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Early states and hero cults: a re-appraisal

  • James Whitley (a1)


An interest in the Greek idea of the hero, and in the cults established in Greek states to historical or legendary figures endowed with this status, has for long been one of the chief concerns of research into Greek philology and religion. But it is only through the gradual accumulation of archaeological evidence of Geometric and Archaic date that the origins of ‘hero cults’ have begun to be seen as an historical problem requiring an historical explanation. The most recent general works on Geometric and Archaic Greece, by J. N. Coldstream, Anthony Snodgrass and François de Polignac, have long sections devoted to discussing the significance of hero cults, and general ‘pan-hellenic’ explanations have been offered for their occurrence. Whilst there may be much truth in their suggestions, such ‘pan-Hellenic’ explanations ignore important local differences in the archaeological and material manifestations of hero cults. These differences, I would argue, relate in part to the different paths that were taken in the formation and development of early states in Greece. I shall use as examples the two regions of Attica and the Argolid, two areas of Greece where differences both in the manifestations of hero cults and in the paths of social evolution can most easily be traced. Before embarking on a detailed comparison of the two areas however, some discussion of the other general explanations that have been put forward is in order.



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1 For example Farnell, L. R., Greek hero cults and of immortality (Oxford 1921); see also Gernet, L., The anthropology of Ancient Greece (Baltimore 1981) 68.

2 Coldstream, J. N., Geometric Greece (London 1977) 346–8; Snodgrass, A. M., Archaic Greece: the age of experiment (London 1980) 3840; Polignac, F. de, La naïssance de la cité grecque (Paris 1984) 127–51.

3 Blegen, C. W., ‘Post Mycenaean deposits chamber tombs’, Arch. Eph. c (1937) 377–90.

4 Cook, J. M., ‘The cult of Agamemnon at Mycenae’ Geras Antoniou Keramopoullou (Athens 1953) 112–18.

5 Coldstream, J. N., ‘Hero cults in the age of Homer’, JHS xcvi (1976) 817; see also Coldstream [n. 2] ibid.

6 For the Menelaion, see Wace, A. J. B., Thompson, M. S. and Droop, J. P., ‘Excavations of Sparta 6. The Menelaion’, BSA xv (1909) 108–57. There are only a very few dedicatory inscriptions from shrines presumed to be heroa whose series of votive deposits begins in the eighth century or earlier. One is the Polis cave in Ithaca, for which see Benton, S., ‘Excavations at Ithaca III’, BSA xxxv (1935) 4573, esp. pp. 54-5; another is a small altar close to the Zeus sanctuary on Mt Hymettus with dedications to Herakles; see Langdon, M. K., A sanctuary of Zeus on Mt Hymettus Hesperia Supplement xvi (Princeton 1976) 97–8. Few of the sites with dedications to named heroes bear any obvious archaeological relationship to the practice of placing offerings in Mycenaean tombs discussed in this article.

7 Cook, J. M.The Agamemnoneion’, BSA xlviii (1953) 3068; see also Cook [n. 2] above.

8 See Cook [n. 4] and Coldstream [n. 5] 9 and 14.

9 For burial customs see Coldstream [n. 5] 13-14. Snodgrass, A. M., The Dark Age of Greece (Edinburgh 1971) 140212 provides a useful summary of the evidence for burial customs in the various regions of Greece between 1100 and 700 BC. The eighth century evidence for the burial customs of Attica, the Argolid and Crete is more readily accessible in Coldstream [n. 2] 119-23 (Attica), 145-6 (the Argolid) and 276-7 (Crete).

10 See Schliemann, H., A narrative of researches and discoveries at Mycenae and Tiryns (London 1878) 115; and Jeffery, L. H., The local scripts of Archaic Greece (Oxford 1961) 174 n. 6 and plate 31.

11 For the funeral of Patroclus Iliad xxiii 249-57; of Hector Iliad xxiv 790-803. For burial customs see refs in [n. 9] above.

12 Iliad x 415; xi 166, 371-2; xxiv 349. For burial customs see refs in [n. 9] above.

13 Snodgrass, A. M., ‘Les origines du culte des héros dans la Grèce antique’, in Gnoli, G. and Vernant, J. P. (eds.) La mort, les morts dans les sociétés anciennes (Cambridge 1982) 89105, esp. pp. 107-8. See also Snodgrass [n. 2] ibid.

14 Berard, C., ‘Récupérer la mort du prince: heroïsation et formation de la cité’, in Gnoli, G. and Vernant, J. P. (eds.) La mort, les morts dans les sociétés anciennes (Cambridge 1982) 89105.

15 Snodgrass [n. 2] and [n. 13] above.

16 De Polignac [n. 2] above.

17 Berard, C., L'héroon à la porte de l'Ouest Eretria iii. (Berne 1970); see also Berard [n. 14] above. The large tenth-century BC building found at Lefkandi has been described by its excavators as a heroon, and the burial beneath as that of a hero; see Popham, M., Sackett, L. H. and Touloupa, E., ‘The hero of Lefkandi’, Antiquity lvi (1982) 169–74. This characterisation seems to me to be extremely unlikely, and indeed has not won general acceptance; see de Polignac [n. 2] 92 n. 146.

18 Hesiod Works and Days 654-9.

19 Snodgrass [n. 13] 114-16. The characterisation of Coldstream's explanation as ‘too archaeological’ is remembered from a conversation.

20 For the expansion of population, with indices, see Snodgrass [n. 2] 20-4 and Snodgrass, A. M., Archaeology and the rise of the Greek state (Cambridge 1977). More up-to-date figures, with useful comparisons with other regions, can be found in Morris, I. M.Burial and ancient society (Cambridge 1987) 156–9, fig. 54 and tables 12 and 13. For the ‘peasant agriculturalist’ hypothesis see Snodgrass [n. 13] 116-18 and [n. 2] 36-40.

21 For the tomb at Menidhi see Lolling, H. G., Das Kuppelgrab bei Menidi (Athens 1880). For the eighth and seventh century BC finds see Wolters, P.Vasen aus Menidi IIJdl xiv (1899) 103–35; Geometric krate pp. 110-11 and figs 18, 19 and 27; Protoattic kraters pp. 110-11 and figs 16, 17 and 28; clay votive shields p. 118 reand fig. 25. Hägg, R., ‘Gifts to the heroes in Geometric and Archaic Greece’, in Linders, T. and Nordquist, G. (eds.) Gifts to the Gods (Boreas xv, Uppsala 1987) 93–9 esp. 94-6 discusses the character of the finds from Menidhi. For the vase by Sophilos, and an inconclusive discussion of how the inscriptions are to be read see Wolters, P., ‘Vasen aus Menidi I’, Jdl xiii (1898) 1328.

22 For Thorikos see J. Bingen et al., Thorikos i. 1965 (Brussels 1965) 9-15.

23 For Aliki Glyphada see I. Papadimitriou, PAE 1955 78-99 esp. pp. 96-7 and plate 28e

24 See Iakovides, S., I Mikinaiki Akropolis (Athens 1962) 186 n. 361 for the ‘Submycenaean vases apparently indicating Dark Age cult. For early mention of Erechtheus and his House Iliad ii 546-56; Odyssey vii 81. Generally, see Coldstream [n. 5] 16 for a discussion of the question.

25 For the Academy, see P. D. Stavropoullos, PAE 1958 5-13 and Drerup, H., Griechische Baukunst in geometrischer Zeit (Archaeologia Homerica vol. O, Göttingen 1969) 31–2. See Snodgrass [n. 9] 398 and 439 n. 37 for further references.

26 An oval structure with a later Protoattic votive deposit was constructed over a Protogeometric child's grave in the Agora; see Burr, D., ‘A Geometric house and a Protoattic votive depositHesperia ii (1933) 542640. Burr thought this structure was simply a house, but Thompson, H., Hesperia xxxvii (1968) 5860 has reinterpreted it as an early shrine, dedicated to the cult of the dead, which most scholars now think more likely, Although the character of the finds from this Protoattic deposit is remarkably similar to that of those from Menidhi, this does not necessarily provide any grounds for its interpretation as a hero cult, since there is no real homogeneity in either the type or quantity of finds dedicated to heroes; see Hägg [n. 21] above 94-7 and 99. There is only one published Mycenaean grave from Athens where Dark Age remains have been found, but these appear to be associated with a later intrusive burial and not with cult; see Townsend, E. D., Hesperia xxiv (1955) 187219, esp. 200-1.

27 See G. E. Mylonas, PAE 1955 77-87, esp. pp. 81-6; and Mylonas, G. E., To dhitikon nekrotaphion tis Elefsinos (Athens 1975) vol ii. 153–4 and vol. iii plates lambda and 145b.

28 Mylonas, G. E., Eleusis and the Eleusinian Mysteries (Princeton 1961) 62–3; Pausanias i 39.2; Plutarch Theseus 29.4-5.

29 These figures are based on the number of known sites in Attica with graves with datable grave goods. This information cannot easily be summarised, although all the relevant evidence is listed in Morris [n. 20] Appendix 2 222-33. More detailed lists of the Attic grave evidence can be found in the following unpublished Ph.D. dissertations: Cavanagh, W. G., Attic burial customs 2000-700 BC (London 1977); Morris, I. M., Burial and society at Athens 1100-500 BC (Cambridge 1985); Whitley, A. J. M., Style, burial and society in Dark Age Greece (Cambridge 1986).

30 Coldstream [n. 2] 133-5; Snodgrass [n. 2] 23 and 35-6. This re-settlement hypothesis is based on archaeological evidence, not literary. The literary traditions concerning Theseus’ unification of Attica or early wars against an independent Eleusis are so confused that it is impossible by standard philological methods to tease out what truth they might have held. So, although recent discussions of this question by Diamant, S., ‘Theseus and the unification of Attica’ Studies in Attic epigraphy, history and topography presented to Eugene Vanderpool Hesperia Suppl. xix (Princeton 1982) 3850 and Simms, R. M., ‘Eumolpus and the wars of AthensGreek, Roman and Byzantine Studies xxiv (1983) 197208 have opted for a Dark Age or Geometric ‘synoecism’ I incline to the view that, insofar as they have any historicity at all, such stories refer to the Bronze Age.

The archaeological arguments in favour of the ‘resettlement’ hypothesis between the 10th and 8th centuries BC are: (1) the absence of any settlement outside Athens in Attica at the end of the Submycenaean period; (2) the remarkable similarity both in pot style and burial customs between finds from early 10th-9th century burials in Attica and those from Athens itself. Stylistic similarity is particularly evident in the designs on ninth-century belly-handled amphoras. Compare the vase illustrated in Mylonas [n. 28] plate 86 from Eleusis with contemporary examples from Athlished ens; see Kübler, K., Kerameikos v (Berlin 1954) plate 46 and Smithson, E. L., Hesperia xxxvii (1968) 77116, plate 20. For a fuller discussion see Whitley [n. 29] ioi-7and Greece 166-93.

31 This too is based on the evidence from datable grave assemblages, rather than from settlements, and is not easy to check. It is however sufficient to demonstrate continuity of occupation from Protogeometric times.

For Eleusis, see Arch. Eph. 1898 76-122; Arch. Eph. 1912 30-9; CVA Athens i plates 1-3; Mylonas [n. 28] plate 86; Mylonas [n. 27] To dhitikon nekrotaphion vols i, iiandiii, graves gamma 16, gamma 15, theta 23, gamma 11, gamma 10, gamma-zeta, gamma 43, theta 22 and lambda 2.

For Menidhi, see Kraiker, W. and Kübler, K., Kerameikos: Ergebnisse der Ausgrabungen i (Berlin 1939) 157 n. 1; CVA Heidelberg iii plate 103 [G52 and G78]; Arch. Anz. 1904 40; Only, D., Griechische Goldbleche des 8. Jahrhunderts v. Chr. (Berlin 1953) 12 and plate 24.

For Thorikos see Bingen et al. [n. 22] 28-9; Hesperia xxx (1961) 299304; Bingen, J. et al., Thorikos ii 1964 (Brussels 1967) 2634 and 33 n. 1; Bingen, J. et al., Thorikos iii 1965 (Brussels 1967) 43 and 45; Bingen, J. et al., Thorikos iv 1966/67 (Brussels 1969) 71101.

32 Anavyssos graves I and II; see Arch. Delt B Chronika xxi (1966) 97-8.

33 Eleusis: see CVA Athens i plates 1-3; Arch. Eph. 1898 76 122, especially pp. 103-7 for the Isis grave and p. 103 for grave alpha; see also Coldstream [n. 2] 78-80.

34 Menidhi: see Ohly [n. 31] Griechische Goldbleche 12 and plate 24; Arch. Anz. 1904 40.

35 Offerings in tombs in the Deiras cemetery: tomb v, Vollgraff, W., ‘Fouilles d'ArgosBCH xxviii (1904) 364–99, esp. pp. 366-7; tombs xiv and xvii, Deshayes, J., Argos: Les fouilles de la Deïras (Paris 1966) 215–19 and plates li, lii and lvii.

36 See Wace, A. J. B., ‘Excavations at Mycenae ix: The tholos tombs’, BSA xxv (1923) 283407: the tomb of Klytemnestra pp. 357-76 (see also Cook [n. 4] 114 n. 5 and Schliemann [n. 10] plates 20 and 21); the Kato Phournos tomb Wace pp. 320—5; the Lion tomb Wace p. 325-30; the Epano Phournos tomb Wace pp. 292-6, ut see also Wace, A. J. B., Hood, M. S. F. and Cook, J. M., ‘The Epano Phournos tombBSA xlviii (1953) 6783 esp. pp. 80-1.

37 For Grave Circle A, see Schliemann [n. 10] ibid and Jeffery [n. 10] ibid with references. For Grave Circle B see Mylonas, G. E., O taphikos kiklos B ton Mikinon (Athens 1973) 18, where a ‘kiklikon hieron’ of historical date is mentioned. There appear to have been no Archaic deposits directly over Grave Circle B, but a chamber tomb nearby attracted Late Geometric offerings, including a krater; see I. Papadimitriou, PAE 1952 470 fig. 35 and PAE 1953 208 n. 1.

38 See Wace [n. 36] BSA xxv (1923) 283-407. In addition to those already mentioned, these would include the Cyclopean tomb p. 292; the Panagia tomb pp. 316-20; and the tomb of the Genii pp. 376-87.

39 Wace, A. J. B., ‘Chamber tombs at Mycenae’, Archaeologia lxxxii (Oxford 1932); tomb 522 pp. 31-4; tomb 533 pp. 113-20.

40 Blegen [n. 3] and C. Blegen, W., Prosymna: the late helladic settlement preceding the Argive Heraeum (Cambridge 1937). Eleven tombs received later Geometric and Archaic offerings:

T. xix Prosymna 61;

T. xxv Prosymna 86-92 and Blegen [n. 3] 386;

T. xxvi Blegen [n. 3] 378;

T. xxxiv Prosymna 110-16 and Blegen [n. 3] figs 10 and 12;

T. xxviii Blegen [n. 3] 379 and fig. 2;

T. xl Prosymna 133-5;

T. xlix Prosymna 135-40 and Blegen [n. 3] 379;

T. l Prosymna 140-2 and Blegen [n. 3] 389 and fig. 14;

T. viii Prosymna 160-4 and Blegen [n. 3] 378 and figs 4, 5, 6 and 8;

T. ix Prosymna 164-6 and Blegen [n. 3] 378;

T. x Prosymna 197-200 and Blegen [n. 3] 380.

Tombs iii and xiii are also mentioned as having received Archaic offerings, but the evidence does not bear any scrutiny. Only tombs xix, xxvi, xxxiv, l, viii and x received bronze finds similar to those from the Argive Heraeum.

41 See Waldstein, C., The Argive Heraeum ii (Boston 1905) 191331 for the bronzes and 101-59 for the Geometric and Archaic pottery. See Hägg [n. 21] 93 for a further discussion of the character of the finds from both the tombs and the Heraeum.

42 Blegen, C. W., ‘Prosymna: Remains of postmycenaean date’, AJA xliii (1939) 410–44. For the shrine see pp. 410-27. Other possible votive Archaic material was found at ‘the bridge’ pp. 427-30; on the Acropolis pp. 430-7; and on the SW slope below the small sanctuary pp. 437-44.

43 The independence of Mycenae and Tiryns in the later Archaic period is shown by their willingness and their ability to contribute to the defence of Greece against the Persians while Argos stood aloof; Tiryns sent contingents to Plataea, and Mycenae sent a detachment to both Plataea and Thermopylae (Hdt vii 202; ix 29.4; ix 31.3). For this act of defiance both cities were destroyed by the Argives soon afterwards (Pausanias v 23.2-3; ii 16.5; ii 25.8). For the earlier Archaic period we lack literary testimony. But the construction of stone temples between 740-550 BC over the sites of former Mycenaean palaces at Mycenae and Tiryns argues for at least a degree of independence at this time; for Tiryns see Frickenhaus, A., ‘Die Hera von Tiryns’ Tiryns i (Athens 1912) 2107; for Mycenae see Wace, A. J. B., Mycenae: an archaeological history and guide (Princeton 1949) 84–6. Moreover, according to jeffery [n. 10] 149-50, the letter forms at Tiryns are decidedly un-Argive. Even if this does not prove the independence of these communities, those scholars who wish to see both Tiryns and Mycenae as perioecic communities, dependencies of Argos, before Kleomenes’ invasion of 494 BC (Hdt. vi 74-84) would still have to agree that the political structure of Argos and that of Attica were very different in the Archaic period.

44 See Courbin, P., ‘Une tombe géométrique d'Argos’, BCH lxxxi (1957) 322–86 and Snodgrass, A. M., Early Creek armour and weapons (Edinburgh 1964) 200.

45 Coldsteam [n. 2] 152-4. This event is recorded by Pausanias (ii 36.4-5; iii 7.4; iv 8.3; iv 14.3). See also Frödin, O. and Persson, A. W., Asine: Results of the Swedish excavations 1922-1930 (Stockholm 1938) 312–33 and 437.

46 It might be thought that recent French scholarship had overturned the notion that Archaic Athens was organised along either ‘tribal’ lines or along lines of kin-groupings. Insofar as the belief that later, Classical institutions such as the phratry, genos and phylai were ‘Archaic survivals’ which had persisted into the Classical cornperiod has been shattered by the work of Bourriot, F., Recherches sur la nature du gènos (Lille 1976) and Roussel, D., Tribu et cité (Paris 1976), this statement is correct. However what these scholars have indirectly underlined is the importance of the language of kinship in maintaining the sense of unity, the corporate identity of a state the size of Classical Athens, although the groups so designated were not in fact kinship groups at all. Nonetheless it appears that Classical Athens, which stood as the paradigm for rational democratic republican politics for modern generations, was sustained in part by an ideology (and a fiction) of a solidarity of blood.

47 See Snodgrass [n. 2] 22-4.

48 This generalisation is derived largely from the evidence provided by Hägg, R., Die Gräber der Argolis i (Boreas 7.1, Uppsala 1974) 1317. Recent work by the Germans at Tiryns and the Swedes at Asine, for example Wells, B., Asine ii. Fasc 4 (Stockholm 1983) has supported rather than undermined the impression of greater continuity in settlement in the Argolid cornperiod pared with Attica. Lerna and the Heraeum were the only new sites in the eighth-century Argolid; Dendra and Berbati may be earlier.

49 See n. 43 and n. 45 above and Hägg [n. 48].

50 See n. 43 and n. 45 above.

51 De Polignac [n. 2] 41-92.

52 De Polignac [n. 2] 41-92 and 153-7.

53 It would be difficult to explain the role of the douloi mentioned in Hdt. vi 83 unless we see them as agricultural serfs. I owe this reference to Anthony Snodgrass who now feels ‘much less convinced’ by his hypothesis of hero cults being instituted by a free peasantry.

54 See Cook [n. 4] and [n. 7] above.

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Early states and hero cults: a re-appraisal

  • James Whitley (a1)


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