Greek society was changing rapidly in the 8th century BC. The archaeological record reveals population growth, increasing political complexity, artistic experiments and a strong interest in the past. Because these processes resemble those at work in early modern Italy, the period has often been referred to as the ‘Greek renaissance’ (e.g. Ure 1922; Hägg 1983a; cf. Burke 1986). This paper is about the glorification of the past in the 8th century, and its relationship to the rise of the polis, the Greek city state. I concentrate on one particular phenomenon, the spread of cults at tombs dating to the Mycenaean period (c. 1600-1200 BC). I argue that the common renaissance analogy has limited value, and that the 8thcentury Greeks created a past narrowly focussed on the persons of powerful ancient beings, from whom they could draw authority in the social upheavals which came about as the loose, aristocratic societies of the ‘Dark Age’ (c. 1200-750 BC) were challenged. Tomb cults go back at least to 950 BC, but after 750 they were redefined and used as a source of power in new ways. I have adapted my subtitle from Maurice Bloch’s well-known paper ‘The past and the present in the present’ (1977), where he argues that rituals bring the past into the present to form a system of cognition mystifying nature and preserving the social order. The argument here is slightly different. I stress the variety of the cults and the range of meanings they must have had, making their recipients highly ambiguous figures. The same cults could simultaneously evoke the new, relatively egalitarian ideology of the polis and the older ideals of heroic aristocrats who protected the grateful and defenceless lower orders, while standing far above them. Bloch's paper borrowed Malinowski’s idea of culture as a ‘long conversation’; developing the analogy, I look at the multiple meanings which any statement in such a conversation may have for the different actors.