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Heroön

Source:
The Grove Encyclopedia of Classical Art and Architecture
Author(s):
Gordon Campbell

Heroön [pl. heroa]. 

Monument or sanctuary, of any form or size, used in the ancient Greek world for celebrating hero cults. Heroa abounded in the countryside and in town centres, in agoras, on acropoleis and in large sanctuaries. They were centres of extremely popular cults, usually local, which were one of the most lively aspects of Greek religion. Heroes were considered to be intermediary spirits between the gods and man, and there were innumerable different cults, each city having its own. For Athens alone, at the end of the 6th century bc, Kleisthenes had proposed to the oracle at Delphi a list of 100 names. From among these the Pythian priestess picked out at random those of ten ‘eponymous heroes’, who bore the names of the new Attic tribes. Some heroes, however, did not have proper names and were known only by the efficacy of their interventions: for example the ‘doctor hero’ (Iatros) at Rhamnous, the ‘guardian hero’ (Phylakos) at Delphi and the ‘saviour hero’ (Sosipolis) at Olympia. Most often the hero was an actual or presumed historical figure, having a recognized place in society and endowed with superhuman powers through the brilliance of his gifts: he might be an athlete (Theogenes of Thasos), poet (Archilochos of Paros), founder of the city (Theseus at Athens, Anios at Delos), legislator (Lykourgos at Sparta) or soldier (Brasidas at Amphipolis). Each city hoped, through an appropriate cult, to capture after the hero’s death the beneficial, semi-divine influence he had exercised while alive, and sometimes to dispel the evil influence of a vengeful hero by funerary honours. For example, at Temesa in southern Italy a drunken sailor who had raped a virgin was stoned to death and left unburied by the furious population, and at Delphi the inhabitants killed Neoptolemos in the Sanctuary of Apollo after a sordid quarrel: both these impieties unleashed plagues that ceased only when the two victims, though hardly ‘heroic’, were honoured by a Heroön.

Many heroa were located in the agora of a city, where the protection they conferred appears to have been particularly desirable. Such heroa include the tombs of founders (e.g. Battos at Cyrene) or benefactors (Themistokles at Magnesia on the Maeander); the statues of the ten ‘eponymous heroes’ and of Harmodios and Aristogeiton (at Athens); the cenotaph of Glaukos, Leptines’ son, who died in combat; and the altar and receptacle for dedications to Theogenes on Thasos. Sometimes the hero was even interred in the city’s bouleuterion, where important political decisions were taken (for example the hero Aisymnos at Megara, and the anonymous hero whose monumental tomb was next to the bouleuterion of Miletos). In this way, the close link between the cult of the hero and the life of the city was evident.

Heroa of different dates have been found throughout the Greek world: an early example is the Dark Age Heroön at Lefkandi (early 10th century bc). A later example exists at Kalydon. A heroön often took the form of a sekos (sanctuary enclosed by a wall) near the entrance to the city. This area might contain the hero’s tomb (e.g. Eretria), a sacred grove, and an eschara (low altar) for the sacrifices associated with chthonic rites. At Temesa, in the sailor’s heroön, there was a shrine surrounded by wild olive trees. At Delphi, Neoptolemos’ sekos contained a sacred grove, an altar of ashes and the hero’s tomb, on which the Delphians celebrated important rites and sacrifices. At Olympia the Pelopion, the heroön of the legendary founder, Pelops, contained a raised mound marking the hero’s tomb, an altar, trees and statues, within a hexagonal enclosure with a Doric porch. At Athens, between the Agora and the Acropolis was the heroön of Theseus, a place of lawful asylum and the setting for stately ceremonies, adorned on its sekos with paintings by Mikon, which were probably protected by a peristyle. The best-preserved heroön of this type, the ‘Archegeseion’, was excavated on Delos. This was the sanctuary of the archegetes (founder) hero, Anios, and only admitted inhabitants of Delos. An open porch in the sekos led to a flagged courtyard surrounded by a peristyle with the eschara in the middle. Statues, various offerings and a series of rooms (possibly for funerary banquets) completed the heroön. It is further worth recalling that at Athens Plato and Aristotle installed the Academy and the Lyceum in their school in the sacred groves of the heroes Akademos and Lykos. A heroön could also form part of a building dedicated to another divinity. Thus at Olympia the temple of Eileithyia contained the heroön of Sosipolis in its adyton, while at Athens the Erechtheion held the heroa of Erechtheus, Boutes, Kekrops and Pandrosos.

When a hero was deified, his worshippers faithfully remembered the time when he had been mortal. Besides his temple at Thasos, where he was honoured as a god, Herakles was given a heroön in the form of an eschara, where the rites proper to a hero were perpetuated. The same was true of the cult of Asklepios at Epidauros: the temple contained his cult statue (i.e. of the god), while the sumptuous tholos was his tomb or heroön. The latter prefigured such types of Christian shrine as the ‘holy sepulchre’ and martyria.

Bibliography

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