The Mask of Agamemnon


Today I was in Oxford.  The one in England.  The one with the famous university.  The image above has two things in it that are dear to me.  One is my wife.  The other is that mask on the top shelf.  That is the death mask of King Agamemnon.  I saw this at the Ashmolean Museum about ten years ago and since then, I’ve often thought back on it thinking it couldn’t possibly have been real.  Must have been dream or something.  Agamemnon couldn’t possibly have been a real person.

The story of The Illiad is a really crazy, fascinating, violent myth.  It’s full of gods being capricious and manipulating humans to get things done.  Nonsensical things, like starting wars and whatnot.  I mean, if you trace the entire mythological story of the Trojan War, it starts with a wedding on Mount Olympus and ends with a whole lot of people getting killed.  Including some of the greatest heroes in Greek lore.  Basically a typical party on Mount Olympus.

Agamemnon did not die in the war.  He was murdered by his wife, Clytemnestra.  She had her reasons.  I mean really.  Honestly, the dude had it coming.

The mask is really, really cool because it shows that there really is a grain of truth to the whole story.  Maybe more than a grain.  Agamemnon actually did live.  The Trojan War actually did happen.  The city of Troy was excavated by Heinrich Schleeman (sp?) a terrible archaeologist, but a man who knew how to think outside of the book, so to speak.  Finding the city of Troy was amazing because it forced us to really think about what we assume is myth.  Obviously, Eris did not throw the golden apple and Paris was not bribed by Aphrodite so that he could have Helen.  However, is it possible that Helen and Paris did exist and did, in fact, have an affair?

The question of why the Greeks attacked Troy is, perhaps, a mystery that we cannot answer.  I’m not sure if it had any tactical value or was a source of some significant trade good or trade route or what.  But it is most certainly a fact that they did attack and sack and mostly destroy the city.  And it is possible that it was because of some act of infidelity.  This is actually the explanation that I like the most because it lines up with the myth and it’s quite plausible.  Imagine you’re the king of Sparta.  You’re a king.  You have been told all your life that everything you say is basically gospel.  You technically can’t do anything that isn’t already sanctioned by the people because you are the people.  You’re the guy.  You are the decider.  Your wife cheats on you and you want her back and you think to yourself, “Well, Menelaus, old boy, I have thousands of the best warriors in all of Greece and my brother is  also a king with many more soldiers, so all I need to do is find a way to spin this.”

Yeah.  I mean, he probably had to do something to convince the people that this was the right thing.  If Troy had no real tactical significance, there had to be a higher reason to go.  Like a holy war.  And if you read all the plays and the epic poetry, this whole thing was a holy war.  Agamemnon sacrificed his daughter to the gods for favorable winds and their blessings in combat (that’s why his wife murdered him, by the way).  When people are willing to go to those lengths to convince their troops (and perhaps themselves) that this is what’s right, well, crazy things can happen.  Stories that will ring down through the ages (embellished, but essentially true).  That lasting fame is why Achilles went along in the first place, right?

In the end, we will probably never know just how true these stories are, but the mask is proof that on some fundamental level, all that crazy shit happened.  A man named Agamemnon, a king, lived, died, and probably waged war somewhere in between, existed.  And that’s pretty damned cool.

And also a really big argument against the divine right of kings.