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Pindar and the Cult of Heroes. By BRUNO CURRIE. Oxford Classical
Monographs. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2005. Pp. xv +
501. Cloth, $125.00. ISBN 0–19–927724–9.

Order this text for $115.00 from Amazon.com using this link and benefit
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Print Version (forthcoming): CJ 103.2: 201–4

Bruno Currie’s primary goal in this book is to investigate whether “a
literary motivation for the numerous allusions to hero cult in Pindar’s
odes [is] to be found in the prospect of heroic honours for the addressee”
(p. vii). The intended audience for the volume includes both Pindar
scholars and specialists in Greek religion. The arguments, presented as
three parts subdivided into fifteen chapters, are incremental and too
detailed to summarize fully here; the conclusion in favor of heroic honors
for the addressees of the odes rests on the cumulative force of these
arguments. Even if one does not find the thesis convincing, the study
provides a fresh and original perspective on Pindar, and raises interesting
questions about heroic cult as well.

In Part I (Chs. 1–5), “Some Themes in Hero Cult: Homer and Pindar,” C.
first considers and compares perceptions of death and mortality in the
Iliad, the Odyssey and Pindar’s extant works. Especially in the Iliad,
Homer is found to express an “austere, minimalist” view of death and the
afterlife, not because this was the only view when the poems were composed,
but because more robust and optimistic popular views, later recognizable in
Pindar, were suppressed in epic. Further, the boundaries between immortal
and mortal status are more permeable in Pindar (who recognizes a special
status in the afterlife for Achilles, Diomedes and others) than in the
Iliad, where mention of heroic cult is avoided. The career of the hero, so
often following a pattern in which trials and tests are rewarded with
immortality and/or cult, can be viewed as a paradigm for the laudandus in
Pindar’s odes.

Chapter 6 introduces a key theme in the book, the distinction between
“inclusive” and “exclusive” concepts of immortality. The latter,
characteristic of the Iliad, makes renown in song (kleos) the only vehicle
for (a clearly metaphorical) immortality. The “inclusive” concept of
immortality, which C. attributes to Pindar, recognizes two paths to
immortality: the kleos of song, and the timê of cult. In order to argue
that Pindar’s concept of immortality is “inclusive,” C. must first explain
the many Pindaric gnômai that seem to contradict this view (e.g., N. 11.15;
I. 5.16 “mortal aims befit mortals”) and reminders that song is the only
means of continued existence after death (e.g. N. 7.14–16; P. 1.92–4). The
gnômai are rhetorical gambits, C. argues, and “generalizations which permit
contradiction” as the thought of the ode develops. Furthermore, insistence
on human mortality does not conflict with “immortality” through heroic
cult, for most recipients of cult have died.

In Part II, “Heroization in the Fifth Century BC,” C.’s goal is to
demonstrate that heroization was a more widespread practice than has been
recognized, in order to establish a 5th-century context in which Pindar’s
clients might reasonably expect to become cult heroes. He identifies three
categories of neglected heroes: the war dead, athletes, and persons whose
cults commenced while they were still alive. In the case of the war dead
(Ch. 7), the only securely attested contemporary cult is that of Plataia
(Th. 3.58.4), although early cults of the Marathon dead and the Persian War
dead of Megara are probable. C. assimilates “institutionalized cults of the
war dead” (p. 95) to heroic cult, based on the scale of their honors, the
sponsorship of the city and deliberate archaisms in the ritual. But as he
recognizes, the war dead are not called “heroes” in extant Greek texts
until the Roman period. Furthermore, the collective nature of most honors
paid to the war dead sets them apart from other heroes. The evidence seems
to point not to routine heroization, but to an ad hoc practice, more common
in some cities than others, which gradually expanded over the centuries.

The heroization of athletes (Ch. 8) is better attested and more directly
relevant to C.’s project, for the popularity of hero-athletes increased
dramatically during the 5th century. C. argues convincingly that the
heroization of athletes had to do directly with their status as athletes,
and was not primarily due to local politics or other factors. He makes a
case for a quasi-cultic atmosphere around certain athletes, but falls short
of demonstrating that Olympic or other victors were routinely heroized. One
argument concerns the dedication of the victor’s statue in a sanctuary or
the agora, which C. wishes to regard as tantamount to heroization. Although
statues seem to play an important role in athlete cults, the dedication of
a statue in itself is not diagnostic of heroic cult in the same way a tomb
located in a sanctuary or the agora is.

C. next establishes (Ch. 9) that there is no a priori obstacle to hero cult
for living persons, by showing that while the term hêrôs usually refers to
“a dead human invested with special power,” it can also be applied to “a
supernatural being subordinate to the gods” (p. 161). Although this is
technically correct, C. underplays the significance of death as part of the
cult hero’s story. Most cultures attribute uncanny powers to the dead,
powers the living do not possess. Of the men C. cites as living recipients
of cult, almost all received their honors in political contexts after the
Peloponnesian war (e.g., Lysandros, Dion of Syracuse, Demetrios
Poliorketes), by which time it is reasonable to assume that many
traditional expectations about cults and their relations to the city had
been irrevocably transformed. The slightly earlier case of Hagnon (Th.
5.11.1) is controversial, leaving the cult of Euthymos of Lokroi as the
only example contemporary with Pindar. C. also holds that popular adulation
could, under certain circumstances, be tantamount to religious worship. For
me, one low point of the book is C.’s suggestion that in formulations such
as Od. 8.170–3, “they regard him hôs theos when he goes about the town,” we
should translate “as a god” and understand the lines literally, not

In general, there are too many strained arguments of this type. In order to
maintain his thesis, C. must explain away many contrary indications in the
evidence, and uses far too much Hellenistic material, implicitly projecting
4th- and 3rd-century attitudes back into the early 5th century. Sustained
analysis of the social and political forces at work in the development of
Greek cults between Pindar’s day and the 4th century is lacking. Yet, in
the end, C.’s thorough and painstakingly assembled body of evidence does
show that anomalies in the traditional scholarly construct of Classical
heroic cult are more common than we usually recognize. Furthermore, at
various places throughout the book (pp. 187, 193, 406–7) he raises
important questions about the anachronistic distinction many scholars still
make between “religious” and “secular.” C. himself does not, however,
pursue this line of inquiry fully, as his own distinction (Ch. 5) between
“religious” and “nonreligious” uses of the word hêrôs in Pindar

In Part III, “Five Odes of Pindar,” C. reads Pindar in the light of the
arguments above, provides fresh interpretations of selected odes and
engages some longstanding Pindaric debates. Beginning with Isthmian 7 (Ch.
10), C. argues that the laudandus’ uncle Strepsiades, who died in battle,
has been heroized. The elder Strepsiades is compared to Meleager, Hektor
and Amphiaraos (I. 7.31–5), all of whom died “amid the throng of fighters
in the front rank.” This selection of heroes has resisted scholarly
explanation. C. suggests that the common denominator is heroic cult, and
that the effect of the whole is to suggest the potential heroization of the
younger Strepsiades. One weakness here is that, in contrast to his cogent
arguments for the Theban connections of Hektor and Amphiaraos, C. fails to
show why the Aitolian cult of Meleager would be of interest (or even known)
to a Theban audience.

Pythian 5 lauds the achievements of Arkesilas IV of Kyrene. In his
discussion of this ode (Ch. 11), C. argues that not only Battos but also
the other Battiad kings of Kyrene were heroized. Therefore, Arkesilas too
could expect to be heroized after death. This is a reasonable hypothesis,
yet even if Arkesilas expected such honors, they would come to him as a
result of his royal status, not because of his athletic victories.
Therefore, this example does not provide strong support for C.’s thesis as
it pertains to athletes, the majority of those praised in the odes. Never
one to shun controversy, C. next dives into the contentious debate over
“sacred prostitution” in Pythian 2 (Ch. 12). He argues that P. 2.15–20
refers to the Lokrians’ famous vow to prostitute their virgin daughters if
they were victorious against Rhegion. C. is aware that the existence of
“sacred prostitution” in Lokroi is controversial, but does not address the
methodological arguments set forward by its most vigorous critics. C.’s
analysis of Nemean 7 (Ch. 13) marshals excellent arguments against the view
that the poem is a revision of Pae. 6.100–20. Instead, he argues, its
encomiastic function is sufficient motivation for the inclusion of
Neoptolemos, who serves as a model for the laudandus Sogenes. In his
discussion of Pythian 3 (Ch. 14), C. returns to the distinction between
“inclusive” and “exclusive” concepts of immortality, and makes the
important observation that Hieron’s apparent eschatological expectations
(as a priest of a mystery cult of Demeter and Kore, and possibly as a “hero
in waiting”) clash with any interpretation of the ode that rejects a
blessed afterlife in favor of immortality through song alone.

C.’s book raises an interesting question: did people in the Classical
period, such as Hieron, seek heroization to guarantee themselves an
afterlife? A more orthodox view of heroic cult addressed to contemporaries
sees it as a spontaneous response to the perception of superhuman power in
an individual, not, as C. would have it, as a method for conferring that
status with its expectation of life after death. In the end, one comes away
from this book asking new questions about hero cult in the 5th century and
its intersection with Pindar’s work, particularly with respect to tyrants
and kings such as Arkesilas IV, Hieron, Theron and Gelon. Currie’s case for
anticipated heroization is most successful when applied to these men, who
received, or had reasonable expectations of receiving, cult honors after
their deaths. This book will surely stimulate further study of the impact
such expectations had upon the poetry of praise in Classical Greece.

Kent State University

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