Hero cult was one of the most distinctive features of ancient Greek religion.

In Homeric Greek, herōs (cognate with Latin vir and English "virile") means simply "an aristocratic man". By the historical period, however, the word came to mean specifically a dead man, worshiped at his tomb because his fame during life or unusual manner of death gave him power over the living.

Nature of hero cult

Greek hero-cults were distinct from ancestor worship: they were usually a civic rather than familial affair, and in many cases none of the worshipers traced their descent back to the hero.

They were distinct on the other hand from the Roman cult of dead emperors, because the hero was not thought of as having ascended to Olympus or become a god: he was beneath the earth, and his power purely local. For this reason hero cults were chthonic in nature, and their rituals more closely resembled those for Hecate and Persephone than those for Zeus and Apollo.

The two exceptions to the above were Heracles and Asclepius, who might be honored as either gods or heroes.

Heroes in cult behaved very differently from heroes in myth. They might appear indifferently as men or as snakes, and they seldom appeared unless angered. A Pythagorean saying advises not to eat food that has fallen on the floor, because "it belongs to the heroes". In a fragmentary play by Aristophanes, a chorus of anonymous heroes describe themselves as senders of lice, fever and boils.

Types of hero cult

Hero cults were offered to predominantly to men, but also to women and even children. Cult status was given to many classes of people, a few of them being the following:

Famous men of the mythical past (heroes in the modern English sense), like Oedipus at Athens or Pelops at Olympia.

Founders of cities, like Battus of Cyrene

Most reasons involved violent or unusual deaths, as in the following cases:

Those killed in war. This was usually collective rather than individual, so as not to upset the delicate balance of the Greek polis, as in the case of the dead from the Battle of Marathon.

Those struck by lightning, as in several attested cases in Southern Italy.

Those who disappeared into the ground, as in the cases of Oedipus and Amphiaraus.

Heroes, politics, and gods

Hero cults could be of the utmost political importance. When Cleisthenes divided the Athenians into new demes for voting, he consulted Delphi on what heroes he should name each division after. According to Herodotus, the Spartans attributed their conquest of Arcadia to their theft of the bones of Orestes from the Arcadian town of Tegea.

Heroes in myth often had close but conflicted relationships with the gods. Thus Heracles's name means "the glory of Hera", even though he was tormented all his life by the queen of the gods. This was even truer in their cult appearances. Perhaps the most striking example is the Athenian king Erechtheus, whom Poseidon killed for choosing Athena over him as the city's patron god. When the Athenians worshiped Erechtheus on the Acropolis, they invoked him as Poseidon Erechtheus.


  • Karl Kerenyi, The Heroes of the Greeks, 1959
  • Erwin Rohde, Psyche, 1924

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