To understand the meanings of cult-heroes in the life of the Athenians requires knowledge of the way they made sense of this group of men. At the outset and in the most general terms, we may say that the cult-hero is imagined as a mortal who has experienced death yet lives on in the life of a local community, and who is honored with ritual observances, such as prayers, dedications, and sacrificial offerings, for the benefits the deceased might bring or has bestowed. As the deceased differs from the ordinary dead by some extraordinary connection with the divine world either while alive, or at death, s/he has become a mighty being with a status more powerful than humans, but whose powers are more localized than those of a god. Even if the term hero is not explicitly applied to every figure with these characteristics, this should not trouble us, given the fluid character of names, myths, and ritual in Greek religion. Indeed, the range of such deceased cult-figures is wide, including ancestors, founders of colonies, epic heroes and heroines, military and political leaders, enemies, and athletes (Abramson, 1978). Drawing upon the aforementioned definition, this essay will explain why cult-heroes were worshipped and their multi-layered relationship with the gods.
The particular significance of these cult-heroes to their cities and people is often in question, since the mythic images and cult rituals of the hero were interpreted anew and kept alive by emerging or established social groups (Bolle, 1967). For example, what Ajax meant as a cult-figure to the Athenians depended upon their confirmation of an existing interpretation. An Athenian interpretation of Ajax not only determined their image of Ajax, but that interpretation also shaped, in turn, the way they responded to the figure of Ajax (Chidester, 1988). The process of redefinition determined to whose symbolic world Ajax came to belong, and what dominant cultural ideals Ajax symbolized. In addition, as an exercise of its power, the city whose interpretation prevailed among competing versions won, as it were, the possession and control of Ajax (Chidester, 1988). Since the cult-hero was understood as a source of sacred power to bring benefit or destruction to human societies, the politics of hero-worship necessarily involved the negotiation for their power as seen in the struggle over these symbols of power. As the religious hero was perceived not only to legitimate the political position and action of a city, but also to embody a cultic reality believed to influence its life, there was competition among cities both in the field of interpretation to validate political action, and for ownership of the hero’s favor.
As the religious forms of the civic cult-hero were acknowledged by the individuals of a community, the members of that society interacted in meaningful ways with their heroes. As Chidester (1988) points out, the Athenians (like the Greeks) made their world a purposeful place through symbols, myths, and rituals. For them, the local myths and rituals of their cult-heroes bound them into city-states, defining a place, a sacred territory imagined as a homeland, whether indigenous or colonized, from a certain time, which linked the past to the present place and provided a sense of descent. The connection of cult-heroes with a specific place and past answered for them questions of identity: «who are we as individuals, as a society, as humans?», «what sacred values and ideals sustain us?», and «how do we define our place in the world?» Their cult-heroes not only played a role in forming their self-image but expressed some aspect of their reality with which they interacted.
Indeed, the creation of a civic hero-cult helps to establish a local communal identity, and to provide that community with the authorization to rule over and to defend its territory. As such, the polis, besides a political body, formed a new religious community thereby serving the vital functions of uniting disparate groups of people in a region, defining their social privileges and obligations, and creating new forms of identity and new ways of being human (Burkert, 1985). Yunis (1988: 53) points out that «the polis religion comprised a way of life which included continuity and regularity. The force of ancestral custom in cult required the belief that the gods and their worshippers maintained an enduring, orderly relationship.» If a deity’s cult was observed, good relations with the god continued. Often this was because s/he was thought to feel sufficiently friendly and well-disposed towards the worshipper to grant a request or to continue existing benefits. This tie of reciprocity existed between men and the deities of the city-state, the Olympians, as much as with the Athenians/city citizens and the cult-heroes.
While cults united the citizens of a polis, they also validated and empowered aristocratic families (Morris, 1988). When such families formed relationships with their heroic ancestors, they established their world by a strong link with the sacred past. Indeed, by a network of personal relationships with the gods, and with the dead, and of alliances with the living, the aristocratic families sought to carve out and to maintain their dominant position in the polis. By the eighth century some of these families were cohesive organizations with privileged access to religious cult, such as the later Eteobutadae in Athens (Burkert, 1985). There was, however, an inherent tension with the other citizens who, excluded from the aristocratic cults, also sought a share in the religious life of the polis. The members of the new civic community vied for ownership for some of the symbols of the heroic past but, by creating new religious symbols, the polis also fashioned new ideals and allegiances to patron deities and heroes (Snodgrass, 1977). As the citizens of a city-state organized their territory into profane and sacred places, they provided public space for divine sanctuaries and hero-shrines (Whitely, 1991). The dead were also separated from the living, except for the graves of cult-figures, like the founders of colonies, who would find burial in the agora or at a city gate (Morris, 1987).
At the end of the nineteenth century, Rohde claimed that ancestral cult-worship of deceased mortals formed the basis for hero-cult (Calligas, 1988). He argued that the Homeric poems contain vestiges of an ancient, pre-Homeric worship of the dead, as illustrated by the funeral of Patroclus; later the old cult ritual practice re-emerged in its own right as a local cult of ancestors, which, in turn, gave rise to hero-cult (Abramson, 1978).
He writes «the Heroes stands at the beginning of a series, taking its origin from him, of mortal men for whom he is the leader and ‘ancestor’. The genuine Heroes are the ancestors, whether real or imaginary, of a family or a house; in the ‘Heroes’, after whom they wish to be called, the members of a society, a clan, or even a whole race honour the archegetai of those groups» (Rohde, 1925: 527-528). The larger, non-familial sphere of worshippers of a hero-cult distinguishes it from the cult of the dead, which is characterized by a familial relationship between the dead and family worshippers. In Rohde’s view the worship of heroes is a post-Homeric phenomenon.
In the Homeric poems, the appearances of cult-figures are represented with ritual features commonly associated with superhuman powers. In the eleventh book of the Odyssey, Odysseus invokes Tiresias, along with other heroic dead, as an oracular figure, with prayers, drink-offerings of honey with milk, then wine, followed by water, and finally, the sacrificial blood of a ram and an ewe, for the purpose of gaining knowledge of the future. While alive, Tiresias possessed special prophetic abilities; in death he still retains this power of future knowledge. As Hadzisteliou-Price (1973: 135) correctly remarks, «the sacrifices of Odysseus to him are [not] burial ritual…, but sacrifices proper, long after the person’s death, and intended specifically for the granting of a special favor.» These actions performed and vows made by Odysseus do not represent annual cultic observances of thanksgiving, celebration, and propitiation for Tiresias, but rites for a specific need. Neither do we find funereal ritual in connection with Erechtheus, who, as an autochthonous nursling of Athena, is propitiated with annual sacrifices of bulls and sheep by the Athenian kouroi at the temple of Athena (11. 2. 546-551).
The link between the cult-heroes and gods is strong. Phaethon is associated with Aphrodite in Hesiod’s Theogony (987-91). Demophon also appears as a cult figure, associated with Demeter, in the Hymn to Demeter (235-41, 259-67). Erechtheus is also honored with Athena in her temple. In the Works and Days, the deceased mortals of Hesiod’s Golden race, who become guardians of mortals, and the dead of the Silver race, may all represent cult figures.
Might the use of the terms demigods and heroes in the Homeric poems suggest mortals with a preternatural status? In its only occurrence in Homeric poetry, the poet of the Iliad uses the term (II. 12. 23), to refer back to the heroic past from his own present era, indicating the destruction of the Achaean wall at Troy and of the race of demigods along with it. In his Works and Days, Hesiod uses the term heroes to refer to a separate divine race of heroes, the fourth race of men, who are called demigods, referring to the warriors who fought at Troy and Thebes (Rohde, 1925). This is a mortal race of demigods, beings of a semi-divine status because of their parentage. The «godlike» nature of this group is illustrated by their glorious deeds at Troy and Thebes which exceed any that later generations of mortals might achieve (West, 1978). A passage from the Hesiodic Catalogue of Women, illustrates the meaning of demigods as the offspring of deities and mortal women, for they had sexual relations with the gods. We may also recall that at the end of the Theogony goddesses who have had relations with mortal men gave birth to children like the gods (Th. 967-968; Th. 1019-1020). Although the fate of all these heroes is death, some become happy heroes and dwell in a kind of Golden Age on the Islands of the Blessed (West, 1978). It seems that, as M. L. West (1978) suggests, this term is used in hexameter poetry when the men of the heroic age are referred to as a whole. Such men belong to the distant past.
This tradition of the demigods, imagined as divine offspring, is supported by later literature. In a poem of Alcaeus, Thetis, Nereus’ daughter, who married Peleus, gave birth to Achilles, best of the demigods (Abramson, 1978). From the threnoi of Sirnonides we learn that the demigods were a race of humans, the sons of gods (West, 1978). Corinna also sings of the demi-gods as the offspring of the gods Zeus, Poseidon, Apollo, and Hermes (West, 1978). At Pindar Pythian 4. 184 a reference to men as demigods appears after a catalogue of offspring who joined the expedition, some born to male deities and mortal women; and in the same ode, after the seamen have been referred to at line 12 as demigods, Medea addresses the men as children of daring men and gods (Plato, Crat. 398 c-d, cited in Abramson, 1978). Isocrates expresses this view of the demigods at Troy (Orat. 4. 84—Panegyricus, cited in Abramson, 1978), and as the sons of Zeus (Orat. 10. 1 6—Helen, cited in Abramson, 1978; Orat. 9. 1 3—Evagoras, cited in Abramson, 1978).
In conclusion, therefore, it appears that hero-cults arose in order to give cities, such as Athens, identity, status and power, amongst others. They further arose in response to the determined efforts of aristocratic families to solidify their special status within their cities. While never regarded as gods, the qualities of cult-heroes made them more than heroes and that, combined with their parentage, afforded them the status of demigods.
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