BMCR 2003.06.28

The Sacrificial Rituals of Greek Hero-Cults in the Archaic to the early Hellenistic periods. Kernos Supplément, 12

, 981652. Liège:, 1988. 1 online resource.. EUR 50.00.

The book under review is a revision of the author’s Ph.D. thesis submitted in 1999 to the Department of Classical Archaeology and Ancient History, University of Stockholm. It contains an introduction, four chapters, and an appendix with four of the known sacrificial calendars of Attica (in Greek and not translated). The sacrificial calendars are from the demes: Thorikos, Marathon, Erchia, and the calendar of the two branches of the genos of the Salaminioi. The book has an up-to-date, 34-page bibliography with all the relevant publications on the subject, a list of illustrations, and finally an extensive and easy-to-use index divided into four parts: inscriptions, ancient authors, Greek terms, and general. This book is intended for a specialized audience with considerable knowledge in the field of Greek religion, but graduate students can also gain much from reading it.

Ekroth investigates the sacrificial rituals that were practiced in the worship of ancient Greek heroes from the Archaic to the early Hellenistic periods by combining all the ancient written sources (epigraphic and literary). Her main focus is animal sacrifice, and therefore only a few words are devoted to other types of sacrifice, such as libation. Ekroth’s investigation does not stop with the collection and description of the written sources dealing with Greek hero-cults, for she tries to explain the rituals and their terminology. In this study she uses archaeological material only sporadically because, as she states, “I intend to treat that material later in a separate study that will complement the written sources”. The present book is, as she explains, the first part of an extensive study of ancient Greek heroes and their place in Greek religion already begun in her previous writings on various aspects of Greek hero-cults.1

Study of Greek hero-cults has mainly been based on the ancient literary sources, while the important epigraphic and the archaeological material has been used only secondarily. Furthermore, the literary sources used as evidence of Greek hero-cults in the Archaic and Classical periods are generally of much later date and are often used haphazardly to fill in gaps in our knowledge of the practices in these periods.

Ekroth’s main point is that previous research has also been using a reverse methodology by applying post-Classical definitions to much earlier cult practices. These post-Classical sources used a much clearer or more specialized terminology and gave definitions of the rituals that were used in much later periods (mainly the Roman) and then applied these definitions to the cults of the Archaic and Classical periods. Ekroth also shows that the sharp distinction between Olympic and chthonic gods did not always exist, and that heroes usually classified as chthonic deities are not always in that category.

Chapter 1. Terms assumed to be related to hero-cult ritual (pp. 23-128).

The chapter consists of three parts. The first part deals with eschara and escharon and the second part with bomos. All three terms are connected with the altar or the sacrificial installation. Part three examines enagizein, enagisma, enagismos and enagisterion, which are all terms connected to the sacrificial rituals.

Each term is methodically investigated together with its definition as given in the LSJ (H. G. Liddell, R. Scott, and H. Stuart Jones, Greek-English Lexicon. 9th ed., Oxford 1940). Eeach term is studied first from the epigraphic, second from the literary sources which are divided into three parts: Archaic to the early Hellenistic sources, post-300 BC sources, and explicatory sources (lexica, the scholia and the commentators on earlier texts) dated from the 5th century AD to 13th century AD. Finally, a conclusion for each part is appended. In other words, Ekroth investigates all the terms chronologically, ranging from c. 700 BC to the 13th century AD, a time span of approximately 2000 years. This makes it possible to examine the different meanings of the terms through time and show statistically how often each term is used and whether some authors have a preference for one specific term. This is the case with Pausanias, Plutarch, Philostratos, and Heliodoros, who use the term enagizein in an antiquarian way (p. 124). Ekroth is not the first scholar to investigate the development in the meaning of specific words through time. One need only read the fascinating and exemplary scholarly work “Xoana and the origins of Greek Sculpture” by A. A. Donohue, which has completely changed our way of thinking about ancient Greek cult statues.

Ekroth’s research shows clearly that the distinction between eschara and bomos as two types of altars, one for the Olympian gods and one for the heroes, is not reflected in the literary sources and that the Olympian gods could also receive sacrifice on an eschara (p. 41). This distinction seems to have emerged in the post-Classical period since the later sources state that the bomos was high while the eschara was low and placed in the ground (p. 54). The assumption that the eschara was specially designed for hero-cult cannot be supported by the epigraphic and literary sources from the Archaic to the early Hellenistic periods. Ekroth argues convincingly that the term eschara should refer to the upper part of an altar, perhaps the top surface of the bomos, which was made of metal in order to protect the stone/marble from the heat.2

For the term bothros, which is just a hole in the ground, the use is chronologically uneven, and only during the Roman period can the term be connected to hero-cults. (The archaeological evidence of bothroi is found especially in Asklepieia and other sanctuaries of healing deities from the Archaic period and even earlier).

Ekroth’s study of the terms enagizein, enagisma and enagisterion concludes that they were mainly used in the Roman period, typically when hero-sacrifices were instituted or restored, and not very frequently in the Archaic and Classical periods.

Chapter 2. Evidence for sacrifices in hero-cults down to 300 BC (pp. 129-213).

The chapter is divided into two parts. The first part deals with the epigraphic sources and the second with the literary sources. In each part four rituals are investigated: destruction sacrifices, blood rituals, theoxenia and thysia sacrifices followed by dining. By investigating these four rituals, Ekroth wants to test the material against the generally accepted thesis that thysia sacrifices followed by dining were exceptional or a rather late development in the cult of heroes.

Her investigation reveals that in both the epigraphic and the literary sources the thysia followed by dining was the common sacrifice for both gods and heroes. By studying the sacrificial calendars, Ekroth shows that heroes and gods had an equally prominent claim to sacrificial animals and worship. In addition, when the ritual involved was not a thysia, it was specifically mentioned in the calendars with terms such as holokautos, nephalios or ou phora, thus supporting her theory that these rituals were rather unusual not only in the cults of heroes, but also in cults of the gods.

Chapter 3. The use and meaning of the rituals in wider perspective (pp. 215-301).

The four ritual categories — destruction sacrifices, blood rituals, theoxenia and thysia sacrifices followed by dining — are again discussed, but in greater detail, in order to prove erroneous the traditional assumption that hero-cults originated from the cult of the dead and thereby preserve older rituals, which were later abandoned in funerary cults.

Ekroth’s investigation clearly demonstrates that heroes were worshipped by all levels of society and had the same role in Greek religion as the gods, which separates them from the cults of the ordinary dead. Furthermore, the written sources show that the predominant ritual in the cults of the heroes was the thysia sacrifice followed by dining, and, since this ritual cannot be found in the cult of the dead, the separation of the two is further attested.

Chapter 4. The ritual pattern (pp. 303-341).

This chapter is divided into five parts with a final conclusion. The first part explores the sacrificial rituals of the Greek hero-cults, with a section on thysia followed by dining, theoxenia, blood rituals and destruction sacrifices. Part two, dealing with the Olympian-chthonian distinction, is followed by two more theoretical parts on thysia: low-intensity and high-intensity rituals, and the issue of immortality versus mortality, where Ekroth discusses the distinction in the nature of the gods, the heroes, and the dead. The last part shows the heterogeneity of heroes. The conclusion of chapter four is that the heroes do not represent a category ritually different from the gods but that they are similar to them and fulfilled the same role in society.

In summary, the author provides a useful critical review of the terms and definitions connected with Greek hero-cults and attempts to refute the traditional assumption that different rituals separated the heavenly gods from the heroes/chthonic gods. She shows convincingly that the main ritual for both groups is the thysia sacrifice followed by dining. Furthermore, she explains the Greek hero-cults on the basis of contemporary sources, not sources from the post-Classical period as had formerly been the case. One might wish that she had made greater use of iconographic material, which would have given a more precise picture of Greek hero-cults, and also that she had provided the reader with more translations of the ancient Greek texts. I believe, however, that Ekroth’s book is going to be one of the standard works to be cited in future publications of Greek hero-cults. Its methodology, terminology, and definitions are excellent.


1. “Altars in Greek hero-cults: a review of the archaeological evidence,” in Ancient Greek cult-practice from the archaeological evidence. Proceedings of the Fourth International Seminar on Ancient Greek cult, organized by the Swedish Institute at Athens, 22-24 October 1993 (ActaAth-8, 15), ed. R. Hgg, Stockholm 1998, 117-130. “Pausanias and the sacrificial rituals of Greek hero-cults,” in Ancient Greek hero-cults. 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 (ActaAth-8, 16), ed. R. Hägg, Stockholm 1999, 145-158. “Altars on Attic vases: the identification of bomos and eschara,” in Ceramics in context. Proceedings of the Internordic colloquium on ancient pottery held at Stockholm 13-15 June 1997 (Acta univ. Stock. Stockholm studies in Classical Archaeology 12), ed. Ch. Scheffer, Stockholm 2001, 115-126.

2. Chadwick, p. 520, suggests that the meaning of the eschara as “altars with braziers placed upon them.” See J. Chadwick, The semantic history of Greek ἐσχάρα, in O-o-pe-ro-si. Festschrift für Ernst Risch zum 75. Geburtstag, ed. A. Etter, Berlin and New York 1986, 515-523. See also Ekroth 2001.