Heroes and Demigods

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Heroes and Demigods

The Age of the Heroes.

The myth of the "Five Ages of Man" in Hesiod's The Works and Days was borrowed from the mythology of the Middle East. The Middle Eastern version, however, told of only four ages: a blessed Golden Age, followed by a lesser Silver Age which was in turn followed by a Bronze Age, and finally the age of the present day, the Age of Iron. The Greek adaptation inserted a fifth age between the Age of Bronze and the Age of Iron: the age of the heroes and of heroines. These were the men and women who peopled Greek mythology and lived within a mythological time frame. Some were warriors—such as Odysseus, Agamemnon, and Menelaus, who fought at Troy in the Trojan War—or movers-and-shakers of the mythic past, such as Helen of Troy. Theseus, who was the special hero of Athens, killed the Minotaur at Knossos on Crete, and then became king of Athens. He performed heroic deeds that rivalled the famous Twelve Labors of Heracles. Heracles, the superman of mythology, performed not only his Twelve Labors—incredible feats of strength done in penance for killing his family in a fit of insanity—but he was credited with various other deeds as well which only a man of incredible strength and virility could perform. The Dorian Greeks who settled in the Peloponnesos after the collapse of the Mycenaean kingdoms considered him their ancestor and called themselves Herakleidai or "offspring of Heracles." The kings of the Spartans, who were Dorians par excellence, had pedigrees that went back to Heracles.


The heroes were not gods, though they might be called hemitheoi meaning "half-gods" or demigods. After death, they lived in the Underworld, not on Mt. Olympus, and as a general rule, no temples were built to heroes. Instead, the hero's tomb became a heroon or "hero-shrine," where the heroes were worshipped as if they were chthonian powers, that is, spirits of the earth, the nether world. Sacrificial animals with black hides were sacrificed to them after daylight had faded, at night or in the evening. The blood from the sacrificial victims was poured into a trench so that it would trickle down into the earth and feed the spirit, or shade, of the hero. A god would have a sacrifice made to him on a high altar (bomos), whereas a hero had an eskhara, which was a low, round altar though—as is frequently the case in Greco-Roman religious practices—there were exceptions to the rule. Heroes were generally tied to a specific locality, for most of them had only one tomb. They were usually barely known outside the region where they were worshipped. Only the great international heroes such as Heracles, Theseus, Perseus, Jason and Medea, and the heroes of the Trojan War were famous all across Greece, and that was because there were innumerable myths told about them. Every storyteller felt free to embellish the old tales about them, and more than one place might claim to possess their bones. Heracles in particular had myths connecting him with localities all over the Mediterranean world, but he was a super-hero. Most heroes were hometown men, and their cults have puzzled historians of religion. There have been efforts to explain them as half-forgotten gods—"faded gods" is the term used, with the implication that gods can grow dim with time, rather like a slow-motion "fadeout" in a movie—or old vegetation gods, or simply men or women of the past who were remarkable for their great deeds, rather like Christian saints. One common explanation was that when a great man died, offerings were made at his tomb which developed over the course of time into a heroon. Thus a heroon on the site of a Mycenaean tomb showed that the memory of the Mycenaean warrior buried there lasted into the classical period. Archaeological evidence refutes this idea, however. The hero-shrines date from the eighth century b.c.e. Between about 750 b.c.e. and 700 b.c.e., tombs from the Mycenaean era which were discovered—probably accidentally in most cases—were given new importance as the burial places of heroes, and offerings were made there. The Greeks of the eighth century b.c.e. probably had no idea who the original occupants of these tombs were any more than scholars of the twenty-first century do, but they did know that their local hero should have had a burial somewhere in the vicinity of the Mycenaean tomb. So to whom else could the tomb belong? The logic was irrefutable. Thus a prehistoric tomb belonging to persons unknown, but suitably ancient, could become the site of a hero cult.

Hero Cults and the Rise of the Polis.

The eighth century b.c.e. was the period when the poleis or city-states of Greece were developing and marking out their territories, and the hero-cults which arose at the same time were connected with this development. A legitimate polis had a hero, or perhaps more than one. The bones of a hero served to preserve and sanction a polis in much the same way as the relics of a saint might preserve a community in the Christian Middle Ages. The Greek historian Herodotus, whose Histories was published about 425 b.c.e., told how Sparta, which had been fighting the polis of Tegea in Arcadia for many years without success, consulted the oracle at Delphi and was told to bring home the bones of Orestes, the son of King Agamemnon, who commanded the Greek coalition in the Trojan War. When the Spartans asked where the bones of Orestes lay, the reply was that they were where two winds were blowing and iron smote iron. The Spartans were baffled and may not have been able to solve the riddle except that one day, a Spartan, taking advantage of a lull in the hostilities, visited a smithy in Tegea. The blacksmith there told him that when he was digging a well in his courtyard, he came across a huge coffin with a corpse inside. The great size of the bones showed that they belonged to the Age of Heroes, so the smith reburied them. His Spartan visitor reasoned that these must be the mortal remains of Orestes, for the two winds were the smith's bellows and the iron that smote iron was the smith's hammer striking his anvil. The Spartans tricked the smith into selling his courtyard and found the bones, and once these presumed relics of Orestes were in Sparta, she thereafter always had the better of her enemies until finally she managed to dominate the Peloponnesos.

Theseus and Athenian Politics.

The hero Theseus served Athens in a similar way. In his old age Theseus was banished from Athens, and went to the island of Skyros in the northern Aegean Sea. There the king of Skyros murdered him. About 475 b.c.e., the Athenian general Cimon, who was a shrewd politician as well as a good military officer, was campaigning in the area and on Skyros he unearthed huge bones. A cynic might suggest that they were dinosaur fossils and that Cimon did not find them entirely by accident. But their size seemed to prove that they belonged to the Age of Heroes, and it was easy to arrive at the conclusion that they had to belong to Theseus. Cimon carried them back to Athens, and his pious deed brought him more acclaim than any of the many victories he won. A heroon was built for Theseus in the marketplace of Athens. A festival was established for him, and the makers of myth—poets and dramatists—developed him into the founder-hero of the Athenian city-state and the patron of democracy.

The Hero in Historical Time.

Not all heroes belonged to the Heroic Age. Some were historical figures. Beginning in the mid-eighth century b.c.e., and for the next two and a half centuries, the Greeks planted colonies in the western Mediterranean region, and in the north Aegean and Black Sea area. Careful planning usually went into the planting of colonies in new and often strange lands. An oikistes—the word has been anglicized as "oecist"—was appointed to head the colonial expedition. The oecist saw to it that a new home far away from the homeland of his colonists was established in an orderly fashion for them. When he died, a heroon would be built for him in the marketplace of the new city he had founded and sacrifices would be offered to his remains. Other great men might also be revered as heroes. At Olympia, where the Olympic Games were held, a heroon was built for King Philip II of Macedon, the father of Alexander the Great. The cult of heroes made it easy for the Greeks to believe that kings possessed a kind of divinity, and thus it need not surprise us to find divine kings who received worship in the Greek world after Alexander the Great's death. Within a couple generations of his death, the Hellenistic kings who had carved kingdoms for themselves out of Alexander's conquests, declared, first, the founders of their realms divine, and then themselves, too. From these divine kingships of the East, the idea passed to Rome. The Roman senate decreed that Julius Caesar became divus (divine) after he was assassinated in 44 b.c.e., as was the first emperor, Imperator Caesar Augustus, to give him his official name. Although the worship of dead emperors was an accepted practice, the worship of a living emperor met resistance within Rome itself; neither Augustus nor his successor Tiberius liked the idea, for Roman customs had no place for deified kings, and both Augustus and Tiberius were conservative in matters of religion. Yet outside Rome, the acceptance of living emperors as gods encountered little resistance and soon the cult of the emperors, living and dead, became an important instrument for legitimizing imperial rule.

Nameless Divine Forces.

The Greeks recognized another category of divine force as well which had the power to interfere in human affairs. These were the daimones—in singular form daimon—who were not worshipped with offerings as the heroes were. The English word "demon" comes from daimon, but while the Western concept of demons generally refers to unpleasant supernatural forces, the Greek daimones might be either malevolent or benign. They governed the impulses that moved men to action, or perhaps inaction. In the Hellenistic world after Alexander the Great, the daimones were often regarded as guardian spirits that looked after mortal men. They existed on the periphery of religious practices. They had no festivals or organized cults.

Deified Abstractions.

Perhaps the logic which the Greeks applied to nameless forces called daimones also applied to personifications of abstract entities such as "Peace," "Wealth," or "Luck." In the fourth century b.c.e., the sculptor Kephisodotos made a statue for Athens of Eirene ("Peace") holding the infant "Wealth" in her arms. He treated Eirene as a goddess, the personification of the spirit of peace. The boundary between an abstract entity and a divinity was easy to cross. Thus it is clear that "Luck" or "Fortune"—in Greek, tyche—was treated as a goddess. In the Hellenistic world, when faith in the power of the Olympian deities grew more problematic, tyche became a popular goddess in whom cities might put their faith, and they erected statues showing her as a woman wearing a model of a city's fortification walls as her crown. In a society where "Fortune" seemed to play an increasingly important role, it was important for a city to cherish its tyche. If "Fortune" was in a good mood, she might forget to be blind, and bestow good luck on her city.


Carla Maria Antonacci, An Archaeology of Ancestors: Tomb Cult and Hero Cult in Early Greece (Lanham, Md.: Rowman and Littlefield, 1995).

Claude Calame, Thésée et l'imaginaire athénien: légende et culte en Grèce antique (Lausanne: Editions Payot, 1990).

Jennifer Larson, Greek Heroine Cults (Madison, Wisc.: University of Wisconsin Press, 1995).

Deborah Lyons, Gender and Immortality: Heroines in Ancient Greek Myth and Cult (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1987).