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8-10-2015, 18:05

Epic heroes and the archaeological record

Surprisingly few cults of the great mythic and epic heroes can be firmly linked to the material record. The cult of Helen and Menelaos at Therapne is the lone case in which inscribed votives confirm the identity of the recipients as early as the seventh century and the first quarter of the sixth (the cult of Achilles at Olbia, discussed below, may prove to be of similar antiquity). The sanctuary of Alexandra and Agamemnon in Amyklai also produced a rich hoard of votive gifts stretching back to the seventh century, though without identifying inscriptions. The Archaic and Classical offerings include terracotta plaques with the typically Lakonian iconography of heroization: a man and woman are seated on thrones together; the bearded man extends a kantharos toward a rearing serpent. Other plaques show Alexandra enthroned, holding a scepter, and accompanied by a snake. The local heroine or goddess Alexandra was identified with the epic Kassandra, possibly as the focus of an expiatory rite that attempted to atone for Kassandra’s murder. The introduction of Agamemnon’s cult is in keeping with the strong Spartan interest in establishing cultic and mythic claims to the line of Pelops. The Spartans, in fact, seem to be the earliest and most vigorous proponents of heroic cult, promoting the cults of epic heroes as well as Spartan lawgivers and kings.5

Often, a cult place can be securely dated to the early Archaic period, but there is no proof of a specific hero’s residency until the late Classical or Hellenistic periods. Located about 1 km from the akropolis at Mycenae, the so-called sanctuary of Agamemnon was perhaps the most important cult place in the immediate area, in spite of its modest architecture. While signs of cult begin in the eighth century, only a rubble wall, a sacrificial pit, some roof tiles, and a large votive deposit remain from the Archaic and Classical phases. Inscribed sherds demonstrate that offerings were made to Agamemnon in the fourth century, but this only happened after a significant gap in activity resulting from the Argive sack of Mycenae in 468. Given the female figurines in the deposit, it has been suggested that the site was originally a shrine to Hera, and that the citizens of Archaic Mycenae were more interested in proclaiming their ties to Perseus, ancestor of Herakles, than to Agamemnon. A late Archaic inscription (IG IV 493) from the Perseian spring near the entrance to the citadel refers to the judges of youths’ contests (probably rites of passage) held for Perseus.6

Polis cave in Ithaka has been touted as the site of an old hero cult for Odysseus. This cave, which saw use throughout the Bronze Age, contained the remnants of at least thirteen Geometric tripod cauldrons and a series of other, later votive gifts suggesting female deities. Could it be coincidental that Homer makes Odysseus store away his Phaiakian guest-gifts, including numerous tripods, in an Ithakan cave of the nymphs (Od. 13.13-14, 34550)? Given that some of the tripods go back to the ninth century, Homer’s story may be a reference to this wondrous cave and its contents. Some scholars are skeptical about the claim of a cult for Odysseus, as his name does not appear on an object from the cave until the Hellenistic period.7

An example of an epic hero who can be more firmly tied to an early shrine is Phrontis son of Onetor, the drowned steersman of Menelaos. Homer must have been aware of this cult, for he goes out of his way to mention that Phrontis was buried on the promontory of Sounion in Attica (Od. 3.278-85). When excavators found votive pits containing offerings suitable for a hero (e. g. iron weapons, miniature shields), including a seventh-century terracotta plaque with a painted ship and helmsman, they naturally attributed the cult to the hero. Pots inscribed to Onetor and his son from the sixth century onward confirmed the connection. Phrontis (One Who Watches Over) and son of Onetor (Giver of Advantage) are the perfect names for a hero who looked down on sailors from the cliff of Sounion and took thought for their safety. Still, the minor figure Phrontis is not so much an “epic” hero like Agamemnon as a cult hero who has been absorbed into the epic. There has been much uncertainty about exactly which structures at Sounion can be assigned to Phrontis, for in the same area there are sanctuaries of Poseidon and Athena.8