bind, the first instalment in The House of Atreus trilogy, takes place. In modern times, Mycenae gave its name to the entire Late Bronze Age civilisation of Greece, the Mycenaeans (of circa 1700 to 1070 BCE).

As a devotee of historical fiction, I wanted to anchor the trilogy in a credible pre-historical setting – ‘pre-historical’, because the only remaining written records from the period are inventories etched into clay tablets, which survived the fiery destructions of the great palaces. This lack of written evidence gave me a few headaches while researching the trilogy, but also offered scope for the creative imagination when depicting such cultural practices as religious ceremonies. I drew from the works of archaeologists, historians and scholars, and filled in the gaps by turning to contemporaneous Mediterranean cultures and later Greece.

The Greek geographer Pausanias gives two explanations for how Mycenae (Greek Mykenai) came into existence. The legendary hero Perseus, he suggests, founded the citadel after the cap (mykes) from his scabbard fell to the ground on the site – a sure sign, if ever there was one! Alternatively, Perseus plucked a mushroom (mykes) at the site and discovered, beneath its roots, the Perseia Spring. Either way, Perseus (or fate) chose well. Situated in the north-eastern Peloponnese, Mycenae controlled the routes to the Argive plain from the north and the bay of Nauplia (modern Nafplio) to the south. Homer’s ‘Mycenae rich in gold’ seems a fitting description.

Clytemnestra’s Bind fast-forwards from the first, Perseid, dynasty of Mycenae, to the final dynasty: the infamous House of Atreus. From beginning to demise, this house suffered under a series of curses and self-inflicted disasters. From kin-killing to tricking the gods, coups to cannibalism, adultery to incest – if an iniquity could be committed, the House of Atreus could commit it. Many of these awful deeds took place within the walls of the citadel itself.

Susan C Wilson

Vase image of House of Atreus (image: Altervista)

Mycenae nestles between two stony, triangular hills: Prophet Elias (height 805 metres) and Zara (660 meters). My characters call these ‘Arachne’s Peak’ (taken from Aeschylus’ Agamemnon) and ‘Holy Mountain’ – collectively ‘the Mother’s Bosom’, named for the earth goddess Mater Theia. In chapter two of Clytemnestra’s Bind, Clytemnestra gazes from her bedchamber towards Arachne’s Peak and thinks of the danger posed by family rivals to her first husband’s throne:

‘Wind gusted down the scrubby slope. From somewhere beyond the citadel came a scream, high and mournful, ghostly in the darkness. It came three times. Foxes, or Mater Theia crying out for her children.

Three murdered sons of Thyestes, unburied and restless. Three sons of Atreus, eager to avenge their ills in turn. It must end here. I must stop the wheel of retribution from spinning, mould a lynchpin of wax.’

Mycenae (photo: Greeka)

The Lion Gate (my ‘Gate of the Sacred Lionesses’) is the main entrance to the citadel. Pausanias suggests its builders, and the builders of the fortification walls, were the Cyclopes, a race of one-eyed giants. Who else could have been strong enough to move such enormous stone blocks? A sculpture featuring two heraldic lionesses fills the relieving triangle above the gate lintel. Now minus their heads, the beasts rest their forepaws on two altars, between which rises a pillar.

Lion Gate relief (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Lion_Gate,_Relief,_Mycenae,_201511.jpg)

In Clytemnestra’s Bind, this pillar represents the House of Atreus, which the lionesses guard. Reeling from her forced marriage to Agamemnon, Clytemnestra feels no sense of protection emanating from the guardians: ‘The lionesses’ black steatite heads, facing out from their limestone bodies, seemed to snarl at our departing chariot. I turned away and stared ahead.’

The palace, at the summit of the citadel, is the setting of much of the action in Clytemnestra’s Bind. Only foundations remain today. I’ve allocated what archaeologists call the ‘throne room’ or ‘guest room’ to Clytemnestra as her throne room. Agamemnon presides over the megaron, my ‘king’s hall’ – until he doesn’t. The sinister ‘Red Bathroom’ is another recurring location in the trilogy, but I won’t give away any spoilers. I named it for another archaeological feature, a corner of red-stuccoed bath that remains in situ.

Citadel between the two hills (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Mycenae.jpg)

I drew on many resources while writing the trilogy. Among the most accessible and richly illustrated are Mycenae: Agamemnon’s Capital by Elizabeth French, Mycenae: A Journey into the World of Agamemnon by Alkestis Papadimitriou and Elsi Spathari, and Mycenae: A Guide to Its Ruins and History by George E Mylonas.

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About Susan C Wilson

Susan C Wilson is a working-class author from Scotland. She has a degree in Journalism and a diploma in Classical Studies from the Open University. By day, she works as an administrator in the Scottish Courts, where she learns fascinating things about human nature. As a writer, Wilson aims to make ancient stories resonate with a modern audience. Her debut novel, Clytemnestra’s Bind, was longlisted for the Mslexia Novel Competition pre-publication in 2019 and is being published in hardback, paperback and eBook in June 2023 by Neem Tree Press.

Connect with the author via her website and on Twitter @BronzeAgeWummin

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