Archaeologists to restore the Ancient Theatre of Dionysos

The ruined theatre under the Acropolis in Athens, considered as the birthplace of classical theatre, will be partially restored over the next six years, Greek authorities announced recently.

The project, worth 6 million euro, includes extensive modern additions to the surviving stone seats of the theater, where works of Euripides and other classical ancient playwrights were performed some 2,500 years ago, the Associated Press recently reported.

The theatre, located on the slopes of the Acropolis Hill, was first used in the late sixth century BC, with the performances of plays by the precursors of western theatre – tragedies by Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides, and Aristophanes’ comedies, according to the publication.

“The Theater of Dionysos … is of immense historic significance, as it is here that the masterpieces of ancient drama were first performed,” architect Constantinos Boletis, the project leader, told the publication.

The theatre, which was initially a terrace where spectators sat on the bare earth above a circular stage, was rebuilt in limestone and marble during the fourth century BC and modified in Hellenistic and Roman times. A section of the stone seating, with a capacity of up to 15,000 spectators, is intact.

Restoration plans include the addition of several tiers, using a combination of new stone and recovered ancient fragments, while strengthening retaining walls and other parts of the building.

Although many ancient theatres and concert halls, which underwent extensive restoration over the past century now host summer theatre and music performances, it is unlikely that Theatre of Dionysos, named after the ancient god of theater and wine in whose cult the art originated, will host modern audiences any time soon.

Although there were plans to hold performances there after its excavation in the nineteenth century, the idea was abandoned in the mid-1970s, according to Boletis.



War dances in Ancient Greece


The_Pyrrhic_Dance_by_GeromeThe most famous war dance in ancient Greece was the pyrrhike which became the national dance of Sparta, and persisted there long after Greece became a province of the Roman Empire and similar war dances had died out in other cities. The Greeks had several stories that accounted for the name of the pyrrhic dance. One said that it was invented by a Spartan called Pyrrhicus, though an alternative version claimed that Pyrrhicus was a Cretan. Another story connected the dance with the son of the hero Achilles, who bore two  names: Pyrrhus as well as Neoptolemus. After Achilles was killed in battle at Troy, Pyrrhus came to Troy to take his father’s place, and his greatest exploit was killing Eurypylus, leader of a force of Hittites that had come to help the Trojans. After he slew Eurypylus, he performed an exultant victory dance, and from his dance the pyrrhike took its name.

The pyrrhike and many other war dances were common among the peoples in the Greek world, as well as in neighboring countries between the tenth and seventh centuries BC Dancing had a practical purpose in the warfare of early Greece when warriors often fought in single combat, and nimble feet made the difference between a warrior dodging the spear that his foe hurled at him, and being impaled by it. In Homer’s Iliad, the Trojan prince Hector tells the Greek hero Ajax that he is not frightened by him, for he knows the steps of the “deadly dance of Ares,” the god of war.

hoplite-danceBy the mid-seventh century BC, however, the complexion of war had changed. Battles became contests between two battle lines of heavily-armed infantrymen called “hoplites,” and a good hoplite did not dodge or dance; rather, he stood firmly in his place in the battle line and shoved the enemy that faced him with his shield and thrust at him with his spear. Dance ceased to be an important part of military training, except in Sparta, which maintained its militaristic traditions long after it ceased to be a military power. By the end of the second century CE the pyrrhike was performed only in Sparta, where boys were still trained to dance it from the age of five. Yet the pyrrhike remained the dance most often portrayed in war sculptures and vase paintings.


hoplomachiaSpartan education, which was intended only for the warrior elite that controlled the state, aimed to produce superb soldiers, physically fit and skilled at handling arms. Hoplomachia (weapons training) between men was an important part of a warrior’s education, and it resembled a type of dance. When the philosopher Plato discussed the pyrrhic dance in the Laws, he described it as part of the hoplomachia. However, as pyrrhic dance developed in Sparta, youths who were being hardened for battle would first have their training session where they practiced their skill with the weapons of war, and then when it was over, they danced. A piper played the aulos, which had a timbre not unlike bagpipes, and the young warriors formed a line and danced to a quick, light dance step. While they danced, they sang songs which were composed by musicians who worked in Sparta in the seventh century BC such as Thaletas, who was credited with organizing the Gymnopaidiai (a Spartan festival). Hence, the pyrrhic dance was most likely not part of the weapons training, but was done to enhance the nimbleness of the warriors.


banquetAnother literary source for information about the development of the pyrrhic dance came from an author named Athenaeus who wrote a discursive work at the end of the second century CE called Learned Men at a Banquet. In it, Athenaeus imagines banqueters displaying their knowledge on a host of subjects, including dance. According to the Learned Men at a Banquet, the Spartans, who had a penchant for war, still trained armor-clad boys from the age of five in the pyrrhic dance in the second century CE. The dance, however, was no longer truly a war dance by this time. Athenaeus described it as a kind of Dionysiac pantomime— the dancers performed an interpretative dance that related various myths of the god Dionysus, including his expedition to India and his return to his native state of Thebes.

Apuleius of MadaurosBy the time that Athenaeus lived, pyrrhic dances were staged for Roman tourists, and in fact, pyrrhic dancers sometimes performed at Rome to amuse the crowd in the public games as a prelude to the deadlier entertainments offered by gladiatorial games and wild beast fights. Julius Caesar staged pyrrhic dancing at Rome, and so did the emperors Caligula, Nero, and Hadrian. The North African rhetorician and philosopher, Apuleius of Madauros (c.123–c. 190 CE), whose novel, the Metamorphoses, or the Golden Ass, is the only Latin novel to survive in its entirety, described a typical dance entertainment staged in the amphitheater at Corinth in his own day. First there was a pyrrhic dance, performed by boys and girls, beautifully costumed, then there was a pantomime—a ballet on the “Judgement of Paris” in which the young Trojan prince Paris judges a beauty contest of goddesses—and finally, the pièce de resistance, a convicted murderess torn apart by wild beasts.


Another famous war dance of Sparta was one performed for the Gymnopaidiai, which scholars first translated as “Festival of the Naked Youths.” The central feature of the festival, usually held in the heat of the Spartan midsummer in honor of the god Apollo, was a dance contest in which contestants danced naked. The contest was not just restricted to young boys, however, but was divided into three groups that were graded according to age: retired warriors too old for active service, warriors of military age, and youths still too young to serve in the army. Many scholars have come to believe that the word Gymnopaidiai should be translated as the “Festival of Unarmed Dancing,” for instead of wearing armor, as did the dancers of the pyrrhike, the dancers of the Gymnopaidiai wore nothing at all. The dancers pantomimed scenes from wrestling and boxing matches, but at all times, their feet moved in time to the music. As they danced, they sang songs by Thaletas and by another musician, Alcman, who plied his trade in Sparta about the same time.


castor_pollux_adjThe pyrrhike may have been the national dance of Sparta where it was part of the regular exercise of warriors keeping themselves in good physical condition for battle, but it was found elsewhere in the Greek world as well. In Sparta, the pyrrhic dance was sacred to the divine twins, Castor and Polydeuces, whom the Romans knew as Pollux. In Athens, the pyrrhic dance honored the warrior goddess Athena, the patron goddess of Athens. It was part of the ceremony of the annual Panathenaic festival that was held in honor of Athena, as well as the Great Panathenaic festival when non-Athenians were allowed to compete in the athletic events. The dancers were called pyrrhicists and they were chosen from among the ephebes (youths over eighteen years of age).

Several relief sculptures have survived that portray the Athenian pyrrhic dance. One shows youths, naked except for helmets, shields, and swords, dancing a light dance-step; another shows them in a chorus line, presenting their shields. Their training for the festival was financed in the same way as dramatic productions; a well-to-do citizen was chosen as choragus (“leader of the chorus”) and he paid the costs and had general oversight of the production. Crete was another source of war dances, the best known of which was the dance of the Curetes. It had a legendary origin: when the mother goddess Rhea gave birth to the infant Zeus, she hid him in Crete in a cave on Mt. Dicte to save him from his father Cronus, and the Curetes performed their dance, which Rhea had taught them, to cacuretes-rheamouflage his hiding place. They whirled about their shields and banged them with their swords as they made great leaps into the air. This performance was a primitive ritual connected with the cult of Zeus on Crete, which was quite unlike the cult of Zeus on mainland Greece, for the Cretans believed that their Zeus died and was reborn with the seasons. The dance of the Curetes marked his rebirth.

In the ancient world, the Greeks and Roman saw a connection between the dance of the Curetes and the frenzied dance performed by the Corybantes, the priests of the Great Mother, Cybele, the ancient goddess of Phrygia in western Asia Minor, and there may be this much connection: both rituals went back to an ancient fertility religion. The dance of the Curetes, however, was not a dance of priests like the dance of the Corybantes, but of warriors, though neither dance seems to have had much in common with the pyrrhic dance.


APPENDIX – Excerpt from Xenophon’s Anabasis

XenophonXenophon (ca. 430 – ca. 354 BC) was a disciple of Socrates who—against Socrates’ advice—joined a force of soldiers of fortune who were recruited by the younger brother of King Artaxerxes II of Persia, Cyrus, who plotted to overthrow Artaxerxes and make himself king. But in the decisive battle fought at Cunaxa in Mesopotamia, Cyrus was killed and his Asian supporters melted away, leaving the force of Greek mercenary soldiers to find their way home. To make matters worse, the Persians invited the Greek officers to a parley and killed them, thinking that the Greek troops would be helpless without their leaders. But the troops chose new officers, one of them Xenophon himself and they made their way north to the Black Sea, and from there the survivors disbanded to find new employers.

When they reached Paphlagonia in Asia Minor, the ruler of Paphlagonia sent envoys to the Greek officers, who gave them a dinner, and the various ethnic groups in the little Greek army entertained them with war dances, with the dancers bearing arms. The Paphlagonian visitors were surprised that all the dancers wore armour as they danced, whereupon a dancing girl was brought on, who performed the “Pyrrhic” dance, a Spartan war dance named in honor of the hero Achilles’ son, Pyrrhus, otherwise known as Neoptolemus. The Paphlagonians were even more impressed. They wondered if the Greek women fought in battle side by side with the men, and the Greeks replied in jest that it was their women who had routed the king of Persia, Artaxerxes II. Xenophon describes the scene in a vivid passage in his Anabasis, which tells the story of how the ten thousand mercenary soldiers that Prince Cyrus recruited from among the Greeks and their neighbours—for not all the recruits were Greeks—marched into the interior of the Middle East and returned again.

“After we had poured wine on the ground to honour the gods, and had sung a hymn, first two Thracians stood up and began to dance in full armour to the sound of the pipe, making nimble leaps high into the air as they wielded their sabers. Finally one of them struck the other, and everyone thought the man was mortally wounded. His fall was artfully done, I suppose. The other man stripped him of his armour as the Paphlagonians howled, and made his exit, singing a Thracian war song known as the “Sitacles.” The other Thracians bore the fallen dancer away, as if he were dead. But he had been not at all hurt.

Next some Aenianians and Magnesians got to their feet and danced the dance called the Karpaia, wearing their armour. The dance was like this: One man is driving his oxen as he sows a field, his arms laid at his side, and he casts frequent glances around him like a person who is afraid. A robber approaches, and when the sower sees him, he grabs his arms and goes to meet him and fights to save his team of oxen. These soldiers did this to the rhythm of the reed pipe. And at last the robber ties up the man and takes off the oxen. But sometimes the owner of the oxen trusses up the robber. When that happens, he yokes him beside his oxen with his hands tied behind his back and drives off.

Then a Mysian came on with a light leather shield in each hand. And at one moment he danced, pantomiming a battle against two opponents. Then he wielded his shields as if he were fighting a single opponent. Then he would whirl around and do somersaults, still holding his shields. So it was a fine sight to see. Finally he danced the “Persian dance”—clashing his shields together, he would crouch down and then leap up. He did all this keeping time to the music of the pipe. Then the Mantineans and some others from region of Arcadia came forward, wearing the finest armour they had, and they performed a drill to a tune with a marching tempo played on the pipe, and they sang a warrior hymn. And they danced in the same way as they did in the processions with which they honoured the gods. And as the Paphlagonians looked on, they thought it odd that all the dances were performed wearing arms.

A Mysian who saw that they were amazed, retorted by persuading one of the Arcadians who had acquired a dancing girl to dress her in the finest costume he could, fit her with a light shield and bring her on to give a graceful performance of the “Pyrrhic” dance. Thereupon there was a roar of applause, and the Paphlagonians asked if the Greek women also fought side by side with their men. The Greeks answered that these were the very women who had routed the king from his camp.”


Xenophon, Anabasis. Book 6

(Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1998): 466–470.

Translated by James Allan Evans.

Acropolis Museum is a formidable rival to the British Museum

acropolis-museumThe opening of the New Acropolis Museum was one of the most emotional experiences of my life” says Tina Daskalantonakis, a Greek hotelier. “It is more than a museum – it is a symbol of national pride and hope for the future.”

The museum in question crouches 300 metres below the Acropolis. An angular behemoth of glass, steel, concrete and marble housing some 4,000 artefacts, it is the culmination of an idea first mooted by Konstantinos Karamanlis’s Conservative government in 1976 and, since the early 1980s, passionately advocated by the Socialist minister of culture Melina Mercouri: the creation of a home in which the Parthenon Marbles can be reunited and displayed to the world.

After 140 court cases relating to archaeological finds during construction, and the destruction of neighbouring neoclassical buildings to clear sightlines to the Acropolis, the new museum has opened to international fanfare, five years behind schedule. And while arguments rumble on, Daskalantonakis’s sentiment is widely shared by Greeks.

acropolis_museumThe return of the Elgin Marbles, displayed in the British Museum, remains the one issue that rallies Greeks of every political spectrum. By the time Thomas Bruce, 7th Earl of Elgin, arrived in Athens in the early 19th century, the Parthenon had already suffered the ravages of time and war.

Using his influence as Ambassador to the Sublime Porte, Elgin acquired permission to remove “some stones with inscriptions and figures”. On his instructions, in 1801, sculptures and friezes that Phidias had designed in honour of the goddess Athena 25 centuries earlier were sawn off the Parthenon and about half the remaining marbles shipped to Britain. The motives and legality of Elgin’s actions have been the subject of heated debate since 1816 when, now bankrupt, Elgin offered the marbles to the British Government for £35,000.

While Greek culture minister Antonis Samaras speaks of “crime” and “plunder”, Professor Dimitris Pantermalis, president of the board of directors of the Acropolis Museum, who has been involved with the project since inception, is more circumspect. “It is not even a question of legality,” he declares. “The unity of the marbles is a matter of culture and ethics. ”

acropolis_museum2The design, by Swiss architect Bernard Tschumi, is itself an allegory of unification: that between art, rituals and everyday life and, in the words of Prime Minister Kostas Karamanlis, “linking antiquity with the modern world of technology”.

It accommodates views of ongoing excavations of an ancient urban settlement beneath glass floors gently ramped to reflect the ascent to the sacred hill of the Acropolis. The sloping ground floor displays everyday objects, mostly pottery, found on the hillside.

On the first floor, amid a forest concrete pillars, marble statues from archaic to Roman times stand proud, some still bearing traces of original colour, while glass walls and floors suffuse the interior with natural light, dancing in dynamic dialogue with the sculptures.

For the first time, five of the six caryatids that supported the Erechtheion, one of the most familiar monuments on the Acropolis, can be seen in the round, a perfect offering to the gods.acropolis_museum2

The tour de force, however, and the focus of renewed debate about the Marbles, is the top-floor Parthenon Gallery. Turned through a 23-degree angle from the building to align perfectly with the Parthenon, visible through the glass walls, the gallery recreates the east-west orientation and dimensions of this Temple to Athena.

With sculpture fragments from the pediments at either end, brushed-steel pillars, at the exact distance of the originals, frame some of the high-relief sculptures that used to decorate the outside of the temple. Visitors may walk through the columns to view the famous low-relief frieze, at eye level on an inner wall representing the temple’s inner sanctum.

Displaying the frieze – a 160m continuous narrative poem in stone – presented special problems. “About 75m of the frieze is in London. And several blocks contain mutilated figures whose heads and torsos are divided between Athens and London,” explains Pantermalis. “How do you make contextual sense of that absence? To leave the missing areas blank would be too shocking.”

The favoured solution of covering copies in scrims created technical difficulties, as the netting would not permit a close fit with the originals. Instead, Pantermalis sanctioned the use of plaster copies to fill the gap left by the British Museum’s collection.

“The originals are immediately identifiable, both from the striking difference in quality and from the colour,” explains Pantermalis. The copies are white – as are the originals in London, irrevocably damaged by scrubbing in the 1930s – whereas the Athens marbles, laser-cleaned 60 years later, retain the amber hue from the iron content of Pentelic marble. Lost panels have been left blank. “There is no need for propaganda,” states Pantermalis “The Parthenon marbles make their own case for reunification.”

The cornerstones of the British Museum’s argument against returning the Elgin Marbles were those of greater public access and the lack of a suitable home for the sculptures in Athens. The British Museum undoubtedly saved them from pilfering and atmospheric erosion, but how does the creation of the New Acropolis Museum affect the British argument?

acropolis-museum3“Our stance has always been that our collection should remain intact, so that the public can view the Elgin Marbles in the context of art from other great cultures,” says Hannah Boulton for the British Museum. It is the view echoed by Bonnie Greer, deputy head of the board of trustees, and the UK’s most senior representative at the opening in Athens. “I believe more strongly than ever that the marbles should remain in London,” she argued, “to be displayed in an international cultural context.”

Italians, Germans, Swedes and the Vatican have already returned missing fragments. The Greeks say they seek the return of no other treasures, only, in the words of Professor Pantermalis, of “this unique work of global significance, whose meaning lies in its totality”.

During the opening ceremony, Antonis Samaras inserted the marble head of Iris, whose body was removed to London, into a plaster panel of the frieze. It was a symbolic gesture. Goddess of rainbows, emotions and travel, and messenger of the gods, she embodies their message of hope.


Acropolis museum – new home for Elgin marbles


Fresh demands for the return of the Elgin Marbles are accompanying the launch next month of the £115 million Acropolis Museum, which has a reserved space for the world’s most famous piece of classical statuary.

The 270,000 sq ft museum is being established as a home for the 160-metre long strip of marble that adorned the Parthenon until 1801. The museum, which stands just 400 metres from the Parthenon, opens in June – three decades after the building was first proposed.

Antonis Samaras, the minister for culture and tthletics said: “The opening of the Acropolis Museum is a major world event. June 20th will be a day of celebration for all civilised people, not for Greeks alone. I want the Britons especially to consider the Acropolis Museum as the most hospitable place for them.”

Greeks hopes have been emboldened by the return to Athens from Germany and Sweden of a host of treasures, including some taken from the Acropolis itself. The frieze adorned the Parthenon until 1801 when Lord Elgin, the British ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, removed it, along with a host of other treasures when Athens was under enemy occupation.

They were sold by Lord Elgin to the British Museum for £35,000 after Parliament voted in 1816 to acquire them for the nation and were vested “in perpetuity” in the trustees of the British Museum. The Greek Government disagrees.

Mr Samaras is the successor to the late Melina Mercouri, whose strident claims for the reunification of the Parthenon Marbles made headlines more than 20 years ago.

The language today is more restrained, yet more confident. “I, along with every other Greek, wants the marbles reunited, just as Melina did,” he said. “The argument against was that there was no deserving museum in Greece to house them. Now, this argument is off the table – it cannot stand anymore. The Acropolis Museum was Melina’s dream, and now we see it standing.”

Greece retains 36 of the 115 panels in the Parthenon frieze. With the reproduction in its glass-walled upper gallery of the exact dimensions of the Parthenon temple, the building allows the marbles to be represented in their original configuration and context, in a way that could never be done in the British Museum.

The Greeks have also taken heart from polls that have shown that the majority of Britons support the return of the Marbles.

The fight for the return of the Marbles has led to committees being set up in 14 countries to lobby for their return.

The gallery offers a simultaneous view of the Parthenon itself, the extraordinary temple to the goddess Athena and, in the view of many, the greatest classical building in the world.

Constructing a vast new museum in one of the world’s most ancient cities was not easy. When archaeologists began work they uncovered a 5th century BC settlement. The response of the architectural team of Bernard Tschumi from New York and Michael Photiadis from Greece was to build the elegant modern structure above the archaeological diggings. The site, which is still being excavated, can be seen by visitors through the museum’s glass floor.

Neil MacGregor, the director of the British Museum, has rejected overtures from Athens and said that it is the museum’s duty to “preserve the universality of the marbles, and to protect them from being appropriated as a nationalistic political symbol”.

If the British Museum, which says it is barred by its constitution from handing back its treasures, were obliged to return the marbles, the floodgates might open on other restitution claims. Nigeria, for instance, wants the return of the Benin bronzes, looted by Britain in 1897.


Thera volcano erruption

knossosTwo olive branches buried by a Minoan-era eruption of the volcano on the island of Thera (modern-day Santorini) have enabled precise radiocarbon dating of the catastrophe to 1613 BC, with an error margin of plus or minus 10 years, according to two researchers who presented conclusions of their previously published research during an event on Tuesday at the Danish Archaeological Institute of Athens.

Speaking at an event entitled “The Enigma of Dating the Minoan Eruption – Data from Santorini and Egypt”, the study’s authors, Dr. Walter Friedrich of the Danish University of Aarhus and Dr. Walter Kutschera of the Austrian University of Vienna, said data left by the branch of an olive tree with 72 annular growth rings was used for dating via the radiocarbon method, while a second olive branch — found just nine metres away from the first — was unearthed in July 2007 and has not yet been analysed.

The researchers said both olive tree branches were found near a Bronze Age man-made wall, giving the impression that they were part of an olive grove situated near a settlement very close to the edge of Santorini’s current world-famous Caldera. The two trees were found standing when unearthed, and apparently had been covered by the Theran pumice immediately after the volcano’s eruption.

minoan palaceAccording to the two scientists, other radiocarbon testing from archaeological locations on Santorini and the surrounding islands, as well as at Tel el-Dab’a in the Nile delta in Egypt, corroborate the dating based on the olive tree.

On the other hand, as the two researchers pointed out, archaeological evidence linked with the Historical Dating of Ancient Egypt indicate that the Thera eruption must have occurred after the start of the New Kingdom in Egypt in 1530 BC.

The two researchers said their find (olive tree) represents a serious contradiction between the results of the scientific method (radiocarbon dating) and scholarly work in the humanities (history-archaeology), with both sides holding strong arguments to support their conclusions.

The radiocarbon dating places the cataclysmic eruption, blamed for heralding the end to the Minoan civilisation, a century earlier than previous scientific finds.



The cult-place of a hero could be called by a variety of terms. Some emphasize the fact that the hero was dead: sēma, mnēma, thēkē, and taphos are all terms used for regular burials as well as heroic tombs. Hērōon refers to a cult-place with a tomb, but the term seems to denote something more elaborate than just a simple burial. The lack of a burial could be noted, as when Pausanias states that the sacrifices to Myrtilus at Olympia took place at an empty mound, kenon ērion (6.10.17). Terms used for the sanctuaries of the gods are found as well, such as temenos and hieron (a holy place or precinct), naos (temple), or alsos (sacred grove).

The diversity in terminology corresponds to the variations in appearance of archaeologically attested cult-places of heroes. The identification of a cult-place of a hero or heroine is no simple matter, and without any written evidence it is often difficult to distinguish a cult-place for a hero from that of a minor god or, in later periods, from a substantial burial monument for an ordinary dead person. Most archaeologically attested hero-cults have either been identified by epigraphical evidence found at the site or by being connected with a hero-cult mentioned in literary sources (Pausanias’ account of Greece refers to more than a hundred heroes having some kind of physical monument). On archaeological grounds alone, the means for recognizing a hero-shrine are more ambiguous.

A location on or at graves makes the identification plausible, if it can be demonstrated that the burials were in fact known when the cult was established. But a number of hero-shrines show no association with burials at all and it is also clear from the written evidence that the tomb of the hero was no prerequisite for the installation of the cult.

To single out certain kinds of votives as particularly ‘‘heroic” is difficult. Some types of figurines, such as horses and riders, or pottery shapes, such as kraters, drinking cups or large bowls for the bath of the hero, or objects, such as miniature shields, have been claimed to be typical for hero-cults. A closer comparison with local votive practices often shows that the same objects were dedicated to the gods or used as funerary gifts as well. One category of votive offering which can be said to be particularly linked to hero-cults, though their appearance often exhibits local traits, are stone reliefs or terracotta plaques showing a horseman, a seated male figure or a male-female couple, or a reclining and banqueting figure, often accompanied by a snake.

Just like the cult-places of the gods, hero-shrines could be located anywhere: isolated in the countryside, along roads, at city gates, or on the agora, the location often evoking the hero’s role as a founder or protector of the community. A number of hero-cults had a relationship with a divine cult and most, if not all, major sanctuaries of gods housed both burials and cults of heroes. These heroes were often intimately connected with the mythical history of the sanctuary: the hero or heroine founded the sanctuary, instituted the cult, and was its first priest or priestess. The performance of games was also linked to the presence of a hero in a divine sanctuary. At Olympia, Pelops’ defeat of Oenomaus was said to have been commemorated by the institution of the games or, according to another tradition, the games were founded by Heracles in honor of Pelops himself.

The tomb of a hero in a sanctuary gave rise to a myth explaining its presence. At Delphi there were different accounts of why Neoptolemus was slain at the altar of Apollo and buried within the sacred area: Pausanias (10.24.6) pointed out the peribolos with the hero’s tomb near the temple of Apollo. The fact that no convincing match has been made so far with the excavated remains illustrates the difficulties in identifying a hero-shrine.

Written and archaeological evidence makes it clear that many installations connected with heroes consisted only of a tomb, a statue, or a stele, but by no means were all such monuments the focus for sacrifices. The accidental discovery of a prehistoric burial may have called for a one-off sacrifice and dedication of votives, presumably to appease the disturbed hero, but it did not give rise to a recurrent cult. There was also a tradition of some heroes not wanting any cult, as was the case with Eurystheus, who was going to protect Athens from his grave on the condition that the Athenians did not offer him sacrifices and libations (Euripides, Heraclidae 1026-36, 1040-3).

The heroes were local phenomena, and the layout of the cult-place was adapted to local conditions and traditions. These circumstances, as well as the heterogeneity of the hero population, account for the lack of panhellenic conformity in the appearance of the cult-places. The layout of cult-places ranged from the simplest and smallest, some only a piece of land marked by a boundary stone (horos), to large and elaborate sanctuaries. The sacred area could be an abaton, somewhere it was not permitted to enter, and any votives were offered by dropping them over the walls, as at the so-called Leokorion in the Athenian agora and a number of small precincts on Delos. Many hero-cults consisted of small enclosures, in which only an offering table or altar was placed, as in the case of the Stele shrine and the Crossroads hērōon at Corinth or that of the Amyneion at Athens, which also had a well and perhaps a simple stoa.

Some were unique in appearance, as in the case of the Menelaion at Sparta, which consisted of a massive, rectangular platform, almost 15 – 20 m and at least 5 m high. It was accessed by a ramp, and on top there may have been an altar, statues, or a small temple. Finally, there were hero sanctuaries with a temple, like that of a god, and auxiliary buildings, such as the Amphiareion at Oropus, the sanctuary of Hippolytus at Troezen, and the Herakleion on Thasos. The sanctuary of Hērōs Ptoios in Boeotia had at least two altars, a small temple, probably housing the cult statue, and a stoa where the worshipers could dine and sleep, and in which votive objects were kept. The importance of this sanctuary is also evident from two rows of inscribed stone columns, from the late sixth to the mid-fifth century, supporting monumental tripods.

A fundamental trait of a hero was the fact that he was dead, but the relationship between the tomb of the hero and the location and appearance of the cult-place is complex. Some cult-places emphasized the burial aspect, as in the case of the archaic enclosure of the Pelopion at Olympia, which was centered on a prehistoric tumulus, identified as the tomb of the hero, or in that of the precinct of Opheltes at Nemea, in which a mound was artificially created in the sixth century. Others show no traces of a tomb or burial, and some heroes had cults even though the mythic narrative makes it clear that there were no physical remains, since the hero had vanished at the moment of death.

While the tomb of an ordinary dead person constituted a source of pollution, the burials of heroes were an exception to this rule and could be placed in spaces reserved for the living or for the gods, areas from which the dead were otherwise banned. However, religious personnel sometimes had to take certain precautions. Two third-century BC inscriptions from Cos stipulate that the priestesses of Demeter, in order to keep their purity, should not step upon or eat by a hērōon (LS 154 A, 21-2 and 37; 156 A, 8-10, heavily restored).

Pausanias remarks that anyone who ate from the sacrifices to Pelops at Olympia could not enter the temple of Zeus (5.13.3). Presumably participation in the cult of this hero made the worshiper impure in the eyes of the god. In several cases the bones of heroes are described as gigantic, in accordance with the notion of heroes being men larger than life. The finding of prehistoric bones may have lain behind some stories, and discoveries of this sort could also give rise to cults. The display of actual heroic bones seems, on the other hand, to have been less important for the cult than the fact that a city or sanctuary possessed them and that they were kept at a particular location. In contrast to the relics of Christian saints, individual bones did not contain the power of the hero (unless the rest of the skeleton was missing, as in the case of Pelops’ shoulder blade, kept at Olympia), and there is no tradition of the bones being used to perform miracles or healing, or of them being dangerous.

Other possessions of heroes were also displayed in sanctuaries and revered, though rarely in the same cultic sense as the bones. Among such venerable objects were spears, shields, and other items of weaponry, but also chariots, ships, furniture, and clothing, and the egg of Leda was even reported to have been kept in the sanctuary of the Leucippides at Sparta.

This post is a part of Heroes and Hero-cults series (for more info see previous posts).