In addition to the gods and goddesses, daimones, nymphs, spirits of the land, and other divine beings in My Personal Pantheon, I am especially devoted to a fairly large number of heroes and heroines. These tend to fall into a number of categories, but one type of hero I would like to discuss is the concept of the poet-hero: a writer and/or philosopher who, after their death, is granted divine honors. They are usually accorded the status of “hero,” but in the case of poets like Orpheus and Homer, this could even include an apotheosis to the level of the gods themselves. But I’m already getting ahead of myself.
I honor the poets. And before anyone accuses me of being “an eclectic neopagan” (a term I welcome and have absolutely no problem with whatsoever, by the way), the reconstructionist part of my personality wants to let my readers know that there is a well-documented, ancient tradition (with ample textual and archaeological evidence) for this practice. This idea actually occurs in a number of ancient cultures (most obviously in Greece, India, China and Japan, but I would argue that there is plenty of evidence in the Celtic and Germanic/Scandinavian traditions as well), and there are also interesting modern/contemporary examples (which I will discuss in a future post). But I want to begin with my primary tradition (Hellenic) and the abundance of information on poet-hero cultus in ancient Greece.
If this topic interests you at all, then the single best book you will need to obtain is Archilochos Heros: The Cult of Poets in the Greek Polis by Diskin Clay, which was published by the Center for Hellenic Studies/Harvard University Press in 2004. This book can be purchased locally through Village Books or your own local independent bookstore of choice (Buy local! Independent bookstores really need our support right now!), or at Powells, AbeBooks, or Amazon. Also, most public libraries offer inter-library loan as a free service, and you can almost certainly find this book through that route as well (Support your local library!).
Here’s a link to the BMCR review, which praises “the variety of disciplines that Clay brings to bear — religion, literary criticism, epigraphy, archeology, numismatics, art history” and “the vast amount of evidence that [Clay] adduces . . . [which] succeeds in showing how widespread the phenomenon of poet cults was in ancient Greek cities.”
Another book I have drawn from (and to which Clay also refers) is Greek Hero Cults and Ideas of Immortality, by Lewis Richard Farnell, published in 1921 as almost an addendum to his still-useful five volume series, The Cults of the Greek City States. While Farnell’s work (available for free via Archive.org and Google Books, though paperback reprints are nice if you’re like me and prefer reading paper instead of a computer screen) is certainly outdated and contains some condescending Victorian ideas on Greek polytheism, the amount of information and the organization of that information is extremely valuable, and has no doubt influenced and been updated by contemporary scholars like Diskin Clay and Jennifer Larson (whose three wonderful books – Greek Nymphs: Myth, Cult, Lore; Greek Heroine Cults; and Ancient Greek Cults: A Guide – I wholeheartedly recommend).
But back to Clay’s book, which focuses on the poet-hero cult of Archilochos on Paros, a cult that “might have lasted eight centuries and in its duration rivaled the cult of Athena on the acropolis of Athens.” The cult of the poet-hero was therefore not just a Hellenistic phenomenon, but (if you agree with Clay’s thesis, as I do) can be traced all the way back to at least the late sixth-century BCE, if not much earlier.
If you’re not familiar with Archilochos, he is considered one of the founders of personal lyric poetry (one of his particularly racy erotic poems was jokingly called “Last Tango on Paros” by Peter Green). He was both a poet and a soldier, and if you’re interested in what survives of his work, I highly recommend 7 Greeks by Guy Davenport (which also includes translations of Sappho, Alkman, Anakreon, Herakleitos, Diogenes and Herondas). Archilochos, like the more familiar heroes of myth and epic and and history, was honored on Paros with a proper hero-cultus, including a temple, libations and sacrifices, votive offerings, feast days, and a thiasos (a religious community centered around his worship).
And Archilochos is not the only poet/writer/philosopher to be so honored. The cult of the poet-hero (and likewise that of certain philosophers and historians) is widespread throughout the entire ancient Greek world, as the following quotation suggests (pardon the misogyny in that annoying line about Sappho):
“At any rate, the Parians have given Archilochos honors, even though he insulted them; and the Chians, Homer, even though he was not a Chian; and the people of Mytilene, Sappho, even though she was a woman; and the Spartans made Cheilon a member of their body of elders, even though they have hardly any taste for literature; and the Italians [honor] Pythagoras; and the people of Lampaskos gave Anaxagoras, who was not from Lampaskos, a public burial and they give honors even today.” – Aristotle (quoting Alkidamas), Rhetoric 2.23.1398b11-17 Kassel
(translated by Diskin Clay)
Based on Clay’s staggering collection of evidence and overall conclusions (though amplified by my own speculative research on the subject), there is evidence for many poets who were honored with hero-cultus, including such prominent names as: Homer, Hesiod, Archilochos, Pindar, Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, Aristophanes, Aesop, Alkaios, Alkman, Anakreon, Menander, Mimnermos, Posidippos (of Pella), and Stesichoros. I am also pleased to learn there is evidence that many women poets were also honored: Sappho, Korinna, Telesilla, Praxilla, Anyte and Nossis among them. And don’t forget the philosophers – there’s evidence for Pythagoras, Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Diogenes, Herakleitos, Empedokles, Parmenides, Anaxagoras, Epicurus, Bias of Priene and Cheilon of Sparta (two of the Seven Sages), as well as the orator Demosthenes and the historian Herodotus.
This doesn’t even count the more obscure figures poets/writers/philosophers (some of whom are so obscure we only know about them through the chance discovery of inscriptions, and which points to the idea that poet-hero cultus was far more widespread than we can possibly know): Antigonos of Knidos, Apollonios of Pergamon, Aratos of Soloi, Aristeas of Prokonessos, Aristias of Phlious, Balakros of Pergamon, Dionysios of Marathon, Epicharmos of Syracuse, a Herodes (Clay suggest this is possibly Herodes Atticus?), Peisandros of Kamiros, Philitas of Kos, Poseidippos of Kassandreia, Theodektas of Phaselis, Theophanes of Mytilene, and Timotheos of Mytilene.
Likewise, a number of mythological/legendary poets were honored with hero-cultus (and just because they’re “mythological” doesn’t mean that they did not actually exist at some point as living, breathing historical persons . . . in fact there’s more evidence for the historical existence of some of them than the founders of a couple major religions I know). These mythical poets include Orpheus, Amphion, Linos, Mousaios, Thamyris, and Arion (who straddles the line between legend and history, since the story of a poet being rescued by dolphins is not beyond the realm of possibility).
The evidence of hero-cultus ranges from conclusive (Orpheus, Homer, Hesiod, Archilochos, Sappho, Aeschylus, Aesop and numerous others, who were certainly honored with sacrifices, feast-days, cult-statues/agalma, altars, and even temples and priesthoods) to the more tentative (a number of poets listed above were definitely honored via statues or coins or grave memorials, which Clay argues is a strong indication of a possible hero-cultus).
Many of these poet-hero cults were of a local nature, honoring poets who were born or who died in that particular locality, or who served the community in some way. Others were created at the behest of oracles, while some (such as Orpheus and Homer and arguably Plato) were of a panhellenic character. Homer alone was honored at Alexandria, Amastris, Argos, Chios, Delos, Delphi, Ios, Kolophon, Kyme, Nikaia, Olympia, Pergamon, Salamis, Smyrna and Temnos. In Alexandria, Ptolemy Philopator “constructed a temple to Homer and elegantly placed a statue of him in it, arranging around the statue all the cities that claim Homer as their birthplace” (Aelian, Varia Historia 13.22) and there are some other great quotes in there about the Ptolemies in Alexandria and their patronage of “the cult of learning,” which I will save for a future post dedicated entirely to the Apotheosis of Homer.
As Clay notes:
“Cities honor themselves by honoring the great men and women of their distant past and the cult of the poets gained ground as it spread through the Greek-speaking world. The cult of poets (and philosophers) differs from the cult of warrior heroes, founders, or ancestors in that it is not exclusive or a manifestation of antagonism with other city states. It’s source of power is the international fame claimed by a local heros or heroine.”
As we now live in a cosmopolitan, global society that is constantly struggling with our own forms of antagonism between nation states, I think this is the perfect time to revive the ancient Greek cult of the poet-hero and poet-heroine, at both the local and global level (see my Global Literary Canon page for a list of ideas, though many of these writers are fortunately still living and writing and therefore not eligible for hero-cultus yet). I think now is an ideal time in our history to honor those poets and philosophers from all over the world . . . from Homer and Sappho and Plato to Shakespeare and Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson; from Enheduanna and Rumi and Matsuo Bashō to Gloria Anzaldúa and Audre Lorde and Adrienne Rich . . . these writers and thinkers changed the world through the beauty and wisdom of their words and ideas. Percy Bysshe Shelley once famously said: “Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.” So why not take time in our spiritual work to acknowledge the important contributions of the poets, to establish forms of practice in which we can honor the poet-heroes and poet-heroines whose words have enriched our lives?
In Part Two, I will look at some of the ways we can incorporate the cultus of the poet-heroes into our own personal practice. Thanks for reading! And if this is topic is of interest to you, please let me know in the comments below!