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Ancient Heroine Cults













Written by Ty Narada for Dr. Kosso 

Cults existed for men and women of the distant past whose remains were thought to have special power. That power was used to heal injuries and disease, provide assistance in wartime and to predict the future through oracles.

Religion was a significant realm where a woman could hold power in Ancient Greece. In exceptional cases, a priestess could become worshipped; when that happened she became a heroine. The followers of heroines made sacrifices and offerings to her to solicit her divine influence. Many heroines were mythic figures or maidens who had sacrificed themselves for the public good. They were often linked to male heroes and some were not. Heroines represented many different aspects of life that included marriage, childbirth and role models for strength and wisdom. By worshipping heroines, one would adopt her qualities in much the same sense that people pray to Saints today.

The word heroine refers to different kinds of women and literary figures. The word makes its first appearance in the Pythian Odes at Pindar, when at the temple of Apollo, Strepsiades says, "he calls the native host of heroines to assemble..." This group includes Semele, Ino, Alkmene, Melia and heroines who had cults of their own. Larson believes that the use of the word "heroine" at Pindar implies a direct relation to cults.

Aristophanes implied that there was a difference between heroines and super-natural women when the cloud chorus sings, "who are these women, Socrates, who have made this solemn utterance? They aren't heroines of some kind, are they?" Modern day interpretations believe that the answer is ‘no.’ Current historians use the term heroine to imply a heroized female personage or recipient of heroic honors; the female equivalent of a hero. She is an epic historical figure in myth (Larson, Lyons) that receives cult worship usually around her tomb.

Heroines are perceived to have a combination of the following qualities/attributes: She is an epic figure. She is an illustrious dead person. She is the daughter or mother of a hero. She was sacrificed as a bride or maiden, either willingly or through suicide. Those qualities and attributes brought glory and pride to the heroine's family and community. She became a status role model for "common" women." The implied qualities include: Doing the right thing, obedience to the gods, responsibility for one’s actions and placing the needs of family and community above self interest. Worshipers hope to avoid a similar demise or perhaps gain the strengths that the heroine discovered through her tribulation.

Most of the evidence for cult worship comes from the written calendars and Attic vases originating from the 6th to 4th centuries BCE. (Reeder) There were yearly and monthly rituals, as well as special observances for life changes and transitions. Those transitions included birth, initiation, and marriage. The festivity included Banqueting, Sacrifice and Offerings. The concept of ‘pharmakos,’ (Larson) was invented at those festivals. Pharmakos is the act of sacrificing an object to avoid a negative consequence toward the whole group. On occasions when the sacrificial object was a human being, that human was heroized: The death of one can save many. Alkmene and Semele are two examples heroized for their sons, while the Kekropidai and Leo Korai represent sacrificed maidens.

Alkmene was the mother of Heracles, and was almost always worshipped in relation to him. They are both honored together in the sacrificial calendar and receive sacrifices on the same days. Traditionally, Alkmene receives a less "expensive" offering than her son: Her son receives a sheep worth 12 drachmas and her sheep was worth 11. (Larson) She was worshipped at the same tomb or shrine as Heracles and it is believed that her sanctuary was located near his. Alkmene embodied the greatest hope that a Grecian woman could have – her son was a hero. By her glorification of motherhood, her cult/followers hoped for guidance in raising heroes themselves.

Semele was the daughter of Aphrodite and mother of Dionysos. She was in love with Zeus who seduced her. That relationship ended when Zeus killed her with a thunderbolt. There are several stories describing why: Some say that she was unfaithful to Zeus. Others say that Semele’s sisters were blasphemous. Others claim that she was a victim of Hera’s wrath. The most popular story was that she asked to see Zeus in his true form, and since mortals cannot handle the brilliance of his true appearance, she was burned. Semele was pregnant with Dionysos and went through a tremendous struggle to deliver him before she died. According to the story, Semele went to Hades where Dionysos eventually retrieved her, and brought her back ‘up’ to earth. That is how Semele came to represent fertility and the dangers of childbirth. Her cult/followers worship her; hoping to avoid her fate.

The Kekropidai were the three daughters of Kekrops, the first King of Athens. The most popular version this story is that Athena gave them the infant Erectheus (the second King of Athens) to nurse with the stipulation that they were not to look into his crib. When Herse and Aglauros ignored Athena’s warning and looked into the crib -- they were driven mad with guilt. The story ends when they commit suicide by jumping off a cliff for the good of Athens. Whether or not Pandrosus, the "good" sister also shared this fate is unclear. Euripedes alludes to this fate when Ion and Creusa discuss the daughters of Kekrops, whose death "made the promontory bloody."

The three sisters (Kekropidai) were worshipped at the Sanctuary of Aglauros where Athenian ephebes swore an oath of loyalty upon receiving their armaments. The implied moral: Aglauros did not follow orders and was punished by Athena. An additional ritual includes two girls, who carry a chest from the Acropolis to the Sanctuary of Aphrodite without looking into it. It symbolizes the transition from ‘girl to maiden.’ Another version of the story says that the three sisters (Kekropidai) sacrificed themselves to end the Elusian War, which emphasized Athenian patriotism after the defeat of the Persians. Some say that Aglauros did not willingly sacrifice herself at all

but the story was modified to meet the virgin sacrifice standard. The global moral: If you disobey your guardians and husbands – you will pay the price.

The daughters of Leos were sacrificed by their father to stop a plague (or famine) in Athens. Located in agora is the Leokoreion sanctuary where some say the story was fabricated because of the sanctuary’s name. Pausanius described that "Leos...is said to have given up his daughters, at the command of the oracle, for the safety of the commonwealth." A dramatic increase in offerings at the Leokoreion occurred during the Pelopennesian war. At the same time, epidemics were out of control. By honoring Leo Korai, women hoped to avoid the fate of Leos’ daughters. The moral: A sacrifice to the gods can stop a plague; placing family and society above self-interest is pleasing to the gods.

Cults of Iphigenia were widely seen throughout Attica. She is perhaps the most worshipped and documented heroine because she is a combination of most of the typical heroine roles. She is an epic figure, an illustrious dead person, the daughter of a hero, and a sacrificed bride and maiden – she meets all four criterion for achieving heroine status. In literary sources her name often changes. In the Iliad, Homer refers to her as Iphianassa. Hesiod listed her as Iphimede in the Catalog of Women. The various names all mean "she who brings forth children in strength" or "she who was born with force."

The story begins at the onset of the Trojan War. Iphigenia’s father, Agamemnon was told by the oracle of Artemis to sacrifice his daughter in order to bring divine favor to Greek forces. Her sacrifice would ensure a successful voyage of the Greek fleet from Aulis to Troy where Helen would be rescued. Iphigenia is made aware of the sacrifice required of her and she willingly gives her life for the good of the Greeks. An alternate version says that Artemis replaced her at the last minute with an animal or more suitable sacrifice. Euripedes may have either described what he witnessed at the time, or perhaps influenced the cult himself. Iphigenia comprehensively represented all of the roles that a woman could engage in life: She had a good relationship with her parents. She was a maiden in love with Achilles. The Greeks believed that maidens were married to Hades if they died unwedded. Her cult is associated with the dangers that ‘stop’ childbirth because she never bore children. She represents marriage, childbirth and death – the three major transitions in a woman’s life. In Tauris, they symbolically replaced Iphigenia with a bull on the altar. That act was intended to rescue her. It was believed that she resided in Tauris and sacrificed shipwrecked strangers.

The most thorough account of Iphigenia comes from Euripedes' Iphigenia at Aulis. In addition to Agamemnon, her mother Clytemnestra and Achilles are included. By this account: Agamemnon angered Artemis by killing one of her stags. She then requires him to sacrifice his daughter so that the Greek fleet, which has been assembled and waiting for days, can sail to Troy. Agamemnon sends a letter to his wife and asks her to bring Iphigenia to Aulis. He tells her that Iphigenia is going to marry Achilles. Achilles appears. Agamemnon’s love for his daughter makes it difficult for him to sacrifice her. His brother, Menelaus tells him that is no other choice. Clytemnestra meets Achilles who was never told about the marriage ploy or the sacrifice plan.

Clytemnestra and Achilles determine that the plot will bring shame to both of them and Achilles openly appeals to Agamemnon for her life.

Agamemnon cannot let the armies down, and Iphigenia comes to terms with her fate. She understands that her sacrifice will save thousands of Greeks, and that she will die with glory and fame that long outlives her. She is led to the alter and the story has an alternate ending: As the priest raises the sword over his head, Iphigenia is suddenly replaced by a stag; allegedly whisked to safety by Artemis. Another version says that Agamemnon boasted that he was a better hunter than Artemis was and Artemis required Iphigenia as sacrifice for punishment; that she wasn’t saved at all.

The cult of Iphigenia at Brauron represented the most extreme worship of a heroine by any cult on record. According to the Brauronians, Iphigenia was rescued from sacrifice by Artemis and brought to Brauron as a priestess, where she eventually died and was buried. In the Brauronian version, one of Artemis' she-bears wanders into the middle of the city and is killed by a group of youths. To renew Agamemnon’s gesture, Artemis requires a man to sacrifice his daughter. The man instead, sacrifices a goat dressed like his daughter and everyone rejoices that the daughter is saved. Although Artemis receives the goat sacrifice, the father will eventually sacrifice his daughter. (Lyons, Vernant) Iphigenia failed to pass the transition from parthenos to woman, so Brauronian women who survive childbirth give their clothes to Iphigenia as a sign of thanks.

Artemis, a strong women herself, associates with mortal hunting companions who emulate her chastity, provided they are not raped, seduced or cross the "boundary of virginity."(Lyons) Young women who died before they were married were often heroized to avoid any misgivings with the living. Iphigenia is different because she breaks no boundary: She was never married and remained a maiden in death. Just as Helen of Troy was the protégé of Aphrodite, Iphigenia was the protégé of Artemis as both encounter crisis during transition. Iphigenia never completes the transition while Helen makes it too often.

The initiation rite that Iphigenia was believed to preside over was the arkteia. It involves the re-enactment of ‘hiding the daughter’ and ‘disguising a goat.’ Arkteia was more festive in that running races and athletic contests were held. Girls who participated were called "bears" and would re-enacting the she-bear running through town. These activities are cited in the Lysistrata and represented on numerous vases. The younger girls competed in the nude, while older girls dressed in sapphron colored robes.

Her brother, Orestes, founded this cult. The "symbolic need for human blood" was performed when a sword was run over a man's neck until a drop of blood appeared in commemoration of Iphigenia’s sacrifice. One tradition says that young women on

the eve of their marriage would offer a lock of hair to an Iphinoe who "died before she could marry," in hopes of avoid the same fate.

Greek cults worshipped heroines in much the same way that people pray to Saints today. Some ask a Saint to help them through a rough time or through an important event. Others solicit help to find a lost book or to get a good night’s sleep. Almost everyone worshipped Iphigenia in one fashion or another.

Heroines provided guidance, hope, and served as role models. Although they were not divine, they were more than mortal, and may have seemed more accessible to their followers. Heroines were once mortal themselves and women may have worshipped them to solicit help through their own monumental transitions. In a society where women were almost exclusively in the house, religion was one social outlet worthy of reverence. Every heroine had stepped out of the social boundary, whether in marriage, birth, or death. Since those were the most important moments in a woman's life, under which existed tremendous social pressure, it would seem natural that women would pray to heroines for help to avoid a fate (by honoring it) or to seek divine guidance.


1. [http://srosenberg01.web.wesleyan.edu]
2. Larson, Jennifer Greek Heroine Cults, University of Wisconsin Press (Madison, Wisconsin), 1995.
3. Lyons, Deborah L. Gender and Immortality, Princeton University Press (Princeton, New Jersey), 1997.
4. Reeder, Ellen D. Pandora, Princeton University Press (Princeton, New Jersey), 1995.
5. Vernant, Jean-Pierre. ed. Zeitlan, Froma I. Mortals and Immortals, Princeton University Press (Princeton, New Jersey), 1991.