FROM KINGS TO DEMIGODS: EPIC HEROES
AND SOCIAL CHANGE c.750–600 BC
Hans van Wees
The men who fought the Trojan war were called 'a short-lived race of demigods' in Simonides' elegy on the battle of Plataea (11.18). The heroes of legend were much on Greek minds at the time: at Salamis, an Aeginetan ship carrying images of Aeacus and his descendants had joined the Greek fleet at the last minute and led the charge against the Persian navy – at least according to the Aeginetans. This was not the first time the Aeacids had been mobilised for battle, and the Aeacids were not the only ancient heroes to lend military aid. Indeed, they were so active in warfare that a mid-fifth-century epitaph for the war-dead could say 'one of the god-like demigods came against you and struck you down'.1
By the late archaic period, the Greeks saw their legendary heroes as not merely great men of the past but still-present superhuman beings who protected those who honoured them with sacrifices and games. Agamemnon, Achilles and Odysseus may have started out as Mycenaean kings and nobles or they may have begun as chieftains invented by Dark Age oral tradition, but they ended up transfigured into 'demigods' (hêmitheoi) and worshipped as 'heroes' (hêrôes) in the Greek religious sense. When and why did this elevation take place? It is generally believed that Homer did not yet regard his heroes as objects of cult, and it has been doubted whether Hesiod did. I hope to show that both Homer and Hesiod did think of the distant past as an age when the world was inhabited by a semi-divine race, and that archaeological evidence shows this new perception of the past emerging not long before the composition of the epic poems, c.750 BC, as a result of major social change in this period.2
1 Peek 1955, no. 17; Aeacids: Herodotus 8.64, 83–4; cf. 5.80–1. See further, for instance, Boedeker
1993; Bowden 1993.
I owe much to the helpful comments of the conference organisers and many of the participants,
above all Jan Paul Crielaard and Elizabeth Gebhard.
2 I have previously briefly argued the first point in van Wees, Status Warriors: 7–8 (see Morris,
Archaeology: 234–5; Crielaard 2002; 272–7), and the second in van Wees 1999: 11–13 (= 2002: