51 young males identified as brutally slain Vikings

The decapitated skeletons—their heads stacked neatly to the side—were uncovered in June 2009 in a thousand-year-old execution pit near the southern seaside town of Weymouth. (VSLM kept up to date and featured one of the first news here)

Already radio-carbon dating results released in July had shown the men lived between A.D. 910 and 1030, a period when the English fought—and often lost—battles against Viking invaders.
But until now it hadn’t been clear who the headless bodies had belonged to.

Analysis of teeth from ten of the dead—who were mostly in their late teens and early 20s—indicates the raiding party had been gathered from different parts of Scandinavia, including one person thought to have come from north of the Arctic Circle.

The new study, led by Jane Evans of the U.K.’s NERC Isotope Geosciences Laboratory, investigated telltale chemical markers called isotopes, which can reveal a person’s geographic origins.

Oxygen isotopes from drinking water, for example, become fixed in people’s teeth as they age. Since isotope ratios vary with climate, Evans could tell that the had all been raised in much cooler regions than Britain.

“The values these individuals gave us could not be British,” Evans said, but the ratios do match those from Norway and Sweden.

In addition, nitrogen-isotope readings showed the men enjoyed a meaty, high-protein diet—similar to readings from remains from the same period found in Sweden.

“What’s fascinating about these findings is that Vikings are renowned for their pillaging, ransacking, and raping,” Evans said.
“But here we’ve got real evidence that it was the other way round: Anglo-Saxons rounded up these Vikings and executed them.”

Vikings Found With Hacked Heads, Naked Bodies

Many of the skeletons have deep cut marks to the skull, jaw, and neck. This suggests the men were war captives whose heads were savagely hacked off, said David Score of Oxford Archaeology, leader of the preconstruction survey that found the Vikings’ execution pit.

“The majority seem to have taken multiple blows,” he noted.

Other injuries hint that some of the slaughtered attempted to shield themselves from their executioners’ blows. For instance, the hand of one victim had its fingers sliced through, Score said.

The heads were neatly piled to one side of the pit, perhaps as a victory display.

Unusually, no trace of clothing has been found, indicating the men were buried naked.

Even if only their weapons and valuables had been taken, “we should have found bone buttons and things like that, but to date we’ve got absolutely nothing,” Score said.
Aside from their injuries, the headless Vikings “look like a healthy, robust, very strong, very masculine group of young males,” he added. “It’s your classic sort of warrior.”

Vikings Forced to Surrender?

The burial’s prominent location on a hilltop by the ancient main road to Weymouth also points to the victims being Vikings, Score said.

“Locations like this are classic sites for executions [by British-born warriors] in late Saxon and medieval times,” he said. “If you’re a Viking raider, you’re much more likely to leave people where you killed them in the town or on the beach.”

What’s more, the new isotope findings suggest that the slain men had much more diverse origins than would be expected among soldiers from the Saxons’ other enemies, such as ethnic Danes in northern Britain, tooth-study leader Evans noted.

Even before the new results were released, Kim Siddorn, author of Viking Weapons and Warfare, had thought the dead were Vikings.

“They had left their ship, walked inland, ran into an unusually well-organized body of Saxons, and were probably forced to surrender,” Siddorn speculated in July.

Despite the Vikings’ brutal reputation, there was actually little to differentiate Vikings and early English warriors on the battlefield, said Siddorn, also a founder of Regia Anglorum, a historical-reenactment society.

“You would find it very difficult to tell the difference between a Viking and a Saxon if they stood in front of you in war gear,” he said. Both used spears as their primary weapons, with swords and axes as backups, Siddorn added.

But Vikings usually had surprise and, in some cases, numbers on their side. “Whilst the Vikings were no better than the Saxons at fighting, they did come by the shipload,” he said.

“During the height of the Viking raids, it’s reasonable to say it was unsafe to live anywhere within 20 miles [32 kilometers] of the coast.”




Viking execution pit – 51 beheaded victim

viking-execution-pitThe mass burial took place at a time when the English were battling Viking invaders, say archaeologists who are now trying to verify the identity of the slain.

The dead are thought to have been war captives, possibly Vikings, whose heads were hacked off with swords or axes, according to excavation leader David Score of Oxford Archaeology, an archaeological-services company.

Announced in June, the pit discovery took place during an archaeological survey prior to road construction near the seaside town of Weymouth

Many of the skeletons have deep cut marks to the skull and jaw as well as the neck. “The majority seem to have taken multiple blows,” Score said.

The bodies show few signs of other trauma, suggesting the men were alive when beheaded.

One victim appears to have raised an arm in self-defense: “The hand appears to have had its fingers sliced through,” Score noted.

The heads were neatly piled to one side of the pit, perhaps as a victory display, the team suggests.

Unusually, no trace of clothing has been found, indicating the men were buried naked.

Even if their weapons and valuables had been taken “we should have found bone buttons and things like that, but to date we’ve got absolutely nothing,” Score said.

“They look like a healthy, robust, very strong, very masculine group of young males,” he added. “It’s your classic sort of warrior.”

The burial has been radiocarbon-dated between A.D. 890 and 1034.

During this time England was split between Anglo-Saxons, in the south and west, and Danish settlers, in the north and east.

The Anglo-Saxons were Germanic peoples who colonized England beginning in the 400s; founded the country on the island of Great Britain; and gave rise to the English language. Around the time of the mass burial, the Celts were still largely in control of the non-English regions of Great Britain: Scotland and Wales.

“You’ve got Danish and Saxon armies fighting backwards and forwards across England,” Score said.

The early English also faced the threat of longship-sailing Vikings, Scandinavian seafarers who pillaged coastal regions.

“It’s not just the odd ship” attacking, Score said. For example, “there’s a documented account of 94 longships attacking London at one point, and then they work their way down the coast.”

The team hopes chemical analysis of the buried men’s teeth will show whether they grew up in Britain or Scandinavia. (Related: “Vikings Filed Their Teeth, Skeleton Study Shows.”)

Wear and tear on the bones could also help reveal whether the executed were Viking oarsmen, since “strong physical exertion in a particular direction does affect the bones,” Score said.

“It might be possible to say they are overdeveloped in their upper body and arm strength … people who are doing a lot of heavy rowing.”

Anglo-Saxon Slayers, Viking Victims

The burial’s prominent location on a hilltop hints that a local group carried out the killings, Score said.

“Locations like this are classic sites for executions in late Saxon and medieval times,” he added.

Vikings, he said, had a different M.O.

“If you’re a Viking raider, you’re much more likely to leave people where you killed them in the town or on the beach,” he said.

Kim Siddorn, author of Viking Weapons and Warfare, suspects the executed men were indeed Vikings.

“I would say this was a Viking raiding party which had been trapped,” he said.

“They had left their ship, walked inland, ran into an unusually well-organized body of Saxons, and were probably forced to surrender.”

There was little to differentiate Vikings and early English warriors on the battlefield, said Siddorn, founder of Regia Anglorum, a historical-reenactment society.

“You would find it very difficult to tell the difference between a Viking and a Saxon if they stood in front of you in war gear,” he said

Both used spears as their primary weapons, with swords and axes as backups, Siddorn added.

But Vikings had surprise and, in some cases, numbers on their side.

“Whilst the Vikings were no better than the Saxons at fighting, they did come by the shipload,” he said.

“During the height of the Viking raids, it’s reasonable to say it was unsafe to live anywhere within 20 miles [32 kilometers] of the coast.”



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).

How to become a HERO (Heroes & Hero cults II)

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.

Heroes and HERO cults I


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.

Book of interest