The Dry Bones Speak: Hero Cult and the Staging of Heroes in Ancient Athens

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2021-05

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Abstract

The dual institutions of hero cult and drama reveal how ancient Athenians expressed their autochthonous self-identity at the Athenian Acropolis and how the hero Erechtheus specifically embodied this quality. The study of the heroes of ancient Athens requires a reconceptualization of hero cult and the adoption of a localized framework in order to appreciate fully the Athenian perception of their relationship with their own heroes. Although this institution has long been analyzed with the goal of typifying its Panhellenic characteristics, the utilization of a phenomenological methodology in an examination of both the cultic manifestations of the heroes of the Athenian Acropolis and the invocation of these heroes in drama offers insight into the worldview of Athenians in the specific context of the late sixth century and fifth century BCE. Inheriting heroes of Homeric distinction who functioned as leaders in the tribal division of Attica, Classical Athenians celebrated the heroes of the Acropolis, such as Kekrops, the Kekropidai, Pandion, and Erichthonios, for the ways in which they epitomized Athenian autochthony and the earth-begotten right to rule over the land of Attica. Nonetheless, the hero Erechtheus developed into the archetypal symbol of Athenian autochthony as a result of the deep antiquity of his mythology and cultic activity, as well as the eventual unification of his cults with that of Athena Polias within the temple of the Erechtheion. In addition, the presentation of the myths of Erechtheus and his daughters within Euripidean drama reveals how the Athenians empathized with the self-sacrificial nature of his family and understood that their maintenance of the autochthonous autonomy of Athens during the Peloponnesian War necessitated a similar devotion for the communal good of their polis. In this manner, Erechtheus could demonstrate not only the divine might of a Greek hero, but also the ways in which his formerly human existence bore meaning to his devotees in their own lives.

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Keywords

Greece, Athens, Acropolis, Hero Cult, Drama, Autochthony, Erechtheus, Erechtheion, Euripides, Homer

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