Hero worship

The practice of hero worship is not something that has spread widely among the modern Hellenic polytheist community, and this is not surprising.

You occasionally see the honoring of “epic heroes” such as Achilles and Odysseus. And you do, of course, see the worship of those who were historically worshipped both as hero and as god (not–usually–at the same time or in the same place), most notably Heracles and Asklepios.

What is rare is hero worship that is in any sense similar to that practiced by the ancients.

Historically the worship of heroes fell somewhere between that of the gods and that of the “ordinary” dead. A hero (or heroine) was, in fact, dead. They were someone who had lived their life on earth among humans and had died. But the hero was exceptional in some way.

Traditionally the honoring of heroes was a localized thing–a hero was typically honored at his (and occasionally her) gravesite, and in return for these honors provided benefits for the community, primarily the benefit of protection, but there was also the benefit of prestige from association.

Most often a hero was a native of the community that honored them, although this was not always the case–the Athenians “adopted” the hero Theseus in the 5th century BCE by making an expedition to the isle of Skiros, finding and acquiring bones believed to be those of Theseus, and taking them back to Athens and reburying them in a place of honor. At this time, the city’s ritual calendar and mythos was amended as well to reflect the new hero and to reap the maximum benefit from his influence. In most cases, however, a hero was by definition a local hero.

So it’s not all that surprising that you don’t see a lot of it among modern polytheists. There is an understandable discomfort with installing a hero who, in life, was not a part of a religious tradition that would honor them in such a way. That is, I think, both reasonable and compassionate, and it may well be something that just won’t transfer to the modern world.

You do, however, see in our society a fair amount of secular honoring of local heroes (or national heroes). It may not have the same sort of religious component but there remains an impulse to remember those who have been important to a community, with memorials, or statues, or “George Washington slept here” signs, associating oneself with those individuals and gaining whatever benefits may be available (primarily financial in many cases as tourists come to visit these historical sites). In a way, the “hero” can be seen as helping to maintain the wellbeing of the community long after their death.

So when, a while back, I read in the news that the modern US city of Memphis was planning to exhume the bones of Confederate general (and Ku Klux Klan founder) Nathan Bedford Forrest from where they had been buried in honor for over a century, it made perfect sense to me that–no longer desiring that connection and identification with Forrest, and no longer perceiving a benefit to the community from the association–the city would take him from his public/community “hero shrine” and (presumably) “demote” him to the position of any other of the ordinary dead.

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