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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.

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A. D. Nock , Harvard Theological Review 37 (1944) 141

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The Journal of Hellenic Studies
  • ISSN: 0075-4269
  • EISSN: 2041-4099
  • URL: /core/journals/journal-of-hellenic-studies
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