Skip to main content

Hero-cults in the age of Homer

  • J. N. Coldstream (a1)

‘Much hero-cult was directly engendered by the powerful influence of Homeric and other epics.… We so often hear how saga reflects cult that we are in danger of ignoring the reverse truth that cult may reflect saga; for cult was often mimetic of past events, and the memory of these was preserved mainly by saga-poetry.’

Thus L. R. Farnell, in 1921. He was doing his best to create order out of chaos, writing at a time when it had been fashionable to explain away almost all heroes as faded deities. His method was to sort out the various categories of hero: the genuine faded deities, the vegetation spirits, the epic heroes, the ancestors, the eponymous figures, and finally the heroes who lived in historical times. Greek hero-worship has always been a rather untidy subject, where any general statement is apt to provoke suspicion; yet no one has since shown any good reason for rejecting Farnell's groundwork. This in itself is a tribute to the clarity and thoroughness with which he presented the literary evidence in the first place. Nevertheless, if a new edition of his book were contemplated today, it would need some substantial archaeological footnotes; indeed, during the last fifty years, every type of hero-cult has been illumined in some measure by the results of excavation—especially the cults of epic heroes, to which most of this paper is devoted; for the interval since 1921 includes most of the digging careers of Blegen, Wace, and Marinatos—to name the three archaeologists whose fieldwork has supplied in greatest measure the most abundant kind of evidence that we are looking for: that is, the evidence of veneration shown by later Greeks for the tombs of their Mycenaean predecessors.

Hide All

An earlier draft of this paper was read in November 1973 to the Hibernian Hellenists at Bally-mascanlon, Co. Louth; earlier still, much of its substance was included in a paper read at a Homeric Seminar of London University, at meetings of the Classical Association Branches of Oxford and Durham, and at St David's University College, Lampeter. My thanks are due to all those who contributed to the discussions; and also to Dr J. K. Davies, Prof. G. L. Huxley, Mr S. G. Pembroke, and Prof. A. M. Snodgrass for making constructive comments on my draft MS.

Abbreviations, in addition to those in general use:

DAG = A. M. Snodgrass, The Dark Age of Greece (Edinburgh, 1971)

DMR = Studies presented to D. M. Robinson (St Louis, 1951) ed. G. E. Mylonas

GGP = J. N. Coldstream, Greek Geometric Pottery (London, 1968)

1 Greek Hero Cults and Ideas of Immortality (Oxford. 1921) 340, 342.

2 Nock A. D., Harvard Theological Review 37 (1944) 141 ff., especially 163; Brelich A., Gli eroi greci: un problema storico-religioso (Rome, 1958) 1516; cf. Rose H. J., Gnomon xxxi (1959) 385–9.

3 Soph. OC 616–23, 1533–4; cf. Price T. H., Historia xxii (1973) 142–3.

3a My reasons for believing in a Panhellenic circulations of the Iliad in the middle of the eighth century are briefly stated in Geometric Greece (London, 1977) ch. 14; the lower limit is set at c. 650 B.C. to include the careers of the earlier cyclic poets— Stasinos, Arktinos, and Lesches. Here, however, the ‘Age of Homer’ is kept within inverted commas, since this is not the place to delve deeply into the Homeric Question. Those who prefer a much later Homer are asked to read in this phrase ‘the age when Ionic epic first became widely known on the Greek mainland’; cf. West M. L., CQ lxxxvii (1973) 182–3.

4 op. cit. (n. 1) 4f.

5 Nilsson M. P., The Minoan-Mycenaean Religion 2 (Lund, 1950) 587 f.; Andronikos M., Totenkult (Archaeologia Homerica vol. W, Göttingen, 1968) 127. In his n. 1055 Andronikos draws attention to a ‘Submycenaean-Protogeometric’ deposit in a niche of a chamber tomb at Asine; the pottery is in fact LH IIIC. See Frödin O. and Persson A. W., Asine (Stockholm, 1938) 178 f. fig. 144; 357; 398 fig. 260:8.

6 AE 1937 377 ff.; id., Prosymna (Cambridge, 1937) 263.

7 AE 1937 386 no. 1215 fig. 9.

8 Courbin P., La Céramique géométrique de l'Argolide (Paris, 1966) 450 para. 16, ‘peintre des plateaux à offrandes’. Cf. GGP 143.

9 Courbin , Tombes géométriques d'Argos I (Paris, 1974) 117 f.

10 Persson A. W., The Royal Tombs at Dendra near Midea (Lund, 1951) 11, 42 fig. 24; cf. GGP 116 n. 6.

11 Keramopoullos A. D., ADelt iii (1917) 203–4 fig. 148; cf. Desborough V., Protogeometric Pottery (Oxford, 1952) 195–6. 318.

12 Wace A. J. B., BSA xxv (19211923) 292, Cyclopean Tomb; 295, Epano Phournos Tomb; 312–13, ‘Tomb of Aigisthos’; 320, Panagia Tomb; 329, Lion Tomb; 366, ‘Tomb of Clytemnestra’, including terracotta figurines; 387, Tomb of the Genii; Cook J. M., BSA xlviii (1953) 80 f. pl. 28c, d, Kato Phournos Tomb. From a pit in the dromos of the ‘Treasury of Atreus’ comes a bronze pin, said by Desborough to be like one from a mid-eighth-century burial: BSA xlix (1954) 263, cf. pl. 45 no. 53–636.

13 Wace , Chamber Tombs at Mycenae (Archaeologia lxxii, 1932) 23, Tomb 520; 32–3, Tomb 522.

14 Papadimitriou I., PAE 1952 470 fig. 35; id., PAE 1953 208 n. 1. Cf. Mylonas G. E., Ancient Mycenae (Princeton, 1957) 171.

15 Jeffery L. H., The Local Scripts of Archaic Greece (Oxford, 1961) 174 no. 6 pl. 31, with earlier references.

16 BSA xlviii (1953) 30 ff.

17 In Geras A. Keramopoullou (Athens, 1953) 112 ff.

18 Priority must be accorded to Mylonas , DMR i 103; but Mylonas' main concern was to argue that no such cults existed in Mycenaean times.

19 Vollgraff W., BCH xxviii (1904) 366–7, Tomb V; Deshayes J., Argos, les fouilles de la Deiras (Paris, 1966) 215 ff., Tombs XIV and XVII. The eleventh-century amphorae from Tombs XXIV and XXXIII (pp. 68 f., 99, 246) were each accompanied by a bronze finger ring, and the latter by a long bronze pin; no bones were associated with either group, but the amphorae are more likely to have been cremation urns than votive offerings.

20 Verdelis N., PAE 1958, 137.

21 Romaios K., PAE 1954 273; Howell R., BSA lxv (1970) 95 f.

22 Choremis A., ADelt xvi (1960) B 108, xvii (1961–2) B 95.

23 Marinatos S., PAE 1953 242 ff.; cf. GGP 98, 223. These pots are exhibited in the Museum of Chora Triphylias, as are many of the later votive offerings from Mycenaean tombs in the neighbourhood of Pylos.

Chadwick J. (Minnesota Messenia Expedition (Minneapolis, 1972) 109) is tempted to equate Volimedia with the Mycenaean religious centre pa - ki - ja - ne on topographical grounds; and he supposes that the tomb cults there might be a reminiscence of the place's earlier sanctity. Yet Volimedia is only one of many places in Messenia where cults grew up in Mycenaean tombs; and the case against any such cult reflecting a continuous memory through the Dark Age is presented in these pages.

24 Marinatos , PAE 1959 176 and 1960 pl. 153b, Gouvalari Tomb 1; id., PAE 1963 116, Akona Tomb 1. A tholos near Papoulia (id., PAE 1955 255) yielded black-glazed pottery, probably going back to the late seventh century. In another tholos, at Tourliditsa (id., PAE 1966 129–32 pl. 113b), the offerings include wine amphorae from Archaic times onwards.

25 Id., PAE 1956 202–3.

26 Valmin N., Bull Soc Roy Lund (19271928) 27, 37, Vasiliko; 47, Kopanaki (Corinthian pottery); Marinatos , PAE 1961 170 and 1965 113 pl. 129; Peristeria. Cf. McDonald W. and Simpson R. Hope, AJA lxv (1961) 219 ff. and lxxiii (1969) 123 ff., sites nos. 22B, 24, 28.

27 ix 38.2. On the question of access at Mycenae cf. Wace , Mycenae (Princeton, 1949) 8.

28 Schliemann H., JHS ii (1882) 139 ff.

29 Keramopoullos , ADelt iii (1917) 86 and n. 1.

30 Vatin C., Médéon de Phocide (Paris, 1969) 29 f. I owe this reference to Mr W. G. Cavanagh.

31 Lolling H. al., Das Kuppelgrab bei Menidi (Athens, 1880); Wolters P., JdI xiv (1899) 103 ff., especially figs. 18, 19, 27; Cook J. M., art. cit. (n. 17) 114 and n. 4; Mylonas , Mycenae and the Mycenaean Age (Princeton, 1966) 181 ff.

32 Papadimitriou , PAE 1955 96 pl. 28e.

33 Servais J. in Thorikos i (1968) 37 ff, Tomb 1.

34 Townsend E. D., Hesperia xxiv (1955) 189, 202, 218–19; Immerwahr S., Agora xiii 184. The tomb had already been broached in the Protogeometric period for two additional burials, but without disturbing the Mycenaean incumbents.

35 Paus, i 39.2, Plut. Thes. 29; Mylonas , PAE 1953 81 ff. fig. 10; id., Eleusis and the Eleusinian Mysteries (Princeton, 1961) 62–3.

36 Mylonas, op. cit. 62 fig. 10; id., PAE 1955 76 pls. 24b, 25a; cf. GGP 32 no. 41.

37 Mylonas , DMR I 98.

38 Kübler K., Kerameikos v 1.36. The plans of the same cemetery in successive phases speak for themselves: Hachmann R., Gött GelAnz ccxv (1963) 54 ff. figs. 1–6.

39 Long C. R., AJA lxii (1958) 300 f; cf. Thuc. iii 104. 1, 2.

40 Picard C. and Replat J., BCH xlviii (1924) 247 ff, especially 259; Mylonas , DMR i 104; cf. Hdt. iv 35.

41 Marinatos , AE 1933 78 f., 97 ff.; n.b. also a brief mention of LH IIIC chamber tombs at Skala containing LG and Corinthian pottery (AR for 1960–1, 16).

42 Desborough , The Last Mycenaeans and their Successors (Oxford, 1964) 103 ff.

43 Apart from one doubtful case in a tomb at Praisos (Bosanquet R. C., BSA viii (19011902) 242, Tomb A) where the stratification had been much disturbed, there is no archaeological evidence for post-Minoan votives in any Minoan tomb. The remarks of Diodorus (v 79.4) about the respect paid to the supposed tombs of Idomeneus and Meriones reflect the spurious patter purveyed to visitors to Knossos in Graeco-Roman times.

44 Taylour W. D. in The Palace of Nestor iii (Princeton, 1973) 237 ff.

45 Kourouniotis K., AE 1914 101 f., 106 f, fig. 12.

46 Choremis , AAA i (1968) 205 ff.; id., AE 1973 62 ff.

47 Ibid. 70–4 figs. 26–7; Nikitopoulou Grave 1 contains two skeletons, the others only one.

48 Ibid. 47.

49 McDonald W., Hesperia xli (1972) 228–9 pl. 40c, Nichoria; Themelis P. G., ADelt xx (1965) B 207 pl. 213b, Pharai near Kalamata; ibid. 208 pl. 221, Pyla.

50 DAG 154 f.; 205 f., with references.

51 Jacopi G., Clara Rhodes vivii (Bergamo, 1933) 193 ff., Tombs 82, 83.

52 The graves at Dreros (Études Crétoises viii 18 ff.) form a very rare exception. Small tholoi were still being built in our ‘Age of Homer’, e.g. that at Ay. Paraskies: Platon N., AE 19451947 47 ff.

53 Hood M. S. F. and Coldstream J. N., BSA lxiii (1968) 205 ff., Subminoan; Boardman J., BSA lv (1960) 143, Protogeometric. The ninth century hut model from Archanes, enclosing a terracotta seated goddess, has been ingeniously explained by Boardman (BSA lxii (1967) 66 fig. 2) as a Minoan tomb fortuitously discovered and then consecrated as a shrine; but he attributes this unusual practice to immigrant oriental metalworkers, one of whom cleared out the Minoan tholos at Teke for re-use as a family vault. On the absence of post-Minoan votives in Minoan tombs see n. 43 above.

54 Brock J. K., Fortetsa (BSA Suppl. ii, 1957) 4 f.

55 Kyparissis N., PAE 1929 89 ff.; 1930 83 ff.

56 Brann E. T. H., Agora viii 19; Benson J. L., Horse, Bird and Man (Amherst, 1970) 115 ff.

57 See above nn. 10, 11, 34, 35, 48.

58 See above n. 15.

59 Erga 156–65.

60 See above nn. 16, 17.

61 Od. iv 517; Cook J. M., art. cit. (n. 17) 113.

62 Wace et al, BSA xv (19081909) 108 ff.; for the earliest pottery see ibid. 150 and CVA Cambridge i pl. 3 nos. 116, 120. It is to be hoped that we may learn more about the beginning of this cult from the current excavations, resumed in 1973: Catling H. W., AR for 19731974 14 f.

63 Farnell, op. cit. (n. 1) 323 ff.

64 Hdt. i 67–8.

65 Erga 654–7.

66 Bérard C., Eretria iii (Berne, 1970), especially chs. 5 and 6.

67 Andronikos (Gnomon xlvi (1974) 631–3) challenges the association between triangle and graves, but offers no alternative explanation for the votive deposit. A divine cult seems out of the question, since the offerings cease in the sixth century.

68 Bérard , MusHelv xxix (1972) 219 ff.

69 Il. ii 546 ff; cf. Price T. H., art cit. (n. 3) 130, 136 f.

70 Simpson R. Hope and Lazenby J. F., The Catalogue of Ships in Homer's Iliad (Oxford, 1970) 56.

71 Kardara C., AE 1960, 165 ff.

72 Od. vii 81.

73 Balanos N., AE 1937 785 fig. 13.

74 BCH lx (1936) 455; lxii (1938) pl. 50B; lxiii (1939) 289.

75 Apud Iakovides S., Hé Mykenaikè Akropolis (Athens, 1962) 186 n. 361.

76 Stavropoullos P. D., PAE 1958 5 ff.; Drerup H., Griechische Baukunst in geometrischer Zeit (Archaeologia Homerica vol. O, Göttingen, 1969) 31 f. with further references; DAG 398. Another similar ‘sacred house’ was built at about the same time at Eleusis, outside the main sanctuary of Demeter (Kourouniotis , PAE 1937 42 ff. and RA xi (1938) 94 ff.); it, too, may have served as a sanctuary in honour of local heroes.

77 Stavropoullos , ADelt xvi (1960) B 34.

78 PAE 1958 8 f. pl. 6; for the kantharoi cf. Desborough, op. cit. (n. 11) pl. 12, nos. 2031 and 2026.

79 Desborough , The Greek Dark Ages (London, 1972) 88.

80 Benton S., BSA xxxv (19341935) 58 nos. 1, 2; 64 fig. 14; 113; Schweitzer B., Greek Geometric Art (London, 1971) 168 fig. 101.

81 Benton , art. cit. 54 fig. 7; BSA xxxix (1938–9) 43 no. 63.

82 Heurtley W., BSA xl (19391940) 11 f.

83 Kern O., Die Inscriften von Magnesia am Mäander (Berlin, 1900) no. 36.

84 Benton , BSA xxxv (19341935) 53; Heurtley, loc. cit. (n. 82).

Recommend this journal

Email your librarian or administrator to recommend adding this journal to your organisation's collection.

The Journal of Hellenic Studies
  • ISSN: 0075-4269
  • EISSN: 2041-4099
  • URL: /core/journals/journal-of-hellenic-studies
Please enter your name
Please enter a valid email address
Who would you like to send this to? *


Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 0
Total number of PDF views: 37 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 368 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between September 2016 - 20th November 2017. This data will be updated every 24 hours.