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Medea with her children. The children became the focus of a hero cult in ancient Greece.

Baby, Baby, Baby: Why Did the Ancient Greeks Turn Dead Children into Heroes?

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When we use the term “hero” today while discussing Greek mythological figures, it usually designates a man whose superhuman exploits and semi-divine parentage make him a person of legend. But in real-life ancient Greece, heroes were venerated at their own shrines, and deceased men figured in popular imagination somewhere between divine gods and Average Joes. Adult superheroes weren’t the only ones honored; deceased young ones, highlighted by Prince Opheltes and the children of Heracles and Medea, sometimes had their own hero cults too.

In her important An Archaeology of Ancestors, Duke University classicist Carla Antonaccio discusses the difficulty of defining a “hero” who deserves his own cult. She ties the idea into ancestor worship. Some hero cults honored mythological figures, like Heracles, and some honored real-life folks, such as the Spartan general Brasidas who died a long time ago. But the clear distinction between “fictional” and “real” characters (and what defines fact versus fiction, vis-a-vis legend) is likely more of a modern retrojection than one the Greeks may have made. The theoretical discussions of what makes a cult hero are better left to specialists on the topic, such as Gregory Nagy and Bruno Currie (both of whose excellent works on the subject are cited below).

Ruins of a hero-shrine or heroon at Sagalassos, Turkey

Ruins of a hero-shrine or heroon at Sagalassos, Turkey. (Tijl Vereenooghe/ CC BY SA 2.5)

Defining a Hero by Death

What is unique about infant hero cults is that the revered babies never got the chance to do anything like Heracles or Odysseus. A baby who died young couldn’t have slain monsters (well, Heracles in his crib with the snakes), founded cities, or saved damsels, but Antonaccio cites infant and child cults at cities all over Greece. Instead of what they did during their lives, they are defined by the circumstances of their deaths. Why? Perhaps, as Corinne Pache suggests in her monograph on the subject, the preoccupation with children’s deaths and honoring the deceased reflects real-life parental anxiety about infant mortality in the ancient world.

It’s noteworthy that baby graves and the cults honoring them often are centered in the area from which the child originated or where they died. Pausanias notes that in the city of Nemea, there is one famous baby’s grave. Meet Opheltes, a prince of Nemea who died in a cypress grove near Zeus’s temple in his hometown.

The temple of Zeus at Nemea.

The temple of Zeus at Nemea. (Wlodek Kaluza fotorion.de/ CC BY SA 3.0 )

The Hero Cult of Prince Opheltes

What happened? When a bunch of heroes on their way to Thebes came along, looking for directions to a spring of water, they asked infant Opheltes’ nurse which way to go. The lady plopped him down in the grass for a second; while she was looking away, he was killed by a snake. That nurse wasn’t innocent - she was the one-time queen Hypsipyle, who sanctioned the murder of men on the island of Lemnos while hiding away her own father. Pseudo-Apollodorus observes that seers interpreted the death of Opheltes to indicate the inevitable failure of the traveling heroes’ mission against Thebes.

Back in Nemea, Opheltes’ tomb received lots of glory in later years. Opheltes’ tomb “is a fence of stones, and within the enclosure are altars,” alongside which is the honored tomb of Opheltes’ father, Lycurgus. The Nemean Games, highlighted by a foot race in which the contestants wear armor, were held in Opheltes’ honor. Who founded them? The Seven Against Thebes, who indirectly caused his death while asking for directions, as a means of lessening their guilt, honoring the infant’s shade, and averting any plans of retaliation by the bereaved royal house of Nemea.

Hoplitodromos. Side B from an Attic black-figure Panathenaic amphora, 323–322 BC. From Benghazi

Hoplitodromos. Side B from an Attic black-figure Panathenaic amphora, 323–322 BC. From Benghazi (Cyrenaica, now in Libya). ( CC BY 2.5 )

The association with Opheltes remained consistent throughout history. As historian Donald Kyle noted in his Sport and Spectacle in the Ancient World, even the visual elements of the Nemean Games--the judges donned black robes, the winner wore a crown made of wild celery leaves (according to some versions, Opheltes died not in a cypress grove, but in a patch of wild celery) to evoke his memory.

To complete his transformation from tragically deceased human child to full, semi-divine hero, Opheltes received a heroic funeral, described by the poet Statius in his Latin epic poem Thebaid, about the Seven Against Thebes’ misadventures. Opheltes received a new moniker from the prophet Amphiaraus--Archemoros, or “beginner of death,” signifying how poorly the Theban mission would go.

Small child, probably Opheltes. Small terracotta from the sanctuary of Hero Ofeltes in Nemea, around the year 500 BC. See Pausanias II, 15, 3. Archaeological Museum of Nemea, TC 117

Small child, probably Opheltes. Small terracotta from the sanctuary of Hero Ofeltes in Nemea, around the year 500 BC. See Pausanias II, 15, 3. Archaeological Museum of Nemea, TC 117. (Zde/ CC BY SA 4.0 )

Questions of Blame

As nice as it is to honor those gone too soon--and too young--why would people go to such an extent for a baby or child? In the case of Heracles’ slain children--killed by their father--or Medea’s sons--sometimes reported to have been murdered by their mother--the citizens of the city where the kids are buried perform actions that atone for these deaths, no matter whose fault they were.

To compensate for the deaths of Medea’s sons--whether by their mom or the people of the city of Corinth--later Corinthians must still honor those gone by. If they killed the kids, they would do so to propitiate the ghosts and expunge their own guilt; if Medea did it, perhaps they ritually substituted themselves for Medea, a onetime resident of Corinth, the king of which helped contribute to her downfall.

1st century AD fresco in which Medea plans the murder of her children, who are playing knucklebones.

1st century AD fresco in which Medea plans the murder of her children, who are playing knucklebones. ( Public Domain )

Heracles’s dead children were honored in Thebes, home city of their mother, Megara. Pindar, however, refers to his eight sons as “bronze-armored,” so perhaps the boys were of age by the time they were killed--and later sources made them younger so as to lessen the charge. Perhaps it was seen as appropriate for the Thebans to honor the deceased heirs of their murdered princess, just as the people of Nemea did for Opheltes, their one-time prince and heir (even though they weren’t the ones who caused his death).

Heracles and his child Telephos. Marble, Roman copy of the 1st–2nd century AD after a Greek original of the 4th century BC.

Heracles and his child Telephos. Marble, Roman copy of the 1st–2nd century AD after a Greek original of the 4th century BC. Found in Tivoli, Italy. ( Public Domain )

If Medea never really atoned for her sons’ deaths, then the people of her city, in a way, did it on her behalf. By honoring deceased youngsters with close ties to their own cities--and by involving their own children in initiatory rites dedicated to lost children--perhaps citizens of said town hoped to ensure that similar fates would not befall their own families, Antonaccio theorizes.

Top image: Legend, Thebes: Discovery of the dead Opheltes -- In clearing beside stream, Hypsipyle kneels beside dead body of infant Opheltes, lying on ground beside snake. Across stream, Adrastus, crowned and wearing armor, stands with soldier holding spear. Scene in gold frame. ( Public Domain )

Detail of ‘Medea’, (1870) by Anselm Friedrich Feuerbach, showing Medea with her children. The children became the focus of a hero cult in ancient Greece . Source: Public Domain

By Carly Silver

References

Antonaccio, Carla M. An Archaeology of Ancestors: Tomb Cult and Hero Cult in Early Greece . London: Rowman & Littlefield, 1995.

Apollodorus. The Library of Greek Mythology. Translated by Robin Hard. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997.

Beaumont, Lesley A. Review of Baby and Child Heroes in Ancient Greece (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2004), in Bryn Mawr Classical Review (2007.04.68).

Bravo III, Jorge J, and Michael MacKinnon. Excavations at Nemea IV: The Shrine of Opheltes . Oakland, CA: University of California Press, 2018.

Currie, Bruno. Pindar and the Cult of Heroes . New York: Oxford University Press, 2005.

Hard, Robin, and H.J. Rose. The Routledge Handbook of Greek Mythology. New York: Routledge, 2004.

Kyle, Donald G. Sport and Spectacle in the Ancient World.  2nd ed. Malden, MA: Wiley, 2015.

Manon, Nivedita. Recovering Subversion: Feminist Politics Beyond the Law. Chicago: University of Illinois Press & Permanent Black, 2004.

Nagy, Gregory. “Signs of Hero Cult in Homeric Poetry.” Homeric Contexts: Neoanalysis and the Interpretation of Homeric Poetry . edited by F. Montanari, A. Rengakos, and Ch. Tsagalis. Trends in Classics Supplementary Volume 12. Berlin and Boston. 27–71.

Ogden. Daniel. Drakōn: Dragon Myth and Serpent Cult in the Greek and Roman Worlds. New York: Oxford University Press, 2013.

Pache, Corinne Ondine. Baby and Child Heroes in Ancient Greece . Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2004.

Pausanias. Description of Greece . Translated by W.H.S. Jones, vol. 9. Boston: Loeb-Harvard University Press, 1935.

Vessey, David. Statius and the Thebaid. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1973.

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