BMCR 2007.04.68

Baby and Child Heroes in Ancient Greece

, Baby and child heroes in ancient Greece. Traditions. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2004. x, 234 pages : illustrations ; 24 cm.. ISBN 0252029291. $40.00.

[The reviewer apologises for the lateness of this review.]

While the subject of ancient Greek hero cult has long been popular among Classical scholars, Pache’s work is the first monograph to focus specifically on child heroes. The volume is divided into six chapters which treat the children of Medea, the children of Herakles, Linos and Demophon, Pelops, Opheltes-Arkhemoros, and Melikertes-Palaimon. Each chapter systematically deals with the ancient literary sources for the myths in question, the iconographic evidence, and the archaeological and ancient literary material that relate to the cult and ritual established for each hero. The chronological boundaries of the study are broad, covering the Homeric to Roman periods, and the work ranges spatially across the ancient Greek world. Discussion of the evidence is close and detailed, and the book will be of greatest use to the interested specialist.

In her introduction P. underscores the difference between adult and child heroes: namely, that while the former are usually defined by their actions in life, the latter derive their hero status not from their deeds but rather from their untimely death. She defines child heroes as those who die, usually by violent or unnatural means, before reaching puberty and who, following their death, are immortalised and elevated to the status of hero. She also offers a brief overview of earlier seminal work on adult heroes and their cults, and attempts to explain the previous scarcity of scholarly comment on child heroes in part as a result of academic approaches that viewed heroes either as “powerful dead human beings or minor, local, highly specialized demoted gods” (4), categories into which heroised children could not easily be fitted. She further stresses the importance for our understanding of the meaning of child heroes and their cult of a multi-disciplinary approach that gives equal consideration to the primary evidence of ancient literature, art and archaeology.

Chapter 1 begins the study by examining the children of Medea. P. deals first with the evidence of the ancient literary sources for the development of the myth: her scope is wide, ranging from the early Greek version of Eumelos, as retold by Pausanias, to Latin authors. Two main variants of the myth are emphasised: one in which Medea herself kills her children, and one in which the Corinthians are responsible for their death and are punished by the loss of their own children. In both cases, the slaughter of the children of Medea requires atonement to be made by the establishment of funeral rites for the children. In contrast to the dual co-existing literary variants of the myth, the surviving visual representations depict Medea alone as the children’s killer, while the Corinthians escape blame. All extant images date to post 400 BC and occur on South Italian, or less commonly Etruscan, red-figure ceramics, in Roman wall paintings from Pompeii and Herculaneum, or in Roman relief sculpture, which includes sarcophagi: P. believes them all to be related to dramatic versions of the myth. The chapter closes with a discussion of the evidence for the cult of the children of Medea, and P. first revisits the scholarly debate concerning whether the cult was located at Corinth or at Perachora: on balance P. favours placing the cult in the sanctuary of Hera Akraia at Perachora. While noting that we know very little about the children’s cult, P. underscores not only the expiatory and mourning aspects of the rites but also the initiatory elements expressed in the year-long segregation of fourteen Corinthian children and their subjection to hair cutting and the donning of special garments.

Chapter 2 deals with the children of Herakles. P. first examines the numerous ancient literary sources for the myth, according to most of which Herakles himself in a fit of madness slays his own offspring. P. notes two main variants of the myth: one in which Herakles slaughters the children with weapons such as arrows or club (Euripides, Seneca, Moskhos, Diodoros) and an alternative version in which he throws the children into a fire (Pherekydes, Apollodoros). The latter variant can perhaps be connected to Pindar’s Isthmian 4, which, in focussing on the Theban cult of the sons of Herakles rather than the myth, tells of a night time fire ritual held in their honour. Though Pindar does not specify that these were the children slain by Herakles, P. reasonably points to this being the case, and further links to the children the establishment of Theban athletic contests also mentioned by Pindar, thus seeing here the same pattern of expiatory funerary games that in her subsequent chapters becomes evident for other child heroes. Though no archaeological evidence for the Theban cult survives, Pausanias records the presence at Thebes of a tomb of the children of Herakles. P. stresses the recurrence of themes seen already in the myth of Medea’s children, such as parental violence and the need to compensate for the children’s deaths, and points out other links between the Herakles and Medea stories: notably that when Medea flees to Thebes following the slaughter of her own offspring, she there encounters the maddened Herakles, who has killed his sons, and proceeds to cure him of his madness. In terms of the visual portrayal of the sons of Herakles, P. notes that both main variants of the myth are represented, with Herakles seen either throwing his children into the fire or killing them with a weapon. While the visual sources for the myth are few, and consist of mainly late fourth-century BC South Italian figure decorated ceramics, an alternative schema to the slaughter theme is the depiction of the already dead children in the Underworld, shown together with their mother Megara and often accompanied by Herakles, himself engaged in one of his expiatory labours.

Chapter 3 treats Linos and Demophon, two children who die untimely deaths but who, as a result, are heroised by the direct actions of the gods: Apollo in the case of Linos, and Demeter in the case of Demophon. P. begins with the myth of Linos, the fullest account of which is provided by Konon in the first century BC. Indeed, with no extant visual representations of the story, and no surviving archaeological evidence for the cult, the primary sources for the myth and ritual of this child hero rest solely on the ancient literary accounts. The myth and cult of Medea’s children is centred on Corinth, and that of Herakles’ children on Thebes. With Linos, however, the focus is shifted to Argos, where Psamathe, daughter of King Krotopos, gave birth to the child following her liaison with Apollo. Fearful of her father’s reaction, Psamathe exposes the baby, who is taken into the care of a shepherd until attacked and killed by the sheepdogs of the king. Krotopos, meanwhile, puts Psamathe to death for her lack of chastity and Apollo, in response, visits a plague on the Argives. P. here draws a comparison between the narrative of the death of Linos and that of the children of Medea, given that punishment for the unjust deaths is visited on the living community and requires atonement to be made via the foundation of an annual civic festival. Accordingly, the Argives offer prayers and sing a dirge (the ‘linos’) for Linos and weep for both the child and his mother. They also name one of their months ‘Arneios’, because Linos was raised among lambs, and at the festival of Arnis they sacrifice as many dogs as they can find. Though P. makes little further comment on this festival, it would have here been worth noting the archaeological evidence for apparent dog sacrifice found elsewhere in association with deceased children: I think here primarily of the Hellenistic well in the Athenian Agora which contained remains of 450 foetuses, neonates, or infants, together with the bones of more than 130 dogs.1

P. then turns to Demophon, who, like Linos, is absent from the extant visual sources, but whose myth is recounted most fully in the Homeric Hymn to Demeter. Here Metaneira, queen of Eleusis, commits her son Demophon to the care of Demeter, who begins the process of immortalising the child by placing him in a fire in order to purify him of mortal corruption. When the horrified Metaneira witnesses this, she interrupts Demeter and thus brings to a halt the immortalisation of her son. Demophon, as a result, is destined to die, but Demeter decrees that he is to become the recipient of a hero cult. The cult includes a ritual fight, which P. connects to the Eleusinian Games, thus placing Demophon in a category of child heroes honoured by the foundation of athletic competitions. The concept of the immortalisation of children by fire is a fascinating one, and P. observes that this is exactly what Thetis tried with the baby Achilles until interrupted by Peleus. She also notes that the term katakryptein (conceal) is used both in the Homeric Hymn to Demeter, when the goddess plunges Demophon into the fire, and again in the Pausanias-related account of Eumelos when Medea conceals her children in the sanctuary of Hera, expressly in order to immortalise them. P. thus sees a pattern emerging in the myths of Demophon and the children of Medea where fire is an agent of immortalisation, and connects this also to the Theban fire rituals held in honour of the children of Herakles. P. further astutely points out the similarities of the Demophon story with that of the Egyptian Isis and the child of Astarte, as related by Plutarch. Isis, searching for her husband Osiris (as Demeter searches for Persephone), comes to Byblos where the queen entrusts her with one of her children (as Metaneira entrusts Demophon to Demeter). In an attempt to immortalise the child, Isis immerses the infant in fire, but is interrupted by the queen (as was the case with Demeter, Demophon and Metaneira). In the context of these tales and rituals of immortalisation of children by fire, I found myself contemplating the Phoenician ritual practice of burning young children in the fire, a practice usually referred to by modern scholars as ‘infant sacrifice’. If, however, the concept of fire as an agent employed in order to purify a child of mortality was as widespread across the Mediterranean as the myths of Demophon and the children of Astarte suggest, it is perhaps possible that the Phoenician practice of infant immolation was also intended to immortalise and heroise the child via its untimely physical death.

Chapter 3 closes with a skilful weaving together of the threads linking Linos, Demophon, and the children of Astarte. Having pointed out the close parallels between the myths of Demophon and Astarte’s children, P. observes the link established by Herodotos between Linos and Maneros, the oldest of Astarte’s offspring. When Maneros dies of fear under the terrible gaze of Isis, the goddess institutes a cult for the dead child, a cult which involves the singing by the living of a mourning dirge, which Herodotos states is one and the same as the ‘linos’ song. Thus P. underscores the widespread importance of mourning rituals in the cults observed for child heroes.

In chapter 4, P. deals with the unusual case of Pelops, whom she suggests provides the link between the local child hero cults treated thus far, and the Panhellenic athletic festivals established in honour of the baby heroes whom she discusses in chapters 5 and 6. Beginning with the literary accounts of the myth, she notes that Pelops is both reported as dying a childish untimely death when killed by his father Tantalos and served as dinner to the gods, an act that resulted in the establishment of expiatory games in his honour, and yet he is also claimed to have been brought back to life subsequently by the gods. Later as an adult, he competes against Oinomaos for the hand of Hippodameia and is credited with founding the Olympic Games in compensation for Oinomaos’ unjust demise during the chariot race. P. discusses the archaeological evidence for the shrine of Pelops at Olympia, centred according to Pindar Olympian 1 on the tomb of the hero, and located between the Heraion and the Temple of Zeus, though she notes difficulties involved in determining when the cult was first established. In terms of the visual representations of the young Pelops killed by his father and later revived by the gods, P. points to a number of figured lekythoi depicting adolescent boys in cauldrons. None of these can, however, be identified as Pelops with any certainty, and P. discusses the not uncommon mythological motif of a cauldron used as a means of either killing or reviving a child (Pelops, Melikertes, Learkhos, child of Lykaon), dependent on whether the cauldron is under the control of an adult male or female respectively. We might add here the observation that it is again the fire that heats the cauldron that is thus implicitly identified as an agent of immortalisation.

Chapters 5 and 6, which account for half of the book’s total length, deal in detail with Opheltes-Arkhemoros and Melikertes-Palaimon, the child heroes of the Panhellenic Nemean and Isthmian Games respectively. In her account and analysis of the myth of Opheltes-Arkehemoros, P. focuses largely on the evidence of Bacchylides, Euripides and Statius. The Seven Against Thebes come to Nemea and, in their search for water, encounter baby Opheltes with his nurse Hypsipyle. In order to assist them, Hypsipyle leaves Opheltes alone in a meadow, where the child picks flowers and falls asleep, only to be attacked and killed by a great serpent. In response, Amphiaraos founds funeral games for Opheltes who, raised to the status of hero, is renamed Arkhemoros. As P. makes clear, pointing not only to the story of Opheltes but also to that of Persephone, the flowery meadows of ancient Greece were potentially dangerous places closely associated with the Underworld. She also notes the close association in Greek myth of sleep with death, underscoring the particular risks of sleep for young babies, and goes on to an insightful discussion of the expression in ancient and modern lullabies of parental fears concerning the vulnerability of young children to the threat of death.

The iconographical sources depicting the baby Opheltes range from South Italian red- figure vessels of the fourth century BC to first and second century AD stone reliefs, Argive coins and a fresco. The most common representational schema is that of the baby attacked by the snake, with two further schemata, namely the already dead child and snake, and the mourning of the dead Opheltes, occurring with lesser frequency. Opheltes in the arms of Hypsipyle is also once depicted on a fourth century AD contorniat. P. draws particular attention to an Apulian red-figure amphora from Ruvo, on which the dead Opheltes lies next to a stone-defined enclosure inside which the snake coils about a tree. She points out that this pictorial source accords with the literary description by Pausanias of the heroon of Opheltes at Nemea as a shrine demarcated by a stone fence with cypress trees marking the spot where the child was killed. She further links these ancient visual and literary sources for the cult of Opheltes with the results of archaeological excavations at Nemea: these have revealed that a heroon for the dead child was established in the first half of the sixth century BC and in its developed form was presented as a pentagonal unroofed enclosure, defined by stone foundations and containing evidence of altars, a tomb and trees. Sacrificed remains and votives were also found within the heroon, including two statuettes depicting a young boy, presumably Opheltes. Here (133) P. erroneously compares a Hellenistic bronze figurine to the boy depicted in a Roman relief in the Palazzo Spada where the iconography is clearly different. P. concludes the chapter by reiterating similarities in the Opheltes-Arkehmoros narrative and cult encountered already in the accounts of other child heroes: a sense of the dangers threatening young children, the need for atonement for their untimely death, and the resulting establishment of athletic games.

The final chapter turns our attention to Melikertes-Palaimon, and P. begins by examining the ancient literary sources for the child’s story, ranging from Pindar to the Christian Fathers. These relate that Ino, the mother of Melikertes, threw herself into the sea together with the child, for reasons that vary depending on the source consulted. When Melikertes’ body is brought ashore by a dolphin, Sisyphos establishes funeral games in honour of the dead child who, now elevated to the status of a hero, becomes known as Palaimon. Prior to the Roman period, iconographic sources for the narrative are few, though P. illustrates an interesting Hellenistic silver plate, which depicts Ino suckling her infant while riding on the back of a triton, a rare representation in ancient Greek art of a nursing child. Most of the later images appear, not surprisingly, on first- and second-century AD Roman coins from Corinth: these most frequently depict either the baby Melikertes in Ino’s arms or a child riding a dolphin. A few coins from the second and third centuries AD almost certainly record the contemporary shrine of Melikertes-Palaimon at Isthmia, and can be read in conjunction with the excavated evidence of the Isthmian Palaimonion and with Pausanias’s description of this same heroon. The coins depict a round temple with colonnade: sometimes a statue of Melikertes riding the dolphin is visible within the temple and frequently a door appears in the base of the building. Thus placed, this door accords with Pausanias’s reference to the existence in the Palaimonion at Isthmia of an underground adyton where, he tells us, binding oaths were sworn. While the earliest archaeological evidence recovered at Isthmia of a heroon built for the child dates to the Roman period, the evidence presented by Plutarch of a night time contest held in honour of Melikertes attests to the much earlier existence of cultic activity for the child. Both Plutarch’s observation of nocturnal rituals and also the later evidence of Pausanias and the coins for a subterranean adyton, accord well with the archaeological recovery from the Palaimonion of a large number of uniquely shaped lamps, thus confirming the central importance of the performance of night time cult activity in the child’s honour. P. might here have further drawn attention to the recurrence of night and darkness as a significant feature in the cult of a number of the child heroes examined: that is, not only in the case of Melikertes-Palaimon, but also in the night time fire rituals held for the children of Herakles at Thebes, and in the nocturnal attempted immortalisation by fire of Demophon by Demeter and of the child of Astarte by Isis. P. does, however, underscore in the cult of Melikertes-Palaimon the features of lament, mourning and sacrifice commonly found in the rites of many child heroes, and stresses the pattern of the foundation of expiatory athletic (funerary) games that we have witnessed already in the case of Herakles, Demophon, Pelops, and Opheltes-Arkhemoros. She also points to the evidence of Plutarch, Philostratos and Ailios Aristeides for the practice at the Isthmian Palaimonion of secret rituals of an initiatory character, and compares these to the initiatory elements of the cult of Medea’s children, also located within Corinthian territory. P. further stresses that the cult of Melikertes-Palaimon, although most famous at Isthmia, was not localised in the same way as that of the other child heroes she treats: Palaimon was also revered on Tenedos and in Asia Minor, and she explains this wide geographic presence of his cult as a result of the manner of his death at sea, which allowed multiple communities to claim discovery of the child’s body.

A major underlying, and oft-repeated, hypothesis of the book is that the myths and cults of the child heroes discussed gave expression to parental anxiety and guilt related to the death of children, particularly in those cases such as the offspring of Medea or Herakles, where a parent was directly or indirectly responsible for the child’s demise. However, the basis upon which this psychoanalytical model is constructed is never properly justified by the author, nor is any comment made to the effect that Greek myth conversely many times tells of parents threatened or murdered by their children, thus raising the possibility that mythological narrative provided a vehicle for the expression of the tensions that existed between the generations. P.’s rather ungrounded hypothesis is thus open to the criticism that she appears to reflect back onto antiquity our own deeply-felt twenty-first century Western societal and parental feelings of guilt towards children. In this context it is important to recognise significant differences between the contemporary West and ancient Greece: notably that in ancient Greece the reality of infant mortality was an ever-present and accepted part of life, and further that the intentional exposure of infants was, at least in parts of Greece in certain periods, an act consciously engaged in at the societal or parental level. While parental anxiety concerning a wanted child’s survival and future may have been real enough, the emotional or psychological response of guilt suggested by P. to have been engendered by a child’s death is, therefore, worth debating. P. is, however, on much safer theoretical ground when she observes that “Narratives of child heroes … stress the dangers inherent in childhood and making the transition to adulthood” (6), and in this context the initiatory rituals present in child hero cults and further the iconographic presentation noted by P. of Opheltes-Arkhemoros and Melikertes-Palaimon as infants before their death and as older children or adolescents once immortalised are highly significant. Religious ritual and the heroisation of mythological children must thus surely have provided a psychological and practical focus for worshippers, both for juveniles experiencing their passage through childhood and also for adults managing the harsh reality of raising children in the Classical world. P. concludes her study on a strong note by commenting that “Vernant describes epic as not only a literary genre, but also as ‘one of the institutions the Greeks developed to give an answer to the problem of death in order to acculturate death and integrate it into social thought and life.’ (J.-P. Vernant, Mortals and Immortals: Collected Essays (1991), 86) This definition could just as well describe the institution of hero cult, which makes sense of the meaningless of death by effectively keeping the hero alive through poetry as well as through cult rituals” (182-3).

This is a welcome addition to the existing scholarly literature on heroes and hero cult, and P. does us a service not only by her collection in one place of ancient literary and iconographic sources for each myth considered, but also by her careful analysis of, and commentary on, the common aspects of the cultic rituals practised for child heroes. The book is not, however, an easy read: as P. explains, her monograph grew out of her doctoral thesis, and the resulting book still bears the hallmark of the dissertation, with the minutiae of detailed argument sometimes engaged in at the cost of the bigger picture. Chapters are often of markedly, and unnecessarily, uneven length and vary widely in their depth of discussion: that on Pelops, for example, is accorded only eleven pages while that on Opheltes-Arkhemoros extends to forty pages, not all of which are equally enlightening.

Only a handful of pertinent references are absent from the otherwise excellent bibliography.2


1. S.I. Rotroff, AJA 103 (1999), 284-5: L.M. Little, AJA 103 (1999), 284: L.M. Snyder, AJA 103 (1999), 284: M.A. Liston & J.K. Papadopoulos, Hesperia 73 (2004), 23-26.

2. L.A. Beaumont, “Mythological Childhood: a Male Preserve?”, BSA 90 (1995), 339-61. E. Kearns, “Between God and Man: Status and Function of Heroes and their Sanctuaries” in A. Schachter et al, Le sanctuaire grec (Geneva, 1992), 65-107. B. Menadier, “The Sanctuary of Hera Akraia and its Religious Connections with Corinth”, in R. Hägg, ed. Peloponnesian Sanctuaries and Cults. Proceedings of the Ninth International Symposium at the Swedish Institute at Athens, 11-13 June 1994 (Stockholm, 2002), 85-92. It should also be noted that G. Ekroth’s PhD thesis, listed in P.’s bibliography, has been published in a reworked form: G. Ekroth, The Sacrificial Rituals of Greek Hero-Cults in the Archaic to the Early Hellenistic Periods. Kernos Suppl. 12 (Liège, 2002).