In Pursuit of Godliness



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Courtney M. Cunningham

In Pursuit of Godliness

Deification of Mortals in Ancient Greece
This paper explores the practice of exalting select mortal men to a godlike status in Greek culture from the Archaic Age to the early Hellenistic Age, a span of about four hundred years. This religious phenomenon may have developed from the Mycenaean or Minoan civilizations or ones even older, but the earliest solid evidence for the deification of mortals comes from the 8th century BCE when the popularity of the hero cult noticeably spiked. The heroes venerated by this form of cult worship were at first strictly mythical, but after a few centuries of development and expansion the heroes became progressively more historical and were eventually pulled from the ranks of the recently deceased. By the 4th century BCE, there were a few isolated instances of prominent public figures receiving post mortem divine honors and some poetry even depicted relationships between immortals and mortals as intimate and colloquial.

The period of Athenian domination ended with the battle of Chaeronea in 338 BCE when King Philip II of Macedon defeated the Greek allied forces. Various episodes in the lives of Philip and his heir Alexander III (also known as ‘Alexander the Great’) have been considered the earliest instance of the deification of a living man. Both conquerors ruled during a transitional period in Greek history, when the traditional barriers between the divine and the human had been steadily eroding for centuries and society was ripe for change. During Alexander’s reign the Athenians remained steadfastly against the recognition of his supposed divinity, but by his death in 332 BCE the popular opinion on the matter had drastically changed. Alexander was openly worshiped as a god through cults across his former empire and the Successors shrewdly took advantage of the momentum initiated by Philip and Alexander to introduce the ruler cult to the Hellenistic Age and, ultimately, to the Roman Empire.



Part I: The Immortal Hero

I. The Hero Cult in Archaic Greece

The “hero cult” is an aspect of ancient Greek religion often overlooked in general surveys and rarely explored in detail even by classical scholars. It is not difficult to find this phenomenon referenced in an index for a book on religious ideas or as the subject of an article published in an academic journal, but rarely does it receive the wider recognition it deserves for the impact it had on the cultures of the ancient Mediterranean. The reason for this frequent omission lies mainly in the frustrating lack of sources necessary to back up any argument about the origin or scope of the hero cult. The scholars who have researched the movement generally focus on either literary or archaeological evidence and can be broadly divided into three camps: those that believe they were derived from earlier ancestor cults, those that believe they developed because of the popularity of the Homeric epics, and those that believe they were somewhat older than the epics but increased in importance because of the rise of the Greek polis.

Archaeological evidence published in the 20th century supported the conjecture that the hero cult was a late 8th century BCE movement, but the dating is not specific enough to determine its exact origin in comparison to the many other major developments of that period. The span of time between the fall of the Mycenaean kingdoms (between 1200-800 BCE) and this period in Greek history is often referred to as the “Dark Ages” because of its relative poverty and lack of innovation. The age before this lapse in prestige was later remembered, not necessarily entirely accurately, as a time of valiant military campaigns and heroic men, of expansion and monarchic rule.1 The year 776 BCE is often singled out as the threshold for the archaic “Renaissance,” a period of momentous change that included the formation of the polis, the settlement of the first Greek colonies overseas, and the development of the alphabetic script that allowed the oral epics of Homer to be recorded for the first time.2 “Now that some form of state had been reestablished in Greece, the people of the eighth century naturally looked back to their age of greatness…. Epic and cult were two different ways of making a connection with that great age.”3

The hero cult may have a precursor in the great honors paid to royal graves during the Dark Ages, such as those that occurred in Eretria when the city walls were expanded in 680 BCE to include the graves of its royal family. The archaeological evidence suggests that this may have been done in order to allow the dead monarchs to protect their city in some way and the most famous hero cult scholar, Lewis Farnell, postulated, “To the positive evidence considered may be added a certain a priori probability that the proto-Hellenic monarchic period did occasionally in greater or less degree deify the great defunct.”4 These early rituals concerning the dead kings likely had an impact on the development of the hero cult,5 which could also be placed in the broad category of the “tomb cult” for several reasons. In fact, Richard Seaford classified the movement as a death ritual for the following reasons: “Hero-cult is generally celebrated at graves, which may be ancient (in some cases rediscovered) or even imaginary. Heroes receive blood flowing into their graves. They are offered meals. And they are imagined as sharing feasts with the living.”6 What led archaeologists and scholars to the belief that the hero cult surfaced abruptly in the 8th century BCE was not the discovery of hero shrines, per se, but of objects from this period being placed in far older Mycenaean tombs after a long period of inactivity. Several 20th century digs across Attica and the Peloponnese discovered instances of this phenomenon:

Out of the fifty chamber tombs which he had opened, no fewer than fifteen had later offerings, usually found inside the chamber, sometimes actually on the floor, more rarely in the dromos. In thirteen of these tombs, the subsequent offerings begin in the late eighth century. The pottery belonging to our 'Age of Homer' consists of jugs and hydriai for libations, and kraters and drinking cups suitable for a departed hero.7

Offerings to the dead men of past ages were found most often in the dromoi of large Mycenaean tombs, such as those at Menidi and Thorikos.8 While some scholars believe this practice was a descendent of a form of ancestor cult, most scholars believe that it is the separation between the ages that is important, for “the discoverers can have had no genuine affinity to the prehistoric dead, and can only have guessed at their identity; no wonder that they used anonymous appellations like ‘the Hero.’”9 While some heroes were claimed as the unhistorical ancestors of certain elite gene, most Greeks did not believe they were the descendents of the men they worshiped as divine heroes.

While archaeological finds suggest that the first hero cult emerged from Sparta in the 8th century BCE, the earliest recorded reference does not occur until the later 7th century BCE, when the Athenian lawgiver Drakon decreed:10

qeou;V tima:n kai; h{rwaV ejgcwrivouV ejn koinw/: eJpomevnoiV novmoiV patrivoiV ktl.11

Many scholars, both ancient and modern, have attempted to figure out the etymological root of the term h{rwV, which may have had some connection to the goddess Hera, but the origin of the term has remained shrouded in mystery.12 While in Homer the word may refer to almost any soldier of the Greek or Trojan force, it was later used only for those men who received a certain kind of worship in death.13 The heroes of the hero cult were deceased persons, sometimes historical and sometimes legendary, and occasionally not identified by any particular name, just “The Hero.” A hero’s life must be distinguished in both his dedication to the heroic code of the distant past and a devotion to his community through the military, politics, health, or some other means.14 Greeks of the historical ages did not routinely immortalize or divinize their dead—they actually had rather vague and shifting ideas about death in general—yet during this period archaeologists have noted the “occurrence of exceptionally lavish or ‘heroic’ burial ceremonies for the newly-deceased. This is a phenomenon of wide, indeed partly of non-Greek, distribution in the eighth and seventh centuries BCE.”15

The existence of heroes as a category of the divine somewhere between the status of gods and humans was actually quite a rare phenomenon among ancient Mediterranean cultures.16 “Accordingly, whatever the terminology and whatever the nominal status of these supernatural beings, their cultus in divine forms is an explicit contradiction of any hard and fast line between celestial and ‘chthonic,’ always divine and once human.”17 The shrines of heroes, called heroa, were erected both in isolation and at the site of earlier tombs during the Geometric period and on. These were often located within the city to which they “belonged,” sometimes as central as in the agora or prytaneion or even incorporated directly into the city walls, which was quite an honor in itself considering normal burials were forbidden inside the city limits.18 In Attica alone there were well over 170 heroes worshiped in both small and large communities, ranging from Erechtheus and Theseus in Athens, to anonymous heroes of a single deme, such as Hyttenios at Marathon.19 Heroes were often symbolic of a locality and used to center group identity and useful—“ their practical assistance was constantly invoked, especially in times of crisis (such as war or disease) when they were expected to respond in a powerful and effective way.”20

Prayers were offered not only to the gods, but also to heroes, and libations were dedicated to both at the symposium.21 Heroes were also given sacrifices that are believed to have involved black animals (usually sheep or rams), low hearths, and the burial of objects in pits, a ritual that differed in some ways from the ritual for the gods.22 Many of the famous athletic festivals, even if they were held in honor of a particular deity, were usually founded on the myths surrounding the death of a local hero, for, like those for Patroclus in Book 23 of the Iliad, the Greeks traditionally commemorated the death of important figures with funerary games.23 Ktisis (foundation) poems, usually honored the oikist, or founder of a Greek colony, as a hero.24 Since the colonies did not exist until the 8th century BCE, this form of hero cult was certainly entirely new; the colonists developed a similar cult in which they held an annual festival around the tomb of their particular oikist, who was buried in the agora of the city or city-state. Malkin argues that the founder-hero cults that sprang up in greater cities such as Athens starting in the 7th century BCE were based off colony traditions and not vice-versa.25

The majority of scholars have reached a consensus about this information, but there are still many camps vying to explain the seemingly sudden popularity of the hero cult. The point of contention for most of them is the role of the Homeric epics in the spread and development of the hero cult during the 8th and 7th centuries BCE. The oldest scholar often cited is E. Rohde, theorized that hero cult was a later form of the ancestor cult that had slowly changed in an unbroken line through the Dark Ages in his book Psyche. He based his argument on the importance of heroes’ bones, bodies, and graves in the Iliad and Odyssey.

In 1921, Lewis Farnell offered a rebuttal to this view in what is still the only book written in English solely about heroes and hero cult, Greek Hero Cults and Ideas of Immortality. Farnell criticized Rohde for not discerning what he termed the ‘tendance’ of ancestor cult from the ‘cultus’ of hero worship. He believed that the main inspiration for the hero cult could be found only in the epic tradition: “much hero cult was directly engendered by the powerful influence of the Homeric and other epics… one may discern that the old epic poetry not only suggested many a name to forgotten graves, [but] occasionally also imposed laws on the ritual.”26 However, he then also had to argue that hero cult could not be found in the epics, for that would necessarily preclude their role as its founder and hint at an older tradition: “Homer, or the two or many Homers, while probably aware of hero-worship and the occasional deification of the mortal, did not accept or did not wish to encourage this vain dream of the self-exaltation of man.”27 Farnell is also acknowledged for his intelligent approach to the wide variety within the hero cult, for he divided the heroes and heroines into seven general categories:

(a) the hieratic type of hero-gods and heroine-goddesses whose name or legend suggests a cult-origin; (b) sacral heroes or heroines associated with a particular divinity, as apostles, priests, or companions; (c) heroes who are also gods, but with secular legend, such as Herakles, the Dioskouroi, Asklepios; (d) culture- and functional heroes…usually styled h{rweV by the Greeks themselves; (e) epic heroes of entirely human legend; (f) geographical, genealogical, or eponymous heroes and heroines; (g) historic and real personages.28

Although these are now somewhat outdated because of more recent archaeological and literary finds, they are still often used as a guideline for any discussion of Greek heroes.

The next generation of scholars29 readily dismissed Rohde’s original idea, but they were also reluctant to accept the entirety of Farnell’s theory. Instead, they created a spectrum between the two based on the role of Homer. In 1929, R.K. Hack argued that the hero cult was of Mycenaean origin and a continuous tradition, but that they also play a suppressed role in the epics. Next, Theodora H. Price found evidence of hero cult within Homer and argued that it was not a Mycenaean leftover, but a tradition that had been interrupted before Homer and renewed because of the popularity of his tales among the people. John Cook and Nicholas Coldstream also sided with Farnell, but they used newly discovered archaeological evidence from Mycenaean tombs in 1976 to back up the argument for the influence of Homer: “they [hero cults] arose under the influence of epic poetry from the late eighth century onwards, but only in regions where a Mycenaean collective tomb would have seemed utterly strange to the local inhabitants of those times.”30 T.H. Price responded once more with evidence of ten 9th century BCE cults that antedated Homer but were not located in Mycenaean tombs and looked to the Indo-Europeans for influence, while Antonaccio also used archaeology to set up strict parameters for what should and should not be considered hero cult, as separate from tomb cult, unlike the earlier scholars. Finally, Gregory Nagy and Anthony Snodgrass form the third school of theory, which claims that hero cult was a form of ritual necessary for the cohesion of the new polis system and only viable because it corresponded with the rise of Panhellenism in the 8th century BCE.



II. The Homeric Hero

Although the famous epics of the legendary poet known as Homer were first recorded in the last quarters of the 8th century BCE, they had likely existed as oral folk tales for as many as a thousand years before this time.31 The Iliad and the Odyssey are not set in 8th century Greece, but a distant age in the past that shares similarities with the Late Bronze Age,32 when the Minoan civilization of Crete was giving way to the Mycenaean civilization of the Peloponnese. Many scholars who believe in at least the basic historicity of the Trojan War have tentatively dated the fall of Troy to around 1184 BCE.33 Warrior epics were not an invention of the Greeks, although they did ultimately bring the genre to new heights of popularity, for they share certain aspects—heroic friendship, a goddess mother, and warrior kings, among others—with older Mesopotamian tales like Gilgamesh. The impact that the consolidation and transcription of the oral versions of the Iliad and the Odyssey had on all of Greek culture cannot be overstated; “the spiritual unity of the Greeks was founded and upheld by poetry—a poetry which could still draw on living oral tradition… To be a Greek was to be educated, and the foundation of all education was Homer.”34 Achilles, one of the men featured most prominently in the Iliad, would stand as the a[ristoV =Acaiw:n,35 the heroic model, to be emulated by kings and soldiers alike for several centuries.

These heroes were given a gift perhaps even greater than physical immortality: they were granted literary immortality, klevoV a[fqiton, through the imaginations of countless writers and audiences over time. “KlevoV, not generally used of present time in epic, requires memory (the oral tradition) while timhv is the communal acknowledgement of a hero’s status. The dh:moV or povliV, observer-participants, offers this recognition.”36 The fallen warriors of the Iliad fall into both of these categories of honor, for several of them were also granted timhv, as will be shown below, through hero cult. “The [hero] continues, beyond the reach of death, to be present in the community of the living… his personality forms the skein of a tradition that each generation must learn and make its own in order to enter fully into social and cultural existence.”37 The idea of eternal glory through memory quickly caught on with subsequent Greek poets, but the emphasis would later be on achieving a combination of literary and corporeal immortality.

The Homeric hero is not an exact equivalent to the modern day hero, for many of the men in the Iliad, regardless of their rank or feats, are referred to as h{rweV. “Homer’s heroes are living men in the poems, basilei:V, the rulers and warriors, divinely descended but not themselves divine nor yet immortal.”38 Seth Schein famously pointed out that although these great men were godlike, they were not gods; Homer repeatedly focuses on the tragic mortality of the hero, as if to remind his audience that even men born of the gods who accomplish great deeds for the glory of their reputation and comrades are not able to escape death and a tedious afterlife in Hades.39 “The overwhelming fact of life for the heroes of the Iliad is their mortality, which stands in contrast to the immortality of the gods.”40 Schein acknowledges the more recent studies that attempt to prove the existence of hero cult within the Homeric texts, but he argues that, if indeed true, it would only make an even greater contradiction between the immortality of hero cult and the mortality of the heroes.41 However, the Iliad and the Odyssey were not the only epics in circulation about the heroes of the Trojan War, but were just one strand of a complex epic tradition in this period of Greek history that also found outlets in other poems that are known collectively as the “Epic Cycle.” N.J. Richardson argues, “The Homeric poems allow glimpses of the idea that divine parentage or some other relationship with the gods might enable one to escape death and become immortal. This privilege, severely restricted in Homer, is as we have seen more widespread in other early epic poems.”42 In contrast to this other set of poems, the Homeric epics are markedly more skeptical about the impenetrability of the boundaries between mortals and immortals.

There is not a sufficient amount of surviving evidence on which to base a solid argument about Greek religious beliefs prior to Homer, so it is also difficult to separate tradition from innovation in the epics.43 The gods of the Iliad act as a mirror to the warring humans they actively direct, aid and harm, but for all the similarities between the two the gods are distinct from mortals in that they do not suffer from aging or death. “Physically, psychologically, and sociologically they are modeled on humans,” but this only makes the deaths of their mortal counterparts more tragic.44 The gods are in fact so close to being human that they can even be injured in battle by humans, such as when Diomedes—with some help from Athena—manages to wound Ares:

th/: rJav min ou‹ta tucwvn, dia; de; crova kalo;n e[dayen,

ejk de; dovru spavsen au‹tiV` oJ d= e[brace cavlkeoV [ArhV,

o{sson t= ejnneavciloi ejpivacon h] dekavciloi

ajnevreV ejn polevmw/ e[rida xunavgonteV [ArhoV.45

Although the gods were portrayed as far more remote during the 8th century BCE and after, the action of the Iliad takes place in a legendary age when there were strong relationships between heroes and deities. Achilles, perhaps the most famous hero of the Trojan War, was born to a mortal father and immortal mother but was clearly not immortal. His exceptionally close relationship with his mother, Thetis, has been noted by many Homeric scholars: “Although there are other children of divinities in the Greek and Trojan armies, the Iliad contains no other long and intimate conversations between a divine parent and a son like those between Thetis and Achilles.”46 Apart from his mother, Achilles also had a strikingly informal relationship with several Olympian gods, especially Zeus and Athena; he is given not only protection and aid by them, but also divine weaponry, armor, and even immortal horses. Like many of the other heroes, Achilles receives personal communication from the gods, but his encounters are particularly friendly: “To Athene, who has stopped his action by pulling his hair—an informal gesture indicating their friendly relationship—he speaks plainly and as an equal.”47

Achilles never reaches physical immortality in the text of the Iliad—the narrative ends even before he is killed by Paris—but there are some heavy hints that his status as a typical mortal begins to change after the death of Patroklos. A fellow warrior doubtfully remarks:

kai; gavr qhn touvtw/ trwto;V crw;V ojxevi‡ calkw:/,

ejn de; i[a yuchv, qnhto;n dev e{ fas= a[nqrwpoi

e[mmenai...48

Around this same time in the epic, Achilles begins to show increasing signs of divinity as his grief and anger over the death of Patroklos grows. “In Homer, rheia…[is] used typically of gods and only rarely of mortals, unless these mortals…like Achilles in Books 20 and 21, have temporarily ceased to act human and are functioning with the power of gods.”49 Another word that may tip off his mixed mortality is Homer’s use of menis, a word for wrath that is normally used only in the context of divine anger. The mh:nin of Achilles is the first word of the Iliad and prepares the audience for his increasingly godlike status; his anger is more than human. When reemerging in the war to avenge Patroklos, Achilles certainly appears more divine than human:

...ajmfi; d= =Aqhvnh

w[moiV ijfqivmoisi bavl= aijgivda qussanovessan,

ajmfi; dev oiJ kefalh/: nevfoV e[stefe di:a qeavwn

cruvseon, ejk d= aujtou: dai:e flovga pamfanovwsan.50

The flames and brilliance of his countenance clearly resembles typical descriptions of the Greek gods: “The body of the gods shines with such an intense brilliance that no human eye can bear it. Its splendor is blinding.”51 One final example of Achilles’ escalating divinity comes from Schein’s careful analysis: “At Zeus’ suggestion, Athene instills nectar and ambrosia into his breast so that he does not grow hungry (19.345-54)—a clear indication of how far he has gone beyond ordinary humanity in the direction of the daemonic.”52

Although all signs point towards Achilles being granted an afterlife befitting a divine hero, the description of Achilles’ death and funeral in Book 24 of the Odyssey and Odysseus’ encounter with the shade of Achilles in the underworld in Book 11 clearly deny Achilles any special status or glory after death. The grave emphasis on mortality in the Iliad gives this epic, which was most likely composed before the Odyssey, an even bleaker outlook on the afterlife of men. One can only guess at whether the views of Homer were common, yet “so much indicates that within the epic tradition the eschatology of the Iliad may be eccentric in comparison to that of the Odyssey and Aethiopis.”53 Anthony Edwards argues that the Isle of the Blessed, where heroes and famous Greeks are often said to exist after death, predates Homer—most likely going back to at least Minoan-Mycenaean times—even though it is conspicuously missing in both epics.54 Jonathan Burgess argues that the other poems of the Epic Cycle are not in fact post-Homeric and that the vision of immortality that they portray is not a post-Homeric concept: “Although the Aethiopis differs with the Odyssey on the nature of Achilles’ afterlife (Leuke instead of Hades), nearly every other source in antiquity agrees with the Cyclic poem that he went to a paradise… This suggests that the Homeric account is unusual, not primary.”55 These obvious differences in the depiction of the afterlife for heroes in the various epic poems may occur because they are operating with different underlying themes. After all, bravery in the face of imminent immortality is not Homeric bravery; if the bleakness of mortality is cast out, “gone is the difficult choice between glory and long life, gone is the poignant cost of martial heroism, gone is the sense of tragedy and of the waste of human potential.”56

The most complete account of Achilles’ immortal afterlife on Leuke is found in Arctinus’ Aithiopis, but the epic poem only survives as a brief summary in Proclus’ Chrestomathy. It picks up the tale of the Trojan War where Homer ends and tells of Achilles’ battle with Memnon, his death, and his translation to the island Leuke. Here, and in most other accounts, his death is marked by “special privileges and powers” instead of a lamentable existence in Hades.57 In this version, Achilles is not the only one granted immortality, for his enemy, Memnon, is also deified upon death by his goddess mother.58 This implies that the deification of semi-divine heroes must have been at least relatively common and not unique to Achilles. Achilles’ own transformation is summarized in this way:

kai; meta; tau:ta ejk th:V pura:V hJ QevtiV ajnarpavsasa to;n pai:da eijV th;n Leukh;n nh:son diakomivzei.59

Although it seems a contradiction to have both a burial and a body on an island in the Black Sea, the Greeks would most likely have envisioned two bodies for such a man: one that is interred for hero cult worship and one, whose mortality has been burned away, that exists in a paradise on the edge of the known world. The 5th century BCE lyric poet Pindar also places Achilles among those who dwell on the makavrwn na:soV in death:

But those… travel the road of Zeus

to the tower of Kronos, where ocean breezes blow round

the Isle of the Blessed (makavrwn na:son)…

Peleus and Kadmos are numbered among them,

and Achilles too, whom his mother brought,

after she persuaded the heart of Zeus with her entreaties.60

Despite the rampant popularity of the Iliad and the Odyssey, post-Homeric poets almost always chose the alternate versions to Achilles’ afterlife instead of the bleak vision offered by Homer; instead they apparently preferred the possibility of immortality for select worthy mortals to an overall equality in death.

Achilles enjoyed immortality in the form of hero cult as well as undying glory through the many epic poems. In the historical ages Achilles was worshiped around the northern area of the Black Sea, where a possible site for the island Leuke has been identified.61 Achilles, along with his heroic partner Patroklos, was also given a large tomb on the shores of the Hellespont near the fallen city of Troy in what is now Turkey. There is abundant archaeological and literary evidence to prove activity at this location, but since having an actual gravesite was not a requirement for hero cult he was worshiped in many other locations with a Greek culture.62 A later text by Philostratos, written circa 222-232 CE when the Severan emperors were renewing interest in the hero cult in the Roman Empire, describes the rituals performed at the Troad tomb of Achilles. The Heroikos tells of the annual trip the Thessalians made to the tomb each year and the politics behind the waxing and waning interest among the Greeks in this sacred site.63 The narrator is also told an entertaining version of the familiar myth of Achilles’ burial, his transportation to Leuke, and his eternal afterlife there with Helen.64 In the 4th century BCE, “Achilles was quite literally carried into Egypt by Alexander the Great…and [he] was also transported to Rome in the third century B.C. when Livius Andronicus, himself a transplanted Greek, began the translations of Homer and Athenian poets that would make the Greek heroes as familiar in Rome as they had been in Athens.”65 Although Achilles had lost some of the popularity he had had among the Greeks, he was an important warrior figure well into the Roman Empire. Even Roman emperors like Caracalla (188-217 CE) paid homage to Achilles’ tomb in Asia Minor as countless others had done for centuries before.66

Achilles was not the only hero to receive a hero cult—there is evidence that Menelaus had one in Sparta, Agamemnon in Mycenae, Odysseus in Ithaca, and so on. Recent scholars have also been eager to prove the existence of hero cult older than those of Homeric heroes by looking for hints of hero cult within the epics themselves. T.H. Price roots out many striking examples, such as the most obvious one in the Odyssey: “The practices, results, and the whole motive of the nekyiomanteia of Teiresias are those of the hero-cult. Furthermore, Odysseus (Od. 11.32) promises to Teiresias to sacrifice a black sheep to him in his return, a standard sacrifice to a hero.”67 There is a scene in Book 2 of the Iliad wherein sacrifices are made in the name of the Athenian hero-king Erechtheus and in Book 12 Homer once uses a phrase that usually describes heroes with a cult: hJmiqevwn gevnoV ajndrw:n.68 Another instance that hints at immortality for select mortals is the brief mention of Laogonus:

Laovgonon, qrasu;n uiJo;n =OnhvtoroV, o}V Dio;V iJreu;V

=Idaivou ejtevtukto, qeo;V d= w}V tiveto dhvmw/.69

Here a living man, who although a priest of Zeus is still a mortal like any other, is said to be treated wJV qeovV—as a god. This final example certainly backs the scholars who believe that Homer had knowledge of hero cult but refused to give it any large role in the epic story. Sarpedon, the son of Zeus and a Trojan warrior, is killed in battle despite his father’s wishes but what follows his death scene is not the lament on the harshness of mortality one would expect from Homer:

cri:sovn t= ajmbrosivh/, peri; d= a[mbrota ei{mata e{sson`

pevmpe dev min pompoi:sin a{ma kraipnoi:si fevresqai,

{Upnw/ kai; Qanavtw/ didumavosin, oi{ rJav min w‹ka

qhvsous= ejn LukivhV eujreivhV pivoni dhvmw/,

e[nqa eJ tarcuvsousi kasivgnhtoiv te e[tai te

tuvmbw/ te sthvlh/ te` to; ga;r gevraV ejsti; qanovntwn.70


The details of this passage heavily suggest that a hero cult will be dedicated to Sarpedon around the tomb built for him in his homeland. It also seems to imply that most warriors of similar status and fame will receive similar honors in death, which certainly was the case outside of Homeric epic.

III. Ages of Men

The epic genre and the archaeological evidence for hero cult together prove that the idea of their own heroic past captivated the 8th century BCE Greeks. From Nestor’s speeches and Achilles’ idolizing of Heracles in the Iliad it would seem that even the Homeric heroes looked back to a previous golden age with nostalgia. One famous take on this idea is found in the epic poems of Hesiod, a contemporary of Homer. In Works and Days, Hesiod uses the frame of educating his brother to tell the myth of the five successive ages of man.71 The first to be made by the gods was the cruvseon (golden) race, but these nearly perfect men eventually died and became guardians of mankind as ones ejpicqovnioi (upon the earth). In contrast, the second, or ajrguvreon (silver), race was negligent in their duties towards the gods and suffered pain, but they too were given honors as ones uJpocqovnioi (under the earth). The cavlkeion (bronze) race was made next, but they proved to be overly violent and were sent to Hades to be nwvnumnoi (nameless). Many scholars have noted that the fourth race, that of the heroes, comes before the final sidhvreon (iron) age and does not fit the established pattern of degeneration and metallic names and so seems awkwardly placed:

When the earth covered up this race too, Zeus, Cronus’ son, made…a fourth one, more just and superior, the godly race of men-heroes (ajndrw:n hJrwvwn qei:on gevnoV), who are called demigods (hJmivqeoi), the generation before our own upon the boundless earth…. There [in wars] the end of death shrouded some of them, but upon others Zeus the father, Cronus’ son, bestowed life and habitations far from human beings and settled them at the limits of the earth; and these dwell with a spirit free from care on the Islands of the Blessed (makavrwn nhvsoisi).72

These h{rweV are clearly the famous warriors from the Iliad and Odyssey and what is described is the common eschatological theory for men immortalized upon death. There has been speculation that the fourth age was an addition made in order to account for the sudden popularity of heroes during the time the poem was composed and transmitted. Antonaccio proposes that the hero was a relatively new, but obviously not unknown, form of deity: “Each of these generations appears to fit into conceptions of divinity that, rather than Hesiod’s invention, the Greeks may already have had in his time.”73

The gods and humans of these remote times are usually portrayed as relatives, lovers, and friends. There is very little distinguishing the one from the other except the inescapable death of the mortals. This closeness is emphasized in Hesiod’s myth and the fact that this relationship ended before his own generation, the Iron Age, is lamented as the final fall of mankind: “When gods and men were still living together, there arose from their intermingling the long series of children of the gods who now head the genealogical trees of the various people and families; the Trojan War brought an end to such intimacy between gods and men.”74 From the original mixing of blood came several generations of men believed in the historical times to have been massive in size and strength. Adrienne Mayor notes,

Humans were thought to be smaller, weaker descendents of this superior race of “heroes,” whose oversize bones were revered as relics… The ideal man’s height in classical antiquity was about 4 cubits (5.5 feet; 1.7 m); the average man probably stood just over 5 feet. The traditional height of a mythical hero was about 10 cubits (15 feet; 4.5 m), about three times the size of an average man.75

These abnormally large men were also vastly superior in power and endurance in comparison to later Greeks:

{Ektwr d= aJrpavxaV la:an fevren, o{V rJa pulavwn

eJsthvkei provsqe...

to;n d= ou[ ke duv= ajnevre dhvmou ajrivstw

rJhidivwV ejp= a[maxan ajp= ou[deoV ojclivsseian,

oifloi nu:n brotoiv eijs=` oJ dev min rJeva pavlle kai; oi‹oV`76

Plutarch (ca. 46–120 CE) also waxes poetically about the past greatness of mankind in his account of the life of Theseus, one of the great Athenian heroes: “That age, it seems, produced a race of men who, for sheer strength of arm and swiftness of foot, were indefatigable and far surpassed the human scale.”77 Their godlike physicality matched the godlike deeds these ancient heroes performed in the imaginative minds of the Greeks.

The Greeks were prone to extreme exaggeration when it came to boasting about the size of their heroes—one man even claimed that the skeleton of Achilles was over 33 feet long—but this peculiarity is probably due to fossil repositories located through Greece. Scholars like Mayor have compared paleontological finds with the claims of the Greeks and have found many similarities; the conclusion most often drawn is that the Greeks must have come across prehistoric bones that resembled human bones on a massive scale and assigned them to the race of heroes. By the 7th century BCE, the Pythia at Delphi had started to prophesy that the bones of heroes could offer cities protection from enemies and even disease: “After hearing the two inquiries, the oracle declared that only the shipwrecked shoulder blade of Pelops could banish the plague in Elis, and ordered the fisherman to restore the bone to its home soil.”78 The people did in fact produce a large shoulder bone—what it really was we will never know—and built a shrine to encase it known as the Pelopion.

As these declarations grew in number in the 6th century BCE, the reports of cities pillaging sacred bones from surrounding areas began to multiply as well. “The assimilation of the hero shrine and hero grave also led to a slightly distasteful innovation in the worship of heroes [stealing bones from others]… By doing so, they deprived the other state of that hero’s protection and transferred it to themselves.”79 One of the earliest literary records of the phenomenon is in Herodotus’ Histories, where he recounts the story of the Spartans recovering the bones of Orestes in order to win a war. He places these words in the mouth of a hapless enemy, which the Spartans soon use to steal the bones and rebury them at a hero shrine in their own land:

For I was making me a well in this courtyard, when in my digging I chanced upon a coffin seven cubits long. As I could not believe that there had ever been men taller than those of our time, I opened the coffin, and found within it the corpse as long as itself.80

Pausanias, a 2nd century CE author who traveled to Greece and other areas of the Roman Empire and wrote stories about the cultures he encountered, wrote in A Guide to Greece:

They call the god Philolaus, and the bones (ojsta:) in the gymnasium, which they worship, are human, although of superhuman size (megevqei uJpερβάλλοντα).81

He is intrigued by the Greeks’ penchant for worshiping large bones that they have enshrined near a tomb or in a gymnasium but does not seem to realize that the Greeks treated hero relics this way because they were believed to have supernatural powers. The aid of a hero was always useful militarily or politically, so “the bones in particular confer[red] a military or political advantage on the polis or sanctuary that possesses them, and on those who recover them.”82

Lastly, the legendary heroes were not oversized monsters, but men whose physicality rivaled that of the gods in every way. Their otherworldly beauty indicates their special status as much as their size, feats, or death. They, like the gods, do not ever live to see old age, but die in the hebes anthos, the flower of youth, and remain forever engrained in the memory of mankind through literature and art in only that form:

The permanence of immortal beauty, the stability of undying glory: in its institutions, culture alone had the power to construct these by conferring on ephemeral creatures the status of the illustrious, the ‘beautiful dead.’… Living always in strength and beauty, the gods have a super-body: a body made entirely and forever of beauty and glory.83

IV. The Expansion of Immortalization

As history progressed, hero cult did not fade away, but proved to be a long-lasting and popular form of public and private worship across Greece. The Homeric epics remained a strong source of inspiration for hero shrines, but there is evidence that the process of “heroization” became increasingly democratized as the newly formed Greek city-states gained power. Cities such as Athens often chose to glorify their past by building up the myths surrounding their own founders, whether they were true historical figures or legends. The parallel rise of the ‘historical’ hero cult and the polis is a bit perplexing, however, considering the new cities were built as republics yet venerated their monarchic pasts.

They guarded the memory of their legendary kings as a precious heritage, and most of the literary works produced in these republics celebrate the great achievements of these kings…. Even more surprisingly, this hero worship was not a remnant from the age of the kingdoms…but rather an innovation that first appears with the rise of the Greek republics.84

The Greeks clearly did not experience the same backlash against kingship as the Romans did after they threw off the hateful Etruscan dynasty in favor of their own Republic. “Hero-cult is on this view politically ambiguous: appropriately for the polis it is open to all, but honours the (supposed) ancestors of the aristocratic clans.”85

Theseus, often described as the Attic counterpart to the Doric Herakles, was a minor ancient mythological figure and possibly also a lord of the region around Aphidna.86 One of the earliest mentions of Theseus is found in the Iliad, although there he is clearly known only for his exploits with the centaurs and Lapiths and not yet as the slayer of the Minotaur or as a great monarch with republican tendencies:

Qhseva t= Aijgei‡vdhn, ejpieivkelon ajqanavtoisin87

“Before c. 510, however, he was a figure of very minor importance in Attica as compared with his great rival Herakles, on whose life his own deeds and career were deliberately and self-consciously modeled.”88 Undisputed archaeological evidence for Theseus does not surface until the 6th century BCE, when he was suddenly depicted on a large number of Attic vases; by this time, he was no longer simply a countryside champion and sexual miscreant of legend, but the foundational king of Athens. Unlike Herakles, whose cult spanned most of Greece and its colonies, Theseus was selected only by Athens. There his shrine was given priority over all others and placed in the center of the city in a building known as the Theseion, although archaeologists have yet to uncover its exact location.89 Extant friezes from the temple of Hephaestus in the Athenian Agora display Theseus’ exploits along with those of Herakles, and so do those at the Athenian Treasury at Delphi.90 Theseus, as a hero, was also given a feast day on the eighth of Pyanopsion as a part of the festival called the Theseia. The families that were supposedly descendents of the would-be victims of Minotaur were traditionally in charge of financing and directing the annual libation and sacrifices to Theseus in thanks for his services to the city.91

According to Plutarch, the Athenians declared that Erechtheus, another legendary king of Athens, and Pelops, who gave his name to the Peloponnese, were his ancestors and that he was a cousin and ardent admirer of Herakles.92 Later, the god Poseidon was often substituted for his mortal father, Aigeus. Along with this impressive lineage, he was soon the “founder of the lovely and far-famed city of Athens” and the inventor of coinage, among other equally unhistorical but attractive titles.93 Although Theseus was originally a man who fought brigands along country roads, he was now even a military icon:

In later times, however, there were various reasons which led the Athenians to honour Theseus as a demi-god (wJV h{rwa tima:n); the most remarkable of these was the fact that many of the men who fought the Medes at Marathon believed that they saw the apparition (favsma) of Theseus, clad in full armour and charging ahead of them against the barbarians.94

Robert Garland and Henry Walker, among other prominent scholars, believe that Theseus’ rise to prominence had much to do with 5th century BCE Athenian politics. Plutarch tells us that the Delphic oracle advised the Athenians to retrieve the bones of their local hero from Skyros, a traditional enemy, and honor them in the city. In 476 BCE, the general Kimon attacked the island in order to search for the bones. Eventually, with some divine help, he manages to find the sacred skeleton and bring it triumphantly back to Athens, where he was hailed by the people.95 Garland suggests a politicized reading of this event:

The return of Theseus’ bones…demonstrated that the Athenians had now acquired the capability to retrieve their national hero from a region which had previously been inaccessible to them. It is hardly an exaggeration to state that Theseus’ repatriation thus served as a metaphor for his countrymen’s recently acquired naval supremacy, since Athens was now posing as the leader of a maritime alliance.96

Robert Parker also sees the growth of heroization as a political movement by the elite: “The ‘big men’ of the emergent polis invent a category of special beings, the heroes, who, if duly honoured, will be powerfully active for the collective good. The unspoken implication is that they are themselves beings of the same nature.”97 Theseus’ legacy expanded as Athens itself expanded, morphing to fit the many roles the citizens needed him to play. He embodies the growing religious and political movement that heroized and immortalized Greek kings and other leaders through the use of the physical body and myth.

The first truly historical men to receive the honor of deification were the soldiers killed in the battle at Marathon.98 However, these men were not awarded individually, but as a group, so many scholars point instead to the next decade when the famous Tyrannicides became the “first contemporary Athenians to be awarded heroic honours in this manner.”99 This trend would continue into the 4th century BCE, when prominent public figures were increasingly awarded divine honors for the services they rendered to the community.

Heroes were not the only humans to achieve immortality; the status was gradually opened to a number of mortals for a variety of reasons through the Classical era. Pausanias (ca. 160 CE) relates a story in which a man named Euthymos disappeared and was subsequently worshiped—an abnormal death was another common cause for heroization.100 Sophocles’ (ca. 496–406 BCE) Oedipus too reportedly disappeared as opposed to dying normally after prophesying the foundation of his own hero cult:

movrw/ d= oJpoivw/ kei:noV w[let= oujd= a]n eiflV

qnhtw:n fravseie plh;n to; QhsevwV kavra.

ouj gavr tiV aujto;n ou[te purfovroV qeou:

kerauno;V ejxevpraxen ou[te pontiva

quvella kinhqei:sa tw/: tovt= ejn crovnw/,

ajll= h[ tiV ejk qew:n pompovV, h] to; nertevrwn

eu[noun diasta;n gh:V ajlavmpeton bavqron.101

Sometimes the sudden disappearance was unexpected and unseen, but many mythological mortals became immortal after being “snatched away” (usually using the verb ajnarpavzein) by a god or goddess, such as Ganymede, Iphigenia, and Phaethon. Ganymede was a Trojan youth who caught Zeus’ fancy and was immediately brought heavenward to live amongst the gods:

[Zeus,] king of the Immortals, loved (h[rato) Ganymedes.

He abducted (aJrpavxaV) him, took him up to Olympus, and made him

a daimon (daivmona), having the lovely bloom of boyhood.102

Other sources do not refer to him as a mere daimon, or lesser god, but like pseudo-Homer in the Hymn to Aphrodite, which claims, “Ganymede was immortal (ajqavnatoV) and unaging (ajghvrwV) like the gods,”103 he was often portrayed as a deity after his apotheosis. Hesiod, a poet who lived close to the same time as Homer, told the story of the abduction of Phaethon by Aphrodite:

And to Cephalus she [Eos] bore a splendid son, powerful Phaethon, a man equal to the gods (qeoi:V ejpieivkelon). While he was young…smile-loving Aphrodite snatched him away (ajnereiyamevnh), and made him her innermost temple-keeper in her holy temples, a divine spirit (daivmona di:on).104

This “kidnapping” of youthful boys and girls in myths may signify an anxiety over the high rates of infant and child mortality in ancient Greece, but it also hints at alternative beliefs in immortality and the wavering boundaries between the two realms.

One final process of immortalization was widespread, used in both literature and mythology to describe the bestowing of divinity upon a mortal. Fire, as seen in the discussion of Achilles above, was a common indication of godhood in Homer. It also seems that there was a belief that the very mortality of a body could be burned if consumed in a fire, freeing the immortal remnants of a human from all earthly confines; “flames consume all that is made of flesh and blood, that is, everything both edible and subject to decay and thus attached to that ephemeral kind of existence where life and death are inextricably mingled.”105 Apollodorus describes the famous death and funeral of Herakles, in which his corpse is burned on a pyre before he is deified:

While the pyre (pura:V) was burning, it is said that a cloud (nevfoV) passed under Hercules and with a peal of thunder (bronth:V) wafted him up (ajnapevmyai) to heaven. Thereafter he obtained immortality (tucw;n ajqanasivaV).106

The Homeric Hymn to Demeter relates the tale of Demeter’s attempt to make a mortal boy, Demophoon, into a god after Hades has abducted her own dear daughter, Persephone. Each night

Demeter would anoint him with ambrosia (ajmbrosivhi), as if he were the son of a god (qeou: ejkgegaw:ta)…while each night she would hide him away in the burning fire (puro;V), like a brand, without his dear parents’ knowledge…he was like the gods to behold (qeoi:si de; a[nta ejwvikei).107

It is almost as if Demophoon comes close to death each night, reenacting the funereal custom of the pyre, each time one step closer to burning off his natural mortality. Once interrupted by the boy’s mother, Demeter is unable to complete the transformation and tells the parents their son will now not be given the privilege of avoiding death.108

The next several centuries brought the breaking down of traditional barriers between the immortals and mortals in both artistic expression and daily life. The Greek lyric poetess Sappho (ca. late 7th century BCE) famously wrote about her personal communication with the goddess Aphrodite, who would visit her in times of anxiety as a companion:

Ornate-throned immortal Aphrodite, wile-weaving daughter of Zeus, I entreat you: do not overpower my heart, mistress, with ache and anguish, but come here, if ever in the past you heard my voice from afar and acquiesced and came… beautiful swift sparrows whirring fast-beatings wings brought you above the dark earth down from heaven through the mid-air, and soon they arrived; and you, blessed one, with a smile on your immortal face asked what was the matter with me this time and why I was calling this time… Come to me now again and deliver me from oppressive anxieties; fulfil all that my heart longs to fulfil, and you yourself be my fellow-fighter.109

This description of an encounter with a divine being is noticeably colloquial, as if the two could transcend all of the conventional boundaries that separated the worshiper from the worshiped and become virtually equal. Not much later, the philosopher Empedocles (ca. 495-435 BCE) was able to declare himself an ‘immortal god, no longer a mortal’ upon arriving in Akragas, apparently so trusting in his immortality that he died by jumping into a volcano.110 Finally, in the 4th century BCE, a general belief in the possibility of man achieving immortality after death seems to have been rather widespread and common. Several epitaphs from the period refer to this eschatological view; for example, one from Rome states, “Here lies Parthenis, ageless and immortal,”111 while one from Rhodes boldly declares, “The halls of heavenly Zeus hold me. Apollo transformed me, and took me immortal from the fire.”112 The Greeks, who began by bestowing divine status upon the heroic men of their legendary past in the time of Homer, were now conferring immortality, if not divinity, upon men of their own age both in life and after death.






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