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Greek Hero Cults and Ideas of Immortality

1919 to 1920
University of St. Andrews

‘We can repudiate the dictum of a recent unimaginative German writer, that all Greek heroines must have been originally goddesses because no woman could naturally become a heroine,’ Lewis Farnell wrote, perhaps with a note of exasperation. Although he wrote hisGreek Hero Cults at a time when the thought of women as heroes was unimaginable, he was careful to include both heroes and heroines in his book. He was inclusive; as he said, ‘I have dealt at length with the greater personages of saga, for they are part of the fabric of the literature of Europe.’

Farnell begins his encyclopaedic survey by addressing the question Herbert Spencer raised: Is the worship of ancestral spirits the source of the worship of gods? He rejects this: ‘[W]e can’t regard these beliefs as universal or as an axiom of natural religion.’ In looking at the prehistoric period, Farnell believes that while sagas may contain a nucleus of historical tradition, there is no single master key to unlock the mysteries of all Greek hero cults. The author also establishes that death was a principal preoccupation from the time of the ancient Hellenic people. There were elaborate funeral rites (‘there is reason to believe slaves were sometimes killed’), a belief in the soul’s survival, a place for the dead, Hades; only the aboriginal Hellene worshiped his dead.

The first major section of the book is concerned with heroes and heroines, offering a typological classification and establishing if they were of ‘divine or daimoniac’ origin; hieratic types of hero-gods, sacral ones associated with a particular divinity, hero-gods with a secular history (Herakles), etc. Explanations and examples are given within each of his seven categories. For example, the infant Opheltes received a sumptuous funeral because his nurse left to serve the army against the Thebes. Skephros of Tegea was a disguised daimon who enjoyed the friendship of Apollo and Artemis; he was slain by his jealous brother.

The primary focus of the first half of his book, almost a hundred pages, is Herakles, ‘pre-eminent in irresistible might and in the richness of his legend’. In analysing his origins, Farnell is struck by his discovery that no community is known to have claimed or possessed his tomb. The author then goes on to peruse the records for the relationships of various communities and Herakles: clear testimony of him at Sikuon; in Messene, it is not certain that he was raised to heroic rank. Farnell investigates how all of the various legends arrange themselves: Herakles conquering, capturing, fighting, pursuing, descending. Next, the author goes into the liturgical value, ‘and there is sufficient record to prove that one side of Herakles’ character was recognized in actual cult.’ This cult evolved from an early worship of him as a warrior (his statue at Sparta ‘showed miraculous signs of emotion before a great battle’) to one of the moral virtue of courage (which later Greek ethical philosophers ‘rank so high’). Herakles later takes on the form of guardian angel.

In the beginning of the second half of the book, Farnell takes on the daunting task of attempting to ‘track out’ the original sources of the most intriguing cult, the Dioskouroi. The study of the cult of the Heavenly Twins appears to lead back to some ‘religious experience common to the Indo-European peoples’. Farnell examines the various sources, including a statement of Tacitus concerning the Twins and the Teutonic tribes, as well as Vedic documents. After establishing a base, the author begins a far-flung survey of the cult’s reception: the Twins of the Spartan tradition belong also to the Argive. ‘We do not find it attested elsewhere in the Peloponnese.’ The cult was ‘diffused sporadically’ through the communities of northern and northwestern Greece. Along with the Dioskouroi come the Leukippides, the brides of the Twins.

After establishing how cults originate and spread and how individual characteristics of each community’s traditions spring up, in his last section, Farnell moves on to look at other cults using the same techniques utilized earlier. The physician hero-god Asklepios appears, ‘who started from very humble beginnings but came to overshadow the whole of the later Graeco-Roman world’. Of the numerous personages of the Greek hero-world are the epic heroes, ‘purely human in character and story and heroic in our modern sense’. Achilles, Agamemnon, Odysseus—all are brought into the discussion.

The book ends with eschatologic beliefs. Although there ‘was a minority in the earlier period who troubled their minds in the matter’, Farnell develops their steady emergence in the seventh century BC and fruition in the fifth century onwards. The author devotes space to Eleusinian and Samothracian rituals and initiation in which sacramental communion ‘played some part’. The mystic service of the Orphic-Bacchic sects was more transcendental: the initiate ‘might attain through ecstasy real communion with the god’. An important feature in all these beliefs was that ‘posthumous happiness depended on the purity of the soul.’ These beliefs eventually became the beliefs of the average citizen; the popular view of the later period was a picture of Hades that, although ‘still Homeric, … offered more hope for the virtuous, who after judgment are received into Elysium, and more terrors to the wicked, who are consigned to torture.’

Farnell wishes to make clear that these societies ‘familiarized the world with the conception of the divine element in the human soul, with the sense of kinship between man and God. By means of mystic sacrament, man’s life was transcendentally fused with God’s. It prepared the way for the inauguration of a new era and a new faith'.

  • David Kahan, University of Glasgow