BMCR 2000.12.17

Ancient Greek Hero Cult. Proceedings of the Fifth International Seminar on Ancient Greek Cult, 21-23 April 1995

, , Ancient Greek hero cult : proceedings of the Fifth International Seminar on Ancient Greek Cult, organized by the Department of Classical Archaeology and Ancient History, Göteborg University, 21-23 April 1995. Skrifter utgivna av Svenska institutet i Athen, 8°, Acta Instituti Atheniensis Regni Sueciae, series in 8° ; 16. Stockholm: Svenska Institutet i Athen, 1999. 207 pages : illustrations, maps ; 24 cm.. ISBN 9179160379 SEK 275.

Ancient Greek Hero Cult gathers essays from a 1995 conference at Göteborg University. These proceedings represent the fifth installment of an annual conference devoted to ancient Greek cult (I participated in the 1999 conference).1 The essays differ greatly in length, outlook and scope, but, as a whole, the volume provides an engaging study of much of the recent work done on Greek hero cult.

“Reflections on Hero Cults in Early Iron Age Greece” by A. Mazarakis Ainian provides a survey of Early Iron Age tomb cults, including Toumba at Lefkandi, Thermon, Eleusis, Eretria and others. The essay, as Mazarakis acknowledges at the outset, is a summary of his 1997 book on architecture and religion, and aims at bringing together some of his ideas about early hero cult and its social functions. It presents an excellent survey of the archaeological evidence and is profusely illustrated with maps and plans of all the sites discussed. Besides offering a synthesis of the various ways of interpreting the archaeological data, Mazarakis also briefly turns to the problematic link between cult and Homeric epic in order to go back, by way of conclusion, to the function of these cults for the recently deceased, which he sees as mostly “a matter of family initiative” until the cults were eventually appropriated and transformed into public cults by the polis.

Robin Hägg’s “Funerary ritual, veneration of ancestors and the cult of heroes in Geometric Greece” also focuses on early tomb cult and on its possible influence on the emergence of hero cult, but is included here only in the form of an abstract.

Christoph Auffarth’s “Constructing the identity of the polis : the Danaides as ‘ancestors'” suffers from poor production standards. The essay is beleaguered by infelicities in the English, misspellings and typos, which provide constant distraction from the argument. To be sure, the author cannot be blamed for not being a native English speaker, but that would have made careful proofreading all the more useful. Auffarth focuses on the case of the Danaides in Argos and their function as ancestors. Troubled by the Danaides’ gory past, he asks: “Is it my modern, bourgeois point of view, that I would refuse to accept them as my ancestors?” Well, yes, it is indeed a modern, and I think clearly misguided, bias to assume that the heroes of Greek cult had to be “models of identity,” or models of behavior “for Mycenaean men.” Ancestors are not necessary role models, and the ancient Greeks do not worship heroes because they wish to emulate them, but because they are powerful entities that require honor and sacrifice for a great variety of reasons. Consequently, many of the observations Auffarth makes about the “peculiarity” of the Danaides myth stem more from his own — unexplained — assumptions about the nature of hero cult than from anything in the ancient practice itself. Auffarth then turns to analyzing the myth and its functions in the city, and argues that the Argive story of Danaus finds a parallel — and in fact its origins — in a Phoenician cosmology describing the beginning of the world and the inventions made by culture heroes. The Danaus story, then, would be a Greek version of the Phoenician myth, “later reworked in the spirit of Egyptomania after 600 B.C.” (p. 47) that fulfills a double social function: as a model for living in the city, and also as a reminder to both married women and men that the city “is more than a Männerbund” (p. 48).

Jonathan Hall’s “Beyond the polis : the multilocality of heroes” also focuses on the social function of hero cult and examines the puzzling prevalence of “multi-local” heroes. Hall focuses on Hippolytos, the Seven against Thebes, and Agamemnon, all of whom have their primary cult sites in the Argolid, but are also worshipped elsewhere in Greece. Were those multiple sanctuaries challenges to each other’s legitimacy? In some cases, armies expropriate cult heroes before attacking a city, and appropriate them by giving them burial within their own cities (p. 50). Yet some multiple cults, Hall argues compellingly, do not so much reflect hostile relations, but rather articulate historical political ties between cities in the archaic period. The dual locations of Hippolytos and Theseus in Athens and Troezen, for example, reflect the political alliance between the two cities. Similarly the revalence of the cult of the Seven Against Thebes at Argos — although the Seven came from various regions of the Peloponnese — aims at expressing “both the centrality and the primacy of Argos within the Peloponnese as a whole” (p. 55), a primacy that Sparta challenges through the same means — albeit with a different hero, Agamemnon.

Uta Kron’s “Patriotic heroes” focuses on “heroes protecting and saving their countries, either during their lifetimes as human beings or after their heroisation as supernatural beings.” Kron divides the patriotic heroes into two categories: those who appear on the battlefield to help their compatriots and those who die attempting to save their fatherland — further subdivided into “victorious hero-saviour” and “self-sacrificing hero” (p.61). While Kron proposes to give a survey — using iconographical as well as literary sources — of the type of heroes she defines as “patriotic,” the ambitious scope of her topic ultimately opens up more questions than it answers — are Near Eastern, Roman, and Etruscan magic practices and Greek heroes’ epiphanies really all that similar? (p. 73); in what sense is it true that the story of the death of Leonidas “can only be understood if a tradition already existed in which kings and military leaders had to die for the victory?” (p. 78) — and would seem more suitable for a book-length study (some of the heroes covered in this essay are treated at more length in her 1976 book) than a 22-page essay.

Barbara McCauley’s “Heroes and power: the politics of bone transferal” focuses on the political function of hero cult, in this case the geographical transfer of heroes’ remains. Starting with the notorious cases of the bones of Orestes and Theseus, McCauley examines bone transferal myths and shows that they all seem to exhibit a similar basic structure, in which political and religious motives are inextricably intertwined. As for the powers ascribed to the bones by the Greeks, McCauley’s analogy between heroic bones and Christian saint relics is not convincing. She argues that heroes’ bones do not have any power in themselves, and rests her argument mostly on the fact that the ancient Greeks never indulged in the practice of dividing their heroes’ bodies into bits and pieces in the same way Christians did with the remains of their saints. This misses the essential point that Greek heroes are, by definition, local and tied down to the precise location where their body happens to be. The Greeks do not distinguish between the power of a hero’s bones and the power of the hero, because the hero is powerful insofar as he is physically present, in a way that has nothing to do with Christian practices and beliefs about the powers of their saints and their bones. McCauley indirectly acknowledges this when she says that “it is not the bones themselves which are important so much as the fact of their possession” (p. 95).

H. Alan Shapiro’s “Cult warfare: the Dioskouroi between Sparta and Athens” focuses on the spread of the cult of the Dioskouroi from Sparta across the Peloponnese to Athens. In his abundantly illustrated essay, he demonstrates the growing importance of the cult in Athens, which can be observed in the rising popularity of the twins on vases, especially in scenes depicting the theoxenia (p. 101). Shapiro examines how both cities try to appropriate the Dioskouroi as their own heroic protectors. In the process of making the twins their allies, the Athenians transform Helen as well into an Athenian heroine, and, in a rather creative move, marry her off to Theseus with the Dioskouroi as witnesses (p. 106). Ultimately, however, the Athenians’ attempt fails and the twins, making their own choice, appear to Lysander at Aigospotamoi, thus securing the Spartan victory.

Carla M. Antonaccio’s “Colonization and the origins of hero cult” explores the historical implications of the “origins” of hero cult. She focuses on the role played by tomb cult in the establishment of Greek colonies and how such practices in turn might have influenced developments in the homeland. She argues that burial practices can be understood as a “language of the past” that is dependent “on the vocabulary and syntax of pre-existing monuments.” These elements were lacking in the new colonies, which had to find new ways of articulating their past, such as establishing founder cults and thereby creating a new “past” for themselves as well as a new social reality (p. 121).

Jürgen W. Riethmüller’s ” Bothros and tetrastyle: the heroon of Asclepius in Athens” is an in-depth study of the function of the fifth-century B.C. bothros in the Athenian Asklepieion. Some have argued that this sacrificial pit was used in connection with the worship of Sophocles-Dexion or some other hero. Archaeological and epigraphical evidence, Riethmüller argues, proves that the pit was in fact used in the context of the cult of Asclepius, and that two types of sacrifices were offered to him — both as god and as hero. Sacrificial pits of the same type are found in other sanctuaries in honor of Asclepius, including that at Epidauros, and reflect the double nature of the god/hero.

Gunnel Ekroth’s “Pausanias and the sacrificial rituals of Greek hero-cults” examines the language Pausanias uses to describe heroic rituals. Focusing on the vocabulary of sacrifice, and more particularly on the verbs θύειν and ἐναγίζειν, Ekroth examines all the instances of these verbs in Pausanias, and includes two very useful tables: the first one links each verb for performing sacrifices with the terms Pausanias uses to describe the cult place, while the second table details the character traits associated with the recipients of ἐναγίζειν sacrifices. Ekroth shows how the verb ἐναγίζειν is usually associated with “death and pollution, as well as with contexts contrasted with the divine,” while θύειν is used of “regular, steady, ongoing cult” (p. 151). Thus Pausanias, Ekroth argues, can differentiate between different types of sacrifices and different categories of heroes. The first part of her argument seems stronger than the second. While heroes do differ from each other, I am not convinced by her claim that they can be divided into various categories on the basis of the varying degrees of “immortality or mortality in each hero” (p. 156).

In “Melikertes-Palaimon, hero of the Isthmian games,” Elizabeth R. Gebhard and Matthew W. Dickie examine the evidence for the cult of Baby Melikertes at Isthmia. Some scholars have argued that the cult of Melikertes was established by the Romans, mostly on the grounds that the archaeological evidence does not go further back than the Roman period. Gebhard and Dickie convincingly argue that the cult is in fact a Greek cult and that it must have existed at least from the time of Pindar to the time of the Roman renovation of the sanctuary. While the cult is not preserved in the archaeological record in its present condition, a fragmentary ode by Pindar refers to the cult and its creation. The ode describes how Sisyphus was ordered to establish funeral games in honor of the dead Melikertes. The neighboring games in honor of Pelops at Olympia and of Opheltes at Nemea provide parallels for the Greek cult of Melikertes, and the switch of crowns — from pine to wild celery, the plant used to commemorate Opheltes at Nemea — awarded to winners at Isthmia also testifies to the mourning character of the games as early as the fifth century B.C.

Dennis D. Hughes’ “hero cult, heroic honors, heroic dead: some developments in the Hellenistic and Roman periods” is an excellent survey of the evidence for hero cult in the post-classical period. He covers both private and public heroizations, and examines the phenomenon in terms of the historical contexts. While hero cult persists throughout antiquity, it takes on different meanings in the later period, and Hughes argues that it reflects both changing views about the afterlife, and a way of legitimizing both patriotic and religious convictions.

Most of the essays in the volume thus focus on the social and political functions of hero cult, and the emphasis — with a few exceptions — is on the archaeological and iconographical evidence. The interdisciplinary focus of most of the essays yields rich results, and taken as a whole the volume provides a stimulating survey of the most important themes and debates surrounding ancient Greek hero cult.


1. Robin Hägg edited the proceedings for the four prior conferences as well: The Iconography of Greek Cult in the Archaic and Classical Period (Liege and Athens 1992), Ancient Greek Cult Practice from the Epigraphical Evidence (Stockholm 1994), The Role of Religion in the Early Greek Polis (Stockholm 1996), and Ancient Greek Cult Practice from the Archaeological Evidence (Stockholm 1998).