THE HEROINE CULTS OF ANCIENT GREECE
“They say that there is a shrine also of the heroine Iphigenia…Hesiod, in his Catalogue of Women, says that Iphigenia did not die, but by the will of Artemis became Hecate.”
-from Pausanias’s Description of Greece, vol. 1, trans. with a commentary by James George Frazer (1898).
To the Ancient Greeks, heroes and heroines were exalted beings—a genus—as it were, of humans magnified to the umpteenth power. Their ranks included some of the most well-known figures in classical mythology; Heracles, Theseus, Alcmene, Ariadne—the list went on and on. All members of this superlative “club” endured great travail, but only a select few could boast of divine parentage. These were the mythic godlings of epic and tragicomedic writers like Homer and Euripides. Those who lacked ichor-blooded progenitors had to forge their own path alongside their immortal counterparts.They were persecuted, abused, and debased before the world. They struggled against all the elemental forces the Moirai cast at them and either surmounted their foes or perished in the process. Among this group of fate-treading mortals were the local heroines venerated by devotees in polities and city-states across the Greek Isles.
Iphigenia. Art by Max Nonnenbruch. Photogravure via Internet Archive.
The story of these multifaceted women and their corresponding religious cults is the subject of Greek Heroine Cults, a fascinating study by Professor Jennifer Larson. We caught up with Professor Larson to gain a better understanding of heroine worship in Ancient Greece and its place in everyday societal relationships.
The Custodian: What qualified someone as a heroine? Did heroine “origin stories” generally follow a specific narrative pattern?
Professor Jennifer Larson: From early in the Iron Age, the Greeks worshiped certain dead people in a sporadic way, without having a name (so far as we know) for this religious category, or a fixed mode of offering. We know that these powerful dead included warrior-chieftains, city founders, and recently-deceased ancestors, but there may also have been cults for legendary people and harmful dead who were similar to ghosts. By the sixth century, some of these practices coalesced into a “cult of heroes”, which involved the worship of the men and women who figured in the traditional tales of each Greek region and city (“cult” in this sense is a technical term for organised worship, with no negative connotations). Such a man was called herōs, and a woman hērōinē or hērōissa. Odysseus, Agamemnon, Menelaus, and Oedipus all had cults. Although cult heroines were less common, they include many of the heroines familiar from Greek myths, like Penelope, Ariadne, Alcmene (the mother of Heracles), and Iphigenia (the daughter of Agamemnon).
Most cult heroines, however, figured in local myths rather than the grand epic tales. An example is Antinoë, a woman who was guided by a snake to establish the site for the Arcadian city of Mantinea. In the second century CE, the traveller Pausanias wrote about seeing her tomb in the city, a round stone which the people called the Public Hearth. Still other heroines never had names at all, but were simply known as “the heroine on the plain”, or “the heroines near the property of Kalliphanes”.
Penelope, wife of Odysseus and (in Arcadian tradition) the mother of Pan. Art by Patten Wilson. Photogravure via Internet Archive.
There were no systematic selection criteria for heroines (or heroes); the cults sprang up spontaneously as a kind of folklore, although many of them were adopted as public cults, meaning that the town or polis undertook to fund the annual offerings. Still, certain narrative patterns are regularly associated with heroine cults. A very common one is the story of a girl who is impregnated by a god, and persecuted (often by her own relatives) as a result of her pregnancy. She usually has to abandon the baby, who is then adopted by someone else. The great Swiss scholar Walter Burkert called this storyline “the girl’s tragedy”. Sometimes the girl dies, like Alope, the mother of the Attic hero Hippothoön, who was killed by her own father. Koronis, the mother of Asclepius, and Kallisto, the mother of the Arcadian hero Arcas, were both shot with arrows by Artemis. In other cases, the heroic son grows up and is reunited with his mother. The twin sons of Antiope by Zeus were the Theban heroes Amphion and Zethus. When these twins reached adulthood, they rescued their mother from persecution by a rival named Dirce (who had her own cult). The cults of these heroines were usually associated in one way or another with those of their sons—in the festival calendar, or spatially, by means of neighbouring tombs.
Ariadne. Image via Internet Archive.
Another common storyline was that of the sacrificial virgin. This was a popular tale type in Attica, the territory of Athens. The narrative usually begins with an oracle saying that a maiden must be sacrificed in order to win a war or end a plague. Sometimes the virgin is a willing sacrifice, and sometimes not. The daughters of an early Athenian king, Erechtheus, were voluntarily sacrificed in order to gain victory in the war against Eleusis. The same story is told about one of king Cecrops’ daughters, Aglauros, and the young men of Athens took their citizenship oaths at her sanctuary on the Acropolis, demonstrating similar loyalty.
Iphigenia, the daughter of Agamemnon, was sacrificed against her will in order to appease the anger of Artemis and restore the winds needed to carry the Greek armies to Troy. She was worshiped in a sanctuary of Artemis at Brauron, in Attica, and elsewhere. (No such human sacrifices are known from the historical record, although there is limited evidence for ritual killings in the archaeological records of the Bronze Age through the tenth century.)
Mercury Changes Aglauros to Stone, from the Story of Mercury and Herse. Tapestry design attributed to Giovanni Battista Lodi da Cremona. Image via The Metropolitan Museum of Art.
A third story pattern is the wrongful death of the heroine. According to legend, some Spartans once raped and murdered a group of sisters who lived in Leuktra near Thebes, then threw their bodies into a well. Their father Skedasos, unable to hold the Spartans to account, killed himself at their tomb. Years later, the Thebans were preparing for battle with Sparta. The Theban commander, Pelopidas, had a dream in which he was directed to sacrifice a white colt to the girls. As a result, he defeated the Spartans and avenged the “Leuktrides”, as they were called. It is easy to see how a story like this could arise after the fact, to explain why the supposedly invincible Spartans suffered such a crushing loss.
C: How did the varying classes of Greeks view their semi-divine compatriots? For example, did aristocrats hope to one day achieve apotheosis–or were they convinced that such a possibility was restricted to the “Age of Heroes”?
J: The Greeks distinguished ritually between cult honours paid to the denizens of the earth and underworld (the dead, heroes/heroines, and underworld gods), and cult honours paid to deities (such as the Olympian gods) who were thought to reside in the upper world and heaven. The distinctions were sometimes subtle, but (to generalise) underworld beings tended to receive more libations, especially of blood from sacrificial animals, and the meat from animal sacrifices was less often consumed by the participants in the ritual for underworld beings (instead, all or part of the meat would be burned).
These procedures were derived from somber funerary ritual, and can be contrasted with the joyous feasting characteristic of sacrifices for the “upper” gods. From early times, founders and warrior chieftains might expect to be honoured this way after their deaths, and there were sporadic instances of what we might call “ancestor cult”. As the Greek polis system developed, cults were established for local heroes, who then could act as “ancestors” for the community as a whole. Still, we find historical tyrants aspiring to this type of recognition during the Classical period, and athletes being worshiped after their deaths. They were not regarded as gods, however, but as dead men who happened to retain the ability to act in the world.
Athena attacking a giant. Image via Internet Archive.
True apotheosis, and the apellation of theos (god), was reserved for only a tiny number of people. The most notable example is Heracles, the son of Zeus and a mortal woman, Alcmene. During the late seventh century, a new story about Heracles began to circulate: at the end of his life, Athena escorted him to heaven in a chariot, where he was accepted among the gods of Olympus and married Hera’s daughter Hebe (“Youth”). Around the same time, worship of Heracles as a full-blown god, with temples, statues, sacrifices and festivals, began to spread. Still, although Heracles was unquestionably a theos, there remained certain doubts about his status and questions about the proper mode of worship (Pindar calls him hērōs theos, “hero-god”). When Odysseus visits the underworld in the Odyssey (11.601-4), he sees the dead hero— or does he?
“And afterward I perceived mighty Heracles, his phantom, that is: for he himself, in the company of immortal gods, takes pleasure in the feast and has as his wife slender-ankled Hebe, the daughter of Great Zeus and gold-sandaled Hera.”
The Greek historian Herodotus claimed that some cities had dual cults of Herakles, one for sacrifice “as to a god”, and the other “as to a hero”. He attributed this oddity to the existence of two figures named Heracles, one an ancient Phoenician god, and the other a Greek hero.
Heracles and Ceryones. Image via Internet Archive.
Among women, the most famous case of “apotheosis” is the beautiful Helen, the daughter of Zeus and the cause of the Trojan War, although there is no equivalent story of her entry to Olympus. According to the Odyssey (4.561-9) the hero Menelaus would never die, but instead would live forever in a special place called Elysium, because Helen was his wife and he was therefore the son-in-law of Zeus. Helen was regarded as a goddess by many Greeks, particularly at Sparta, where she and Menelaus were worshiped in a sanctuary of their own. Still another example of female apotheosis is mentioned in the Odyssey (5.333-5), where Odysseus is rescued from drowning by “Ino Leucothea, who of old was a mortal of human speech, but now in the depths of the sea has acquired honour from the gods”. Ino had been a daughter of Cadmus, the founder of Thebes, but leapt into the sea in a fit of madness. There, instead of dying, she was transformed into a sea deity known as “the White Goddess”. Many cults were devoted to her throughout the Greek world, and in this respect she resembles Heracles.
Ino Leucothea rescuing Odysseus. Art by Friedrich Preller. Photogravure via Internet Archive.
In general, then, most people could not expect to be heroised, much less treated as gods, but there were exceptions for people regarded as especially blessed, skilled, or beautiful, those who seemed to measure up to the great men and women of the “Age of Heroes”. For the average person, ancient mystery cults (addressed below) also offered a tantalising hope of immortality. Another special case was the deification of dead and living kings and queens, starting with Alexander the Great, and continuing with his successors in the Hellenistic kingdoms.
C: Would it be fair to draw a comparison between the ritual worship of heroines and heroes at sanctuaries and the veneration of Christian saints in cathedrals?
J: This is a much-debated question. Superficially, there are many similarities between the veneration of Christian saints and the cults of heroes and heroines. First is their local character, and the folkloric elements emphasising the hero or saint’s protection for those living nearby. In both cases we find special attention to the tomb and relics. Most hero cults were attached to a “tomb”, marked by a mound or a stone monument; these might be remains from the Bronze Age, or other local landmarks. In several instances, the Greeks cherished what they believed were the relics of heroes, such as the ivory “shoulder” of the hero Pelops, displayed at Olympia, or the huge bones of the exiled Theseus, recovered from the island of Scyros and ceremoniously conveyed home to Athens (these were probably fossil bones).
Possession of such relics conferred the hero’s protection, and quarrels over ownership were not unusual. At least three cities claimed to possess the tomb of Heracles’ mother Alcmene, who was buried with her second husband, Aleus. In 379, the Spartans invaded Boeotia and opened the “tomb of Alcmene” in Haliartos, intending to remove her remains to Sparta. It is unclear whether they found bones, but the other contents of the tomb were a bronze bracelet, two pots filled with what seemed to be hardened earth, and a bronze tablet with unknown writing. Disasters and portents followed the violation of the tomb, and the heroised pair had to be propitiated.
There are significant theological differences, however, between Christian saints and heroes. Because Christianity is nominally monotheistic, saints are to be “venerated” rather than worshiped. Saints are also envisioned as mediator figures between humans and God, which was not the case with heroes and heroines. Finally, saints achieve this status because of their moral virtues and/or martyrdom. While narratives of the manner of death were important in the legends of both saints and heroes, the Greeks did not heroise people on the basis of moral excellence, but for a variety of other reasons, such as legendary status, power, talent, beauty, or uncanny manifestations after death.
Artemis. Image via Internet Archive.
C: Were heroines usually pledged or allied to a specific goddess such as Hekate?
J: Most heroines were not tied to a particular goddess, but there are several cases of heroines with special connections to Artemis and/or Hekate, both virgin goddesses. Originally these two deities were separate, but by the late Classical period, Hekate was sometimes described as the underworld aspect of Artemis. Artemis killed many young women in myth, while in real life, the deaths of unmarried girls and of women who died in childbirth were attributed to her. Perhaps the idea was that through her death and heroisation, a woman remained forever young and virgin like the goddess herself. A fragment of Hesiodic poetry states that Agamemnon’s daughter Iphigenia “became Hekate by the will of Artemis”, while another story says that Artemis brought Iphigenia to the White Isle, an Elysium-like place in the Black Sea. Artemis, meanwhile, took the surname Iphigenia. Another legend tells of Aspalis, a girl of Pthia in Thessaly, who hanged herself to escape being raped by a tyrant. Her body disappeared and was replaced by a statue, which stood in Artemis’ temple.
Selene or Luna, goddess of the moon. Image via Internet Archive.
Three-formed Hecate. Image via Internet Archive
C: Were nymphs and sirens sometimes considered to be heroines?
J: Generally speaking, heroines were dead women with a human genealogy and ties to man-made monuments, while nymphs were minor goddesses who inhabited the wild spaces and personified features of the landscape, such as springs, trees, and mountains. In practice, however, there was overlap between the two categories. Many heroines were connected with springs or wells. The heroine Dirke had a tomb at Thebes, but there was also a spring called Dirke. The same is true of Leukonoë, a heroine of Arkadia. Both heroines and nymphs were worshiped in anonymous groups, probably reflecting the cultural institution of group dances (“choruses”) of maidens.
A calendar of sacrifices from the Attic town of Thorikos mentions four distinct groups of this type: the Heroines of Thorikos; the Heroines of Hyperpedios; the Pylochian Heroines, and the Heroines of the Koroneians. Three of the four groups receive offerings together with a local hero who seems to represent a feature of the landscape. The sirens are a special case. According to legend, they were hybrid bird/women creatures who lured sailors to their deaths with their irresistible song, but after Odysseus heard their song and lived to tell the tale, they killed themselves. The perception that they were mortal seems to have made possible siren “tombs” and corresponding cults. A siren named Parthenope was worshiped by Greek colonists at Naples, and they held a gymnastic contest in her honour.
Pegasus with Nymphs. Image via Internet Archive.
C: Was there any overlap between heroine rites, mystery traditions, and divinatory practices?
J: Beginning with the Eleusinian Mysteries in the eighth or seventh century, the Greeks explored the possibility that with the aid of special rituals, they might gain access to a more “blessed” afterlife than the common run of mortals, who shared a dismal fate in Hades. Such cults were called “mysteries” because initiates were sworn to secrecy. During the sixth century, a new mystery cult devoted to Dionysus/Bacchus emerged, with a revisionist theology making the god the son of Persephone, queen of the dead (rather than the son of Semele, as Homer and Hesiod taught). Initiates were buried with tiny inscribed gold tablets, which functioned like passports and guides to the “blessed” regions of the underworld. Some of these groups promised that their adherents would rule in Hades “with the other heroes” or even “become a god instead of a mortal.” From excavation of the burials, the content of the tablets, and other evidence, we know that these mysteries were quite popular with women. So in a sense, these cults offered ordinary men and women a chance to share the “blessed” status of heroes and heroines, a privilege which had previously been reserved for various elites.
Persephone Enthroned. Image via Internet Archive.
C: Can you tell us a bit more about your current research and forthcoming publications?
J: Greek Heroine Cults was my first book, published in 1995. I followed it up with Greek Nymphs: Myth, Cult, Lore (2001), which explored another neglected aspect of Greek worship, paying particular attention to the emotional and erotic components cults of of the nymphs. Since then I have published other books and articles on ancient Greek religion, most recently Understanding Greek Religion: A Cognitive Approach (2016). In this work, I applied insights from an emergent discipline, the cognitive science of religion, to better understand phenomena like ritual reciprocity with the gods, divination, purity rites, sympathetic magic, and afterlife beliefs.
In my current research, I am continuing to explore the relationship between cognition and religion, particularly the way human cognitive structures help to shape religious beliefs and practices. For example, most humans share certain intuitive, implicit beliefs about what constitutes a “miracle”, and their expectations have an impact on which stories get reported and transmitted. A god’s healing of a stomach ailment is only mildly, if at all, “miraculous” enough to give rise to a legend, while restoration of an amputated limb seems to be a very extreme sort of miracle, rarely reported in healing cults. The most oft-reported kind of healing miracle exists in between these extremes, in cures which seem to heal irreversible conditions, while not wildly violating our expectations of natural law. For example, the miracle healings attributed to the Greek god Asclepios include many cures of paralysis, blindness, infertility, and (most amusingly) baldness, but only a few cures of the “unimpressive” or “extreme” types. If I am correct about the impact of shared intuition on the perception of miracles, patterns similar to this should be detectable in other healing cults across cultures.
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