The Dead Poets Society (Reviving the Ancient Greek Cult of the Poet) – Part One

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!

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21 Comments

  1. Love seeing folks reconstructing these largely ignored but very important aspects of ancient Greek religion. I must admit that I have always been a bit uncomfortable with elevating mortals in this way, but sometimes it does feel right. Especially when they are not simply “writers” or “artists” but truly inspired, conduits for the divine. Or when they have personally impacted one’s life – for instance, Jim Morrison, without whom in many ways I might not be on the spiritual path I’m currently on, strangely enough. I have an easier time with the “philosophers” since most of the ones you mentioned are more like mystic-magicians than simply deep thinkers, and if anyone was touched by the gods and spirits, it was them. Looking forward to more on this topic!

    Reply
    • Thanks for commenting! I am likewise ambivalent about divinizing humans, especially when it’s done in their own lifetimes for political purposes, but I completely agree with you that certain inspired poets and artists (Jim Morrison is an excellent example), were indeed divine conduits who were in touch with something much greater than themselves. Which is why I actually see a number of poets (Rumi, Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, and quite a few others, even Shakespeare) as powerful mystics in their own right. And speaking of Jim Morrison, I think it is no coincidence that his classicist father had the phrase ΚΑΤΑ ΤΟΝ ΔΑΙΜΟΝΑ ΕΑΥΤΟΥ, which is usually interpreted as “true to his own spirit,” but which we know actually means “according to his own daemon.” In fact, I will be revisiting his grave on my upcoming trip to France, and would be happy to make a hero-offering on your behalf if you would like.

      Reply
      • I have always wanted to go to Pere Lachaise but probably never will – I would *love* it if you could “say hello” to Jim on my behalf – maybe with a libation of wine? Thank you!

        Reply
        • I will be pouring a number of libations to some of my heroes (including Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas, Gerard de Nerval, Oscar Wilde, and others) and I would be honored to pour a libation of wine to the Lizard King on your behalf (and another for Sannion if he’s interested – I know Morrison is one of heroes as well). And never say never about visiting Paris one day . . . life may surprise you. 😉

          Reply
          • I’m sure Sannion would be interested!

            I think I’d need to either be suddenly wealthy or given a free trip specifically to France, because otherwise if I can ever scrape the money together for Europe again, it will either be Italy and Greece with Sannion, or England and Germany on my own (or possibly, England with my mom, who wants to go). Those are my priorities far over Paris, although I would love to visit all of Europe.

            Reply
            • Oh, I totally hear you. Ryan and I lived as starving Bohemian artists in Paris for five years and I could only afford to visit Greece once (on my own) and we’ve never visited Italy. But I also never would have imagined I would have been living in Paris in the first place, or even that I would be visiting again this year. So you never know! In the meantime I will gladly pour a libation on your behalf! 🙂

              Reply
          • I would be honored for you to do this. Strangely, though, it’s not the first time that someone has sacrificed to Jim Morrison at Pere Lachaise on my behalf.

            Reply
  2. Syna

     /  May 11, 2012

    This is wonderful. I didn’t know any of this information, and it’s incredibly enriching/useful. I had no idea the poet hero-cultus was so widespread! And I’m really looking forward to the practical topic of Part 2.

    In a more contemporary sense, the philosopher Richard Rorty came up with the idea of “Romantic Polytheism,” which essentially says that literature and art can serve as secular religion. I totally believe that it can — and that it’s a completely legitimate mysticism, besides, whether or not the practitioner insists on agnosticism/atheism toward the “supernatural”. The literature crowd has been explicitly saying that since, at least, Matthew Arnold’s reign as King Critic– and before if you count the Romantics, which you should! and I’m glad that the non-secular crowd is following suit with their own historied version of it 🙂

    Reply
    • I’m so glad you found this information useful! There’s much, much more where that came from (stay tuned).

      I briefly encountered some Rorty in back in my philosophy classes in college, but this is the first I’ve heard of “Romantic Polytheism.” I quite like the idea, and it definitely resonates with my own attempt to revive the poet-hero cultus! Do you recommend any of his books or essays on the subject? I’ve long been a fan of Matthew Arnold and the Romantics before him, many of whom could be considered pagan polytheists (Keats), Neoplatonists (Shelley), pantheists (Wordsworth), or mystics in general (Blake). Lawrence Kramer wrote an essay called “The Return of the Gods: Keats to Rilke” which discusses “theophanies” (divine epiphanies where the pagan gods appear to the poet) in Romantic poets and their descendants. I actually find some of Harold Bloom’s work on Genius to be relevant to this topic as well (and I believe Bloom and Rorty were friends). At any rate, thanks for commenting! There will definitely be more to discuss!

      Reply
      • Syna

         /  May 12, 2012

        Ahhh! You and i are totally on the same page then! I haven’t read the Kramer essay, but I’m going to need to look it up straightaway.

        I think Rorty “converted” to Romantic Polytheism later in his career, so there are only a few essays on the topic. The ones I know about are collected in “Philosophy as Cultural Politics.” Here is one online: http://www.nytimes.com/books/first/d/dickstein-pragmatism.html

        Have you heard of “Literature and the Gods” by Roberto Calasso? I’ve only heard quotes from it, but I’m incredibly eager to read it. And of course looking forward to more discussion on poet hero-cultus in particular… 🙂

        Reply
        • Thanks for the link – I’ll have a look at that essay. And yes, I highly recommend Literature and the Gods, and *all* of Roberto Calasso’s work for that matter. Calasso’s one of my favorite living writers and I think I’ve read everything that’s been translated into English. The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony, Ka, The Ruin of Kasch . . . I could go on and on. A brilliant man and an amazing writer.

          Also, if you’re specifically interested in the influence of Greek/Classical mythology on the English Romantics, then I *highly* recommend Douglas Bush’s Mythology and the Romantic Tradition in English Poetry (his book, Mythology and the Renaissance Tradition in English Poetry is also great if you’re interested in that period). It’s a bit dated, and Bush is unfortunately rather condescending and dismissive toward my favorite modern poet, H.D. (Hilda Doolittle). But it is also *staggeringly* comprehensive – almost overwhelmingly so – with great information and detailed mythological references. That book has singlehandedly introduced me to more obscure (and interesting) 19th century mythological/pagan English poets than any other text.

          Reply
  3. Really excellent post! (I’m sorry I’m a bit behind on reading these days…conference and all, you know!)

    It’s intriguing to hear of possible evidence for hero-cultus to the greatest of the sophists (at least of the Second Sophistic) and philanthropist, Herodes Attikos, in the volume you mentioned, which I’m definitely going to have to get my hands on in the near future. I have not read anything on active hero-cultus to Herodes in anything I’ve come across thus far…but, of course, that hasn’t stopped me from giving him some! 😉

    My Thracian colleague has been doing a lot of work with Aristeas of Proconnesus, and I will be doing some as well in the near future when I get a few resources available to me for further research…

    Have you read Christopher P. Jones’ New Heroes in Antiquity: From Achilles to Antinoös? I can’t remember if he talks about poet-heroes in it, but it’s a very good book in general, and is also short. It’s also got one of the best short sections on the general cultus of Antinous that I’ve ever yet seen, so I’d highly recommend it just on that score alone!

    Reply
    • Glad you enjoyed the post! I think there’s a great deal from Diskin Clay’s volume that you’ll enjoy. The evidence on a hero cult for Herodes Atticus is incredibly speculative, based on an inscription at Thespiai on the base of something that *could* be a hero-altar. The inscription reads:
      The earth covers the sacred head of Herodes;
      his soul holds the rank of the tenth of the Muses.
      There’s no indication exactly who this Herodes might be, but Clay believes it likely that this inscription was dedicated to Herodes Atticus, and that the location could very well be indicative of a poet-hero altar.

      Also, I’m sure you’ll find it of interest that there are several scattered references to Hadrian throughout this volume, including a mention of some of the hero tombs he personally visited (Ajax, Hektor, Alkibiades, Pompey), reference to a coin with Hadrian on one side and Herodotus on the obverse, and a rather snarky epitaph at the grave of Archilochos at Paros, in which he diminishes Archilochos in order to praise Homer:
      This is the grave of Archilochos, the poet the Muse drove to savage iambs,
      To show her favor to the son of Maionia (Homer).

      Anyway, I’m sure there will be much of interest to you. I have heard of the Christopher P. Jones book but haven’t read it yet. Sounds fascinating, and I will definitely have to check it out!

      Reply
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