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Gender and Immortality: Heroines in Ancient Greek Myth and Cult

Gender and Immortality: Heroines in Ancient Greek Myth and Cult

by Deborah Lyons, Deborah J. Lyons

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In recent years, the topic of ancient Greek hero cult has been the focus of considerable discussion among classicists. Little attention, however, has been paid to female heroized figures. Here Deborah Lyons argues for the heroine as a distinct category in ancient Greek religious ideology and daily practice. The heroine, she believes, must be located within a network


In recent years, the topic of ancient Greek hero cult has been the focus of considerable discussion among classicists. Little attention, however, has been paid to female heroized figures. Here Deborah Lyons argues for the heroine as a distinct category in ancient Greek religious ideology and daily practice. The heroine, she believes, must be located within a network of relations between male and female, mortal and immortal. Using evidence ranging from Homeric epic to Attic vase painting to ancient travel writing, she attempts to re-integrate the feminine into our picture of Greek notions of the hero. According to Lyons, heroines differ from male heroes in several crucial ways, among which is the ability to cross the boundaries between mortal and immortal. She further shows that attention to heroines clarifies fundamental Greek ideas of mortal/immortal relationships.The book first discusses heroines both in relation to heroes and as a separate religious and mythic phenomenon. It examines the cultural meanings of heroines in ritual and representation, their use as examples for mortals, and their typical "biographies." The model of "ritual antagonism," in which two mythic figures represented as hostile share a cult, is ultimately modified through an exploration of the mythic correspondences between the god Dionysos and the heroines surrounding him, and through a rethinking of the relationship between Iphigeneia and Artemis. An appendix, which identifies more than five hundred heroines, rounds out this lively work.

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"Scholars, teachers, and college students are certain to find this contribution not only interesting but enlightening for classical literature, mythology, and women's studies, and the inclusion of an Appendix, 'A Catalogue of Heroines,' most useful."--Classical World

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Princeton University Press
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Princeton Legacy Library Series
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6.43(w) x 9.58(h) x 0.94(d)

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Gender and Immortality

Heroines in Ancient Greek Myth and Cult

By Deborah Lyons


Copyright © 1997 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-691-01100-4


Heroines and Heroes

"Hero" has no feminine gender in the age of heroes. —M. I. Finley


The daunting judgment of a distinguished ancient historian that "'hero' has no feminine gender in the age of heroes" might appear to call into question the very phenomenon I propose to study here: heroines in ancient Greek myth and cult. If there is no word for the female counterpart to the hero in the earliest times, how can we speak of the myths and cults of heroines without being anachronistic? How can we speak coherently of heroines at all?

Based on his observation that no word for heroine is attested in archaic Greek, Finley concludes that there is no female counterpart to the hero, that heroism, for the Greeks of the archaic period, is impossible for a woman. He makes this observation within the context of Homeric epic, where it is perhaps true. We must not allow this to deter us, however, given that the object of our study is not only heroism but rather the entire range of cultural meanings and practices associated with the myths and cults of heroines. I will argue, furthermore, that the "feminine gender" of hero is recoverable, if not in Homer, then in other archaic texts.

Homeric epic is famous for its silence on the topic of hero cult, but even so it can be made to yield some evidence. The opinion of earlier scholars such as Wilamowitz, Rohde, and Farnell, that hero cult was unknown to Homer or irreconcilable with the worldview of the poems, has been effectively challenged. The most explicit references to cult are in the Catalogue of Ships in the Iliad, which mentions the tomb of Aipytos (2.604) and offerings to Erechtheus in the temple of Athena (2.546–51), but hints of cult may be found in other passages. Nagy finds traces of hero cult in the treatment of the dead warrior Sarpedon in Iliad 16, suggesting that the tradition preserves knowledge even of practices that cannot be made explicit. It has recently been argued that Homeric epic was directly responsible for the diffusion of hero cult, but this claim has not been universally accepted. The generic requirements of epic limit its usefulness for an archaeology of hero cult, but it has a few things to tell us, not only about heroes, but about heroines as well. Other archaic texts are fortunately more forthcoming, and archaeological evidence shows that heroines are included in some of the earliest manifestations of hero cult. The shrines of Pelops and Hippodameia at Olympia may be of great antiquity, early hero-reliefs show hero and heroine pairs, and a dedication to Helen is perhaps the earliest known Laconian inscription, dating from the second quarter of the seventh century.

The difficulties posed by these kinds of early evidence must be confronted, insofar as they call into question the category of heroine as the female equivalent of hero. In the absence of a word for heroine in the earliest texts, we are forced to extrapolate, looking on the one hand toward figures such as the famous women (called "wives and daughters of the best men") whom Odysseus meets in the Underworld in Odyssey 11, and on the other hand to some of the more powerful female figures of myth, who in fact share many characteristics with male heroes. But "wives and daughters of the best men" may seem to be less than heroes, while figures like Ino-Leukothea, or Helen, for whom we have some of the earliest evidence, are at times worshiped as goddesses (theoi) and hence seem to be more than heroines. The category of heroine as female counterpart to the hero, poised neatly between mortal and immortal beings, seems threatened.

Despite Homeric reluctance to speak of hero cult, there are clear epic references to heroes who transcend their heroic status. The Odyssey refers to one of the most famous of all heroes, Herakles, in a way that emphasizes not his status as a heroized mortal, but his apotheosis.


And after him I saw the powerful Herakles, or rather, his phantom; he himself among the immortal gods enjoys the feast, and has as his wife lovely-ankled Hebe, child of great Zeus and golden-sandled Hera.

(Odyssey 11.601–4)

Strikingly similar treatment is accorded Leukothea, the divine apotheosis of the heroine Ino:


But then Kadmos' daughter, slender-ankled Ino, saw him— Leukothea, who once was a mortal endowed with human speech but now deep in the sea, has a share of honor among the gods.

(Odyssey 5.333–35)

Although the reference to Herakles' phantom has been treated by some as an interpolation, no one has ever challenged the authenticity of the lines about Ino. We can conclude from this that Homeric epic (or at least the Odyssey) has no objection to speaking of heroes—once they have become gods, admittedly a rather exclusive company. The other conclusion to be drawn is that the poet of the Odyssey is at least as willing to speak of divinized heroines, and to speak of them in a way that leaves no doubt about their originally human status. By the some token, the cults of heroines are not likely to have been any more foreign to the Homeric tradition than the cults of heroes.

The phrase "wives and daughters of the best men (aristoi)," which introduces the catalogue of heroines in the Nekyia (Underworld) section of the Odyssey (11.227), provides another clue. The women, who include Alkmene, wife of Amphitryon (266), and Ariadne, daughter of Minos (321–2), are identified by their male relatives, not only husbands and fathers, but also sons (e.g., Herakles 267–68). What is more, all of these male relations—fathers, husbands, sons—are heroes of myth and cult. As Nagy has shown, being "the best" is not merely a characteristic of heroes, but their defining feature. The heroes are the aristoi, the best, and aristos is the functional equivalent of heros. To see the relevance of this to our elusive heroines, we may now turn to that other more extensive, although fragmentary, catalogue of female mythic figures, the Hesiodic Catalogue of Heroines.


Now sing about the race of women, sweet-voiced Olympian Muses, daughters of aegis-bearing Zeus, sing of those who were the best of their time who loosened their girdles, mingling in union with the gods

(frg. 1 Merkelbach-West)

The poet begins by asking the muses to sing of the gunaikon phulon, the "tribe of women." In the fragmentary lines that follow, these gunaikes are described as "the best of their time" (hai tot' aristai) who "had intercourse with the gods" (misgomenai theosin). In other words, they are not ordinary women, but the same wives and daughters (and mothers) of heroes encountered by Odysseus in the Nekyia, along with others of similar mettle. The poet of the Catalogue, however, in referring to them as aristai, has given these figures an appellation that clarifies their heroic status. The word aristai shows that they are the counterparts of the heroic aristoi of the Homeric poems. A more complete examination of the linguistic field shows that Finley did not look far enough. Here, then, is the "feminine gender" of hero in the age of heroes.

The troublesome indeterminacy found in the earliest texts gives way by the early fifth century. By the time of Pindar at the latest, heroine is clearly a recognizable category. Pindar's use of the word herois ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]), in an ode written for Thrasydaios of Thebes, is generally taken to be the earliest extant example of a female equivalent of heros ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]). Thrasydaios, according to the scholia, won two victories, one in the boy's footrace of 474, and one twenty years later. Most commentators assign this ode to the earlier victory. The word herois (gen. pl. [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], Pythian 11.7) is unlikely to be a Pindaric invention, especially as it appears in an invocation, generally a conservative element in Greek poetry. A fragment of the Boiotian poet Corinna (PMG 664b = Campbell 664b) proclaims her subject as the "merits (or valor) of heroes and heroines" ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]). If she was indeed a contemporary of Pindar, as the ancient tradition has it, this is further evidence for the diffusion of a female form of heros (at least in Boiotia) by the first quarter of the fifth century. Indeed, the fragment from Corinna may be even older than the Pindaric ode, even if we do not accept the later date for the victory of Thrasydaios which it celebrates.

We may also approach the problem of the heroine by examining the criteria for establishing the status of male heroes. For a male hero, in the absence of archaeological evidence such as a named dedicatory inscription, we rely on textual evidence for myth or cult. Heroes are generally considered to be those who have one or more of the following attributes: heroic or divine parentage; a close relationship—erotic, hieratic, or antagonistic—with a divinity in myth; ritual connection with a divinity, such as a place in the sanctuary or a role in the cult; a tradition or evidence of a heroon (hero-shrine) or tomb, sacrificial offerings, or other ritual observance. If we consider those figures generally numbered among male heroes, we will find these criteria to cover most instances. The next step is to see whether we can apply the same criteria to heroines.

As a test, let us consider some figures for whom we have the kind of archaeological evidence we spoke of above, and see whether the other criteria apply. Both Herakles and Helen have divine parentage, and both have ample evidence of cult. Hyakinthos and Semele are united erotically in myth with divinities, and in each case there is the requisite cult evidence. These two figures could fit equally well into our third category, that of ritual connection with a god, but we can supply other examples, such as Hippolytos and Iphigeneia. This demonstrates the degree to which the various features of heroic myth and cult coincide, regardless of the gender of the heroized figure. Other heroes and heroines languish in comparative obscurity, and in these instances we do not have the evidence on which to base firm conclusions. We can, nonetheless, learn something about heroines by extrapolating even in circumstances in which we have less than complete documentation.

If "heroine" is clearly a recognized category by the early fifth century, it is also true that the category "hero" is an extremely expansive and inclusive one, which changes through time. The term heros, ostensibly more stable and tangible by virtue of its impeccable Homeric lineage, proves scarcely easier to define than its linguistically more elusive female counterpart. To put our problem in perspective, let us examine attempts by several scholars, all of whom have made considerable contributions to the field, to define hero. For Brelich, the hero is "a being venerated in cult and remembered in the myths of the ancient Greeks." That he felt it necessary to defend this definition, stressing the essentially religious character of myth, was a reaction to prevailing tendencies in the study of Greek religion at the time. Kirk offers a more hesitant definition: heroes are "men who had a god or goddess as one parent or who at least walked the earth when such figures existed." With time, the balance has shifted. Unlike Brelich, who is concerned to restore myth to its rightful place in the study of religion, Kirk, writing more than a decade later, takes the importance of myth for granted but is somewhat apologetic about cult, and about the fact that many of the heroes have only the most tangential relation to it. Burkert recognizes two separate senses of "hero," the first being a character in epic, and the second, "a deceased person who exerts from his grave a power for good or evil and who demands appropriate honour." This two-part definition corresponds to the two parts of Brelich's formulation, but the substitution of "epic" for the broader category of "myth" is surprising, given the importance of myth in Burkert's own work.

If heroines, while retaining the right to be called by that name, deviate in various ways from standards of male heroism, it is also true that heroes themselves frequently do so. If female heroized figures frequently slip across the border into divinity, male heroes occasionally do so as well. In other words, although the mass of heroines act or react in ways that deviate from the male heroic norm, nothing they do—allowing for biological difference—is outside the range of possible behavior for heroes.

In what follows, I adopt a flexible definition of "heroine," which corresponds to Brelich's two-tiered definition of "hero." While I insist on the integrity of the category hero/ine as a distinct religious and mythic phenomenon, I do not consider it to be a privileged one, and in this I follow the usage of the ancient Greeks themselves. While for the purposes of my study, I will admit to finding those heroines who figure in both cult and myth the most interesting, we do not always know who they are. For this reason, the operating definition must be the more inclusive one of "female figure in epic, myth, or cult." As we saw in attempting to bring the heroes of Homer into relation with the practice of hero cult, there is some overlap, and there would likely be more if both archaeological data and literary sources were more complete. Since there is no way of knowing what we are missing, it seems unwise to exclude anything that might allow patterns to emerge. To prevent this inclusivity from becoming imprecision, I will indicate the limits of available evidence for each heroine, signaling those places where conjecture has been allowed to exceed it.


All words used to indicate the female equivalent of heros ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]) are in fact derived from this masculine form, which appears in the earliest extant Greek literature. Although in Homer it refers exclusively to living beings, in Hesiod it already implies a recipient of local honor after death (Works and Days 159–72). As Chantraine notes, the antiquity of the cult of heroes is shown by the form ti-ri-se-ro-ei found on a Mycenaean tablet, which would correspond to triseros, an otherwise unattested form meaning "the very ancient hero."

Various etymologies for heros have been proposed. Attempts to connect it with Latin servare (to preserve, protect) based on a postulated early Greek form [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], are called into question by the discovery of the Mycenaean form mentioned above, which shows no trace of the expected w-sound. Chantraine considers more plausible the etymology favored by Potscher, from the root *ser- (or perhaps *ier-), which would connect it with the goddess Hera, as well as with the noun hora ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]), "time, hour, ripeness," and the adjective horaios, ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]), "timely, ripe, marriageable." Pötscher argues, based on this etymology, that the hero is the young divine consort of the goddess, with whom he shares the quality of being "ripe for marriage." O'Brien emphasizes the connection with the seasons (Horai) and the hero as one "who belongs to the goddess of the seasons." Householder and Nagy argue that the hero's association with goddesses, and specifically with Hera, is signaled not only by the etymology of heros, but also by the language of epic itself.


Excerpted from Gender and Immortality by Deborah Lyons. Copyright © 1997 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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