Mysteries of Ancient Greece

By Coen Vonk

Part I: Tholoi and Grave Circles

In 1870 Heinrich Schliemann stunned the world with his discovery of ancient Troy, and later with his excavations of Mycenae (1876), Tiryns (1884), and other ancient cities, which showed that Homer's Iliad and Odyssey were based on historical facts of a forgotten period. This opened up new perspectives on civilizations which flourished in the Heroic Age, long before the Parthenon was built on the Acropolis of Athens. His discoveries raised many questions: When were the ancient palaces and cities built, and by whom? What function did the various monuments have? Where did these ancient "Greeks" come from? What were their beliefs? These challenging questions remain largely unresolved to this day.

Today the mainstream theory is that the large palaces, houses, fortification walls, chamber tombs, grave circles, and beehive chambers in Mycenae, Tiryns, Argos, Corinth, and many other ancient cities, mainly but not solely in the Peloponnese, were built by the Achaeans, also called the Mycenaeans. Before the 20th century these people were often called Pelasgians. The Mycenaeans are thought to be a group of Indo-European speaking people from Central Asia who invaded Greece across the Anatolian plateau and/or from the north through the Danube region. Archeologists disagree about the route they took and are not sure where in Central Asia they originated.

Scientists date many archeological remains uncovered in Mycenae, Tiryns, and elsewhere to c. 1600-1100 BCE, the period assigned to the Mycenaean age. However, the evidence on which this time period is based is uncertain. We do not have written records of a specific chronology, or lists of kings or dynasties recording the length of their reigns from which we could devise a system of dating. Radiocarbon dating helps archeologists date finds that are less than 40,000 years old, but its problems include finding suitable samples and the accuracy of the method itself, which has a margin of error of plus or minus 40-150 years. Another issue is variation in rates of carbon-14 production and decay that researchers now seek to compensate for by using other methods to recalibrate carbon-14 dates. Archeologists have also tried to overcome these dating problems by comparing and relating certain Mycenaean pottery to similar pottery finds or depictions on tomb paintings in Egypt or Mesopotamia which, according to archeologists, can be accurately dated. However, the samples they base their conclusions on are extremely few and prove only that a certain kind of pottery existed at a certain period, and ignore that it may also have existed long before. These observations should make us cautious about presuming that dates provided by archeologists are based on indisputable evidence.

The dating of many sites has been pushed back further and further by new finds. For example, according to Schliemann Tiryns was founded in 1400 BCE, but scholars now think the first human settlement of the hill of Tiryns belongs to the Neolithic Age (7th-4th millennia BCE) with intense building activity on the site in the early Bronze Age (3rd millennium BCE). [Cf. Tiryns — A Guide to Its History and Archaeology by Dr. Alkestis Papademetriou, 2001, p. 6.] Ongoing excavations make clear that the site has been inhabited again and again, with various (re)building phases. Only a few pottery finds are ascribed to the Neolithic Age, and the earliest architectural remains are ascribed to the Bronze Age. In the early 20th century remains of a unique circular building (27.7 to 27.9 meters in diameter, and built of bricks) were found on the hilltop underlying the later Mycenaean palace. It comprises a circular space, 12.2 meters in diameter, surrounded by several concentric walls intersected by other walls radiating from the center. Theories differ about the function of this building, dated to the Early Helladic period (c. 2400-2300 BCE). Some think it was a fortified palace, others that it was a monumental mortuary or shrine. One thing is certain: it proves that the "beginning" of the series of ancient civilizations in Greece is much older than previously thought, and the Mycenaeans are only one link in this series.

Tholoi or Beehive Chambers

Some of the most mysterious monuments found in Greece are the tholoi or beehive-shaped chambers, nine of which have been discovered in ancient Mycenae. One, the so-called Treasury of Atreus, is especially impressive. Sunk into a mountain ridge, the doorway of the chamber is approached by a 40-meter-long passage hewn straight into the hillside, lined with conglomerate ashlar masonry. No cement is used, the blocks fit perfectly, and some are of enormous proportions — one is 6 meters long and 1.2 meters high. The doorway is 5.4 meters high, capped with a giant slab estimated to weigh 120 tons. Above it is an open triangle which, according to mainstream archeology, was meant to relieve the pressure of the vault on the doorway piers. One then enters the great chamber, a corbelled dome 13.5 meters high and 14.6 meters in diameter, also made of conglomerate ashlar masonry in a cavity cut out of the rock. The blocks are neatly dressed on the inside of the dome; externally they are irregular and covered with masses of stone. The chamber floor is natural rock. A small door leads to a small side-chamber which also has an open triangle above its doorway. Here it is certainly not to relieve pressure on the piers, and this is clearly not the function of such triangles in general. In ancient traditions upward pointing triangles often refer to divinity and the holy trinity, a possible indication that the building may originally have been used as a spiritual site.

The Treasury of Atreus, Mycenae (photo by the author).

Like many others of his time, Schliemann thought the uncovered tholoi were once royal treasure houses, but modern scholars think they were royal "tombs." They date the nine tholoi at Mycenae to between 1500 and 1250 BCE, culminating in the Treasury of Atreus. According to some archeologists it could have been the tomb of Atreus or Agamemnon who lived around 1250 BCE, the date assigned to the Troy of Homer. [But according to H. P. Blavatsky, "historians have dwarfed almost absurdly the dates that separate certain events from our modern day, . . . the Trojan War is an historical event; and though even less than 1,000 years BC is the date assigned to it, yet in truth it is nearer 6,000 than 5,000 years BC" (The Secret Doctrine 2:437n).] However, the dating of the building is extremely uncertain, especially since it was plundered in ancient times, and therefore ascribing the tholoi to the Mycenaeans is also uncertain.

More than 100 tholoi have been excavated in Greece and the existence of many more is suspected. A concentration has been found in the area of Messinia in the western Peloponnese. Tholoi have also been found on Crete. However, the Treasury of Atreus is by far the one of highest quality. Many have been built with much smaller stones and are of inferior workmanship; nevertheless they follow the same sort of plan and must therefore be related to each other. According to Lord William Taylour:

Recent research has shown that the tholos type of tomb is much older than was originally supposed. . . . Concerning the origin of the tholos tomb there is as yet no general agreement. Circular tombs of one form or another are found over most of the Mediterranean and even further afield, but it is not always possible to date them closely. — The Mycenaeans, rev. and enlarged ed., 1983, p. 70

Tholoi have been found in Spain at La Cueva de Romeral and Los Millares (both made of roughly dressed blocks) and in Sardinia at Santa Cristina Well Temple (of perfectly dressed blocks). It appears that the tholoi follow a pattern of emigrations originating from the west in contrast to the Mycenaean invasion from the east. It is also remarkable that the Homeric Hymns never refer to these impressive structures, which could indicate that they belong to a completely different period or civilization. Tholoi are generally dated by the grave goods inside them, but we cannot be certain whether these burials took place around the time the tholoi were built. According to Wilhelm Dorpfeld it is true

that all these tombs, great as well as small, were once closed; the only question is when it was done. As both the great tholoi at Mycenae were provided with rich façades and had their wooden doors overlaid with metals, it appears to me more probable that they were not forthwith blocked up. . . . it is the fact that the walls, built to block up the two great tholoi, are not of the same material as the tombs themselves. — Dorpfeld's Introduction to The Mycenaean Age — A Study of the Monuments and Culture of Prehomeric Greece by Chrestos Tsountas and J. Irving Manatt (1897), pp. xxvi-xxvii

This means that the skeletons found in some tholoi could date from a later period, and proof that skeletons found inside the tholoi do not belong to the period of the original builders is found in the observation that:

As a rule, the body was simply laid on the floor of the tholos or the chamber, not covered with earth nor placed in a coffin of wood or stone, of which not a trace has yet been found. . . . For repeated observations prove that, as often as the area of the chamber or the tholos became crowded with corpses, the earlier remains were gathered in heaps in the corners, or buried in shallow trenches, so as to make room for the new interments. — Ibid., pp. 136-7

Strange royal burials these must have been! It shows, to the contrary, that the skeletons found probably do not belong to kings.

Research in 1998, 1999, and 2004 by Victor Reijs on a possible equinox alignment of the Treasury of Atreus provides interesting results:

The sun light can at present be seen on the wall of the chamber around the equinoxes (spring and autumn)!
This is true if the triangular structure was open! But it seems though that it could have been decoratively closed some time(s) by a plaque. Furthermore triangular structures and light boxes (like Newgrange, Crantit, and Carrowkeel) are always prone to be filled, so it is difficult to say more about this. —

His research, still unfinished, indicates that the sun could also enter the tholos some days before and after the equinoxes and around the summer solstice. While more research is needed, his investigation so far provides strong arguments for solar alignments, and many ancient traditions considered the solstices and equinoxes as sacred times around which were centered the most important spiritual events.

The overall appearance of the tholoi — with the impressive upwards pointing triangle, giant doors, and some with rock-cut benches inside — supports the impression that they were used as a holy of holies where ceremonies took place not for the dead but for the living, although at a later time they were debased by burials. Maybe the tholos was after all a treasury, not of material goods but one where spiritual treasures were whispered into the ear of the neophyte.

Grave Circles

Besides the mysteries of the tholoi, the so-called grave circles A and B at Mycenae with their "shaft graves," dated by archeologists to 1650-1400 BCE, present many challenging questions. Shaft graves are pits dug into the rock to a depth of a few meters. Their floors were covered with pebbles on which the dead body was placed. The body was roofed over by timbers, clay, or slabs placed on sidewalls, and the remaining part of the shaft was filled with earth. In grave circle A, six such graves have been found. The golden masks, jewelry, scepters, swords, and other funerary goods which Schliemann uncovered in these graves are abundant and have archaic designs.

Grave Circle A (from Taylour, The Mycenaeans).

The golden masks, which covered the faces of some buried in these shafts, are particularly interesting. For instance, "There is much information, from Homer downwards, supplied to us by the literature of that country [Greece] concerning burials; and yet, in a course of more than 1200 years, there is not a single allusion to the custom of using masks for the dead." [In Gladstone's Preface to Mycenae by Henry Schliemann (1880), p. xxxv.] Golden masks have been found in graves in Egypt, Italy, Ukraine, Peru, and Bulgaria, and according to W. E. Gladstone Mycenae has been the seat of repeated foreign immigrations. Therefore, it is very uncertain to whom these burials should be ascribed. Secondly,

In the Homeric burials, burning is universal. It must be regarded, according to the Poems, as the established Achaian custom of the day, wherever inhumation was normally conducted. . . .
In the case of notable persons, the combustion was not complete. For not the ashes only, but the bones, were carefully gathered. — Ibid., pp. xxxiii-iv

But in the grave circles of Mycenae, and in some of the tholoi, skeletons have been found whose bones were not deliberately gathered, though in the grave circles it appears that the bodies were not fully cremated.

According to Schliemann one burial was that of Agamemnon, and he attributes one of the golden masks to him. Archeologists today believe that it could not have been Agamemnon since the shaft graves are dated around 300 years earlier than Agamemnon is supposed to have lived. They do not know to whom the masks and burials in shaft graves belonged and ascribe them to unknown Mycenaean kings. We may conclude from this that much is uncertain about these finds.

Part II: Cyclopean Walls and Pyramids

Cyclopean walls are one of the most impressive remains from archaic civilizations. They are found in many places in Greece, but have been found all over the world — for example, in Italy, Turkey, Egypt, Peru, Japan, Australia, and Easter Island — which makes the masonry style universal. The renowned cyclopean walls of Tiryns and Mycenae are attributed to the Mycenaeans, also called the Achaeans or Pelasgians, and are generally assigned to the 14th and 13th centuries BCE. However, they may be much older because they are built directly on the rocky plateau and have been incorporated in rebuilding phases.

Cyclopean wall, rough style, Tiryns (photos by the author)

What is the origin of these impressive structures? Archeologists hold that the Mycenaeans, an Indo-European speaking people who invaded Greece from Central Asia, constructed these walls. However, ancient Greek tradition asserts that they were built by the Cyclopes, mythical one-eyed giants. According to H. P. Blavatsky the cyclops Polyphemos in Homer's Odyssey refers to a Rajput tribe, the Gokulas, who migrated to Greece from India in prehistoric times. (Cf. From the Caves and Jungles of Hindostan, pp. 617-9, 627; like the Iliad and Odyssey, the Indian Mahabharata and Puranas are based on historical facts, and we could learn much about ancient history from these writings.) Some of the cyclopean walls may even predate the migration of these Cyclopes (Kuklopes or Gokulas) and could have been built by earlier migrations from the west. Blavatsky mentions that as long as 850,000 years ago waves of settlers entered Europe from sinking Atlantean islands. Plato mentions that the Greeks of his time had already forgotten their ancient history and that the Egyptian priests had ancient chronicles of the Greeks resisting a foreign invasion. In his Timaeus the Egyptian priest tells Solon about the ancient "Greeks":

For in the first place, you remember one deluge only, whereas there were many of them; and in the next place, you do not know that there dwelt in your land the fairest and noblest race of men which ever lived, of whom you and your whole city are but a seed or remnant. And this was unknown to you, because for many generations the survivors of that destruction died and made no sign. For there was a time, Solon, before that great deluge of all, when the city which is now Athens was first in war . . . — 23

In both the Critias (108) and Timaeus (23) Solon's account mentions that 9,000 years had elapsed since this war took place, which is about 11,400 years before the present. Solon's account refers to Poseidonis, said to be the last Atlantean island to be submerged.

Around the Acropolis of Athens, remains of ancient walls have been found which are also ascribed to the Mycenaeans, and it is believed that there was a Mycenaean palace as well. In Greece, especially in the Peloponnese, on or around almost any imposing hill ancient walls of forts, palaces, or sanctuaries can be found. Their massive walls are often made of perfectly-fitting blocks which interlock and for which no cement is used. Other walls built of even grander undressed blocks used cement and lack the precision fitting of the former. The walls of perfectly fitting blocks have withstood time so well that they are sometimes incorporated into castles built at much later times. Ancient walls incorporated in the castle on the Larissa Hill of Argos and on Akrokorinthos are excellent examples. On many other lonely and forgotten hilltops in the Peloponnese, massive walls of ancient structures can be found, for instance the paleo kastro (old castle) of Agios Adrianos, another example of well-fitting, interlocking walls of dressed stones. It may well be that many of these walls belong to another forgotten period of the history of ancient Greece, instead of all of them belonging to the Mycenaeans.

Cyclopean wall, precision fitting, Paleo Kastro, Agios Adrianos

In the 19th and early 20th centuries some scholars ascribed many of these walls and buildings to the ancient Pelasgians, but since their history was so hard to unravel most modern works make almost no reference to them. At most, modern textbooks consider them to be the earliest inhabitants of Greece before the invasion of the Mycenaeans. In fact it appears that the term Mycenaeans was invented to replace these hard to trace Pelasgians — as noted by Professor William Ridgeway in The Early Age of Greece. Blavatsky quotes English Orientalist Edward Pococke (1604-1691), from his India in Greece; or Truth in Mythology, in which he supposed that King Pelasgus was actually the son of Palaichthon, the "ancient fatherland" of the Greeks, i.e., Paliktana, the country where Pali was spoken in ancient Bengal. She thinks it reasonable that this mystical Pelasgus was born in Gaya, the capital of Palasa, or in Bihar. In an article in The Theosophist (January 1881, pp. 87-8), Dayarama Varma expresses the same opinion, using philological arguments to assert the Indian origin of the Macedonians and Greeks who followed in later waves of emigration. In this connection it is interesting that Schliemann uncovered in Mycenae, Troy, and other places a very large number of items decorated with the swastika, one of the most sacred symbols of India, though also found in many other parts of the world. Modern scholars acknowledge that emigrants came from Central Asia to Europe, but no longer mention a specific connection with Northern India. It may, however, prove a fruitful field of research, as it is possible that emigration waves entered Greece from the west and at a later time from India. People from both groups may have built cyclopean walls.

Pyramids in Greece

Another construction which appears to have been universal is the pyramid. Examples have been discovered in Egypt, Sudan, South and Central America, China, and Greece. The Greek pyramids are not well known, however, and most archeologists deny that they are true pyramids and categorize them as unusual buildings. It is true that some of these supposed pyramids, like the one of Ligourio near Epidauros, are hard to recognize because so little is left of them, but at least one, the pyramid of Helliniko near Argos, is relatively well-preserved and can hardly be denied to be a pyramid (see photo on inside back cover). It is made of large polygonal interlocking blocks of gray limestone and its base measures 9 by 7 meters. Its slope of 60# is still clearly visible.

Pyramid of Helleniko near Argos

By optical thermoluminescence, samples of crystals from internal surfaces of the limestone blocks were dated by the Demokritos National Research Center for Physical Sciences in Athens and by the Nuclear Dating Laboratory of the department of Physics at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland. From their measurements they concluded that the pyramid was erected about 2720 BCE. But it must be noted that the reliability of this dating method is not beyond question.

Spiral or Linear Evolution of Civilization?

Most archeologists believe that civilization has developed in a moreor-less linear way and categorize the various building activities into periods which go up from primitive groups, which are classified as Neolithic, followed by the Bronze Age, and thereafter follows a real civilization which they see as the culmination. The immense number of spiral designs found in Mycenae and Troy, among other places, reminds us of the ancient viewpoint, which suggests that civilization develops according to the pattern of a spiral, that is, cyclically. This means that earlier civilizations might have been grander than some which followed because the latter were the result of the spiral moving downwards, a period of decline, which was later followed by a new upward-moving period. For instance, Plato relates an Egyptian teaching given to Solon:

Whereas just when you and other nations are beginning to be provided with letters and the other requisites of civilized life, after the usual interval, the stream from heaven, like a pestilence, comes pouring down, and leaves only those of you who are destitute of letters and education; and so you have to begin all over again like children, and know nothing of what happened in ancient times, either among us or among yourselves. As for those genealogies of yours which you just now recounted to us, Solon, they are no better than the tales of children. — Timaeus 23

That civilizations come and go, prosper and wither, again and again, each time evolving up to a new level, is a belief shared by ancient cultures and traditions. In this light it is not necessary to consider the structures that show the highest level of workmanship as the latest buildings or the culmination of civilization. In fact, the more one studies the archeology, the more one becomes convinced that the oldest structures often show the best workmanship.

Mycenaean Beliefs

Little is known about the beliefs of the Mycenaeans or Pelasgians. We have no written records about them which date from their time, and archeologists are of the opinion that they have not found any specific religious structures. As we discussed in the June/July Sunrise in the case of the tholoi, it could be that by designating these as graves scholars are overlooking the religious function of such buildings. As a result they are missing an opportunity to learn more about the beliefs of the ancient builders. Furthermore, taking legends only as historical facts hinders scholars from grasping more about ancient beliefs. For example, besides historical facts the Iliad and Odyssey are also based on knowledge of the mystical journey that the human soul has to travel to reach perfection:

In the view of many, Odysseus portrays symbolically the awakened mind of man seeking after long years of battling with worldly things — represented by the Trojans — to regain knowledge of himself. His faithful wife Penelope, standing for the higher nature or spiritual intuition, remains in the background of the whole poem as a permeating influence. While Odysseus, as the active mentality, is fighting against obstacles and pushing onward in rapid movement, Penelope, waiting patiently at home for him to return, sits before her loom weaving and unweaving her patterns. Odysseus not only is separated from his wife, but is an exile from his hearth and country; not only has he to keep constantly in action, but he has to find for himself the true path which leads homeward. — "The Wanderings of Odysseus: An Allegory of the Soul," Charles J. Ryan, Sunrise, April/May 1982, p. 148

As regards the gods worshipped in ancient Greece, we learn from Herodotus that:

Almost all the names of the gods came into Greece from Egypt. My inquiries prove that they were all derived from a foreign source, and my opinion is that Egypt furnished the greater number. For with the exception of Neptune and the Dioscuri, . . . and Juno, Vesta, Themis, the Graces, and the Nereids, the other gods have been known from time immemorial in Egypt. This I assert on the authority of the Egyptians themselves. The gods, with whose names they profess themselves unacquainted, the Greeks received, I believe, from the Pelasgi, except Neptune. Of him they got their knowledge from the Libyans, by whom he has been always honored, and who were anciently the only people that had a god of the name. — The Histories II.50

Some names of Greek deities are non-Greek in origin and might date back to the time of the Pelasgians. Therefore, by ignoring the influence and immigration of the Pelasgians, who are mentioned time and again by classical Greek authors, as well as other ancient races, today's scholars have reduced their chances of finding out more about the beliefs of these ancient people.


The pre-Homeric Greek people and the origin and function of their structures are still a mystery. Its study tends to be oversimplified by many scholars, and it appears that not one wave of emigration, but many, have come to ancient Greece. Much more could be known if the ancient Pelasgians and other possible emigrants such as the Kuklopes (or Gokulas) and Magedanians (Makedonians) from India were to be studied in this regard. The history and origin of ancient Greece were not clearly written down by the Greeks themselves, but ancient Indian writings such as the Puranas, the Mahabharata, and the Rajput genealogies may hold keys to solving some of these questions. The time when the Iliad and Odyssey were considered no more than myths has passed, and the same now needs to happen with the Indian "fables."

(From Sunrise magazine, June/July and August/September 2005; copyright © 2005 Theosophical University Press)

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