Lion Gate

Approaching Mycenae was awe inspiring: a massive hill, walls of enormous stones, and the fearsome Lion Gate.

Lion Gate, Mycenae, c. 1300-1250 B.C.E., limestone, relief panel, 9′ 6″ high

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Dr. Steven Zucker: [0:12] The approach to Mycenae is substantial. If you were not a friend, it was going to be tough to get in. Mycenae is one of the great citadels of Mycenaean culture, that is, this Bronze Age culture on mainland Greece that traded throughout the Mediterranean and became quite wealthy and quite powerful between the years of about 1600 and 1100 B.C.E.

Dr. Beth Harris: [0:34] There were several cultures that thrived in this era during this Bronze Age period, one being Cycladic located on the Cycladic Islands; another being Minoan culture, which was on the island of Crete. Here on the mainland, we refer to Mycenaean culture, named after the most powerful of the Mycenaean city-states, and that was Mycenae.

Dr. Zucker: [0:52] Now, Mycenae is located on top of a small mountain, it is a very steep approach and so it is naturally defensible. In fact, there are two larger mountains in the back, a huge valley leading down to the Aegean Sea in front. Just a glorious space, but also one where an enemy’s approach can be seen at a very great distance.

Dr. Harris: [1:12] Walking up this rampway, we’re surrounded by enormous blocks of stone creating very high walls on either side of us.

Dr. Zucker: [1:21] In fact, they are so large that they were known as cyclopean masonry. That is, only the giant Cyclops was large enough to move stones this big.

Dr. Harris: [1:30] Right, so the Cyclops was a legendary giant from Homer’s “Odyssey,” and so these became known as cyclopean because who could imagine moving these massive stones.

Dr. Zucker: [1:39] I have to tell you, I can’t imagine. We’re surrounded by these walls on three sides, which means that we are completely unprotected. If we were an enemy approaching, it would be easy to rain arrows, spears, anything, down on us.

Dr. Harris: [1:54] Exactly. I would have felt very safe in the Mycenaean citadel. We’re looking up at the famous so-called “Lion Gate.”

Dr. Zucker: [2:03] It is perched above a standard, ancient building system of post and lintel. On both sides, we have uprights — posts — and spanning across, a horizontal lintel.

Dr. Harris: [2:15] The Mycenaean architects wanted to build this wall very high, and they used a technique called corbelling. That is, they constructed the stones so that each successive, higher layer moved in just slightly. That left this triangular space in the center, right over the lintel.

Dr. Zucker: [2:36] The relief above the Lion Gate is the first monumental sculpture that we found on mainland Greece. Since we know what happens in Ancient Greece, in historical Greece, much later, we look back to this as art historians and say, “Here is the earliest representation that we find from Greece.”

[2:54] This is, in a sense, the great-grandfather of the extraordinary work that the Greeks will produce.

Dr. Harris: [2:59] In sculpture, absolutely.

Dr. Zucker: [3:01] In sculpture and in architecture.

Dr. Harris: [3:06] Here we have two animals facing one another. Their forepaws seem to be on two altar-like tables. Between them is a column that seems to get wider as it moves upward.

Dr. Zucker: [3:16] Now, that’s opposite to the way we understand Greek architecture at a later period. It is very similar to the way that the Minoans constructed their architecture and so archaeologists often look at that and say, this is a Minoan-style column.

Dr. Harris: [0:00] We know that the Minoans really influenced Mycenaean culture, so this makes sense and that capital also is reminiscent of Minoan culture.

Dr. Zucker: [3:37] Now, just below the capital, archaeologists have hypothesized that the two blocks that the animals have their forepaws on and that the column rests on are two altars. These are also of Minoan form, we think.

[3:55] Of course, we have no written records. We really have no solid evidence for any kind of interpretation. That hasn’t stopped archaeologists and art historians from making a lot of very clever guesses about what this might represent.

Dr. Harris: [4:07] Well, we do have objects from Mycenae. We have objects that were found in the graves. It does help us to conjecture what these animals were and what their lost heads looked like.

Dr. Zucker: [4:19] We can guess that the lost heads turned outward because of the way the dowel holes are placed in the stone.

Dr. Harris: [0:00] That they were likely of a different material placed onto the bodies of these animals.

Dr. Zucker: [4:42] At least one scholar has suggested that they might have been bird heads. That these might have been griffins. That the composite nature of the animal might also be reflected by the composite nature of the materials, but again, these are guesses.

Dr. Harris: [4:44] What do the animals mean? What does the column mean? What do the altars mean? Why are they up on their forepaws? You can see all the questions that arise.

Dr. Zucker: [4:52] There is a tradition of having powerful animals standing guard at a gate, and so we might think of these as warding off evil. [And] also as terrifying representations that might scare off and terrify enemies.

Dr. Harris: [5:18] If they had that kind of supernatural power, we might also conjecture that the column has meaning as well. We know that in some cases, columns could represent deities. Now it also could be that the columns just represent a city or the idea of the king.

Dr. Zucker: [5:24] Well, the column is above the altar. There is that sense of divinity that seems logical. The fact that there are two altars has led some scholars to suggest that perhaps this has to do with the coming together of two cultures. Again, these are all conjectures.

Dr. Harris: [5:38] These animals do have leonine bodies, or bodies like lions.

Dr. Zucker: [5:43] Or lionesses.

Dr. Harris: [5:50] They are sculpted with great subtlety. I get a sense of the muscles in the legs of the lions and a kind of subtle modeling of the anatomy of these animals.

Dr. Zucker: [5:54] There’s something else that’s going on here. These are not animals that are represented as animals are naturally. That is, they’re not on all four paws. They are standing upright. They are becoming human-like. There is a kind of nobility.

Dr. Harris: [6:07] It’s hard not to think that these also speak to the power of the king who resided inside these Cyclopean walls.

Dr. Zucker: [6:14] Here, now, at the end of 2013, the sense of power and majesty is clear to me. One can only imagine how this felt to somebody in 1250 B.C.E.

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Cite this page as: Dr. Steven Zucker and Dr. Beth Harris, "Lion Gate," in Smarthistory, December 13, 2015, accessed July 23, 2024,