Hero Cult or Tomb Cult?

What happened at Toumba so many years ago? Who was this man buried in such heroic fashion? Was he a heroic warrior or maybe a wealthy aristocrat? So many questions surround the site at Toumba in Euboia. Scholars have a difficult time interpreting the evidence because only material artifacts were left behind, therefore, the archaeologist must deduce from clues what happened and who these people may have been. Those who once inhabited the area near Lefkandi did not leave behind a written account of their burial rituals, culture, or history.

Scholars have interpreted tombs as the centers of communal religious activity. Likewise, the tombs found at Toumba have been interpreted in this same fashion. The organic and material artifacts left behind suggest some sort of communal rituals took place inside the structure at Lefkandi. Features most likely intended for communal use are those enclosed and containing an alter--like structure, both of which are incorporated at Toumba. Additionally features, such as niches or small chambers, that are integral parts of a tomb are thought to have been used for cult practices (Dickenson, 1994). Most of these features, thought to have been used for ritual purposes, mimic formal rituals known to have taken place in later periods.

Unique to the Toumba burials is the incredible wealth left behind by these Dark Age citizens of Lefkandi. Ian Morris elucidates, "The Toumba burials are not just richer than the other 250 or so published tenth-century burials in central Greece: they are beyond all comparison (Morris, 2000)." The enormous size of the building also sets Toumba a part from other burial sites. Morris further elaborates, "No building of comparable size is known in central Greece for the next three hundred years. The Lefkandi structure covers more than twice the area of any other tenth-century building (Morris, 2000)."

Popham, from the British School in Athens, projects that the Toumba mound would have required between 500 and 2000 man-days of labor to construct (Popham, 1993). Moreover, the placement of the mound a top the hill looking over the Xeropolis settlement and Lelantine plain is visually breathtaking (Morris, 2000). With such stunning majesty the question arises: who was this man and why did his death result in such a rich burial?


In ancient Greek religion heroes held a elevated position above the average mortal man. Heroes were in a class of their own, they were neither gods nor mortal man. Carla Antonaccio explains, "Ancient sources detail several interlocking varieties of heroes: divinely descended or favored, local, epic, eponymous, warriors, kings, founders of cities, healers, prophets (Antonaccio, 1995)." Heroes were commemorated for their extraordinary deeds only after their deaths, but some heroes never died they simply disappeared. In addition, in death heroes were believed to possess the supernatural power to bring disaster upon mortals in the form of plague, barrenness, and military defeat (Antonaccio, 1995). Like the gods, heroes had shrines and alters erected in their names. Not only were heroes remembered but they were feared, respected, and invoked by those still living. Morris suspects that the distinctive Greek concept of the hero took shape at the end of the eleventh century, and thus, suspects that those at Lefkandi took part in hero cult practices (Morris, 2000). However, not all scholars agree with this conjecture. Antonaccio makes a sharp distinction between hero cults and tomb cults.

Hero Cult

Formal hero cult worship boomed in the eighth century. A hero cult can be distinguished by its formal expression in continuous scheduled ritual action at a specific location (Antonaccio, 1998). A permanent shine would be erected in honor of the hero and his cult followers would clearly identify him on inscriptions or on offerings. The members of the hero cult would present offerings and sacrifices long after the death of the hero, sometimes extending several centuries later. Practitioners involved in the hero cult participated in several activities: public processions, sacrifice and games, and construction of a monument in the form of a alter and or naiskos. Interestingly, Antonaccio writes, "It is striking that, contrary to expectations based on copious written references to hero cult, none of these early cults was connected with actual tombs, either in the late Iron Age or in the better-known archaic and classical periods (Antonaccio, 1998)." Usually, the site at which the hero was honored was not his tomb, instead, a separate sanctuary was built.

Tomb Cult

In contrast, the tomb cult did take place at the tomb. A tomb cult, is characterized by a none permanent shrine and an anonymous figure. Furthermore, the offerings were most likely modest and given on only one occasion. The term "tomb cult" originally was used to describe occasional familial visits to tombs after burial in order to make offerings in the form of food or garlands during the classical age (Antonaccio, 1998). In comparison to the sociological definition of "cult," provided by Emile Durkheim, a tomb cult does not meet the criteria. Durkheim defines cult as: "a system of divers rites, festivals and ceremonies which all have this characteristic, that they reappear periodically (Durkheim, 1912)." The tomb cult does not "reappear periodically" instead the ritual and rites that do take place happen in a short period of time then tapper off. As we have seen a tomb cult is much different from a hero cult.

Should Toumba be Considered a Hero Cult?

So, with all this in mind how is it possible that Toumba could be considered a heroon by so many scholars? The construction of Toumba occurred around the year 1000 B.C.E. during the Protogeometric period. The excavators began calling the structure a "heroon" shortly after they began excavating. This described of the structure as the "center of hero-cult," has managed to stick ever since. Indeed, very little about the building supports this interpretation. Unquestionably, the man and woman buried at Toumba appear to have been at the zenith of their society due to the extravagant measure taken for their burial, however, talk of heroization is misleading. The excavators premature designation of "hero cult" were undoubtedly influenced by the heroes described in epic poetry. Antonaccio further illustrates: Some archaeologically based studies have continued to stress the influence of epic on attitudes and behavior. Now, however, burials at Lefkandi in Euboia, in accordance with Homeric practices have been dated to the tenth century, well before the assumed stabilization and diffusion of the epic poetry. (Antonaccio, 1995)

As we have seen there were indeed similarities between the burials at Lefkandi and those described in Homer's epic poems. However, there were also stark differences.

The structure was deliberately buried not long after the burials took place. The pottery found from within the tomb indicates its used for over fifty years, or two generations. This disrupts any notion that Toumba could have been associated with a hero cult because the ritual practices ended soon after the couple was buried. Moreover, the tumulus that covered the building became the focal point nor a cemetery and not. The cemetery surrounding Toumba continued in use for at least two centuries after the couple's death.

Antonaccio says it best when she concludes by saying: If anything, Toumba shows how Iron Age ritual could utilize the dead to structure group relations through feasting and the placement of later burials. It is not known how the burials made in the cemetery after the creation of the tumulus were related to the original pair. But the tumulus provided a focus for a burying group that ultimately included dozens of individuals, some of whom were laid to rest with similar offerings, man imported from Attika, Thessaly, Cyprus, Egypt,and the Near East. The burial offering reinforced the solidarity of the group; their close relation to the original pair has been confirmed by recent finds of another pair of horses and another double burial. All this suggest that the structure at Lefkandi was a center for tomb cult not a heroon. (Antonaccio, 1998) The evidence unearthed thus far indicates that the tumulus at Lefkandi should not be considered a heroon. Instead, the artifacts left behind seem to confirm that its status as a tomb cult. I suggest that the couple buried within the tumulus were wealthy aristocrats actively participating in trade with other communities. This would explain the numerous extravagant riches found within the tombs from various regions. In fact, some scholars have suggested that the enormous structure at Lefkandi, before becoming his tomb, may have been the hero’s home. So our hero may not have been a courageous warrior but he certainly stood out among those of his time.