Melikertes-Palaimon, Hero of the Isthmian Games

Melikertes-Palaimon, Hero of the Isthmian Games
By Elizabeth R. Gebhard and Matthew W. Dickie

(This article originally appeared in:

Proceedings of the Fifth International Seminar on Ancient Greek Cult,
organized by the Department of Classical Archaeology and Ancient History,
Göteborg University, 21-23 April, 1995
Edited by Robin Hägg
Stockholm 1999

and is made available electronically with the permission of the editors.)

A fragmentary Isthmian ode of Pindar portrays the founding of the Isthmian Games as a funerary celebration for Melikertes.  Examination of the language in which Pindar speaks of the cults of other heroes at places where athletic contests were celebrated in their honour leads to the conclusion that Melikertes was worshipped as a hero at the Isthmian Sanctuary, at least by the time of Pindar, although no remains of a shrine to him before the Roman period have been found.

The monuments of the Isthmian sanctuary either as revealed by excavation or as described by Pausanias tell us nothing about the Greek cult of the hero Melikertes-Palaimon in whose honor the Isthmian Games were traditionally founded.1 Pausanias saw only the Roman buildings of his day: a Temple of Palaimon and an underground passage approaching an adyton where the hero lay concealed (2.2.1 ). Excavations have uncovered three sacrificial pits and two successive temples to the hero belonging to the 1st and 2nd centuries A.D., located in an area where no prior cult activity existed.2 The archaeological context thus precludes any continuation or resumption of earlier ritual practices on the same site.3

At the time that the first pit for sacrifices to Palaimon was opened in the mid-1st century A.D. about 10 m south of the old long altar, tracks of roads criss-crossed the sacred area in front of the Temple of Poseidon, itself in a ruinous state. Traces of former sacrifices may have been visible in the area around the long altar, but there is no obvious reason why that site was chosen for the Roman cult of Palaimon. The long altar was never rebuilt after having been destroyed at some time, perhaps not immediately, after the sack of Corinth in 146 B.C. The Isthmian sanctuary, closely tied to the political fortunes of Corinth, appears to have been abandoned.4 With her constitutional identity removed Corinth lost control of the Isthmian Games, which were then held by the Sicyonians.5 The most obvious archaeological evidence for the cessation of sacrifices and festival at Isthmia is the fact that the wagon road between Corinth and the Isthmus ran across the foundations for the altar and the center of the temenos; another road crossed the sacred area on the south side.6 The period of abandonment before resumption of the games on a regular basis appears to have lasted for almost 200 years.7 During that time cult activities may well have been continued by residents of the area, but without deposits that can be dated to the interval it is impossible to form any picture of their nature and scope.

The limits of excavation in the area surrounding the Temple of Poseidon may be responsible for the gap in information concerning a Greek shrine to Melikertes-Palaimon. To the west of the temple only 50 m has been cleared along the road coming from Corinth; on the north side a space of only 30 m is visible.8 The sacrificial area, enlarged over the years by a series of terraces, stretched almost 35 m eastward from the altar; much but not all of the terrace fill has been excavated. The area of the central plateau that remains to be investigated is the northeast comer where, until recently, the dump from the early excavations covered the surface. Thus, future campaigns may yet reveal a cult place for the hero, but at present no enclosure with evidence for sacrifices (nothing comparable to the temene of Pelops at Olympia and Opheltes at Nemea) has been found.9

The lack of archaeological evidence for a hero cult to Melikertes-Palaimon at Isthmia has led some scholars to conclude that such a cult did not exist for the Greek period but was a Roman invention.10 Others have assumed a continuity without directly addressing the problem posed by the absence of remains.11The archaeological evidence is not, however, the be-all and the end-all of the matter. There is a passage from an Isthmian ode of Pindar now lost that points to the existence in the time of the poet of a cult of Melikertes at Isthmia. Walter Burkert was responsible for bringing it to the attention of the scholarly world and drawing the appropriate conclusions from it.12 The three surviving lines of the ode tell of the Nereids bidding Sisyphus to pay honors to the dead Melikertes:

The Nereids appeared before Sisyphus in dance. The bade him to arouse an honor to be seen from afar for the dead child Melikertes.13

The paraphrase of the lines to be found in one of the versions of the Hypothesis (a) to the Isthmian Odes leaves little room for doubt that the ancient commentators took the verses to refer to the founding of the Isthmian Games.14 If the interpretation of the lines by the ancient commentator is correct, Pindar presented the foundation of the Games as a funerary celebration for Melikertes. Since ancient commentators do not invariably interpret Pindar correctly, it is appropriate to ask whether the lines of Pindar quoted do in fact support such an interpretation. What will be argued is that the terms in which Pindar couches the command the Nereids give Sisyphos mean that for Pindar the Isthmian Games are a celebration of international repute in honor of the dead child-hero Melikertes. The key-words are ; and the adjective qualifying it, . We have to ask what in concrete terms Pindar means by “arousing an honor that is to be visible from afar”. More specifically we have to ask what it means to do such a thing for a dead child. There are further questions then to be asked about a cult to the hero and the location of sacrifices in his honor.

The basic meaning of  is an honor. The crucial parallel fom in the sense in which we are interested, which is that of honoring a hero by setting up a cult of some form, is to be found in vv. 26-35 of Pindar’s Fifth Isthmian Ode. At that point in the poem are recorded a list of heroes who in various locations receive sacrifices accompanied by hymns of praise: at Thebes, Iolaos, master of horses, is said to have , amongst the Aitolians it is given to the sons of Oineus (Tydeus and Meleager), in Argos, to Perseus, at Sparta, to Kastor and Polydeukes, and on Aigina, to Aiakos and his sons:

Pindar’s is the only testimony to the existence of some of these hero-cults.15 It is nonetheless clear that in the Fifth Isthmian refers to a festival or rites in honor of a hero. The denominative verb that derives from is used by Pindar of honoring by sacrificing at games:

Kamarina, he exalted your city that nourishes its people at the greatest festival of the gods. He bestowed honor on six double altars with sacrifices of oxen.

What is at issue in this case is a victor at the Olympics offering sacrifices on six double altars at Olympia, probably for his victory there. In sum, Pindar uses  of a festival or rites in honor of a hero and of sacrifices performed.

In the Isthmian fragment, Pindar qualifies  by ,  “visible from afar”. In doing so, he is in effect defining the kind of games that are to be founded. The new institution is not to be a local festival whose fame reaches no further than its own community, but a festival that is to be known in far places, which is another way of saying that the festival is to be panhellenic. The related adverb Pindar employs in speaking of the farreaching visibility of the fame that attaches to victory in the Olympic Games:

The glory of the Olympic festival shines far from the race-course of Pelops, where are contested speed of foot and might of strength that calls for brave endurance.

Not only, then, is the dead hero Melikertes to be celebrated with a festival, but it is to be a festival of international renown like the Olympic Games. An extension of the idea that major games cast their renown to the farther reaches of the Greek world is present in the poet’s description of the Olympian and Pythian victory wreaths that Hieron brought home to Syracuse as far-shining , The fame of the contests has been transferred to the wreaths given the victors. In our fragment, therefore, Pindar describes the Isthmian Games in the same terms as he uses for the Olympic Games. For him and his audience the fame of Isthmian Games, if not as great as the Olympic contests, was certainly in the same league.

The second stage in the argument will be to show that, if the celebration of the Olympic Games as funeral games for Pelops, and the Nemean as funeral games for Opheltes entails a hero-cult of Pelops and Opheltes, then the same should hold good for Melikertes. Pindar in the First Olympian Ode imagines Pelops receiving bright blood sacrifices as he reclines in his tomb by the altar of Zeus, where many come to visit:

Now Pelops reclining by the crossing of the Alpheos participates in the glorious blood-sacrifices and has his much-tended tomb by the altar that receives many visitors.16 The sacrifices are called , a term that the scholiast tells us is the Boeotian equivalent of , the more commonly used term for sacrifices to the dead and to heroes ( in Pi. O. 1.90). Pelops is the recipient of cult at his tomb next to Zeus’ altar. The adjectives used to qualify both tomb and altar in the next lines affirm his close connection with the games. The tomb is often-frequented and the altar visited by many (, respectively). The Olympic racecourse itself belongs to Pelops. The founding story in the Tenth Olympian Ode makes Herakles establish and celebrate the first games next to the ancient burial mound () of Pelops (24-25). The temenos, altar and sacrifices he dedicates to his father Zeus (43-50). In another version of the founding story mentioned by Pausanias, Pelops himself celebrates the first festival. The Olympic Games, then, were held in honor of Zeus, but Pelops, the eponymous hero of the entire land, received his own special sacrifices as appropriate to a hero. The account that Pindar gives of Pelops’ tomb and of Herakles as founder of the festival is echoed by Pausanias in his description of the actual monument and the offerings to the hero as they existed in his time: it is enclosed by a stone fence, trees grow inside, statues are dedicated there; Herakles set it apart to Pelops and sacrificed to him in a pit; now annual magistrates sacrifice a black ram to him; whoever eats of the meat may not enter the Temple of Zeus (5.13.1-7).

The legends surrounding the establishment of the Nemean Games are not mentioned in the Pindaric odes, but the principal explanation in the Hypothesis to the Nemean Odes explains the Games as funeral games () for the child, Opheltes-Archemoros, who was killed by a serpent while his nurse, Hypsipyle, fetched water for the Seven marching against Thebes. An alternative and perhaps later version makes Herakles at the time of his victory over the Nemean lion reorganize the games and dedicate them to his father, Zeus.17 That Opheltes was in fact worshipped as a hero at the Nemean Sanctuary is not made explicit in these accounts, but Pausanias describes his tomb and that of his father, saying that there were beside them altars and that they were enclosed by a stone fence, the same term he used for the enclosure of Pelops (2.15.2-3). Sacrifices at the Nemean shrine, beginning at least in the 6th century, are confirmed by deposits of sacrificial debris and votives within an enclosure.18

Thus, two of the four panhellenic athletic sanctuaries contain monuments associated with the tombs of heroes in honor of whom the games were founded; and at the tombs, sacrifices were offered to those heroes. Therefore, since the Isthmian Games were founded as funeral games for Melikertes, the probability is high that Melikertes had a tomb-monument at the Isthmian sanctuary, where too he received heroic sacrifices. The validity of these inferences is strengthened by the peculiar nature of the wreath that was bestowed on victors at the Isthmian Games, the same wreath as was given at Nemea, explicitly in memory of Opheltes. The wreath was made of wild celery, selinon, a plant used in funerary wreaths worn by mourners and hung on tombs (Duris, FGrH 76 F 1). Although there was a tradition in antiquity that the first Isthmian victor’s wreath was rnade of pine, it had apparently been changed to selinon before Pindar’s time, since the poet knows only the selinon crown.19 If the selinon wreath symbolized the funerary aspect of the Nemean Games in honor of the dead Opheltes, and, if Opheltes was worshipped at Nemea, then it is reasonable to suppose that the selinon wreath at Isthmia was likewise given in honor of the dead Melikertes, and he, as Opheltes, was worshipped as the hero of the games.

Sacrifices and games celebrated at the tomb of a hero were not limited to the panhellenic sanctuaries. In two odes Pindar mentions Theban games celebrated at or near tombs. In the Fourth Isthmian Ode, the games are specifically located outside the Electran Gate, where sacrifices were made to Heracles and his eight murdered sons, and the victors were crowned with myrtle (61-73). The scholiast adds the information, attributed to the philosopher Chrysippos, that Amphitryon lived by the Electran Gate, and that Herakles, after murdering his sons, took their corpses there and in that place, every year, the Thebans made heroic sacrifices () to the boys and held funeral games ( in I. 4.61). By Pausanias’ time, a temple of Heracles, remains known as the House of Amphitryon, a gymnasium and a stadium were to be seen outside the gate (9.11.1-4).20 In the Fourth Nemean Ode, Pindar simply says that the victor was crowned beside the Tomb of Amphitryon (19-22). Pausanias locates the monument outside the Proitid Gate, where he also saw the Gymnasium of Iolaos, a stadium beside it and a little farther on, a hippodrome (9.23.1-2). The two odes may refer to victories in two sets of games, one to Herakles and his sons and the other to Iolaos, although the scholiast says the two titles referred to the same games, the Heracleia ( in N. 4.20).21

The vivid picture that Pindar draws in the Fourth Isthmian Ode gives us an idea of how rites to heroes were celebrated. The proceedings began at sunset and continued throughout the night. There were sacrifices and feasting. All activities took place in the vicinity of the altars established in memory of the slain boys. On the second day of the festival athletic contests were held in which the victor was crowned with a myrtle wreath, the characteristic plant of the Underworld.22 The games were held by a monument identified as the house of Amphitryon where, according to the scholiast, the bodies of the eight sons had been taken and presumably buried (61-73).

Other games in honor of heroes and celebrated at their tombs are recorded. Pindar mentions, among the victories of Diagoras, his triumph at a local festival dedicated to Tlepolemos, a son of Herakles (O. 7.77-80).23 In this case, the rites for the hero were the same as those to a god, consisting in a procession, sacrifice of sheep, and athletic competitions. Battus, founder of Cyrene, was celebrated as a hero at his tomb in the agora (P. 5.95). At Megara, games were held for Alkathoos, the son of Pelops (I. 8.67). The pattern of tomb, sacrifice and games is clear.

Thus, we come to the problem of where Melikertes’ tomb was located at Isthmia. Pausanias, who is the only source, simply says that Sisyphos buried the boy on the Isthmus and founded the Isthmian Games in his honor (2.1.3). Later, in his tour of the Isthmian Sanctuary, Pausanias mentions that Melikertes is reported to be hidden () within an underground in the Palainionion. This is probably his tomb in Roman times. Pausanias may reflect the same tradition that is recounted by Philostratus that Melikertes was buried in a chasm opened by Poseidon (Imag. II.362.30 Kayser). By the shore, Pausanias saw an altar and pine tree dedicated to the hero. He does not mention a funerary monument here. Local tradition may have revered the place as that at which the boy’s body was brought to shore and where Sisyphus found him. The hero’s tomb of Pindar’s day remains to be discovered.

In conclusion, we have seen that Pindar’s brief account of the first Isthmian Games in our fragment of a lost lsthmian ode takes much the same form as his much longer and more detailed description of the first Olympic contests (O. 10). Their identification as funeral games to the hero is confirmed by the phrase  in line 3. Although in the short compass of the fragment a cult of Melikertes at his tomb is not mentioned, so widespread was the custom of sacrificing and celebrating games at the tombs of heroes, that the Isthmian Games almost certainly included blood-offerings at a monument called the tomb of Melikertes. In the First Olympian Ode, Pelops receives such ritual at his tomb, where he himself is pictured as receiving it. The nearby racecourse belongs to him. In the Tenth Olympian Ode, Herakles is represented as sacrificing and founding the Olympic Games next to Pelops’ tomb. In Pindar’s version of the Isthmian myth, Sisyphos takes the place of Herakles and he holds the games as funeral celebrations for Melikertes. The same pattern exists in the Hellenistic accounts of the first Nemean Games. The founders are the Seven marching against Thebes; the occasion was the supernatural death of the child, Opheltes. Since archaeological evidence places sacrifices in the Opheltion in the 6th century B.C., it is likely that the cult was linked to the Nemean Games and the story associating the games with the funeral of the boy was current in Pindar’s day. A monument representing the tomb of Melikertes, perhaps similar in form to the Pelopion and Opheltion, would surely have existed at the Isthmian Sanctuary.