About Poets as Cult Heroes in Archaic Greek Lyric Poetry

About Poets as Cult Heroes in Archaic Greek Lyric Poetry

2024.06.27 | By Gregory Nagy

A relief sculpture from the sacred precinct of Archilochus (the Arkhilokheion) in Paros, late 6th century BCE. Archaeological Museum of Paros A758. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

This is a paper to be presented to the Core Group Meeting of the Network for the Study of Archaic and Classical Greek Song, on the occasion of a conference, organized by Anton Bierl, which bears the title “Heroes in Archaic and Classical Greek Lyric Poetry,” held at the University of Basel, 27-28 June 2024. My paper is to be read at the meeting on the first day, 2024.06.27.

§0. The title of the paper indicates my overall thesis. It concerns the ancient Greek practice of worshipping heroes. This practice is generally known as the cult of heroes or simply hero cult, and I will be referring to heroes who are worshipped in hero cults simply as cult heroes. There is evidence for this practice of hero cults in the Archaic era of the ancient Greek world, and even stronger evidence in the Classical and the Hellenistic and the Roman eras. There are even vestiges of hero cult in the incipient Christian era, and such vestiges ordinarily take the form of a special kind of veneration focusing on relics—what Friedrich Pfister called Reliquienkult in his masterful two-volume work on hero cults in general (1909). My thesis here, however, is not about cult heroes in general but about poets as cult heroes in particular. Even more specifically, my thesis is about poets of “lyric,” dated to the Archaic era, who became cult heroes.

§1. When we consider poets of “lyric” in the Archaic era, however, the evidence is meager. By contrast, the evidence is far more ample when we consider the earliest poets of “epic” like the figure of Homer himself, as I have shown in an essay titled “Picturing Homer as a cult hero” (Nagy 2024.05.28). The same can be said about the figure of Hesiod. As we read in an essay by Natasha Bershadsky (2011),“A picnic, a tomb, and a crow: Hesiod’s cult in the Works and Days,” there is ample evidence for the hero cult of Hesiod, and in this case, some of that evidence is even internal to Hesiodic poetry.

§2. As I say, the relevant evidence when we consider poets of “lyric” in the Archaic era is by comparison meager—even if we think of the word “lyric” in the broadest possible terms so as to include not only the melic poetry of figures like Alcaeus and Anacreon but also the non-melic poetry of figures like Archilochus or Theognis. I mention these four figures because my starting point, for now, as I collect what meager evidence is available, happens to involve these four poets. As we will see, as we start with only these four poets, the evidence is quite varied.

§3. In the case of Archilochus, we have the most ample evidence by way of epigraphical and numismatic testimony, as I explain in two essays, “Picturing Archilochus as a cult hero” (Nagy 2024.05.31) and “Archilochus, poet and cult hero” (Nagy 2024.06.02). But there is no overt evidence internal to Archilochean poetry, by contrast with the case of Hesiod.

§4. In the case of Alcaeus, as I argue in an essay titled “Alcaeus in sacred space,” published in a Festschrift for Bruno Gentili (Nagy 1993), there is indeed internal evidence for hero cult in the lyric poetry of Alcaeus, but, in this case, we find no epigraphical or numismatic testimony. In this case, as I hope to show in my essay here, the textual testimony of the poetry itself provides the primary evidence: as I read fragments 129 and 130 of Alcaeus, I find that the words of his poetry give voice to the mystical idea that the poet himself is speaking from the dead, in the role of a cult hero.

§5. As for Anacreon and Theognis, evidence about them matches Archilochus and Alcaeus respectively. In the case of Anacreon, the match with Archilochus is on the level of epigraphical evidence, recently uncovered. I learn from Andrej Petrović that he is soon to publish an Archaic inscription, found at the site of ancient Teos, that seems to refer to a hero cult in honor of Anacreon. In the case of Theognis, on the other hand, the match with Alcaeus is on the level of internal evidence. As I have argued in a recent rewriting of an older essay (Nagy 2024.06.01c), there are two pieces of poetry composed in elegiac meter where the voice of Theognis, like the voice of Alcaeus, is represented as speaking from the dead, in the role of a cult hero.

§6. Before I can delve into the two pieces of elegiac poetry attributed to Theognis, however, I must first concentrate on my latest thinking about Alcaeus. What follows is a rethinking, without significant changes, of  an argument I once presented in an essay titled “Did Sappho and Alcaeus ever meet?” (Nagy 2007/2009), where I had argued that Alcaeus in Fragments 129 and 130 is speaking as if he were a cult hero. I epitomize here what I have just recently rewritten in a book titled Sappho from ground zero (Nagy 2023.12.28):

§7. I ask myself in that book [3§12]: How are the sympotic songs of Alcaeus mimetic and even quasi-theatrical? In those songs, there is a variety of roles acted out by the ‘I’ who figures as the speaker. The roles may be either integrated with or alienated from the community that is meant to hear the performances of these songs. Both the integration and the alienation may be expressed as simultaneously political and personal, and the personal feelings frequently show an erotic dimension—either positive or negative. Even in songs that dwell on feelings of alienation, however, the overall context is nevertheless one of integration. Alcaeus figures as a citizen of the city-state of Mytilene in Lesbos who became alienated from his city in his own lifetime and was forced to take refuge in a federal sacred space—only to become notionally reintegrated with his community after he died, receiving the honors of a cult hero within this same sacred space.

§8. The combined evidence of Songs 129 and 130 of Alcaeus, as I further argue in the book cited at §6 above [3§13], is most revealing in this regard. In the two songs, the speaker expresses his alienation as he tells about his exile from his native city of Mytilene (F 129.12; F 130.16–19, 23–27) and about his finding a place of refuge described here as a no-man’s-land, eskhatiai, far removed from city life (F 130.24: φεύγων ἐσχατίαισ’). In this negative context, we see a place of alienation, and the speaker says he ‘abides’ there, oikeîn, all by himself (F 130.25: οἶος ἐοίκησα). On the other hand, this same place is where the speaker says the people of Lesbos celebrate their ‘reunions’, sunodoi (F 130.30: συνόδοισι). In this positive context, we now see a place of integration, and the speaker goes on to say once again that he ‘abides’ there, oikeîn (F 130.31: οἴκημ<μ>ι).

§9. This place of refuge, as we learn from the historical and epigraphical research of Louis Robert (1960), was called Messon, the meaning of which is ‘middle ground’.  Such a middle ground, in the words of Alcaeus, is a temenos ‘sacred space’ that is xunon ‘common’ to all the people of Lesbos (F 129.2–3: τέμενος μέγα | ξῦνον). To be contrasted with this positive context is the negative context of this same temenos ‘sacred space’ (F 130.28: τέμ[ε]νος θέων): in this negative context, the words of Alcaeus describe this space as a lonely place where he ‘abides’, oikeîn, all by himself (F 130.25: οἶος ἐοίκησα). But this same lonely place is where the speaker says he encounters a chorus of beautiful young women in the act of singing and dancing (F 130.31–35). I repeat, this place is Messon, which the words of Alcaeus describe as a temenos ‘sacred space’ that is xunon ‘common’ to all the people of Lesbos (F 129.2–3: τέμενος μέγα | ξῦνον).

§10. To take my interpretation further [3§14, as cited at §6 above]… Such sustained balancing between the themes of alienation and integration in this context of the temenos ‘sacred space’ at Messon points to an overarching pattern of integration, and a sign of this integration is the reference in Song 130 of Alcaeus to a chorus of beautiful young women shown in the act of singing and dancing. As I argued already in the Festschrift for Bruno Gentili (Nagy 1993), this reference is really a cross-reference to a form of choral performance that is typical of the songs of Sappho. In terms of this argument, the temenos ‘sacred space’ at Messon was actually a setting for the performances of songs attributed not only to Alcaeus but also to Sappho. That is, Sappho figures as a lead performer of choral song and dance at Messon.

§11. To sum up what I have argued so far about Alcaeus [3§15]… What we have seen is that the sacred complex of Messon in Lesbos is the historical context for understanding the mimetic and even quasi-theatrical characteristics of the songs of Alcaeus, and the same can be said about the songs of Sappho.

§12. That said, I am ready to compare with the melic poetry of Alcaeus two pieces of elegiac poetry, ascribed to Theognis, where the voice of that poet is represented as speaking from the dead. I epitomize from a recent essay (Nagy 2024.06.01):

§13. [via §4 in the essay I just cited…] I quote here the texts of verses 1209–1210 and 1229–1230 in the anthology of Theognidea, along with my working translations of these two passages. For commentary on my analysis of both passages (as presented already in Nagy 1985:76–81 = §§71–79), I recommend an incisive further analysis by Olga Levaniouk (2011:41–43, 46–49).

Αἴθων μὲν γένος εἰμί, πόλιν δ᾽ εὐτειχέα Θήβην | οἰκῶ, πατρῳᾶς γῆς ἀπερυκόμενος.

I am Aithōn by birth, and, in the well-walled city of Thebes | do I have-an-abode [oikô], being exiled as I am from the Earth of my ancestors.

Theognis 1209–1210

ἤδη γάρ με κέκληκε θαλάσσιος οἴκαδε νεκρός, | τεθνηκὼς ζωῷ φθεγγόμενος στόματι.

The Corpse of the Sea is now calling me home. | It is dead, but it calls with a mouth that is alive.

Theognis 1229–1230

§14. Here is a brief summary of my analysis, as cited in §13 above, and of the further analysis by Olga Levaniouk, also cited there. In the first passage, the “speaking name” Aithōn confers on the speaker, who speaks here in the mode of an epigram inscribed on a tomb, the identity of a heroic persona who is experiencing a burning inner hunger for the restoration of a social status that has been lost—in this case, lost by way of exile. A cognate idea is conveyed in the Homeric Odyssey, where the persona of Odysseus assumes a cognate identity by way of this same “speaking name,” Aithōn. In the Theognidean verse 1210 of the first passage, the word oikô ‘I have-an-abode’ conjures the idea of a cult hero who is venerated by way of hero cult, so that the ‘I’ is figured here as the cult hero himself, speaking from the dead by way of the epigram inscribed on his tomb. In the second passage, the ‘me’ refers, again, to such a cult hero, who is being summoned back from exile, summoned back home, by Ino, the ‘White Goddess’, worshipped as a cult heroine at Megara. For a comparable analysis, I cite an incisive essay by John Wickersham (1986), “The corpse who calls Theognis.”

§15. By now we have seen evidence indicating hero cult from the Archaic period in the case of not only Alcaeus but also Theognis. Moreover, in the case of Anacreon, the epigraphical evidence soon to be published by Andrej Petrović likewise stems from the Archaic period. But what about Archilochus? Here we encounter a problem, pointed out in an admirable book about Archilochus by Laura Swift (2019:45). The problem is this: although there is ample evidence documenting the hero cult of Archilochus in the Hellenistic era, the only piece of material culture that is generally cited for dating the hero cult of this poet back to the Archaic period is a relief sculpture, found on Paros and dated to the late sixth century BCE, showing a reclining male figure who has been assumed to be Archilochus in the role of a cult hero. As Swift points out, however, the identification of this figure with Archilochus has been disputed—despite the arguments vigorously affirmed by Diskin Clay (especially 2004:40–54) and by others as well (the relevant bibliography is tracked by Swift p. 45n191 and n192).

§16. Before bringing this essay to a close, I present new arguments for affirming that the Archaic relief sculpture of Paros does indeed depict the poet Archilochus himself in the pose of a cult hero. I draw my arguments from an essay of mine titled “Picturing Archilochus as a cult hero” (Nagy 2024.05.31), where I compared iconography representing Homer as a cult hero with corresponding iconography representing, I continue to think, Archilochus himself as cult hero.

§17. Here I cite a related essay of mine, titled “Picturing Homer as a cult hero” (Nagy 2024.05.28), In that essay, I concentrated on a scene that is pictured in the so-called Arkhelaos Relief, dating from the third century BCE. That scene pictures a climactic moment of hero cult, where a seated Homer is being worshipped as a cult hero. I show here a close-up of that scene.

Detail of a relief attributed to Arkhelaos of Priene, ca. 225–205 BCE. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

§18. In that same essay on a scene representing Homer as cult hero, I showed also a parallel scene featuring, as I see it, an anonymous cult hero.

hero cult relief from Rouse
Line drawing of a relief from Patras [Roscher i. col. 2571, fig. 8]. Appeared as fig. 2 in Rouse 1902. Archaeological Museum of Patras, entry number 208. I thank Guy Hedreen and Kenneth Yu for helping me track down the entry number. A photograph of this relief, which is dated to the late fifth century BCE, is provided by Kenneth Yu (2020) in a most incisive essay analyzing the scene that is being represented.And I add here a photograph of another comparable relief:
Metropolitan Museum of Art, inventory number 57.42. Again, I thank Guy Hedreen —this time, for helping me locate this particular illustration.§19. With this iconographical background in place, I now return to the essay I cited above at §16, “Picturing Archilochus as a cult hero” (Nagy 2024.05.31), where I compared such reliefs as we have just seen, all dating from the post-Archaic era, with the relief, dating from the Archaic era of Paros, representing an unnamed reclining male figure who, I continue to argue, is an image of Archilochus as a cult hero. Here again is a photograph of this relief from Paros, which has been all along the featured image for my essay:

The so-called “Totenmahl Relief,” with a reclining Archilochus being worshipped as a cult hero.
The relief from Paros, late sixth century BCE, showing a reclining male figure being worshipped as a cult hero. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

§20. There are many details to compare in this early relief with details we have just seen in later reliefs, but one detail stands out. Just as we saw the picturing of a shield hanging on the wall of the indoor scene in the relief from Patras, dated to the late fifth century BCE, we see here as well, in the relief from Paros, dated to the late sixth century BCE, a comparable shield hanging from the wall.

§21. I will now proceed beyond comparing specific details and will consider in general the implications of the comparisons as I outlined them in the essay cited at §16, “Picturing Archilochus as a cult hero.” These implications I divide into ten points, as follows:

§21.1. The relief sculpture from Paros, known to art historians as the “Totenmahl Relief,” pictures a reclining cult hero.

§21.2. On variations in the pose of cult heroes as either reclining or enthroned, I refer to the work of W.H.D. Rouse (1902), Greek Votive Offerings: An Essay in the History of Greek Religion, especially pp. 20 and 34 on cult heroes shown enthroned and p. 22 on cult heroes shown reclining.

§21.3. We have already considered a relief sculpture picturing an enthroned Homer in the role of a cult hero. In the relief sculpture from Paros, by contrast, we see a reclining cult hero. In saying that the scenes in both reliefs indicate a climactic moment of hero cult, I am offering interpretations that differ slightly from corresponding interpretations offered by Diskin Clay in his book Archilochos Heros (Clay 2004; the argumentation continues in Clay 2008). For the moment, I present here merely the essentials of my friendly disagreement with Diskin, a colleague most sorely missed (he died on June 9, 2014). The slight differences center on two formulations of his that I paraphrase as follows:

(A) The scene picturing Homer in the Arkhelaos Relief can be viewed as an “apotheosis” of the poet (Clay p. 91).

(B) The scene picturing Archilochus in the “Totenmahl Relief” can be viewed as a feast marking the death of the poet—a feast attended primarily by his “surviving wife” (Clay p. 41).

§21.4. Starting with the first formulation, about “apotheosis,” I offer a slight adjustment. I argue that the relevant Greek word theos ‘god’ can refer to any hero in special ritual contexts where he or she is viewed as a cult hero:

For example, in the wording of Herodotus (9.120.3) concerning the hero cult of Protesilaos and in the wording of Pausanias (9.39.12) concerning the hero cult of Trophonios, there are references to the cult hero as a theos ‘god’ in the context of imagining him in an afterlife. In my previous work I argued that such convergent wording is in fact typical of hero cults: the given cult hero is envisioned as a mortal in the preliminary phase of the ritual program of worship and then as a god in the central phase, at a climactic moment marking the hero’s epiphany to his worshippers. [Nagy 2008:259, with bibliography]

§21.5. In line with such an argument, the “apotheosis” of Homer is a function of his general status as a cult hero who died and was then immortalized in a mystical afterlife—not of his special status as a poet who earned immortality from the gods.

§21.6. Turning now to Diskin Clay’s second formulation, I offer a related adjustment. In this case, I argue that the scene of a “Totenmahl” for Archilochus is a picturing of honors paid to the poet not on the special occasion of his death but on general occasions of worshipping him as a cult hero. As I infer from a systematic study by Rhea Thönges-Stringaris (1965) of iconography centering on the theme of “Totenmahl,” the central idea in the scenes picturing such a theme is that a cult hero is being shown in the act of partaking in his own Totenmahl or “feast for the dead,” thus showing the way for his worshippers to worship him—and even to visualize him.

§21.7. In the documentation produced by Thönges-Stringaris (1965, especially pp. 48–58), I find that the most interesting examples of “Totenmahl” scenes involve inscriptions that refer to the given cult hero who is pictured: the most common designation of such heroes is simply ΗΡΩΣ ‘hero’, without the specification of any name. Occasionally, there are euphemisms, such as ΗΡΩΣ ΕΥΚΟΛΟΣ ‘hero who digests [offerings] easily’ and ΙΑΤΡΟΣ ‘healer’ (on the “iatric” functions of cult heroes, I offer a reference in The Ancient Greek Hero in 24 Hours (Nagy 2013, 15§51n50). And, in one case, the inscription referring to a female figure who accompanies the hero calls her simply ΘΕΑ ΒΑΣΙΛΕΙΑ ‘goddess queen’. (All these examples are documented by Thönges-Stringaris at p. 51.)

§21.8. In view of such details, I argue that the figure of Archilochus as pictured in the sixth-century “Totenmahl” relief is attended by a goddess, not by a “surviving wife.”

§21.9. I argue in general that  this “Totenmahl” relief celebrates Archilochus as a cult hero instead of mourning him as the dearly departed, so to speak. In contexts of mourning as arranged by families for their dead, the practice of picturing these “dearly departed” as cult heroes does not become fashionable until the fourth century BCE and beyond, as the survey of Thönges-Stringaris shows (p. 65).

§21.10. A related point of special interest is a set of “Totenmahl” reliefs that show a cult hero holding a rhyton (p. 50). As we know from an explicit remark in Athenaeus 11.461b, the rhyton was the cup of choice for offerings to cult heroes (p. 65).


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