To Encounter a Hero: Localization and Travel in Hellenistic Hero Cults
Ellen Bradshaw Aitken
In the Greek and Roman worlds, the veneration of those called “heroes” and specifically of dead heroes was a highly localized religious phenomenon. Centered on tombs or other burial sites, the cult practices of devotion to a hero draw our attention to the highly localized character of much traditional religious practice around the ancient Mediterranean. In this way, hero cult provides an important case for the study of travel and religion in antiquity inasmuch as it raises questions about the practices and purposes of visiting a cult site and the distinctive religious tensions posed by such visits. This essay represents a preliminary foray into the specific question of the role of travel in relation to the veneration of heroes in the Hellenistic and Roman periods. It draws upon and presupposes much of the earlier work that, inspired and supported continually by Gregory Nagy’s undying enthusiasm for the Heroikos, Jennifer Berenson Maclean, I, and others have done in connection with the ongoing Heroikos project, focusing on Philostratus’s extended dialogue on hero cult, the Heroikos.  At this stage of research, my consideration of the question of travel and hero cult concentrates on the literary conceptualization of travel and visitation in relation to the accessibility and activity of a hero through cult. In other words, I focus here on the role that travel and visitation play in ancient reflection on hero cult, rather than on the specific evidence, literary or archaeological, that we have for visits by ancients to the tombs of heroes or other sites of heroic veneration. I do so in the confidence that what ancient writers, and especially Philostratus, thought important to emphasize or interrogate about hero cult can usefully inform our questions. To anticipate some of the main points of interest, I note here that using the lens of “travel” to explore the conceptualization of hero cult highlights the role of direct encounter with the hero, the accessibility to the visitor of special knowledge, and the limitations of transience.
This essay proceeds by first reviewing in brief some of the key aspects of hero cult in the Hellenistic and Roman periods, with an emphasis on the significance of place to the veneration of heroes. I turn then to a consideration of the literature of the Second Sophistic as a source for this inquiry and to the question of how this type of literature can illumine our investigation of ritual practice. Here my work focuses primarily on Philostratus’s Heroikos as a rich resource for exploring the conceptualization of religious practice and hero cult in antiquity. Because the plot line of the Heroikos relies so heavily upon the conceit of what we may call an “accidental pilgrim” and upon the local importance of the cultivated sanctuary of the hero Protesilaos, the dialogue yields considerable material for the question of travel and hero cult. As we shall see, the practices of travel and visitation provide a narrative motivation for this dialogue, and in so doing draw attention to various means of religious engagement within the traditional practices of hero cult. On the basis of this initial investigation, I conclude by outlining a series of research questions for the study of travel and the localization of cult, with a particular view toward how these issues may inform our investigation of the formation of early Christian ritual practices.
Hero Cult and Localization
Hero cult may be defined as the traditional practice of worshiping heroes after their deaths. It is a persistent practice of Hellenic civilization, and archaeological evidence for hero cult is found as early as the Geometric period and throughout the archaic period. Moreover, as Gregory Nagy and Albert Henrichs have amply demonstrated, the practices of hero cult have shaped both the traditions of the Homeric epics, archaic and classical lyric poetry, and the tragedies of classical Greece, even though explicit literary reference to hero cult is scarce.  Here the historian Herodotus is an important source for explicit references to hero cults and their practices.  Although continuity of worship at specific cult sites cannot be demonstrated for the entire sweep of these centuries from the Geometric period to the Roman imperial era, the practices associated with hero cult remained relatively stable and conservative well into the Hellenistic and Roman periods. Compared to the earlier period, archaeological evidence for hero cult is scarce, but among Roman imperial writers the literary sources for the study of hero cult become rich. The writers of the so-called Second Sophistic—and here I would draw attention to Pausanias, Plutarch, Dio Chrysostom, Aelius Aristides, as well as Philostratus—provide considerable cultural commentary on cultic practice and cult sites in the course of their literary and rhetorical work of activating traditional narrative for a variety of ends. Indeed we find in these writers more extensive reflection on the significance and cultural meaning of hero cult than in any earlier period. An added benefit for our purposes is that the Second Sophistic is increasingly recognized as a resource for the study of ancient Christianity and the religio-cultural repertoire upon which formative Christian communities drew.
The practice of worshiping heroes after their deaths centered on the place of burial: the tomb or tumulus. The vocabulary for this place is instructive: μνῆμα ‘monument, place of memory’; κολωνός ‘mound, tumulus’; and most importantly throughout Homer and Herodotus, σῆμα, ‘tomb, sign.’ A heroon with its sanctuary would typically be built in association with the tomb of the hero, although such localization of hero cult and the construction of a heroon could also be associated with other places important in the life story of the hero, notably, birthplaces, sites of notable deeds, and sites of later appearances. Nagy demonstrates that the tomb of the hero is an essential feature of cult not only as a site for veneration and cult practice but also as nucleus for the activity of the hero after his or her death. That is, through the medium of the tomb, σῆμα, the hero gives a sign, σημαίνει, to the living, a sign that includes the hero’s ongoing capacity as a revenant, savior, oracle, healer, or founder, to name a few of a hero’s ways of possessing power from the gods. 
Internal to the conceptualization of hero cult, we find the notion that a dead hero’s appearance in a new locale may function to authenticate it as a new cult site. This dynamic is found especially in the relation between a metropolis and its colonies, where the extension of the cult of a city’s founding or patron hero is authorized by that hero’s appearance in the new colony, with or without the partial transfer of the hero’s body.  In addition, the transfer of hero cults in the Hellenistic period is well attested, indicating the importance of localization to the availability of divine power through the cult site. Alain Blomart has classified the transfer of hero cults, usually including the bones of the venerated hero, into three main categories: (1) “the return of a local hero to his original city”; (2) “the acceptance of a foreign hero by a city to take advantage of his protective power”; (3) “the appropriation of the power of an enemy’s hero with or without the transfer of relics”. . . “to deprive the enemy city of the protective power of its hero and thus to conquer it.”  It is important to note here the ability of a hero to travel or be transported from one location to another, alongside this evidence of the importance of place to hero cult.
A further feature of localization in hero cult is the emphasis typically placed on the description of the hero’s cult sanctuary, usually a sacred grove with vegetal abundance, sweet-smelling plants, and fruit-bearing trees. A classic example is Sophocles’ description of Kolônos, outside of Athens, in Oedipus at Kolônos; here the grove of the Eumenides is the site of Oedipus’s death and heroization.  Philostratus’s Heroikos draws upon this convention in its description of Protesilaos’s sanctuary on the Thracian Chersonesus: the gardens around the heroon are full of “divine fragrance” from the uncultivated trees as well as from the cultivated plants. The visitor to the sanctuary remarks, “How diverse is the beauty of your property, and how lush the clusters of grapes have grown! How well-arranged are all the trees, and how divine is the fragrance of the place!” (Heroikos 3.4–5). Moreover, the copse of elms immediately around Protesilaos’s tomb behaves in accordance with the story of the hero; the vinedresser who tends the sanctuary remarks,
“Protesilaos does not lie buried at Troy but here on the Chersonesus. This large mound here on the left no doubt contains him. The nymphs created these trees around the mound, and they made, I suppose, the following decree concerning these trees: ‘Those branches turned toward Ilion will blossom early and will then immediately shed their leaves and perish before their season (this was indeed the misfortune of Protesilaos), but a tree on the other side will live and prosper.’ All the trees that were not set around the grave, such as those in the grove, have strength in all their branches and flourish according to their particular nature.”
Heroikos 9.1–3Within the poetics of hero cult, indicated particularly in the archaic and classical sources, the abundant vegetation of cult site also signifies the flourishing of justice and prosperity for the city or region most closely connected with the veneration of the hero. 
The relationship between a specific hero cult, as a thoroughly “implanted” local cult, and the city or region with which the hero is affiliated is of great importance. Heroes “belong” to regions or cities by virtue either of lineage or of their aretai, their deeds of excellence. Such possession can, as we have seen, be transferred, and, in the case of the panhellenic heroes known from the Homeric tradition, disputed, shared, and negotiated. It is perhaps under the influence of the Homeric poems that we think of the “major heroes” such as Achilles, Ajax, Odysseus, or Helen as known throughout the Greek world; from the point of view of the diffusion of narrative traditions this is true. From the perspective of hero cult, however, even such major heroes belong primarily to local or regional devotion, and it is important to give priority to the local and regional connections in the consideration of cult practice. For example, although Achilles is the hero of the Iliad, an epic of preeminent importance for the entire Greek world, his cult is primarily observed among the Thessalians, the people of his homeland. In addition, there are numerous “local heroes,” of great significance to local religious practice and to local and regional culture, but whose sphere of influence and benefaction is less widely dispersed than in the case of the panhellenic heroes. Pausanias’s Description of Greece makes mention of dozens of such local heroes, the more recent dead, the locally commemorated and honored, and does not refrain from calling them heroes, naming the sacrifices to them with the terminology of hero cult sacrifices, or assigning them heroa. Indeed, Pausanias’s Greece is a landscape saturated with heroes. In the Roman imperial period, moreover, the terminology of heroic honors and the term “hero” is used for many of the special dead: local founders, benefactors, and noted ancestors, all of whom possess particular significance for a city or region. While noting this range of usage, what is of value for our purposes is to note the localization persistent and integral to hero cult.
A note is in order on the practices of hero cult, many of which will be evident as we consider how Philostratus presents the accessibility of the hero Protesilaos in the Heroikos. The honors brought to a hero include sacrifices, primarily “as to one dead” (with the distinct usage of ἐναγίζω in contrast to the unmarked term θύω), but also “as to a god,” as well as libations of various sorts. In addition, there is evidence of meals eaten in the company of the hero, the singing of hymns and laments, and oracular consultation. In general, we can say that the full range of Greek religious practice appears to have performed in the worship of heroes. Recent work has begun to explore the merging of “mysteries” and initiatory practice with hero cult.  From the point of view of cult, heroes share in divine powers, are “porous” to divinity, and receive divine honors. Indeed cult makes these divine attributes and capacities accessible to worshipers in specific places.
Encountering a Hero: Travel in Philostratus’s Heroikos
Having sketched some of the dynamics of localization active in hero cult, I turn now to an examination of the relation of travel and visitation to the veneration of heroes, as it is presented in Philostratus’s extended dialogue on heroes and hero cult, the Heroikos. This work by an author far better known for his Life of Apollonius of Tyana was written in the early years of Alexander Severus, most likely between 222 and 235 CE.  Containing numerous references to and “descriptions” of the hero cults, not only of its main figure, Protesilaos, but also of the other heroes of epic tradition, it is a considerable resource for the study of veneration of heroes in antiquity and as an example of the conceptualization of hero cult in the Roman period. Philostratus has been shown by Albert Henrichs and others to be an accurate transmitter of the practices of hero cult in earlier periods, if not in their ritual details, then certainly in their conceptualization and in the diction of cultic performance. 
The Heroikos, in brief, is an extended dialogue set in the bucolic sanctuary around the tomb of Protesilaos, the first Hellene to die in the Trojan War—in Elaious, at the tip of the Thracian Chersonesus and within sight of Achilles’ tumulus at Sigeion in the Troad. The dialogue takes place between a traveling Phoenician merchant and the vinedresser (ampelourgos) who tends the sanctuary of Protesilaos’s heroon. Within the cult site of the hero’s grace, the vinedresser has direct encounters with Protesilaos “who has come back to life” (ἀναβιόω) and who appears to his devoted follower. Over the course of these encounters, Protesilaos transmits his knowledge and wisdom to the vinedresser, telling him the way it really happened in the Trojan War. The hero thus exhibits superhuman consciousness of events that happened after his death and provides an eyewitness authority to the dialogue’s critique of Homer. 
How we are to view Philostratus’s presentation of travel and visitation in hero cult practice is a question that belongs within the larger consideration of how to regard Philostratus’s discussion of ritual and cult practice. Moreover, how we are to consider the depiction of ritual in the texts of the Second Sophistic brings into focus one of the key questions in the perception of —and conceptualization of—the Second Sophistic. The issue is, namely, whether the literary activities of the Second Sophistic are to be taken as serious interventions in the social, cultural, political, and religious life of their period, or, rather, simply as literary playfulness, “Joke-Literature.” With regard to depictions of ritual practice, this question can be framed as a dichotomy between, on the one hand, taking ritual depictions as accurate depictions of actual (current) ritual, for example of hero cult, and, on the other, as literary imaginings of a bygone era and therefore of little usefulness to historians of religion. For the Heroikos, this dichotomy is seen in the profound differences between the work of Eitrem, Burkert, Betz, Mantero, and R. Hägg, on the one hand, and, on the other, the approaches of Anderson, Grossardt, and even Whitmarsh.  My own guiding approach in this matter is to ask questions such as the following: How do we move from texts to knowledge of ritual practice, from texts to cult, without resort to the categories of description and prescription? What are the poetics of representation of ritual practice, and in whose mouth (or hands) is ritual expertise found? I have found the Heroikos of Philostratus a particularly productive text with which to think about these questions for ancient religion, not least because of its interest in hero cult and its portrayal of the hero Protesilaos as an authoritative voice with regard to matters both of epic tradition and cultic practice. We may look then to the voices of ritual expertise within the narrative to find some indications of the significance of travel and visitation in the Heroikos ’s understanding of hero cult.
Ritual expertise, within the world of the Heroikos, derives in the first place from the figure of the hero Protesilaos. From the mouth of this hero the vinedresser receives ritual knowledge and transmits it to the Phoenician merchant and hence to the audience. The vinedresser, as one who enjoys sunousia with Protesilaos and who lives as a devotee in the sanctuary, can be characterized as thoroughly initiated into the knowledge and ways of this hero, as they are accessible through cult.  All that the vinedresser reports derives either from his own experience at the heroon or, most frequently, directly from what Protesilaos tells him. In this light, we can consider the role that travel and visitation play in this dialogue and in the accessibility of the hero to the worshiper.
The first feature to observe about the Heroikos is that it is a text, on the one hand, centered on a very specific place—the sanctuary of Protesilaos at Elaious—but also, on the other, replete with detailed geographical references from around the eastern Mediterranean and the Aegean. Like the traveling Phoencian merchant, the audience is expected to recognize the names of cities, regions, islands, mountains, and rivers, associated with the biographies, exploits, and sanctuaries of the heroes discussed in the dialogue. The majority of these are in the northern Aegean,  the Hellespont, and the Troad, but the world circumscribed by the dialogue extends from India to Spain and from Ethiopia to the banks of the Danube. With such frequent geographic references, the dialogue conveys a strong sense of place, emphasized by the present-day appearance of the heroes in particular localities. An underlying message of the Heroikos is that part of obtaining true knowledge entails being in the right place. The geographic dimension of the dialogue cannot be ignored. Moreover, we may go so far as to say that the narrative effect of the frequent geographic references are to carry the listener (including the Phoenician merchant) on journeys across the narrative map, while always returning to the hero’s cult site at Elaious.
The narrative framework of the Heroikos provides our second set of observations about how travel and visitation function in this text. The dialogue begins with the arrival of a Phoenican merchant at the vineyards in Elaious; the vinedresser who encounters him inquires about his origins and how he came to this site. The merchant, sailing out of the Black Sea and through the Hellespont, tells him, “I need a sign and an omen for good sailing. . . For they say that we shall sail into the Aegean itself, and I believe the sea is dangerous and not easy to sail. What’s more, I am going against the wind. With this objective, Phoenicians seek omens for good sailing” (Heroikos 1.2). Elaious at the tip of the Chersonensus appears to be a point from which to set off across the Aegean rather than sailing close to the shore. But the merchant is unaware that he has landed at the site of Protesilaos’s sanctuary. As the vinedresser begins to describe the locale to him and thus “introduces” him to the hero’s presence, the merchant comes to understand a dream that he had before his arrival at Elaious:
Phoenician: By Athena! I have come under the auspices of a god, and I finally understand my dream.
Vinedresser: How do you interpret your dream? You hint at something divine.
Phoenician: This is already about the thirty-fifth day, I suppose, that I have been sailing from Egypt and Phoenicia. When the ship put in here at Elaious, I dreamed I read the verses of Homer in which he relates the catalogue of the Achaeans, and I invited the Achaeans to board the ship, since it was large enough for all. When I awoke with a start (for a shuddering came over me), I attributed the dream to the slowness and length of the voyage, since apparitions of the dead make no impression on those who travel in haste. Because I wished to be advised about the meaning of the dream (for the wind has not yet allowed our sailing), I have disembarked here. While walking, as you know, I encountered you first, and we are now talking about Protesilaos. We shall also converse about the catalogue of the heroes, for you say that we shall do so, and “cataloguing them on the ship” would mean that those who have compiled the story about them would then embark.
Heroikos 6.2–6In other words, having had an indication from the vinedresser that he will learn much about the events of the Trojan War from the hero Protesilaos, the merchant links his dream about the catalogue of heroes (that is, the so-called catalogue of ships from Book II of the Iliad) to the newly discovered availability of an eyewitness account of “Homeric events.” What the merchant does yet realize is that the hero, through the vinedresser, will provide him with an alternative account, critiquing the Homeric version at every turn. Protesilaos’s account is deemed—from the perspective of the dialogue and of the hero—far more authoritative than Homer, not least because it is an “eyewitness account” of the events surrounding the Trojan War. Moreover, the hero exhibits what we can call a “superhuman consciousness” of the Trojan and Achaean matters, narrating many matters that took place after his death. (We may recall that Protesilaos was the first hero to die in the war, shot by a Trojan hero in the moment of disembarking from the ship.  )
In the merchant’s account of his dream, we may also note the “liveliness” of the Achaean heroes who embark on the merchant’s ship at his invitation. He attributes the “apparitions [or, sightings] of the dead” to the slowness of the journey; this reference and the activity of the heroes in his dream foreshadow, however, the availability of the hero Protesilaos as one who has come back to life and appeared to the vinedresser and others. The invitation to and embarkation of the Achaean heroes onto the merchant’s ship, moreover, encapsulates the way in which through Protesilaos and the vinedresser the merchant acquires a large “cargo” of knowledge by virtue of his passing visit to the sanctuary, knowledge that would be otherwise unavailable. I would propose that the Phoenician merchant is an “accidental pilgrim” to the hero’s sanctuary and tomb; although he arrives under divine guidance, he has no idea of where he has come or of its potential until he enters into extended conversation with the vinedresser. The vinedresser functions throughout the dialogue as a mystagogue; thoroughly initiated into the mysteries of relationship with this hero, he now gradually draws the merchant into deeper knowledge, answering the merchant’s questions, dispelling doubt, and arousing in the merchant deep devotion to the hero. This “accidental pilgrim” is thus also an initiand throughout the text, from stranger to guest, from one immersed in the Homeric canon to one now possessing “true knowledge,” and finally to one with deep longing for what Protesilaos can tell him about the matters of the Underworld and how one returns from the dead.
It is the merchant’s journey that provides the frame for this process. Unlike the vinedresser, who has returned to Elaious from an active life into the city in order to take up permanent residence in the hero’s sanctuary, the merchant is only “passing through.” Although he is an initiand, he is a transient. It is thus striking that at certain key points in the dialogue, the merchant’s need to attend to his business and to move on are cited as a potential impediment to acquiring further knowledge. Early in the dialogue, as the vinedresser works to convince the merchant of the real existence of many “fabulous” things, he points to the several discovery of giants’ bones in the Troad and elsewhere as evidence for the superhuman size of the ancient heroes; he suggests that the merchant go and see for himself, but the merchant regrets that his business does not allow it:
I would gladly go beyond Okeanos, vinedresser, if I could find such a marvel. My business, however, does not allow me to stray so far. Rather, I must be bound to my ship, just like Odysseus. Otherwise, as they say, the things in the bow and the things in the stern will perish.
Heroikos 8.13Much later in the dialogue, however, the merchant expresses a rather changed attitude. Having told the merchant a great deal of what he has learned from Protesilaos, including much about Achilles, the vinedresser begins to broach the important topic of the Thessalian cult for Achilles at his tomb in the Troad, a cult “mixing something of an initiatory rite with their offerings to the dead” (Heroikos 52.3).
Phoenician: Another subject has come up again, vinedresser, which, by Herakles, I would not let go, not even if you should do everything to help it escape.
Vinedresser: But some people, my guest, consider these digressions to be idle talk and nonsense for those not at leisure. I see you, a slave of the ship that you captain and a slave of the winds, of which if even a slight breeze hits the stern, you must unfurl your sails and be taken out to sea with your ship, since you think that everything takes second place to sailing.
Phoenician: Farewell then to the ship and all that is on board! The soul’s cargo is sweeter to me and more profitable. Let’s consider these digressions not as nonsense, but as profit of this trade.
Heroikos 53.1–3In this instance it is the vinedresser who raises the potential impediment of the demands of commercial travel. We should note that it comes at the point where the dialogue moves into a topic of great religious complexity, the merging of initiatory rites with the offerings to the dead customary in heroic tomb cults. This is the opportunity for the merchant to indicate his new priorities, namely, his willingness to pursue the “soul’s cargo” and thus also a new stage in his devotion to the hero.
The dialogue ends at sunset with the vinedresser needing to return to his duties, but as he does so he indicates the hero’s willingness on some future occasion for the merchant to learn how he returned to life again and about the things of the Underworld. The vinedresser recognizes, however, that should the winds be favorable the merchant may wish to sail on:
Vinedresser: Now, go to your ship rejoicing with all that the garden bears, and, my guest, if the wind is yours, set sail once you have poured a libation to Protesilaos from the ship. It is customary for those leaving here to do so. If the wind should be against you, come here at sunrise and you will obtain what you wish.
Phoenician: I am persuaded by you, vinedresser, and so shall it be. May I not sail, by Poseidon, before I listen to this story as well.
Heroikos 58.4b–6These are the concluding words of the dialogue. We may note not only the merchant’s ongoing desire to attain deeper knowledge through the hero, but also the instruction to pour a libation to the hero “from the ship.” The visit would thus end with this act of devotion, not at the tomb per se, but from the vehicle of travel.
I would suggest that the narrative framework of the Heroikos depicts a certain tension between abiding and transience in a devotee’s relationship to the localization of hero cult. The vinedresser resides at the sanctuary; he has renounced his former life of business and come to abide permanently in the hero’s presence. This act, together with his work of tending the sanctuary, makes him a unique transmitter of the divine knowledge the hero makes available. At the same time, however, this knowledge is also available to the visitor, the accidental (or, as we shall see, intentional) pilgrim. But transience must be negotiated, and the priorities of devotion to the hero must be affirmed at each stage. We may observe a further difference. The vinedresser encounters the hero directly and enjoys sunousia, close companionship, with the hero. For the merchant, his “encounter” is always indirect, mediated by the vinedresser who is also the medium of everything that Protesilaos chooses to reveal. From the perspective of the Heroikos, we may say that travel and visitation make the hero’s knowledge accessible through the practices and dynamics of hero cult, but direct encounter is nonetheless elusive without abiding presence on the part of the devotee.
In introducing the merchant to Protesilaos and his sanctuary, the vinedresser mentions a number of intentional visitors to the sanctuary. This provides us with the basis for a third set of observations. Protesilaos’s heroon is evidently a site for oracular consultation with the hero.  The vinedresser catalogues a number of Olympic athletes who have come to the site seeking an oracle that will enable them to win important contests (Heroikos 14.4–15.10). In each case, the hero provides an enigmatic utterance, which in the heat of the contest the athlete is able to interpret to his success. In addition, according to the vinedresser, Protesilaos is a healer and advisor to lovers:
He heals all the illnesses there are, especially consumptions, edemas, diseases of the eyes, and quartan fever. Lovers can also gain his counsel, for he sympathizes deeply with those unlucky in erotic matters, and he suggests charms and tricks with which they enchant their boy lovers. But he neither converses with adulterers nor offers them any erotic advice. He says that he dislikes them because they give love a bad name.
Heroikos 16.2The journeys of such suppliants are not explicitly mentioned, but the prominence of the panhellenic athletes suggests that they are not residents of the region around Elaious (one named is from Cilicia, for example). The implication of the text is that Protesilaos functions as a panhellenic oracle and healing sanctuary, perhaps with particular devotion among the Thessalians, his own people. (He also has a sanctuary in Phulakê, his home town). We may surmise, at least as a basis for further investigation, that one purpose of traveling to a hero shrine was to obtain oracular knowledge and that at some hero sanctuaries healing was also available through the practices of the cult. In the case of oracular consultation, it is important to note that here again the “superhuman consciousness of the hero” is activated through cult practices. In this case Protesilaos knows not only about “epic matters” but also practical wisdom pertaining to athletic and erotic success. 
A fourth dimension of travel and hero cult that the Heroikos brings to our attention is the importance of the heroic tumuli on the Troad for sightseeing, perhaps especially in the Roman imperial period. Early in the dialogue, the vinedresser points out the visibility of sights such as the tombs of Achilles and Ajax as available for all to see. He singles out the emperor Hadrian’s visit to the tomb of Ajax:
Vinedresser: Listen now, my friend. I had a grandfather who knew many of the things you do not believe. He used to say that the tomb of Ajax was destroyed by the sea near which it lies, and that bones appeared in it of a person eleven cubits tall. He also said that upon his arrival at Troy the emperor Hadrian embraced and kissed some of the bones, wrapped them up, and restored the present tomb of Ajax.
Heroikos 8.1As a picture of personal devotion to a hero linked to imperial benefaction, Hadrian’s care for the bones and the tomb of Ajax recalls a further aspect of travel goes beyond casual sightseeing.  It nevertheless reminds us of a landscape rich with localized opportunities for encounter and devotion, for which sightseeing while traveling may be a first step.
The island of Leukê in the Black Sea provided travelers with another important site for encounter with a hero, namely, Achilles. Leukê, or the White Island, is an island sacred to Achilles and was, by legend, created by Poseidon as a home for Achilles and Helen to dwell as immortals (see Pausanias Description of Greece 3.19.11; Her. 54.6). The hero Protesilaos himself travels to Leukê to visit Achilles, to hear of his experiences, and to learn the lyric songs Achilles composes. When the merchant asks whether he might hear one of these songs, it becomes apparent that many who sail the Black Sea hear these songs regularly:
Phoenician: May I hear the song vinedresser, or is it not proper to disclose it?
Vinedresser: Why, of course you may, my guest! Many of those who approach the island say that they hear Achilles singing other things as well, but only last year, I believe, did he compose this song, which is most graceful in thought and intentions. It goes like this. . .
Heroikos 55.1–3Pausanias also mentions this tradition (Description of Greece 3.19.11). The passage presents us with another aspect of travel and hero cult, as conceptualized by the Heroikos, namely, the accessibility of poetic knowledge through travel to a cult site. It presents the hero, Achilles in this case, as the composer of lyric poetry, a complement to Protesilaos’s knowledge of epic matters (Achilles and Protesilaos function as complementary heroes in several ways throughout the Heroikos). As Richard Martin has shown, oral traditional poetry regularly conceptualizes its composition as coming from the mouth of hero; this is another manifestation in tradition of the notion of the superhuman consciousness of the hero, whereby the tradition itself authorizes itself with reference to the direct powers of the hero.  The Heroikos presents this dynamic throughout with reference to Protesilaos. What travelers to Leukê experience, in keeping with this conceptualization, is the accessibility of song traditions directly from the mouth of Achilles.
Travelers to Leukê may also experience the power of the hero as revenant, or avenger of past injustices. The vinedresser relates the case of a traveling merchant who arrived on Leukê and was entertained sumptuously by Achilles (Heroikos 56.6–10). Achilles orders the merchant to go to Troy to bring him a certain young Trojan woman slave, “born of the lineage from which Hektor and those living before him came and is what remains of the blood of the descendants of Priam and Dardanos” (Heroikos 56.7). Upon his return visit to Leukê, the merchant to told to leave the young woman on the shore as he departs, only then to hear Achilles tearing her limb from limb in a final act of vengeance upon the Trojans for the death of Patroklos. To understand this episode, it is not only necessary to recognize the avenging capacity of all heroes, but also to transpose the narrative into the conceptualization of hero cult. In other words, in the Heroikos this episode signals the potential dangers to travelers inherent in what the practices of hero cult make accessibility, at least to those who are not “qualified.” Just as Protesilaos does not provide oracular advice to adulterers and indeed exacts vengeance on them, so too there are dangers in hero cult for the unjust and the impious. Travelers, I suggest, may be at particular risk lest they engage inappropriately in the cults that they encounter.
All of the aspects of travel and visitation that we have examined thus far with reference to the Heroikos have highlighted the personal and individual. The Heroikos has, in this way, provided considerable material for thinking about the conceptualization of direct and personal encounter with the hero through cult. In addition, however, the Heroikos also offers us a picture of what was probably the more usual way of venerating heroes, namely, the communal rituals of sacrificial offerings to heroes “as to the dead.” In his discussion of Achilles, the vinedresser provides a lengthy and detailed account of the tomb sacrifices to Achilles “as to a god” and “as to one dead” at the tumulus at Sigeion on the Troad (Heroikos 53.8–23). This is not the place to examine this fascinating text in detail.  For our purposes, however, it is important to notice that these rites are carried out entirely as an embassy to Achilles from the Thessalians, as decreed by the oracle at Dodona. That is, the rites are performed by a large number of ritual ambassadors who travel from Thessaly to Sigeion and who bring with them all of the animals, materials, and equipment necessary for the sacrifices. Because of the particularities of these rites—the oracle had decreed that it was wrong to eat the sacrifices “in the enemy’s country” (Heroikos 54.13; i.e., the Troad), the sacrifice to Achilles “as to a god” is performed on the beach and the feasting takes place on the ships. (The sacrifice of the more customary black bull “as to one dead” is in this instance a holocaust, performed on Achilles’ tomb.) Other dimensions of the rites highlight the fact of travel:
For this reason, the Thessalians first customarily used unfading crowns for mourning, in order that, even if the wind delayed the ship, they would not wear crowns that were wilted or past their season. It was indeed necessary to put into the harbor at night, and before touching land, to sing Thetis a hymn from the ship.
Heroikos 53.9–10Rather than reading this extended passage as a description of how an embassy to a hero sanctuary actually took place, I suggest that it provides an example of how regional devotion to a hero could conceptualize its practices of journeying to the site of primary localization for ritual purposes. The ship itself may become a locus for ritual practice (the singing of a hymn, the sacrificial feast). The limina (the beach, the harbor, “before touching land”) likewise mark areas of negotiating the difference between the cult site itself and the native land of the worshippers (and perhaps of the hero also). We see also in this instance the problems involved with a burial in what is, according to the narrative associated with the cult, in “enemy country” and as a result how what is ritually correct must be redefined. These might all be dimensions of traveling to reach the site of highly localized religious practice.
Questions for Further Research
I wish here simply to sketch out a few questions for further investigation that emerge, from my perspective, out of this examination of localization, travel, and visitation in the practices of hero cult. These questions pertain not only to hero cults per se, but also to ways in which the conceptualization and practices of hero cult came to inform early Christian ritual practice and thought.
The Thessalian worshipers who travel to Achilles’ tomb to offer sacrifices summon Achilles and Patroklos to the tomb:
When they approached the tomb after this hymn, a shield was struck heavily as in battle, and together they cried aloud with rhythmic rapid delivery, calling repeatedly upon Achilles. When they had wreathed the summit of the hill and dug offering pits on it, they slaughtered the black bull as to one who is dead. They also summoned Patroklos to the feast, in the belief that they were doing this to please Achilles.
Heroikos 53.11–12Such an invitation extended to the heroes opens up the possibility of encounter with the heroes through the practices of cult. This notion, basic to cult, is here linked to regional, corporate visitation, but also undergirds much of what we have observed earlier in this essay. That is, the accessibility of the hero to the worshiper through the practices of cult is repeatedly indicated in the Heroikos as integral to the conceptualization of hero cult. The Heroikos explores this accessibility more thoroughly in terms of individual devotion, encounter, and experience than in terms of corporate veneration. I would propose, however, that what the Heroikos presents and examines in terms of the individual coheres with the conceptualization of what is possible through communal or civic cultic practice. I think here less of what has been called the “mysticism” of hero cult,  although this dimension bears further investigation, and more in terms of the activation of the superhuman consciousness of the hero. In particular, I ask whether what is presented in narrative terms in the Heroikos as the accessibility of the hero as the source of poetic traditions, oracular knowledge, and even healing practices can be transposed into an understanding of what is available through visitation to the cult site itself. To put this question another way: Is a hero cult sanctuary a locus for such practices as rhapsodic performance of poetry, the preservation and transmission of local epic and/or lyric traditions, and the development of sapiential and philosophical teaching, as well as oracular wisdom and healing knowledge? In what ways then does a text like the Heroikos provide a picture of the kinds of expertise that might be available to any visitor or traveler to a hero shrine?
A related set of questions pertains to the role of travel and visitation in activating local, epichoric traditions, especially in dialogue with “canonical” panhellenic traditions. What is the role of local hero cults in the generation and transmission of narrative and poetic traditions, as well as (through travelers) in the dissemination of those traditions through regional and wider networks? What is the role of place and particularly the places of cultic practice in the composition and performance of authoritative traditions, both narrative and sapiential? For scholars of early Christianity, this set of questions may yield some models for the development, dispersion, and persistence of local narrative traditions such as individual gospel traditions or the stories concerning Jesus’ earliest followers.
Another area signaled in the Heroikos and requiring further investigation is travel for specific “religious” need. That is, are there benefits accessible only through being in the right place and in the right relationship with the hero? What is the conceptualization of religious experience associated with travel and visitation in such cases—either for an individual devotee or for a region or city?
Finally, the Heroikos, because it tells a story, presents scenarios of approach, engagement, deepening engagement, and departure. In what ways can such a narrative scenario be taken as referential of cultic practice? How does hero cult conceptualize the limina of cultic experience? Furthermore, how does hero cult conceptualize the limits of cultic experience available to travelers and transient visitors, presented here in some contrast to abiding, permanent cultic presence and devotion? Is this narrative tension an expression of a contrast between traveling and permanent residence, or is it a contrast between local and wider networks of cultic practice, knowledge, and experience?
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[ back ] 1. An earlier version of this essay was presented at the annual meeting of the Canadian Society of Biblical Studies in the Travel and Religion in Antiquity Seminar (Vancouver, June 2008). I am grateful to the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada for their generous support of my research on early Christianity and hero cult.
[ back ] 2. See Berenson Maclean and Aitken, 2001; 2003; and Aitken and Berenson Maclean 2004 including the extensive bibliography and discussion of the history of scholarship available in these publications.
[ back ] 3. Nagy 2001:xv–xvi, Henrichs 1993:165–80, Brelich 1958, Snodgrass 1987:159–67, Antonacci 1995.
[ back ] 4. See Nagy 1990:268–73.
[ back ] 5. Nagy 2001: xviii–xxi and the sources cited there.
[ back ] 6. Nagy 1979:139–41.
[ back ] 7. Blomart 2004:92–93.
[ back ] 8. See the discussion in Pache 2004:19-20 and the discussion of Claude Calamé’s work cited there.
[ back ] 9. Nagy 1979:189–96; Nagy 1990:177.
[ back ] 10. Pache 2004; Berenson Maclean, 2004:261–6; Dué and Nagy 2003:xxv–xxx.
[ back ] 11. See the argument in Berenson Maclean and Aitken 2001:lxxxii–lxxxvii; and Aitken 2004:267–84.
[ back ] 12. This argument has been developed by Albert Henrichs in his unpublished 2001 conference paper, “Keeping Dead Heroes Alive: The Revival of Hero Cult in the Heroikos,” presented at the symposium, “Philostratus’s Heroikos: Religion and Cultural Identity,” 4–6 May 2001.
[ back ] 13. Nagy 2001:xxx; Martin 1989:xiv.
[ back ] 14. Eitrem 1929; Burkert 1970; Betz 2004; Mantero 1973:12–13; and Hägg 1999; in contrast to Anderson 1986 and 1993; Grossardt 1998; and Whitmarsh 2004.
[ back ] 15. See Pache 2004; Berenson Maclean, 2004:261–62; and Dué and Nagy 2003:xxv–xxx for discussions of initiation and hero cult in the Heroikos.
[ back ] 16. See Follet 2004; Rusten 2004.
[ back ] 17. Homer Iliad 2.701–702.
[ back ] 18. It is appropriate to note that there is no archaeological evidence for this heroon or for the oracle, and excavations of the tumulus at Elaious have not indicated a direct connection with Protesilaos.
[ back ] 19. The hero also gives the vinedresser advice about gardening, diet, and the preferred lifestyle (Pythagorean) for his devotees.
[ back ] 20. In this connection we may note the visit of Caracalla and Julia Domna to the tomb of Achilles in 214–215 c.e. (Cassius Dio Roman History 78.16.7; Herodian History of the Empire 4.8.3).
[ back ] 21. Martin 1989.
[ back ] 22. Aitken 2001:127–35.
[ back ] 23. Nagy 2001:xvi.