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Hero Cults

Greek religion encompassed many activities besides those of the cults of the twelve Olympian deities. In private life, prayers, sacrifices, and rituals marked important occasions like birth, marriage, and death. Ancestors were honored by offerings made at their tombs. Seers were consulted for the meanings of dreams and omens. Magicians offered spells to improve one's love life or curses to harm one's enemies. Particularly important both to the community and to individuals were what we call hero-cults, rituals performed at the tomb of a man or woman, usually from the distant past, whose remains were thought to retain special power. This power was local, whether for revealing the future through oracles, for healing injuries and disease, or for providing assistance in war. For example, Athenian soldiers in the battle of Marathon in 490 B.C reported having seen the ghost of the hero Theseus1 leading the way against the Persians. When Cimon in 475 B.C. brought back to Athens bones alleged to be those of Theseus2 (who was said to have died on a distant island), the people of Athens celebrated the occasion as a major triumph for their community and had the remains installed in a special shrine at the center of the city. The only hero to whom cults were established internationally all over the Greek world was the strongman Heracles (or Hercules, as his name was later spelled by the Romans), whose superhuman feats in overcoming monsters and generally doing the impossible gave him tremendous appeal as a protector in many city-states.

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