Pagan in Paris: A Pagan Guide to The Louvre Museum

At this moment I am sitting on the balcony of a 12th-century chateau in the south of France, near the fortified city of Carcassone, in the middle of Cathar Country.  Swallows chirp and circle in the air over a beautiful vineyard.  Next door is a little park with Gallo-Roman grave monuments.  Wildstar and I are hosting a ten-person wine tour of the Langue d’oc region, visiting the vineyards of several amazing wine-makers, with side trips to villages in the surrounding area.  We’ve been incredibly busy so far, but our wi-fi is working and I must talk about the focus of my second day in Paris last week:  The Musée de Louvre.

The Louvre Museum is one of the most impressive museums in the world.  Frankly, it can be downright overwhelming as there is so much to see.  When we lived in Paris (from 2000-2005), I was blessed to be in my early 20s and therefore eligible to purchase the Louvre Carte Jeune, which was only 100 franc (later 20 euro) per year, and allowed anyone under the age of 28 to visit the Louvre at any time, bypass the line, and even visit the museum when it was otherwise closed to the public.  The Louvre became my second home.  I visited at least once a week, often more, where I would sit in the galleries and write (I wrote most of my first novel in this sublime environment).  This also afforded me ample opportunities to spend an entire day in a single room or section, enjoying the art at a leisurely pace, and most importantly (as a pagan), taking time to commune with the statues and pay homage to the deities and heroes they represent.

Which is not to say that it’s easy being a pagan at the Louvre.  So many of the classical sculptures are so impressive that one can’t help but feeling moved to pour a libation of wine onto the ground, leave an offering, or perform a full ritual before the sacred image.  Obviously, in a crowded public museum, with security guards and cameras everywhere, this is virtually impossible.  So we need to be creative, and instead find other more appropriate ways to honor the gods.  I call what I do “communing with the statues.”  I’m not sure if I can accurately describe something so intuitive and non-rational, but if you can understand the feeling of sitting on a beach or in a forest and “communing with nature,” then you can perhaps comprehend my process of communing with the statues.  These “objects” (and I use quotes here because they are so much more than that) are sacred images of the divine goddesses and gods.  They were created by artists who believed in the gods, who were capable of honing their creativity and skill to give a material form to their own visions of the divine.  The same feeling of reverence, the overwhelming shock of the sublime that I often feel in a beautiful landscape, is akin to my feeling for these statues.  And even in a crowded public place, that feeling can be shaped into a sacred moment, a genuine spiritual experience, in which we can communicate with and honor the gods.

I will often tune out the surrounding chatter and stand before a statue in silent prayer.  If there is a nearby bench in the room, I can sit in quiet contemplation, perhaps writing down my thoughts and impressions of the statue.  Artists may feel compelled to make a sketch of the statue, while my fellow poets may want to compose a hymn.  And there is nothing comparable to praying before one of these ancient statues, knowing that they are mediums between this world and the gods, and that you are not the only soul to have gazed upon the beauty of this human creation and perceived a glimpse of the divine.

If you are a pagan and have a chance to visit the Louvre, here are a few tips:

1.         You are not going to see everything.  It’s physically impossible.  The Louvre is the largest and most visited museum in the world.  I spent almost five years visiting the Louvre on a weekly basis and I still haven’t seen everything.  If you try to see too much in one visit, or spend too long without taking a break for lunch (or just a repose), you will become overwhelmed.  It’s almost too much beauty for the human mind and soul to take in at once. The sooner you accept this fact, the more enjoyable and positive your experience will be.  To put things in perspective, there are over 380,000 objects in the museum’s permanent collection (which doesn’t include rotating temporary exhibits).  If you wanted to spend one minute looking at every object, you would need to visit the Louvre for ten solid hours every day for nearly two years before you could see everything in the museum’s primary collection.  And considering you could spend hours contemplating a single painting or statue . . . you see the quandary.  You need to have realistic expectations and not get upset when you can’t see everything.

2.         Take your time.  Since you have accepted the fact that you cannot see everything, there’s no need to rush.  It would be better to take a few minutes (or longer) to truly appreciate and contemplate a single statue (or painting or objet d’art) than to rush through an entire room so that you can “see everything” without really taking anything in at all.  It’s like skimming a good book.  I have seen tourists (often my fellow Americans unfortunately) with a video camera pointing to the side at the walls, while they race forward, not actually looking at anything.  I don’t get it!  It would be better to just buy a few postcards, or art books, or even just look at high-quality images online!  A friend of mine used to tell a horror story about once witnessing an American mother and child at the Louvre.  The mother was a stereotypical American tourist (I’ll let your imagination fill in the aesthetically unpleasant details . . . I like to imagine the requisite fanny pack, stretch pants, cowboy hat, and the culturally offensive “Texas is bigger than France” t-shirt.  I think it was David Sedaris who asked, “Why do Americans visit other countries dressed like they’re there to mow the lawn?”).  She was rushing through the Louvre at a breakneck speed, with a video camera in one hand, dragging her poor child (a little boy of about eight or nine) in the other.  When the little boy stopped and said, “Mom!  Wait!  Look!  It’s the Mona Lisa!”, his ogress of a mother slapped him on the behind and barked, “You can see it on the video when we get home!”  Obviously, this is horrific on so many levels.  So take your time to contemplate and enjoy these sublime works of art, these cultural treasures, these pinnacles of human achievement.  Don’t be an ogress.

3.         Focus.  Choose a general area/topic to focus upon on your visit, perhaps two if you are feeling ambitious and have both the stamina and willingness to take a break when you’re tired.  If you are pagan, the three primary collections you will probably most enjoy (from a spiritual standpoint) are  The Department of Greek, Roman, and Etruscan Antiquities, The Department of Egyptian Antiquities, and The Department of Near Eastern Antiquities.  That being said, the Italian Renaissance paintings and sculptures are justly famous, and many (especially the sculptures) involve classical themes.  And many of the large-scale 18th and 19th-century neoclassical French paintings will also be of interest to Hellenists and Latinists.  The Dutch masters, Napoleon’s opulent salon, and sections on subjects ranging from Islamic Art to the Medieval Decorative Arts are all valuable and worth seeing.  But there’s just not time to do everything.  So pick a department or two, perhaps find a few specific works of art you definitely want to see, and plan your route in advance.  To give you one example, last week I spent over six hours at the Louvre (which is honestly more than I would recommend for most people) and I only saw a small portion of the Greek and Roman Antiquities collection (not even half) and nothing else.

4.         Be aware that the items on display are constantly changing.  The Louvre collection is so huge that everything cannot possibly be on display at the same time.  Many amazing and important works of art are on loan to other museums, in storage, or located in a hall that is closed or under renovation.  This is *especially* true of the Greek and Roman antiquities section.  Due to room closures and renovation, right now *less than half* of the classical sculptures that were on display twelve years ago are on display now.  This means that many significant works of art are just not available.  I was honestly shocked during this visit to see so many room closures, with several giant halls of precious statues wrapped in plastic and unavailable to the public, including many, many iconic statues of the gods.  So try not to be too disappointed if the Ares Borghese or Braschi Antinous are nowhere to be seen.

All that being said, here are some highlights from my visit last week.  This post is fairly enormous, so I’m going to spare you the commentary and just put up photos.  As I’ve said previously, I am not a photographer, so all of these photographs (and accompanying descriptions, which vary in quality and detail) are from the Wikimedia Commons.

Statue of the type of Apollo Sauroctonus (lizard-killer). Roman copy from the AD 1st century (?) after a Greek original of ca. 350 BC with 17th and 18th century restaurations. Found in Rome, 17th century (?).

Artemis of the Rospigliosi type. Marble, Roman artwork of the Imperial Era, 1st–2nd centuries AD. Copy of a Greek original, maybe the bronze group mentioned by Pausanias (I, 25, 2), which represented a gigantomachia.

Artemis with a hind, better known as “Diana of Versailles”. Marble, Roman artwork, Imperial Era (1st-2nd centuries CE). Found in Italy.

The three Graces. Marble, Roman copy of the Imperial Era (2nd century AD?) after a Hellenistic original. Restored for a large part in 1609 by Nicolas Cordier (1565-1612) for Cardinal Borghese.

Drunken Silenus. Parian marble, Roman artwork of the 2nd century CE. May be inspired by the Pouring Satyr by Praxiteles.

Sleeping Hermaphroditus. Hermaphroditus: Greek marble, Roman copy of the 2nd century CE after a Hellenistic original of the 2nd century BC, restored in 1619 by David Larique; mattress: Carrara marble, made by Gianlorenzo Bernini in 1619 on Cardinal Borghese’s request.

Statue of Aphrodite, known as the Venus of Arles. Hymettus marble, Roman artwork, imperial period (end of the 1st century BC), might be a copy of the Aphrodite of Thespiae by Praxiteles. The apple and the mirror were added during the 17th century. Found in the antic theatre of Arles, France.

Nymph with a shell. Marble, Roman copy of the 1st century CE after the known Hellenistic type of a young girl playing a game of knuckle-bones. The head is antique but does not belong to the statue; left arm, right hand and shell are modern restorations, altering the original type.

Apollo, Roman copy of the Kassel type (original ca. 450 BC). Pentelic marble, early 2nd century AD (?), found in Italy.

Asclepios, god of medicine. Marble, Roman copy (2nd century CE) of a Greek original of the early 4th century BC, restored by the workshop of Bartolomeo Cavaceppi (?) in the 18th century. Found in Italy.

So-called “Velletri Pallas”: Helmeted Athena. Marble with traces of red colour, Roman copy of the 1st century CE after a bronze original of the 5th century. Found in 1797 in the ruins of a Roman villa near Velletri.

Capitoline Venus, after the Aphrodite of Cnidus. Marble, Roman artwork of the Imperial Era (2nd century CE). From Rome.

Crouching Aphrodite. Marble, Roman variant of the Imperial Era after a Hellenistic type: the goddess is raising her left hand towards her neck whereas the protype used to cross her arms on her breast.

Dancing satyr from the group “Invitation to the dance”. Roman copy (1st-2nd century CE) of a hellenistic original (2nd century BC) known by coins of Cyzicus (Asia Minor) and numerous copies (such as Louvre Ma 528). Found in Rome in 1630, it was heavily restored: a large part of the arms and legs, the cymbals and the tree trunk are modern. It seems that the satyr originally was beating time, snapping fingers in rhythm and using a kind of Greek castanets with his foot.

Eros stringing his bow. From the ruins of the Imperial Palace on the Palatine Hill, Rome.

Statue of Hermes. The identification is secured by the fragment of caduceus held in the left hand and the small holes bored into the hair to support small wings (now lost). Roman copy of the Imperial Era after a bronze original of the late classicism.

Portrait of Homer, known as Homer Caetani. Pentelic marble, Roman copy of the 2nd century CE after a Greek original of the 2nd century BC. From the Palazzo Caetani in Rome.

Lycian Apollo. Roman copy (Imperial era) of a Greek original.

Apollo carrying his kithara holds a phiale (flat cup) for Nike (Victory) to pour a libation in; they are standing on both sides of the omphalos. Marble, Roman copy of the late 1st century CE after a neo-Attic original of the Hellenistic era.

Nike (Victory) offering an egg to a snake entwined around a column topped with the Palladion; a warrior wearing helmet and armour has laid down his shield at the feet of the trophy and stands in a contemplative posture. Marble, Roman copy of the late 1st century AD after a neo-Attic original of the Hellenistic era.

Dramatic poet receiving drunken Dionysos, escorted by maenads and satyrs. Probably a votive relief dedicated by the winner of a theatrical contest. Marble, Roman copy (1st-2nd century CE) of a hellenistic original (late 2nd century BC?), found in Rome.

Young satyr playing the flute. Roman work of the 1st-2nd century CE . From Italy.

Silenus holding the child Dionysos. Marble, Roman copy of the 1st–2nd century CE after a Greek original of the late 4th century BC. From the Horti Sallustiani in Rome, 16th century.

Hermes agoraios and the Charites, relief of the Passage of Theori, from the agora of Thasos. Thasian marble with traces of polychromy on Hermes’ shoes and bronze ornaments (Hermes’ caduceus, fibulae), ca. 480 BC. Inscription: “To the Charites one may not sacrifice goat nor pig”.

Male torso, Parian marble, ca. 480 BC–470 BC, found in Miletus.

Athena of the Hope-Farnese type. Marble, Roman copy from the 1st–2nd centuries AD after a Greek original, probably the late 5th century BC bronze cult-statue of Athena Itonia (near Koroneia) by Agoracritos, described by Pausanias (IX, 34, 1). The antique head, of the Mattei type, does not belong to the statue.

Athena of the Athena Parthenos type. Parian marble (body) and Pentelic marble (head), Roman copy from the 1st–2nd century AD after the 5th century BC original.

Statue of an ephebe, traditionnally identified as Narcissus or Hyacinthus. Marble, Roman copy from ca. 100 AD after a Greek original of the late 5th century BC. Found in Italy

Statue of a youth with Phrygian cap, identified as Paris. Marble, Roman copy from the 2nd century AD after a Greek original. Found by Gavin Hamilton at Villa Adriana in Tivoli, 1769.

Dioscurus wearing the pilos, marble. From the northern area of the circus of Carthage.

Adonis. Marble, antique torso restored and completed by Duquesnoy.

Antinous as Aristaeus, god of the gardens. Bought in Rome in the 17th century by Cardinal Richelieu for his collections.

Statue of Dionysus. Marble, 2nd century CE (some restorations in the 17th century).

Bust of Antinous (117–138 CE). Modern copy after an original coming from the villa Adriana now in the Prado Museum.

Colossal portrait of Anrtinoos. The eyes and the attribute on the top of the head (uraeus or lotus flower?) were added on later. The bust was inserted into a body of a different material.

Statue of a goddess, probably Juno, restored as Urania. Marble, 2nd century AD (nose, mouth, neck, arms and feet are modern restorations).

Altar of the twelve gods. Original in Louvre, cast in Pushkin museum. Use unknown: maybe the brink of a well or an Zodiac altar. The object represents the twelve gods of the Roman pantheon, each identified by an attribute: Venus and Mars linked by Cupid, Jupiter and a lightning bolt, Minerva wearing a helmet, Apollo, Juno and her sceptre, Neptune and his trident, Vulcan and his sceptre, Mercury and his caduceus, Vesta, Diana and her quiver and Ceres. Marble, found in Gabii (Italy), 1st century CE.

Statue of Dionysus. Marble, 2nd century CE (arms and legs were heavily restored in the 18th century), found in Italy.

Narcissus, also known as the “Mazarini Hermaphroditus” or the “Genie of eternal rest”. The statue is composed of an antique funeral bust and of an antique lower part, assembled in modern times. Marble, 3rd century CE.

Statue of a male deity known as “Jupiter of Smyrna”. Found in 1670 in Smyrna (now İzmir in Turkey), the statue was brought to Louis XIV and restored as a Zeus ca. 1686 by Pierre Granier, who added the arm raising the thunderbolt. Marble, middle 2nd century CE.

Relief known as “the three Tyches”—Tyche is the Greek goddess of Fortune; since the Hellenistic period, each city has its own Tyche, represented with a crown of ramparts. This relief, found at the Via Appia, is known since the 18th century and belonged to the Borghese collections. It may come from the Triopius, the funeral complex built by Herodes Atticus for his wife Annia Regilla. Marble, ca. 160 CE.

Bust of Antinous as Dionysos; small holes bored into the hair used to support a metal ivy wreath. Marble, ca. 130 BC, origin unknown.

Mithras killing a sacred bull (tauroctony), side A of a two-faced Roman marble relief, ca. 2nd or 3rd century AD.

Side B (reverse) of a two-sided Mithraic relief. Found at Fiano Romano, near Rome “couché dans un petit réduit de briques” in 1926. White marble (H. 62cm, W. 67 cm, D. 16 cm) on a travertine base (H. 10cm, W. 76cm, D. 50cm). 2nd-3rd century.

This (reverse) face of the monument depicts a banquet scene. In the middle, a bull’s hide, of which the head and one hindleg are visible. Sol and Mithras recline on its side by side. Mithras holds a torch in his left hand and extends his right hand behind Sol. Sol is dressed only in a cape, fastened on his right shoulder with a fibula. Around Sol’s head is a crown of eleven rays. He holds a whip in his left hand and extends the right towards a torchbearer who offers him a rhyton. In the lower right is another torchbearer, with raised torch in his left hand. In his right hand, a caduceus held into the water emerging from the ground. In the middle, an altar in the coils of a crested snake. In the upper left corner, Luna in a cloud, looking away. Traces of red paint on the attire of Sol, Mithras and the torchbearers.

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I am returning to the Louvre next Monday when we get back to Paris, and there’s one thing I wanted to ask all my pagan friends out there:  Any messages or prayer requests you would like me to make to the gods on your behalf?  As I tried to explain above, I spend time communing with the statues.  And every time I saw a statue of Antinous, I couldn’t help but take a moment and communicate to the statue (and consequently the god): “Antinous, I honor you. And I know someone named P. Sufenas Virius Lupus who honors you!  And I know someone named Kallimakhos who honors you!  May they be blessed.”  Whenever I saw a statue of Dionysos (or a member of his retinue), I said something similar on behalf of Sannion and Dver.  Likewise, at statues of Apollon on behalf of Dver, Lykeia, and Kallimakhos.  At statues of Zeus, I thought of Melia.  At statues of Eros, I thought of Ruadhan.  At the bust of Serapis, I thought of Edward (because of his gravatar!).  Artemis reminds me of Brendan.  At various altars of the Twelve Olympians I thought of many of you.  Thetis and various sea nymphs remind me of my mom.  I prayed and made a request to Asclepius on behalf of my friend Scarlett.  And so forth . . .

I didn’t ask anyone’s permission to do this, but it felt right, and I hope my actions didn’t offend anyone.  It’s just that there are so many of my fellow pagans out there, scattered all over the world, whose blogs and websites I enjoy, whose words (and songs and art) inspire me, and who I wish could have been there with me at the Louvre, honoring the gods together (even though I haven’t met very many of you yet!).  It’s not like the Louvre is a cathedral where I can light a candle in your name, so I took quite a few moments on this visit to think of you all and to send a personal message to the gods on your behalf (via these sacred statues), simply asking the gods to send you blessings.  If I overstepped, I sincerely apologize, as my intentions were positive!

Since I am returning next Monday, is there anyone out there reading this who would like me to “send a message” or make a prayer request to any specific deities (or heroes/heroines) on their behalf?  I would be honored to do so.  I’m not claiming to have any more or less of a connection to the gods than anyone else, and please let me be clear that I am *not* implying that we need ancient statues, temples, or anything special whatsoever to communicate with the deities.  The gods are always there, and I know they hear us.  It’s just that there’s something especially charged about these statues, and like I said earlier, it feels right.

I will mostly be in the Greek & Roman Antiquities section, but I am hoping I can spend some time in the Egyptian section as well.  Please let me know in the comments if you have any requests, and I will make another post when I can!

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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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