Human or Superhuman: the Concept of Hero in  Ancient Greek Religion and/in Politics∗

The word hero appears in Greek language with a twofold meaning. On one hand it is used for denoting a divine being, who lived a mortal life, but after doing some great deed deserved to become god. On the other hand, the hero stands for great and brave warrior who is ready to give his life in order to gain immortal glory, and continue to live in the social sphere, in the memory of his descendants. Exactly this epic narrative survived and
was exploited many times, as a very convenient and useful pattern in constructing
the ideal of brave warrior, ready to die for his country when necessary.
I am going to requestion the relation between two meanings of the word hero, in order to get deeper insight in the meaning of this twofold term in the social and cultural context in which it appears, as a religious concept or as a narrative in war propaganda.

Hero Cult
When considering heroes in ancient Greece, it is necessary to point out the
difference between hero as a divine creature and hero as a brave warrior. In the first
case, the word hero used to denote a deceased person celebrated for some great
deeds, who, after death, became honored and praised on the grave for his supernatural
powers and influence on the living. The other type of the hero was a brave warrior
whose fame was sung in epic poetry, by the bards (ajevdoi). But let me begin with the type of hero that I mentioned first – the divine creature, whose cult was organized and formed in a sanctuary, at his tomb.
According to the archeological sources, traces of this cult appear in the post-Homeric time, since the tenth century, but they became particularly popular from the last quarter of the eighth century. It was then, that the practice of rediscovering old graves and attributing them to famous mythical heroes became widespread.
1 The specific type of a hero grave is known as a hJrw`/on and it consists of a special kind of precinct, where sacrifices and votive gifts used to be deposited.
Also, it usually used to have a special type of a tombstone and/or the altar. The boom of rediscovering hero graves and turning them into sanctuaries coincides with the appearing and development of the polis (city-state) in the 8th ct. Thus, it is possible to claim that the introduction of this cult was the result of change in the social life and new political organization. The argument in favor of this thesis should be also searched for in the character and function of heroes – namely, heroes were praised and divinized mortals meritorious mainly for the formation of the cities and  for bringing social order. Thus, the constitution of such cults was aimed at justifying and empowering political associating on the grounds of family nucleus and tribes. This leads to the conclusion that the crucial aspect for understanding the hero   cult is the relationship between religion and newly established social and political forms of organization.

Thousands of heroes existed in Greek religion, and this enormous number is related to the local character of their worship i.e. to the fact that each city was actually a state for itself, so called polis.
Let me turn roughly to the case of Athens. One among many heroes was Athenian hero Theseus famous for many heroic exploits (struggling and winning horrible enemies: killing of Minotaur – half-bull, half-human who lived in a maze in Crete, and to whom Athenians had to send 7 young men and 7 girls as victims;fighting with Centaurs; Hades’ origin, the abduction of Helen and many other deeds.). The Athenians believed that he was the first ruler who introduced democracy,who united all inhabitants of Athens, and who declared an Athens to be the capital.2 But, he was not the only Athenian hero. A special category of Athenian heroes were those who were believed to be the founders of Athenian tribes. Namely,Athenian polis consisted of ten tribes (filivai), to which (from the time of  Kleisthenes)its citizens were tied – neither by blood chains (as in former period) nor by
geographical criterion, but according to democratic idea of equality – all the people
from the city, inland and coast belonged to one of the tribes. All of these tribes had
their heroes founders (h{rw~ ejpwvnumo~) – Erechteus, Aigeus, Pandion, Leos,
Akamas, Oineus, Kerkops etc., and their function was to strengthen the feeling of
belonging to this tribe, through common mythical genealogy and through the cultic

Concerning its religious aspect, honors that heroes received were quite the same as those for the deceased. What is also important, and related to the dependence between politics and religion, is that the rise in the importance of certain individual graves from hero cults coincided with the decline in importance of the dead cult.3 Of course, it was not about the complete disappearance of the dead cult, since both family and political cults of the dead functioned as a kind of basis for society.
But, the formation of the hero cult was aimed at decreasing the importance of the
cult of the dead, and overtaking the power over this cult. As many researches on funeral
rituals and lamentation in ancient Greece pointed: the power over the dead meant the power over the living.4 In terms of this, one should understand also the efforts of the polis, and the newly developed mechanisms of Athenian democratic ideology to control family funeral practice by overtaking the funerals of the fallen solders and performing them publicly.5 However, this did not happen at once.
Namely, the newly established city-states needed fresh legislation for adaptation
of ritual practice around the dead and creation of new state religion. About the same time (VI-V ct. BC), all across Greek world, similar laws were introduced  aimed at limiting and controlling women’s behavior at the funerals. The famous legislator of Athens, Solon introduced measurements aimed at reducing the number of women relatives allowed to participate funerals. The wake was moved from the graveyard to the house, while the procession at the grave had to be finished by the sunrise so as not to disturb public peace. Apart from that, during procession (e[kfora), which was actually the central part of the ritual, women were not allowed to go in front of the men, but behind them, while the right to attend the wake had only women older than sixty and the closest kin.6 These laws also regulated the manner in which speaking about the dead was allowed and were aimed at forbidding the blood feud.7 Newly required postulates of the funeral were general modesty
in behavior and sacrifices, and as much quietness as possible. All pomp, luxury and wealth that was once characteristic for the dead cult, were transferred from the funeral rituals into the cult of the hero. Namely, as Emily Vermeule states for the pre-Solonian period “a good funeral has always been a lot of fun, a reunion stirring open emotions and bringing news to exchange, the periodic intersection to the family, the clan and the city.”8 The consequence of this change was reducing the importance of the private funerals and of the graveyard as a public space, where words said in the moments of crisis had very severe and penetrating influence on public and political decisions (after all, graveyards have always been the places where the decisions about the blood revenge were taken),9 at the expense of raising the importance of the hero cult, which was a political invention that facilitated social transformation through the change and by the support of the religious cults.

One more evidence that point to the diminishing and the control over the
dead cult and the rise of the hero cult, was a remarkable decrease in the number of
individual tombstones of the fifth century Athens. The monumental tombstones
were more frequently built by the city-state and their role was no longer to glorify
an individual, but the collective; the same as the hero cult, public funerals praised
and eulogized abstract and anonymous men ([Andre~) collectively, becoming the
means for manipulation and creation of the common political ideal.10 But this is actually
going to be the topic of my next chapter.
The question that imposes further is whether the hero cult developed from
the cult of the dead, or not. One of the ways to answer this is to examine the parallels
between those two cults that are numerous. Both cults have very similar ritual
patterns: sacrificing of animals, food (crops), libation, but also weeping and lamentation.
11 Once a year, there was a festivity when a hero received offerings for the
dead – ejnagivsmata. The same case is with the feast that appears in identical form
in the both contexts (although becoming more modest in the funerals and more and
more luxurious in the context of the cult of the hero). Furthermore, there are some
elements of ritual praxis that disappeared from the cult of the dead, becoming incorporated  in the hero cult. Such is the case of agones, funeral contests (sports
competitions), which used to be performed at the last stage of the funeral of noble
men. Agon, as a part of the funeral praxis, appears all up to the Classical period.
However, it is possible to notice its decline in the context of funerals from the seventh
century onwards, which coincides with a time when it became common in the
individual sanctuaries of heroes. Gradually becoming related exclusively to the hero
cult, these games are usually associated in mythology with descriptions of the first
occasion of celebration and competitions, which afterwards continued to be organized
periodically. The local character of such games is not surprising, if we have in mind the great importance of the cohesive function of the hero cult in the political life of polis. Furthermore, the political organization of ancient Greece was such that all city-states were independent (though sometimes they were making political alliances),
while the feeling of belonging to the Greek world (similar to some kind of notion of Greek nation in contemporary terms)12 did not exist. Therefore, it is not surprising that only four of such agones were Pan-Hellenic: famous up till nowadays the Olympic, Pythian, Isthmian and Nemean games.
Numerous parallels with the cult of the dead thus point to the conclusion  that the hero cult represents a continuation of the cult of the dead (although not ordinary ones, but those of appreciated and powerful noblemen), which was very energetically defended by Martin Nilsson.13 The fact that supports this hypothesis is that before the heroization period, the dead used to be considered as divine. Even in tragedies we find the traces of the idea about this concept:
“For those who are not dead must revere the god below by paying honor to the dead.”14
However, Walter Burkert points out the differences between the ancestor and the hero cult, claiming that worship of heroes is directly derived from the influence of the epic poetry that flourished at a time.15 Although relation between famous epic heroes and hero cult of the glorious mortals is essential, the hero cult might not be just a later invention, influenced exclusively by oral tradition. Even though the hero cult is not an ancestry cult in terms of the fact that it is not grounded on the chain of blood across generations, the social function of two cults  is the same – the reinforcement of the social order and a religious justification of group solidarity guaranteed by the divinized dead. Exactly because the importance of blood ties is pushed into the background, another criterion turned out to be important for establishing relations with the common ancestor, and that are his merits
for the foundation of the politically organized community.

Thus, the fact that the city-state wanted to diminish the power and the influence of the private cults, and especially the cult of the dead in different ways (introducing e.g. All Souls day on a specific date for all the dead, instead of previous luxurious celebrations of the anniversary of the death celebrated as an individual holiday; the laws concerning limitation
of the behavior at the funerals), as well as numerous similarities in the religious
practice in the two cults, speak in favor of the argument that the cult of the hero did
develop from the cult of dead and with the idea to replace it, at least partially.
So, heroes were mortals who became immortals after death, while their  new home and their shrine was a tomb – the Earth’s womb. At the same time heroes  are close to the dead and to the chthonic gods. Actually it is what they are – divinized dead. The specificity that is born out of this is the main difference between  heroes and gods. Namely, Greeks believed that gods lived far from people, unlike heroes who were always close and therefore able to give support whenever it was necessary. They helped in healing or supporting the soldiers and cities in the critical moments during the battles; they were also famous as founders of city-states, they gave prophecies (the same as the souls of the dead) and they were responsible for the fertility of the soil. Very often the cult of Christian saints is, due to continuity and many structural parallels, related to the cult of heroes. The same as heroes, saints are mortals who gained their honor after their death due to some merits. Although neither heroes, nor saints are gods, they have some kind of divine power and may influence people lives.16 The same as behind heroes, behind Christian saints often lay mythical figures that underwent the process of dethronement.17


Lada Stevanović

∗ This paper is a part of the project 147020: Serbia in between traditionalism and modernization –ethnological and anthropological studies of cultural processes, financed by the Serbian Ministry of Science and Technological Development.


1 This was the case of the Grave of the Seven against Thebes. Paus. 1.39.2, Plut. Thes. 29 The grave of Amphion at Thebes. Walter Burkert, Greek Religion, Harvard University Press, 1985,203 cf. 5.
2 Thuc. II, 15. Cic., Leg. , II 5; Plut., Thes. 24.

3 Burkert 1985, 204.
4 Margaret Alexiou, The Ritual Lament in Greek Tradition, Rowman&Littlefield, Oxford 2002,Gail Holst-Warhaft, Dangerous Voices: Women’s Lament and Greek Literature, T J Press Ltd,Patsdow, Cornwall 1995. Nicole Loraux, The Inventions of Athens, The Funeral Oration in the  Classical City, Cambridge, Harvard UP, 1986.
5 Thucidides, Historiae 2, 34.
6 Demosthenes, Against Macartatus 43. 62. This is testified also by texts from Aeschylus’s
Choephoroi 430, 8; Diodorus 11,38; However, the word this word often refers to denote whole ceremony.
7 Plut. Solon 21. 1; “Mourning leads to cursing”, Nicole Loraux, Mothers in Mourning, translated in English by Corinne Pache, Cornell University Press 1998, 5.
8 Emily Vermeule, Aspects of Death in Early Greek Art and Poetry, University of California Press, Berkley 1979, 3.

9 Loraux 1998, 33. Unlike Greek lament that was restricted by the laws to the household, mourning of Roman women was incorporated in public display, but within and under the control of civic ideology. Unlike in the Roman time when family became essential basis of the civic life, the Greek city-states (polises) treated family as a nucleus of the clan (aristocratic) system that they were trying to reject and transform.
10 Ian Morris, Death Ritual and Social Structure in Classical Antiquity, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge 1992, 131. Renewed, but not completely the same, the boom of the hero cult happened in the Hellenistic time. Unlike the formation of the hero cult in the eight ct. and onwards,which was invented and instrumentalized by the city-state, the spread of hero cults appeared as a popular praxis of mourners who presented ordinary dead as heroes, and impact of this was reducing the importance of many heroes who used to be important before. OCD s.v. hero
11 Diodorus Siculus 16. 20. 6 cf. Burkert 1985, 205.

12 After all, the concept of nation did not appear in Europe before 19th century.
13 Martin Nilssоn, A History of Greek Religion, Oxford 1952, 104.
14 toi`~ ga;r qanou`si crh; to;n ouj teqnhkovta
tima;~ didovnta cqovnion eujsebei`n qeovn. Euripides, Phoenissae, 1321-2. Greek text ed. Gilbert Murray, English translation E. P. Coleridge, http://www.perseus.tufts.edu
15 Walter Burkert, Greek Religion, Harvard University Press 1985, 204.

16 However, in the Christian saint cult it is possible to recognize not only heroes, but also old pagan divinities and cults they had in pre-Christian time.
17 Burkert 1985, 205.

SOURCE  Institute of Etnography, SASA, Belgrade

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