Saturday, May 26, 2007

That Slimey Well Of Horrors

"Thinking back on it now, after a lapse of months, I honestly believe that I would rather be shot than forced to descend that staircase alone. In fact, I think I would die of heart failure before ever reaching the bottom."
--- Henry Miller, The Colossus of Maroussi (1941) [1]

As told in The Colossus of Maroussi, Henry Miller twice tried to descend an ancient underground cistern in Mycenae, Greece, but was too terrified to continue. While Henry's fearful journey into these depths was aborted in 1939, Professor Eric D Lehman completed the downward mission on Henry's behalf in 2002. He wrote about tracing Miller's steps in Greece in his travelogue essay from that year called The Ghost of Henry Miller.

Mycenae is 60 miles from Athens. From 1600 - 1100 BC, the citadel dominated southern Greece as a major social and military centre. By the beginning of the first millenium, the empire had fallen and the grounds of Mycenae had become a tourist site while under the Roman rule. In 1841, the original Lion's Gate entranceway to Mycenae was re-disocvered, and in 1874, a major excavation project began.

In it's heyday, there was one big problem with Mycenae: there was no natural water source. In the 1200s BC, a cistern was tunnelled into rock in order to collect spring water running from Mount Elias. To this day, the underground passage descends nearly 50 feet (15 metres), and is accesible only by carefully walking down 99 steps. This staircase surface is notoriously slick.

Above: the entrance to the Mycenae well (image from
On a Sunday morning in November, 1939 (Miller references Thanksgiving--which was on Thursday the 23rd--so this must be either November 19 or 26th), Henry arrived at Mycenae with his new Greek friend George Katsimbalas. "Mycenae is closed in, huddled up, writhing with muscular contortions like a wrestler" [p. 88].

The Lion's Gate at Mycenae (image from Jan Bergtun)

By late morning, the two men passed through the Lion's Gate entrance to the citadel. When they reach the cistern entrance, they entered it cautiously, using lighted matches to peer into the darkness. "The heavy roof is buckling with the weight of time. To breathe too heavily is enough to pull the world down over our ears" [p.91]. Katsimbalas didn't want to miss this opportunity to explore the ancient depths and was willing to crawl on his knees if need be. He had been through much more frightening situations during his service in WWI. Henry, who had managed to avoid the military draft, had not developed a thick skin, and refused to proceed further into "that slimey well of horrors." "Not if there were a pot of gold to be filched would I make the descent" [p.91]. After a few more steps in which air quickly snuffed their matches and the stone beams seemed to sag dangerously, Henry retreated to the blinding Greek daylight.


Not long before leaving Greece a month later, Henry returned to Mycenae. This time, he had two companions to lean on for courage: Lawrence Durrell and his wife, Nancy. Despite having lived in Greece for a few years, the Durrells had never seen Mycenae. Again, Henry found himself atop the dark, slippery staircase; only this time he had a flashlight. "Durrell went first, Nancy next, and I followed gingerly behind. About half-way down we halted instinctively and debated whether to go any farther" [p. 215]. Despite the flashlight and twice the company, Henry felt even more terrified than his first attempt because he was even further in the rocky bowels than before.

"I had two distinct fears--one, that the slender buttress at the head of the stairs would give way and leave us to smother to death in utter darkness, and two, that a mis-step would send me slithering down into the pit amidst a spawn of snakes, lizards and bats." [p.215] Henry felt great relief when he finally convinced Larry to abandon their mission. "When I reached the surface I was in a cold sweat and mentally still going through the motion of kicking off the demons who were trying to drag me back into the horror-laden mire" [p.215].

In 2002, with the ghost of Henry Miller clearly in mind, Eric Lehman went down into the cistern at Mycenae. "Leaving my family at the Lion's Gate, I scramble up the height of Mycenae - a camera, Colossus [of Maroussi] and a bottle of water in my backpack. Twisted trees and crumbled rock walls waver in the heat. Occasional tourists stare off across the Argive plain. I must find the cistern, the dark place where Henry Miller could not go - the slippery staircase into Hades." When Lehman finally finds the "gaping doorway," he realizes he has no flashlight with him. Suddenly a small group of tourists ascend the steps, leading their way with dripping candles. "The ghost of Henry Miller, disguised as an elderly British woman, hands me hers."

"I descend the slippery staircase behind two young boys and a girl. The light bobs and flickers. My knees shake. The ancient steps, probably the oldest on the continent, are worn and wet. I remind myself that I need to do this, to go where my hero could not. The walls are slick, marbled slime.

At the third turn, the three teens balk, echoing at each other in Greek. I take the lead, stepping down, down, down. The meager light from our three candles makes the cistern seem small and tight. Finally, the bottom appears in the dimness, wavering and watery, muddy and flat. I step into the muck and touch the final cold wall with my right hand, invoking a blessing for my gods and heroes - for poor, claustrophobic Henry.

I don't linger. Some victories are not meant to be savored."

Above left: Students from Dickinson College explore the cistern with candles.

Read the entire account of Lehman's Miller-conscious trip to Greece at Bootnall or Travelmag.

Another shot the the doorway (image from odysseyadventures)

On a final note, it's curious how the doorway in some ways resembles a vagina. Miller has used the image of the womb more than once in his writing, so, for those who enjoy cheap symbolic interpretations, you may want to consider that this represents a phobia of the womb. But a more likely explanation is just the old-fashioned fears of the dark, small spaces, snakes, and death.

And here's some analysis of Colossus of Maroussi [PDF] by Andy Hoffman.

[1] Miller, Henry. The Colossus of Maroussi. New Directions paperback NDP75 27th printing.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks for linking to my article. Once again, you have outdone yourself with researching the subject thoroughly.

If I had to make a list of top ten life-moments, that day would probably make it. After I emerged and checked out the rest of Mycenae, in the beehive tombs, a choir group sang a song in the chamber, and that unknown song was the most beautiful I had ever heard.

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