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25-06-2015, 12:11

Achilles, lord of Leuke

While epic poetry may not have been the stimulus for the earliest worship of heroes, the case of Achilles shows how hero cult could indeed arise as a byproduct of epic. Near Troy, a mound on a promontory at the mouth of the Hellespont was identified with the burial site of Achilles described by Homer (Od. 24.80-84). The town of Achilleion, mentioned already by Herodotus (5.94), was founded near the tumulus. According to the late account of Philostratus (Her. 53.8-18, third century ce), an ancient oracle of Dodona decreed that the Thessalians send annual offerings to this tomb to recognize their compatriot Achilles. After singing a hymn to Thetis, they sacrificed a black bull “as to the dead” and a white bull “as to a god,” using wood brought from the forests of Mt. Pelion. Philostratus says that the Thessalians were carrying out these sacrifices well before the Persian wars, but he also speaks of the repeated suspension and revival of the worship, which means that the earlier history may have been fabricated to provide a pedigree for the cult.

Whereas the cult in the Tread was predicated on Homer, the Euxine cults of Achilles show the powerful influence of the post-Homeric Aethiopis, which told the story of Achilles’ death and funeral. Composed in the seventh century by Arctinus of Miletos, it said that Achilles’ body was not buried in the Troad, but snatched from the pyre by Thetis and brought to Leuke, the White Island. Reflecting the current Greek interest in the Black Sea area, the poem probably located this island in the ambit of Skythia, for there was a tradition that Achilles’ afterlife existence mirrored that of his enemy Memnon, whose mother Eos removed his body to Ethiopia. A fragment of Alcaeus (354 LP), the seventh-century lyric poet, already calls Achilles “ruler of Skythia.” According to the geographical knowledge of the time, the two regions were seen as the northernmost and southernmost extremes of the world. Many later authors detail the belief that Achilles continued an immortal existence on Leuke with Helen or Iphigeneia as his companion.

The Greek colonists of the northern Euxine, who came primarily from Miletos during the seventh and sixth centuries, must have been familiar with Arctinus’ poem. Excavation of Olbia and surrounding sixth-century settlements revealed that the colonists had a special interest in Achilles. Just as Herakles defined Greek identity for colonists in the West, those in this part of the world seem to have claimed Achilles as their patron and protector in a foreign land. At one site, they buried pots incised with Achilles’ name under the floors of their homes, and many such inscribed vessels have been found in Olbia and in the early settlement on the nearby isle of Berezan. Even more mysterious are the pottery disks, about the size of game tokens, bearing full or abbreviated forms of the name Achilles and pictures of snakes, human figures, ships, and weapons, which again come from domestic contexts in Beikush and Olbia. The island of Leuke itself has yielded fifth-century pottery inscribed to Achilles, including a black-glazed lekuthos with the message “Glaukos, the son of Posideios, dedicated me to Achilles, ruler of Leuke.” Little more than a great limestone boulder standing alone in the midst of the Euxine, Leuke measures only about one-quarter of a square kilometer. Nineteenth-century explorers reported the remains of a structure on the island, possibly the temple mentioned in literary sources. Most information about Achilles on Leuke dates from the Roman period, when Achilles Pontarches (Ruler of the Black Sea) had achieved a godlike status among the Olbians as the patron of the city leaders. Philostratus (Her. 55.2-3, 56.2-4), Arrian (Peripl. M. Eux. 23), and others tell how sailors passing the island would catch a glimpse of the ghostly Achilles or hear him singing.23