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The cult-place of a hero could be called by a variety of terms. Some emphasize the fact that the hero was dead: sēma, mnēma, thēkē, and taphos are all terms used for regular burials as well as heroic tombs. Hērōon refers to a cult-place with a tomb, but the term seems to denote something more elaborate than just a simple burial. The lack of a burial could be noted, as when Pausanias states that the sacrifices to Myrtilus at Olympia took place at an empty mound, kenon ērion (6.10.17). Terms used for the sanctuaries of the gods are found as well, such as temenos and hieron (a holy place or precinct), naos (temple), or alsos (sacred grove).

The diversity in terminology corresponds to the variations in appearance of archaeologically attested cult-places of heroes. The identification of a cult-place of a hero or heroine is no simple matter, and without any written evidence it is often difficult to distinguish a cult-place for a hero from that of a minor god or, in later periods, from a substantial burial monument for an ordinary dead person. Most archaeologically attested hero-cults have either been identified by epigraphical evidence found at the site or by being connected with a hero-cult mentioned in literary sources (Pausanias’ account of Greece refers to more than a hundred heroes having some kind of physical monument). On archaeological grounds alone, the means for recognizing a hero-shrine are more ambiguous.

A location on or at graves makes the identification plausible, if it can be demonstrated that the burials were in fact known when the cult was established. But a number of hero-shrines show no association with burials at all and it is also clear from the written evidence that the tomb of the hero was no prerequisite for the installation of the cult.

To single out certain kinds of votives as particularly ‘‘heroic” is difficult. Some types of figurines, such as horses and riders, or pottery shapes, such as kraters, drinking cups or large bowls for the bath of the hero, or objects, such as miniature shields, have been claimed to be typical for hero-cults. A closer comparison with local votive practices often shows that the same objects were dedicated to the gods or used as funerary gifts as well. One category of votive offering which can be said to be particularly linked to hero-cults, though their appearance often exhibits local traits, are stone reliefs or terracotta plaques showing a horseman, a seated male figure or a male-female couple, or a reclining and banqueting figure, often accompanied by a snake.

Just like the cult-places of the gods, hero-shrines could be located anywhere: isolated in the countryside, along roads, at city gates, or on the agora, the location often evoking the hero’s role as a founder or protector of the community. A number of hero-cults had a relationship with a divine cult and most, if not all, major sanctuaries of gods housed both burials and cults of heroes. These heroes were often intimately connected with the mythical history of the sanctuary: the hero or heroine founded the sanctuary, instituted the cult, and was its first priest or priestess. The performance of games was also linked to the presence of a hero in a divine sanctuary. At Olympia, Pelops’ defeat of Oenomaus was said to have been commemorated by the institution of the games or, according to another tradition, the games were founded by Heracles in honor of Pelops himself.

The tomb of a hero in a sanctuary gave rise to a myth explaining its presence. At Delphi there were different accounts of why Neoptolemus was slain at the altar of Apollo and buried within the sacred area: Pausanias (10.24.6) pointed out the peribolos with the hero’s tomb near the temple of Apollo. The fact that no convincing match has been made so far with the excavated remains illustrates the difficulties in identifying a hero-shrine.

Written and archaeological evidence makes it clear that many installations connected with heroes consisted only of a tomb, a statue, or a stele, but by no means were all such monuments the focus for sacrifices. The accidental discovery of a prehistoric burial may have called for a one-off sacrifice and dedication of votives, presumably to appease the disturbed hero, but it did not give rise to a recurrent cult. There was also a tradition of some heroes not wanting any cult, as was the case with Eurystheus, who was going to protect Athens from his grave on the condition that the Athenians did not offer him sacrifices and libations (Euripides, Heraclidae 1026-36, 1040-3).

The heroes were local phenomena, and the layout of the cult-place was adapted to local conditions and traditions. These circumstances, as well as the heterogeneity of the hero population, account for the lack of panhellenic conformity in the appearance of the cult-places. The layout of cult-places ranged from the simplest and smallest, some only a piece of land marked by a boundary stone (horos), to large and elaborate sanctuaries. The sacred area could be an abaton, somewhere it was not permitted to enter, and any votives were offered by dropping them over the walls, as at the so-called Leokorion in the Athenian agora and a number of small precincts on Delos. Many hero-cults consisted of small enclosures, in which only an offering table or altar was placed, as in the case of the Stele shrine and the Crossroads hērōon at Corinth or that of the Amyneion at Athens, which also had a well and perhaps a simple stoa.

Some were unique in appearance, as in the case of the Menelaion at Sparta, which consisted of a massive, rectangular platform, almost 15 – 20 m and at least 5 m high. It was accessed by a ramp, and on top there may have been an altar, statues, or a small temple. Finally, there were hero sanctuaries with a temple, like that of a god, and auxiliary buildings, such as the Amphiareion at Oropus, the sanctuary of Hippolytus at Troezen, and the Herakleion on Thasos. The sanctuary of Hērōs Ptoios in Boeotia had at least two altars, a small temple, probably housing the cult statue, and a stoa where the worshipers could dine and sleep, and in which votive objects were kept. The importance of this sanctuary is also evident from two rows of inscribed stone columns, from the late sixth to the mid-fifth century, supporting monumental tripods.

A fundamental trait of a hero was the fact that he was dead, but the relationship between the tomb of the hero and the location and appearance of the cult-place is complex. Some cult-places emphasized the burial aspect, as in the case of the archaic enclosure of the Pelopion at Olympia, which was centered on a prehistoric tumulus, identified as the tomb of the hero, or in that of the precinct of Opheltes at Nemea, in which a mound was artificially created in the sixth century. Others show no traces of a tomb or burial, and some heroes had cults even though the mythic narrative makes it clear that there were no physical remains, since the hero had vanished at the moment of death.

While the tomb of an ordinary dead person constituted a source of pollution, the burials of heroes were an exception to this rule and could be placed in spaces reserved for the living or for the gods, areas from which the dead were otherwise banned. However, religious personnel sometimes had to take certain precautions. Two third-century BC inscriptions from Cos stipulate that the priestesses of Demeter, in order to keep their purity, should not step upon or eat by a hērōon (LS 154 A, 21-2 and 37; 156 A, 8-10, heavily restored).

Pausanias remarks that anyone who ate from the sacrifices to Pelops at Olympia could not enter the temple of Zeus (5.13.3). Presumably participation in the cult of this hero made the worshiper impure in the eyes of the god. In several cases the bones of heroes are described as gigantic, in accordance with the notion of heroes being men larger than life. The finding of prehistoric bones may have lain behind some stories, and discoveries of this sort could also give rise to cults. The display of actual heroic bones seems, on the other hand, to have been less important for the cult than the fact that a city or sanctuary possessed them and that they were kept at a particular location. In contrast to the relics of Christian saints, individual bones did not contain the power of the hero (unless the rest of the skeleton was missing, as in the case of Pelops’ shoulder blade, kept at Olympia), and there is no tradition of the bones being used to perform miracles or healing, or of them being dangerous.

Other possessions of heroes were also displayed in sanctuaries and revered, though rarely in the same cultic sense as the bones. Among such venerable objects were spears, shields, and other items of weaponry, but also chariots, ships, furniture, and clothing, and the egg of Leda was even reported to have been kept in the sanctuary of the Leucippides at Sparta.

This post is a part of Heroes and Hero-cults series (for more info see previous posts).


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