In addition to their gods and goddesses, the ancient Greeks worshiped heroes—individuals who were less than gods but greater than mere human beings. Some were the offspring of gods and others of mortals*. Heroes were central figures in Greek mythology and literature, especially in the Iliad and the Odyssey, the great epic* poems of Homer. Heroes were honored with cult* worship and annual festivals, and the bones of some were thought to possess magical powers. Because heroes were less lofty than the gods, they were considered more approachable, and the Greeks often called on them for help regarding matters that were not important enough to bother a god.
Among the most famous Greek heroes were characters in the poems of Homer, such as Achilles and Ajax, the great warriors who fought for the Greeks in the Trojan War. Rituals* and sacrifices* were held at sites believed to be the burial grounds of these heroes. Before the Athenians fought the Persians at the Battle of Salamis during the Persian Wars, they called on Ajax for help. They also called on his father, Telamon, since Salamis was Telamon’s birthplace.
Founders of cities were also worshiped as heroes. The Greeks believed that if a city was attacked, the founder would rise from the dead to defend the city. In return for this protection, worshipers made sacrifices and performed rites at the founder’s tomb. In similar ways, many Greek cities honored legendary ancestors, such as the Athenian hero Theseus, who killed the half-man, half-bull Minotaur. Every Greek city-state* wanted its own hero, and some families claimed descent from a hero to raise their status within the community. People who died in defense of their city were often treated as heroes. For example, the Spartans honored their general Brasidas as a hero after he died in battle in 422 B.C. during the Peloponnesian War against Athens.
* mortal human being; one who eventually will die
* epic long poem about legendary or historical heroes, written in a grand style
* cult group bound together by devotion to a particular person, belief, or god
* ritual regularly followed routine, especially religious
* sacrifice sacred offering made to a god or goddess, usually of an animal such as a sheep or goat
Heracles, the most popular of all Greek heroes, was worshiped as both a hero and a god. The son of Zeus and a human woman, Heracles was famous for performing his Twelve Labors, which had required tremendous courage and strength. Because these labors were regarded by the Greeks as heroic acts performed in the service of his fellow humans, he was made a god after his death. Heracles was honored as a protector from evils. Another popular hero was Asclepius. A skilled doctor, Asclepius was killed for attempting to raise the dead. He was worshiped for his healing power, and sanctuaries* dedicated to him at the cities Epidaurus, Cos, and Pergamum were very popular among both Greeks and Romans. Another hero was Orpheus, a legendary musician who brought his wife back from the dead with his music. (See also Cults; Divinities; Religion, Greek.)
* city-state independent state consisting of a city and its surrounding territory
* sanctuary place for worship