Attempts have been made to make sense of the plethora of Greek heroes by dividing them into categories or by focusing on one particular category. Such groupings seem to have been of little importance in antiquity and most regions housed a variety of heroes cutting across these groups. Many heroes (and heroines) are found in myth, epic, and other narratives (including iconography), but there are also a large number solely known from cultic contexts and for whom we have no biographical details. Similarly, there is an intricate relationship between stories told about heroes and heroines and actual hero-cults. Myth may reflect cult practices but also be about the same rituals or about cult-places, or aim to place them in a heroic context. Though the bulk of all heroes who have come down to us in any kind of media have no attested cults, this is in many cases probably just due to lack of evidence. Every hero seems to have been a potential candidate for worship in some form.
The heroes of myth and epic were a mixed bunch, who performed extraordinary deeds and were claimed as founders of cities and sanctuaries, inventors and ancestors of families. Most of these heroes are male warriors or kings, giving rise to our modern use of ‘‘hero” and ‘‘heroic.” But myth and epic also contain a number of female figures. These heroines often occur in a familial context, as the less influential part of a heroic couple, or as virgins who give their lives to save their city, family, or husband. A perhaps more surprising group of heroes is those who are children or even babies, as in the case of the infant Opheltes/Archemorus, who was killed (or even partly eaten) by a snake when he was put down on the grass near a spring at Nemea.
Some heroes and heroines may originally have been gods or goddesses who did not fit in and were eventually subordinated among the heroes or merged with a heroic figure. At Sparta, Alexandra-Cassandra, worshiped in a shrine together with Zeus-Agamemnon, and Helen, sharing her cult with Menelaus, were both originally local goddesses who later became identified with well-known epic characters. Similarly Erechtheus’ and Hippolytus’ close relationships with goddesses suggest that they also had been gods once.
The heroes known only from cultic contexts, as recipients of either sacrifices or dedications, demonstrate a great diversity. The Attic evidence is particularly rich, and many of the heroes mentioned in sacred laws or regulations dealing with state, deme, or private cultic matters are clearly local cultic figures who must have been incomprehensible outside their regional context. Some cultic heroes had a specialized function, evident from their name, such as, for example, the Hērōs Klaikophoros, presumably ‘‘The Holder of the Temple Keys,” attested in Epidaurus, Troezen, and Messene in the hellenistic period. Others demonstrate a strong topographical link, such as the ‘‘Heroes in the Field” or the ‘‘Hero at Antisara”. There are even anonymous heroes and heroines evidenced both in the Athenian sacrificial calendars and from dedications from all over Greece. These figures must have been known by the people worshiping them, though perhaps never named.
A number of Greek heroes and heroines were historical or quasi-historical figures: founders of cities, soldiers killed in battle, former enemies, athletes, poets, writers, and other famous and exceptional individuals. For the figures of myth and epic, the reason for them being considered as suitable recipients of cult is self-evident.
Historical figures being elevated to heroes is a different matter, since they had to distinguish themselves from the ordinary dead of the same period. Having been extreme in some sense, in life or death, was the primary reason for heroic status. Poets, such as Homer and Archilochus, and the tragedians, and athletes, such as Theogenes from Thasos, as well as Hippocrates, the father of medicine, all reached hero status owing to their extraordinary achievements and contributions when alive. The first inventor of an action or an item, prōtos heuretēs, was often heroized, though many of these heroes were not actual historical figures.
Interestingly, a great number of extreme characters that became heroes had been far from benevolent when alive. This is an important distinction between heroes and Christian saints, who were given their status as a result of their good deeds and with whom the Greek heroes are often compared. A good example of extreme behavior leading to hero status is the case of the athlete Cleomedes from Astypalaea, who killed his opponent in pankration at Olympia and was disqualified (Pausanias 6.9.8-9). Consumed with rage, he tore down the roof of a school building in his home town, killing sixty innocent children. He barely escaped being lynched and took refuge in a stone chest in a sanctuary and then miraculously disappeared. The Pythia declared him a hero, since he was no longer mortal.
Another figure, Tereus, raped his sister-in-law and cut out her tongue to prevent her from telling. After being served his own son Itys for dinner as a punishment, he eventually committed suicide and was buried in Megara, where he received annual sacrifices (Pausanias 1.41.9, 10.4.6).
An extreme death, to be killed in a violent manner and at a young age, was a strong contributory cause for heroization. Many mythic and epic heroes and heroines perished violently at a young age. Among historical figures becoming heroes, a prime example of the time and manner of death being crucial is the case of the war dead, the soldiers fallen in battle. This development is linked to the rise of the hoplite armies of the archaic period, referred to in the poetry of Tyrtaeus at Sparta but also in a sixth-century epigram from a burial at Ambracia (SEG 41.540).
In the classical period, the importance of these men, especially at Athens, is evidenced by the epitaphioi logoi, the official praise of the fallen, and by their burial place, the Dēmosion Sēma, but a polyandrion of the war dead has also been investigated at Thespiae. The soldiers killed at Marathon and buried on the battlefield were venerated as heroes more than 350 years after their deaths.
Heroes were perceived as being able to help, perhaps even to a greater extent than a god, considering that heroes were thought to have once walked the earth and led some kind of ‘‘human” existence, as well as to be more intimately connected with specific locations. In times of threat or crisis, heroes were approached as helpers or acted as such of their own accord, and there are numerous reports of heroes appearing, especially to participate in battle. At the battle of Marathon in 490 BC, Theseus, Heracles, and Marathon (the eponymous hero of the region) were reported to have fought for the Greeks, but so too was Echetlaeus, a figure dressed as a peasant and killing Persians with a plough (Pausanias 1.32.4). Such sightings often led to the institution of a cult.
The importance of heroes as helpers, particularly in war, is also evident from the stories stipulating that certain hero-cults or hero-tombs must remain secret and hidden from the enemy. A fragment of Euripides’ Erechtheus (fragment 370, lines 77-89 TrGF), provides a good case. Here, Athena instructs the widow Praxithea (and all of the Athenians for that matter) that the couple’s daughters, who gave their lives to save the city, are to receive sacrifices from the Athenians prior to battle, while their abaton must be guarded from the attempts by the enemy to sacrifice there to assure military success.
But not all heroes by any means were kindly disposed, and a cult could be instituted or sacrifices performed not only to procure their help but also to appease their anger. There is a strand of danger and threat discernible in certain hero-accounts already in the fifth century and a fragment of Aristophanes describes the heroes as guardians of both evil and well-being (Aristophanes, Heroes fr. 322 K-A). Some heroes are said to be directly harmful and dangerous, such as the hero Orestes, and they could even be viewed as senders of diseases (Hippocrates, Sacred Disease [vol. 6, 362 Littre´]).
The dangerous aspect of certain heroes and its consequent effects on the living can be explained with reference to the fact that they belong to the categories of the ahōroi and the biaiothanatoi, those that had died too early and in a violent way. These groups included persons who had been murdered, executed, died of plague, or committed suicide, but also young people, such as children and virgins. They were angered and vengeful and needed to be propitiated, but this condition was also the source of their power, making them stronger than the ordinary dead.
The institution of a hero-cult was often a means for solving some kind of crisis, usually related to someone having been wronged or even violently killed. The Children of Caphyae, mentioned above, pretended to hang a statue of Artemis and were stoned to death by the city’s enraged population (Pausanias 8.23.7). The local women then began having miscarriages until the Pythia ordered the children to be buried and to be given sacrifices, since they had died unjustly. This story contains elements which can be found in the creation of a number of hero-cults, especially those of athletes and enemies: first, violent death and deprivation of burial resulting in negative effects for society, and secondly, the seeking of help from an oracle, especially Delphi, which remedies the situation by ordering the institution of a cult. The wronged hero, once the bitter enemy or a hostile ghost, eventually becomes a defender and protector.