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What’s a Hero Cult?

Hero…cult? What’s a hero cult? The idea of hero worship, or a hero cult, isn’t a modern invention. Ancient Greeks had their own form of it; they just took it rather more literally than we do. 

A common misconception about ancient Greek religion is that they only worshiped Greek gods. That’s not necessarily true. Everything in Greek religion is a bit nebulous, and multiple cults existed, many to the so-called ‘heroes,’ as well as cults to specific gods, and what are called ‘tomb cults.’

Table of Contents

Defining ‘Hero’

So, what’s a hero? In this context, it’s basically the deified dead, “beings worshipped by the Greeks generally conceived as the powerful dead, and often forming a class intermediate between gods and men.”(Kearns, 693) So they’re like demi-gods, or at least they become that way due to some action they took during life, founding a city, inventing something, or being considered one of the heroes of the myths. They weren’t often done for the newly dead, may not be known to their worshippers.”(Kearns, 694).

Based on real or mythical figures, they were supposed to have existed and were intimately connected to the area of their tomb:

“Hero-shrines were often -not always- constructed around tombs, real or supposed, and the hero had a very close connection with that particular place, being far more localized than a god.”(Kearns, 694)

Hero Cults

The seminal work on this topic, to my knowledge, is Farnell’s “Greek Hero Cults and Ideas of Immortality.” Though somewhat dated in terms of archaeological evidence, my understanding is that its essential claims are still accepted.

James Whitley describes hero cults as “any cult where the object of worship was a hero (heroes), named or otherwise, but usually associated with a particular locality”(214) and gives four categories:

1. Cults over tombs of recently heroized dead, instituted soon after death (220)

2. Cults to named heroes, with epic heroes being common (220)

3. Cults to named though relatively unknown, local heroes (221)

4. Cults over bronze-age tombs (221)

Exact forms of offerings and worship varied immensely from place to place.

“At one end of the spectrum, it has a strong resemblance to the offerings given to a dead relative; at the other, it might be barely distinguishable from the worship paid to a god.”(Kearns, 694)

The process was largely uniform, however:

“A hero cult involves setting apart one particular grave, known as a heroon, from other burials by marking off a special precinct, by bringing sacrifices and votive gifts, and occasionally by building a special grave monument.”(Burkert, 203)

They were divine in every sense, though, and “very often the hero’s offering was distinguished from the god’s simply by its lesser value, but even this is not universal, especially when the hero represents an old divinity or forms the focal point of a festival.”(Kearns, 694)


Heroes were usually regarded in stories as, if not being partially descended from the gods, at least being honored by the gods in some sense. So it makes sense that heroes became sort of demigods that were themselves worshipped. ‘Hero’ is a fairly broad category and could be anything from Achilles himself to the supposed founder of a city. Still, they acted as intermediaries between the mortal and divine realm because “The gods are remote, the heroes are near at hand. The hero cult has often been compared to the Christian cult of saints, and without doubt, there is direct continuity and a structural parallel here.”(Burkert, 207)


  • Burkert, Walter. Greek Religion: Archaic and Classical. John Wiley & Sons, 2013.
  • Kearns, Emily. “Hero Cult” in The Oxford Classical Dictionary. eds. Hornblower, Simon, Antony Spawforth, and Esther Eidinow OUP Oxford, 2012.
  • Whitley, James. “The Monuments That Stood before Marathon: Tomb Cult and Hero Cult in Archaic Attica.” American Journal of Archaeology 98, no. 2 (1994): 213–30.
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