Heroes and HERO cults I

Name a hero and Achilles, Agamemnon, and Heracles immediately spring to mind. These characters are the household names, so to speak, among the heroes, and we are well informed about both their spectacular lives and their deaths from epic and myth, and of the sanctuaries and shrines where they received cult. But what about Egretes, the Children of Caphyae, and the ‘‘Heroes in the Field”? They were also heroes and, though less well known to us, certainly no less important to the people who worshiped them. And what do we make of the figure or figures who for more than a hundred years received offerings of pottery, figurines, and metal objects from the rural inhabitants of Berbati in the Argolid, when they feasted next to the monumental Mycenaean tomb in the midst of their valley? This may also be a hero-cult, though we can neither name its recipient nor define his (or her) character.

Heroes (hērōes, fem. hērōinai, hērōissai) are a category of divine beings of Greek mythology and religion which are difficult to define, since they varied over both time and place. To quote a now classic statement by Nicholas Coldstream: ‘‘Greek hero worship has always been a rather untidy subject, where any general statement is apt to provoke suspicion”. A characteristic of heroes and hero-cults is their heterogeneity, both in relation to the nature of the heroes themselves and the appearance of their cult-places, and, to a lesser extent, the cult practices. Their importance in the Greek religious system is, on the other hand, indisputable, not the least from the fact that they were worshiped all over the Greek territory from the late eighth century BC to the end of antiquity.

For the ancient Greeks there was no clear-cut definition of a hero; still, heroes were distinguished from gods and from the ordinary dead. How we perceive a hero and his cult is dependent on which kind of evidence we consider. A hero can be defined as a person who had lived and died, either in myth or in real life, this being the main distinction between a god and a hero. He was thus dead and may have had a tomb, which sometimes was the focus of a cult, though not all heroes received religious attention. The difference between a hero and an ordinary dead person lies in the relationship with the living, the ordinary dead having some kind of connection with those tending the grave and presenting offerings, while the heroes were worshiped on a more official level. Finally, the hero was generally a local phenomenon and most heroes were connected with one specific location.

The use and meaning of the term hērōs

The written sources provide us with accounts of myths and cults of heroes, but the designation hērōs is not always a distinct marker of the status of the figure described in this manner or of the extent to which he received any form of cult. The etymology of the term is unclear. A connection with Hera has been suggested, the hērōs being seen as the young divine consort of the goddess in her aspect as a goddess of marriage or of the seasons.

A Linear B tablet from Pylos (PY Tn 316) mentions a Tiriseroe which may refer to a divinity, but it is difficult to know whether the Mycenaean hērōs constituted an equivalent to the hero of later periods.

Homer uses hērōs for the human protagonists of his epics, not only the warriors but also the bard Demodocus and even the people of Ithaca at large, but not for a recipient of cult in the same sense as in the archaic and classical periods.

In Hesiod’s Work and Days (157-68), the Heroes constitute one of the four races, which came before the present Iron Race of men. After Gold, Silver and Bronze, the Heroes were created, ‘‘a god-like race of hero-men who are called demi-gods”; they fought at Thebes and Troy and perished there, apart from a lucky few who continued their lives on the islands of the blessed.

From the archaic period, hērōs is used not only for a figure of extrahuman status, a protagonist of myth and epic, but also for a divine figure receiving cult. The terminology is not unambiguous, however, and an individual who fulfilled the criteria for being a hero could sometimes be called a god (theos), as was the case with the athlete Theogenes, worshiped on Thasos (Pausanias 6.11.2-9), or the healing divinity Hērōs Iatros from Athens, designated as theos in a third-century inscription (IG ii2 839).

Hērōs seems in this case to have functioned more as a name or a title. The disparity between terminology and content is evident also for the heroines. Though the concept of a female equivalent of hērōs exists in Homer, the earliest use of a term for a heroine (hērōis) is found in Pindar (Pythian 11.7). But the fluid use of hērōs can reflect the character of the figure in question as well, Heracles being the prime case. Born a mortal, he burnt himself to death on Mount Oite and finally ascended to the gods on Olympus. He was worshiped all over Greek territory but there was no tradition of him having a tomb. Heracles was primarily perceived as a god, though of mortal descent, a status pinpointed when Pindar describes him as a hērōs theos (Nemean 3.22). Also the Dioscuri and Asclepius transgressed the category of heroes with the panhellenic spread of their cults and their mythical background presenting them as partly immortal.

In the hellenistic period, some tombstones for the ordinary dead begin to carry the word ‘‘hero” or ‘‘heroine.” These are frequently decorated with heroic motifs, such as banqueting scenes and riders, and, where the age of the departed is known, they were often children or adolescents, whose untimely death may have led to them being heroized. Instead of taking hērōs to have meant simply ‘‘dead man” and as a sign of the devaluation of hero-cults after the classical period, it seems that these individuals were in some way considered as special and distinct from the ordinary dead.

The rise of the hero concept

The earliest traces of hero-cults depend on which kind of sources are considered and it is not obvious that the written and archaeological evidence for heroes and hero cults coincided from the beginning. Tendencies of hero-worship may be distinguished in Homer, such as the tomb of Ilios being a respected landmark (Iliad 10.414, 11.166, 371, 24.350) and bulls and rams being sacrificed by the Athenian youths to Erechtheus (Iliad 2.550-1).

The basic features of the Hesiodic heroes, that they are mortal but still semi-divine, is in accordance with the concept of heroes as we know it from later periods and it is possible that these heroes (as well as the races which preceded them) were thought to correspond to the heroes of the kind later receiving cult.

Even though our earliest written sources do not use hērōs in the same sense as in later periods, or refer to hero-cults directly, the archaeological evidence indicates that hero-cults existed in some form in the late Early Iron Age. From the eighth century, there is a small and scattered group of hero shrines, all connected with epic or mythic heroes, identified by inscribed dedications (in most cases postdating the installation of the cult): Helen and Menelaus at Sparta, Odysseus in the Polis cave on Ithaca, and Agamemnon at Mycenae. A hērōon dedicated to the heroes who participated in the expedition against Thebes was established in Argos in the early sixth century.

Traces of Iron Age activity are found at Mycenaean tholos and chamber tombs over most of the Greek mainland in the eighth century, though some instances date back to the tenth century BC. Some deposits, rich in content and spanning several centuries, were probably herocults (as at Menidi in Attica and Berbati in the Argolid), while offerings of a more simple nature suggest ‘‘tomb cult” directed towards the recently dead or to ancestors. A recent finding at a tholos tomb in Thessaly of an inscribed tile (seventh or sixth century BC) dedicated to Aeatus, the mythical founder of the region, shows that the heroes worshiped at the Bronze Age tombs may have been identified with mythic and epic figures as well.

Veneration of the recently dead also developed into hero-cults. Some individuals were buried in a manner clearly exceeding the regular norm, such as the couple interred in the tenth-century monumental house at Lefkandi, though at this site there is no sign of a subsequent cult. In Eretria, a group of people – men and women – were given rich cremation burials near the West Gate in the late eighth to the early seventh century. A triangular precinct was constructed around 680 BC and a building functioning as a shrine or a dining room was later erected next to it, the cult-place being in use until the late classical period, most likely as a hero-cult.

Another early category of hero to consider is the oikist, the leader of the party setting out to found a new colony outside the Greek homeland. The oikist was chosen by the oracle at Delphi and after his death buried in the agora of the new colony and there received a cult. Considering the early institution of some of these cults, as early as the mid-eighth century BC, it is possible that they influenced or even gave rise to hero-cults in the motherland.

Why did hero-cults arise in the eighth century? The spread of the Homeric epics (and Hesiod’s writings) may have stimulated the identification of the Mycenaean tombs as those of the Homeric heroes, though a number of later-attested heroes do not figure in Homer. The occurrence of hero-cults is contemporary with the rise of the city-state, and hero-cults can be seen as a response to political and social changes. It has been suggested that they were mechanisms for aristocrats and prominent families to assert themselves or attempts by individual landholders and smaller communities to claim rights to land and territory.

On the whole, the origins of hero-cults must be viewed as highly diverse. Certain hero-cults may be derived from an interest in ancient graves or the tending of the graves of important contemporary individuals, while the heroes of myth and epic inspired others. To attempt to single out the factor that gave rise to hero-cults seems to be a futile endeavor. A more fruitful approach is to focus on the development of the category of heroes, a heading under which a whole range of figures with diverse origins came to be included, as well as on the political, social, and religious changes which contributed to this process.

Though the earliest traces of heroes and hero-cults date back to the Early Iron Age, heroes and hero-cults in the full sense of the terms did not become a prominent feature of Greek religion until the archaic period. Furthermore, different hero-cults came into being (and also disappeared) continuously all through the archaic, classical, and hellenistic periods, and the Bronze Age tombs even became the focus of religious attention a second time, in the late classical and hellenistic periods.

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