Herakles and Healing Cult in the Peloponnesos
Christina A. Salowey
In his encounters with men, women, children, and beasts, Herakles is not usually remembered for improving their health. Yet running parallel to his violent and destructive aspects is the tradition of a kinder, gentler Herakles whose martial campaigns are viewed as protection, whose slaughter of wild animals is called civilizing the landscape, and whose avenging elimination of evil of all sorts becomes synonymous with health care.
Twenty-eight sites in the Peloponnesos can claim Herakles cult, usually in one of three categories: military, athletic, and curative (map 1). The heros function as a curative divinity probably began in the Classical period when the cult was mostly concerned with the eradication of plagues and epidemics. This paper will outline the evidence for his healing cult associations, his pairing with Asklepios, and the hero's connection with medicinal springs. Herakles' masterly control of water sources and drainage may offer an aetiology for this strong link with disease prevention.
The curative aspect of the heros cult has been long been recognized in the Roman world, especially in the first and second centuries A.D. Johannes Lydus, in a treatise on the calendar of religious festivals, written in the 6th century A.D. but drawing on sources as early as the 1st century B.C., mentions that on the 3rd of April, Herakles Epinikios was honored as a provider of health. In Rome, Hercules had a healing function at the Porte Trigemina sanctuary. Hercules Salutaris is the focus of a second century A.D., Romano-celtic cult at Deneuvre and salutary waters are a feature at fourteen other Hercules shrines in both Gaul and Roman Britain. Lastly, Roman surgical instruments from the area of the Black Sea inscribed with the hero's name also indicate his absorption into the medical world.
In the Greek world, Herakles' well-known cult epithet, Alexikakos, found twice in a healing cult context, signals his protective function against plague. The most noteworthy sanctuary of Herakles Alexikakos was located in the Athenian deme of Melite, according to the scholiast to Aristophanes' Frogs (ad 501), and its foundation was in response to a great plague. The passage in the Frogs refers to this Melitan sanctuary which, therefore, must have been in existence from at least 405 B.C., the date of the performance of the comedy at the Lenaia. Exactly which plague initiated the founding of the cult is not clear. The same Aristophanic scholiast indicates that a statue, created by Hageladas, the Argive, student of Pheidias, was dedicated in the sanctuary, after which the plague ended. Hageladas' floruit is given as 432 - 429 B.C. by Pliny (NH 35.49 - 52), which would correspond to the date of the most famous plague at Athens during the Peloponnesian War, but the reference to Pheidias as Hageladas' teacher places the date closer to the beginning of the fifth century B.C., which most scholars seem to favor. It is possible that the reference is to a different, earlier epidemic than the wars plague or that a previously existing statue of Herakles Alexikakos by Hageladas was moved to the Melite sanctuary at the time of the Peloponnesian War. In either case, a cult of Herakles Alexikakos was established in Athens as a public health measure against the effects of plague, perhaps as early as the beginning of the fifth century B.C., but certainly by the last quarter of the century.
The epithet also appears in Peloponnesian contexts. A strong support for the word's curative connotations comes from its occurrence in an inscription found at the sanctuary of Asklepios at Epidauros. A poros stele records a dedication to Herakles Alexikakos. A small marble altar and a statue base also bear dedicatory inscriptions to Herakles. Although no ancient authors comment on the presence of the cult of Herakles at Epidauros, the archaeological remains bear witness that his cult was appropriate and important in a healing shrine, perhaps as an adjunct to the more major incubation cult of Asklepios. The occurence of the epithet Alexikakos in this major healing shrine reaffirms it disease averting meaning.
There may have been a cult of Herakles Alexikakos at his sanctuary in Mantineia. Thucydides (5.64.1, 5.66.1) mentions the Herakleion there, where the Spartans pitched camp before the battle of 418 B.C. Many scholars have tried to locate the sanctuary but have been unsuccessful in discovering tangible remains. Pritchett, however, examining an area of the plain which fits Thucydides' topographical specifications, reports a very promising find - a re-cut stele base with the letters ALEJI, further examination of which, he conjectures, might reveal additional letters. The block has the tapering form of the lower part of a herm and the letters ALEJI could be part of Herakles' cult epithet Alejikakow. A herm is an appropriate dedication to Herakles elsewhere, therefore this piece, if it has not moved very far in the intervening centuries, could provide some confirmation for the location of the Herakleion as well as another example of Herakles' curative epithet.
Alexikakos, of course, is also used for Apollo but Aelius Aristides (40.14 - 15) offers some history of the designation. He states that of the two well-known epithets for Herakles, Kallinikos and Alexikakos, the one was given to Herakles alone and the other to Herakles first among the gods, implying that Herakles received the title before Apollo. Aristides (40.21) also relates the dream of a Thasian or Macedonian stranger that he was singing a paean written by Aristides, which had the refrain "Oh Paean Herakles Asklepios." Aristides interprets this as an appropriate union since "in labors, in pleasure, in care of the body, and in every circumstance the god [i.e. Herakles] is of importance." Since Aristides is antiquity's most famous hypochondriac, I trust his judgement on matters medical.
Herakles and Asklepios appear to share a close relationship at a few other sites of the Peloponnesos. The cult of Herakles Alexikakos at Epidauros has already been discussed. Pausanias (2.11.8) tells us that Herakles and the Nikai, Victories, were featured in the pediments of the Asklepios temple at Titane in the Korinthiad. It might be argued that Herakles and his mythical exploits are a common pedimental theme on the temples of many divinities but his pairing here with Nikai suggest that his Alexikakos and Kallinikos personas were being used to portray a defeat of disease. In Lakonia, Asklepios cured Herakles of a thigh wound he incurred during a battle with the sons of Hippokoön (Paus. 3.20.5). In thanks, Herakles erected a sanctuary of Asklepios Kotyleos between Amyklai and Therapne. The epithet Kotyleos memorializes the location of Herakles' wound. The Hymn of Isyllos from Epidauros indicates that Asklepios came as a helper to the Spartans, when Philip led his army against them, because they were the race of Herakles. In Messenia, Herakles had a notable cult presence in the Asklepieion at Messene. A statue of Herakles stood in one of the smaller cult rooms surrounding the temple (Paus. 4.31.10). It may be that the religious importance of Herakles at Messene is due to the city's founding by Epaminondas of Thebes, where Herakles is the patron divinity. However, there is evidence for the cult of Herakles in Messenia before the founding of the city and another site in the region, Abia, is known for its noteworthy sanctuaries of Asklepios and Herakles, which were contiguous, according to Pausanias (4.30.1).
The strongest argument for Herakles' status as a curative deity, however, comes from the site of ancient Geronthrai, known today as Geraki, located 16 miles southeast of Sparta in the foothills of Mt. Parnon. An epigrammatic inscription (plate 1a) of the fourth century B.C. commemorates the dedication of a spring to Herakles.
AÞ¡naow phg¯ [p]ar' EpandrÛda ´d' nkeitai
HrakleÝ Þtrvn ntÜ xarizom¡n<ou>
Î xaÝre Hrkleis megalñsyenew: AntÜ d¢ dÅrvn
p¡nte êgÛeian mvmon EpandrÛdai ±d¢ t¡knoisin.
An ever holy spring is dedicated by Epandridas to Herakles showing gratitude for cures. Greetings Herakles, great in strength. In return for these gifts, grant faultless health to Epandridas and his children.
Pausanias (3.22.6 - 7) reports that the agora at Geronthrai was noted for its springs of drinking water. There are natural springs located under the southeast corner and on the east side of the acropolis. Perhaps it is one of these springs that Epandridas dedicated to Herakles. The stone on which these verses are inscribed is a wall block, indicated by anathyrosis on the two long sides, probably a part of the spring or fountain house for the spring which the inscription dedicates (plate 1b). The inscription is explicit in its invocation of Herakles as a healing deity: the hero is thanked for cures already bestowed and beseeched for continued health. Since Herakles is connected with healing springs and fountains elsewhere, it is possible that the spring here dedicated was part of the cure the invoked hero specified.
At Troizen there is a Fountain of Herakles, so named because he discovered the water (Paus. 2.32.4). Archaeologically, the spring can be verifed. There is a fountain house that was supplied with water from a natural spring, originating at the base of Mt. Aderes, ancient Phorbantion. The excavator, Welter, who believes that the site contained an Asklepieion, concluded that the mineralogical properties of the water at Troizen probably formed the basis for the cult of Asklepios and presence of ÞatroÛ at the site. Since the water from this spring was undoubtedly used in the sanctuary, it may have been therapeutic in some manner. Therefore, the legend may credit Herakles with the discovery of water with medicinal properties. Additionally, there are two pieces of epigraphical evidence which indicate the worship of Herakles at Troizen. A small marble base, dated to the 1st century B.C. bears a dedicatory inscription and a stele, dated to the 5th century B.C., preserves a response to a oracle detailing that Euthymidas must sacrifice to Herakles Alios. These dedications in a healing shrine, as at Epidauros, indicate that Herakles was perhaps worshipped in his capacity as a healing divinity.
A third sanctuary where Herakles may have been connected with healing springs is that of the river god Pamisos, near Haghios Floros in Messenia. The marshes in the area of Haghios Floros are caused by the many springs, which Strabo (8.4.6) calls dacil®w, meaning abundant, and, together, form the river Pamisos. Pausanias (4.31.4) reports that these springs of Pamisos are where children go to be cured. With this therapeutic function of the springs of the river in mind, it is significant that offerings in the cella of the temple of Pamisos include two bronze figurines of Herakles (plate 2). One figurine, dated to the Archaic period, is easily identified as Herakles fighting the Lernean Hydra. The second statuette may represent Herakles as well, if the object in the right upraised hand is a club. The crude style prevents an absolutely "water tight" identification.
Valmin, the excavator, suggests that the votive presence of the Herakles and Hydra group was meant to represent "the hostile nature of the river subjugated by Herakles." Additionally, he conjectures that the hero may have taught the inhabitants the management of their marshy fields, or, given the healing qualities attributed to the river god, Herakles may have given the inhabitants some remedy against fever. Valmin is certainly on the right track. The worship of Herakles at Elis will further demonstrate the point.
Although the Eleans bore a grudge against Herakles for destroying their city, Athenaios reports that they finally abandoned this hatred when the Spartan Lykourgos persuaded them to sacrifice to Herakles, and by doing so, avert a deadly plague in their city. In another version of the story (Paus. 5.4.6), it was Iphitos, after asking the Pythia how to eliminate the plague in Greece, who encouraged the Eleans to sacrifice to their former enemy as a god. It is Philostratus, in his life of Apollonios of Tyana (8.7.9), who clarifies how Herakles eliminated the plague. He says, "Herakles once purged of the plague the city of Elis by washing away with the river tide the foul exhalations which the land sent up under the tyranny of Augeias." This is, of course, an interpretation of the Augeian Stables Labor from the perspective of sanitary engineering and seems to be referring to a clearing of a swamp.
Significantly, Herakles is known throughout antiquity for his swamp-draining efforts, a talent that may provide the mythological background for his development into a curative god. Ancient authors were not unaware of the connection between ill health and swamps: Herodotos derives the word for fever, "puretos" from "porata", a river delta, and although a false etymology, it demonstrates a realization of the possible connection between pooled water and disease. In Pseudo-Aristotle's Problems (1.8.21) there is a discussion that damp, marshy places are unhealthy, a sentiment which is repeated several times in Hippokrates' Airs, Waters, and Places. Strabo (5.1.7) marvels that although Alexandria is marshy, it is free of fever. In the Peloponnesos, his six labors all occur in areas where control of water sources is essential to prevent the formation of marshland and the preserved stories of these exploits can be viewed as veiled references to hydraulic engineering.
The Lernean Hydra Labor is a case in point. It is not difficult to discover the refracted image of the multiple sources of a marshy area in the polykephalic form of the Hydra; a multitude of writhing snakes is enough to suggest a swamp, but the nature of her destruction is specified as agricultural and her blood is poisonous (Eur. Her. 422, 1188; Soph. Trach. 572 - 577), both qualities are apt metaphors for the stagnant and invasive waters of a swamp. Herakles cannot kill the monster with ordinary weapons but must resort to the use of firebrands, fire being the antithesis of water, and Apollodoros (Bibl. 2.5.2) preserves a version of the myth that Herakles could not kill one immortal head of the Hydra but had to bury it underground, a description which sounds like retraining of a watercourse. Later scholiasts , Lactantius and Servius, are explicit about the interpretation of the myth, that the Lernean Hydra was a swamp (Si veram quaeramus historiam, Lerna palus fuit), the waters of which Hercules dried up. The Lernean Hydra is characterized as the bane of Argos (Eur. Phoen. 1137) and it is likely that the marshy geology of the entire Argive plain contributed to the creation of a legendary swamp creature.
New work in the Argive plain also provides the possibility that the myth has its origins in a geographical reality. Eberhardt Zangger (née Finke), in a geomorphological study of the plain, has been able to demonstrate that a large lagoon existed to the north of ancient Lerna, reaching its maximum size in the 5th millenium, almost completely disappearing by 1100 B.C, and swelling again between the Helllenistic and Roman periods, persisting in the area until recently (map 2). This decrease in the level of Lake Lerna in the Late Bronze Age may have been natural or may have been due to the construction of a Mycenaean water control system. Mycenaean dikes and dam installations have been described by Jost Knauss in the Kopaic Basin, the Pheneatike, and Stymphalia and closer to Lerna, Zangger has recently published the dam at Tiryns which protected the lower town from flooding. If this decrease in the level of Lake Lerna was accompanied by a remission of deadly fevers and an increase in agricultural production, perhaps the myth of Herakles destruction of the Lernean Hydra was created to celebrate the draining of part of the swamp. It seems unlikely, however, that a gradual natural phenomenon occurring over hundreds or thousands of years would provide a marked enough change to be observed within one or two generations and immortalized in legend. However, a technological improvement in the drainage of such a waterlogged area would be noted and preserved in song.
Curtius first postulated such an effort as the motivation for the myth and even recognized blocks and walls in the town of Myloi as components of a Mycenaean drainage canal system. Unfortunately, none of those features exists today. Another possible inspiration for the myth is the Mycenaean dam at Tiryns. The dam at Tiryns was probably constructed to prevent flooding in the lower town. Finke found an alluvial deposit to the north of the citadel which indicated a shift in the stream from its EBA position south of Tiryns. The dam diverted the stream to the south again, and alluvial deposits demonstrate its efficacy. The Tiryns dam is probably not the inspiration for the veiled reference to hydraulic efforts in the Lernean Hydra, but it may be one of many such Mycenaean water control installations that, when working together, improved the drainage conditions in the entire Argive Plain. A grandiose hydraulic project that would have improved the lives of many people is one worthy of assignment to Herakles.
It is possible that Herakles swamp draining efforts preserve in mythological form the memory of actual Mycenaean hydraulic projects. In the Classical and Hellenistic periods, as the connection between pooled, stagnant water and fevers began to be realized, it may well be that Herakles became a symbol and patron deity of the eradication of the plagues and epidemics that swamps engender. The traces of his curative abilities in the Alexikakos epithet, healing springs and association with Asklepios may all stem from the realization of his mythic abilities in water control.
Just as a footnote, the cult of Herakles was present in Lerna in the Hellenistic period, as evidenced by a votive relief (plate 3) to Herakles, now in the National Museum, which depicts Herakles slaying the Hydra. His cult may have been initiated at the site in the Hellenistic period in response to the increase of the lagoon, perhaps to inhibit the deleterious effects of the newly enlarged marshland. Interestingly enough, the invocation of Herakles in battle against "creatures from the lagoon" persisted into the early 20th century when the Society for the Decrease of Swamp Diseases used him in their emblem (plate 4). Perhaps callling upon him made a difference.
Plate 1a: IG V.1119: Votive dedication to Herakles from ancient Geronthrai. Back
Plate 1b: Anathyrosis of block on which IG V.1119 is inscribed. Back
Plate 2: Athens, National Archaeological Museum #15276 and #15273 from the sanctuary of the river god, Pamisos, at Haghios Floros. Back
Plate 3: Athens, National Archaeological Museum. Votive relief of Herakles killing the Lernean Hydra from Lerna, 3rd century B.C. Back
Plate 4: Emblem of the Society for the Decrease of Swamp Diseases. Back
Map 1: Peloponnesian Cults of Herakles Back
Map 2: Lake Lerna and the Argive plain (after Zangger) Back
This paper is part of a longer work , The Peloponnesian Herakles: Cult and Labors, completed as a BrynMawr dissertation in December 1995. I wish the thank the 1984 Foundation of the Mellon Bank for the funding needed to complete the research for this work and to attend the Ninth Annual Swedish Symposium in the June 1994.
Ioannes Lydus, de mensibus 4.67 (Teubner 1967): T» prñ triÇn NvnÇn AprilÛvn Hrakl°w
¤pinÛkiow ¤timto oäa êgeÛaw dot®r.
Bayet, Les Origines 356.
Gérard Moitrieux, Hercules Salutaris: Hercule au Sanctuaire de Deneuvre, Nancy 1992, 105 - 144.
Ibid 122, notes 254 - 267.
B.F. Stopa, A New Dedication from the North-western Crimea and Aspects of the Cult of Herakles in the Chersonese State, Journal of Ancient History 191 (1989) 55 - 70.
A. Stewart, Greek Sculpture: An Expxloration, New Haven 1990, 247 - 248; B. S. Ridgway, The Severe Style in Greek Sculpture, Princeton 1970, 77 - 79, 88 - 89, 112.
IG IV.1092; P. Kavvadias, "EpigrafaÛ ¦j Epidaurñu," ArchEph 1894, 20, #11.
Altar: IG IV.1299, P. Kavvadias, Fouille d'Epidaure I 46; P. Kavvadias1894, 19. Statue base: IG IV.1091; P. Kavvadias, 1894, 19, #10.
G. Fougéres, Mantinée et lArcadie oriental, Paris 1898, 575; E. Kromayer, Antike Sclachtfelder 4, 207; W.J. Woodhouse, King Agis of Sparta and His Campaign in Arkadia in 418B.C., Oxford 1933, 37; A.W. Gomme, Essays in Greek history, Oxford 1937, 141. Pritchett, in his discussion of the battle, outlined previous opinions on the location of the Herakleion, SAGT II. 46 - 49.
For example, a herm of Herakles, a so-called hermeraclas, at Messene: P. Themelis, Ergon 1992, 33, fig. 39.
Pritchett notes: "The one sanctuary named by Thucydides in connection with the site of the battle of 418 B.C. is the Herakleion. Given this site, the entire battle should fall into place. Unfortunately, no archaeological evidence has been offered for the identification," SAGT II.46.
IG IV.1.128; E.J. and L. Edelstein, Asclepius: A Collection and Interpretation of the Testimonies, Baltimore 1945, I.143 - 144, T 295, II.40 - 50.
Petros Themelis has excavated and published a colossal statue of Herakles created by Damophon: see "Damophon von Messene - sein Werk im Lichte der neuen Augrabungen," AntK 36 (1993) 23 - 40, pls. 3 - 9; "O DamofÇn kai ² drasthriñtht tou sthn ArkadÛa," in Sculpture from Arcadia and Laconia, edd. Olga Palagia and William D.E. Coulson, Oxbow Monograph 30, Oxford 1993, 60 - 80.
IG V.1119, SEG 11.913, SEG 15.221, L. Robert, Hellenica IV (1948) 84; Hansen, CEG II.822.
My thanks to the excellent staff at the Archaeological Museum of Sparta who helped me locate this stone and view it. My examination of the stone revealed that the top two lines of the text are almost completely worn away. On the stone, each line of the epigram is divided into two lines of text.
G. Welter, Troizen und Kalaureia, Berlin 1941, 34 - 36.
SEG 37.308; ArchDelt34 (1979) B1 111.
IG IV.760; SEG 36.351; Jeffery, Local Scripts of Archaic Greece, 177 - 178, 182, #6; C. Gallavotti, Boll. Class. 6 (1985) 42 - 46, #7.
M.N. Valmin, The Swedish Messenia Expedition, Lund 1938, 464 - 465.
Athens, National Archaeological Museum #15276: Valmin (n. 21), 440, pl. 33.7; Athens, National Archaeological Museum #15273: Valmin (n. 21), 440, pl. 33.9.
Valmin (n. 21) 464.
He drained the marshes in the region of Tempe (DioSic. 4.18.6); he cut a channel through the plain of Pheneos and directed the course of the Aroanios River under the mountains (Paus. 8.14.2,3); his mother, Alkmene, reports a dream to Megara that Herakles is always digging ditches, perhpas a humourous refernce to her son's constant efforts in the drainage of water (Moschos, Megara 94 - 98).
On this see C. Salowey, Herakles and the Waterworks in the Peloponnesos: Mycenaean Dams, Classical Fountains and Roman Aqueducts, in Archaeology in the Peloponnese: New Excavations and Research, ed. K. Sheedy, Oxbow Books 1994, 77 - 94.
Later sources emphasize the numerous serpent heads of the Hydra, though there is no unanimity as to the number: three (Servius ad Aen. 6.575), nine (Apollod. Bibl. 2.5.2, Servius ad Aen. 6.575, Hyg. Fab. 30, Suda, s.v. Hydra), fifteen (Sim. [Schol. Hes. Theog. 313 = PMG, fr. 569]), fifty (Verg., Aen. 6.575), one hundred (Eur. Her. 1188, DioSic. 4.11.5, Verg., Aen. 7.658), one thousand (Eur. Her. 419) or just many (Anth. Pal. 16.92.2, Verg., Aen. 8.300 [turba capitum, mob of heads], QS 6.212 - 219). Pausanias (2.37.4) credits the many-headed description of the Hydra to the poet Peisander, but the abundant literary and visual testimonia to the many heads of the Hydra make it clear that this description was not just an invention of one poet but a well established tradition.
As in the Iliad 21.328 - 360: When the angry Xanthos River threatens to drown Achilles, Hephaistos becomes elemental fire to answer the waters challenge.
Servius, ad Aen. 6.287 and Lactantius, ad Stat. Theb. 1.384.
The soils in the Argive plain have always been swampy, J. Bintliff, Archaeology and the Holocene Evolution of Coastal Plains in the Aegean and Circum-Mediterranean, in Environmental Aspects of Coasts and Islands, edd. C. Brothwell and G. Cimbleby, BAR 94 (1981), 11 - 31; Natural Environment and Human Settlement in Prehistoric Greece, BAR Suppl. 28 (1977) 654.
Eberhard A.W. Finke, Landscape Evolution of the Arigive Plain, Greece, Paleoecology, Holocene DepositionalHistory and Coastline Changes, Diss. Stanford University 1988, 116 - 120, 136 - 140, figures 26 and 27.
The bibliography on Knauss hydrogeoarchaeological work is extensive: Jost Knauss, "Die Damm im Takka-See beim alten Tegea (Arkadien, Peloponnes)," AM 103 (1988) 25 - 36; Jost Knauss, "Die Mykenische Talsperre von Mantinea und ihre Zerstörung während des peloponnesischen Krieges im Jahr 418 v. Chr., AA 1989, 107 - 141; J. Knauss, "Mykenische Wasserbauten in Arkadien, Bootien, und Thessalien - mutsaßliche Zielsetzung und rekonstrueirbare Wirkungsweise," in Akten Kongreß Wasser Berlin 1989, 31 - 70; J. Knauss, "Der Graben des Herakles im Becken von Pheneos und die Vertreibung der stymphalischen Vogel," AM 105 (1990) 1- 33; J. Knauss, Kopais 3: Wasserbau und Geschichte - Minysche Epoche und Bayerische Zeit (=Bericht Nr. 63, Institut für Wasserbau der TU München) 1990; Jost Knauss, B. Heinrich, and H. Kalcyk, "Der Damm bei Kaphyai und Orchomenos in Arkadien," AW 1986, 583 - 611.
Eberhard Zangger, Landscape Changes around Tiryns during the Bronze Age, AJA 98 (1994) 189 - 212.
Recent history provides a good parallel; the draining of the Hula Swamp in Israel was a bold technological effort that heralded a new advance in agricultural improvements. Accomplished between 1951 and 1958, the draining...was seen as a tremendous achievement, celebrated in writing and song, Azaria Alon, Israeli conservationist, quoted by Joel Greenberg, Israel Restroing Drained Wetland, Reversing Pioneers Feat, NYT, December 5, 1993, 17.
Curtius, Peloponnesos I.52.
J. Balcer, The Mycenaean Dam at Tiryns, AJA 78 (1974) 141 - 149; Finke, (n. 30) 12; Zangger (n. 32) 204 - 207.
Balcer connects the dam at Tiryns with the Augeian Stables. Topographical integrity is one assumption I do make in the reading of these myths. The Lernean Hydra is too close to Tiryns to ignore the possible connection.
LIMC V.1, Herakles #2041; S. Karouzou, National Archaeological Museum: Collection of Sculpture, Athens (1968) 95.