The Pyre of Heracles

Michael Shaw

University of Kansas

The site of the pyre of Heracles is mentioned by Martin Nilsson, who speaks of "a recent find—the discovery of his cult place on the summit of Mount Oita. . . Bonfires are kindled on a certain day . . . and on these bonfires, offerings, puppets, or even living animals are often burned.  Such a bonfire was kindled on the top of Mount Oeta and the figure burned on the pyre was called Heracles.  This is proved by early inscriptions and statuettes of Heracles" (p. 205).

Nilsson's articles are concerned with Heracles' relationship to other figures in other cultures who are associated with death by fire and immortality. The Deltion article of 1919 to which Nilsson refers contains photographs of two figurines and of pottery inscribed with Heracles' name, the latter being dated by the excavators to the seventh century.  (Shapiro, p. 15, n.35)  The late seventh century dating of the pottery does not make this site old enough to be a major element in that discussion. (Shapiro, Stinson)

This site also plays a role in the discussion of the end of the Trachiniae.  Does the audience know about the Heracles pyre on Oita, and does this affect their view of the end of the play, which focuses on suffering and divine indifference?  Easterling argues that there is no evidence that the pyre and apotheosis were known in the earlier fifth century, but her argument is inconclusive (p. 17).  Holt's conclusions are still valid: the audience knew about the cult site and the apotheosis, and this must lend ambiguity to the end of the play.  To the arguments of Holt I would add that the only function that Trachis serves is as the place from which one can go to Mount Oeta.  Nilsson's error about the site being on the summit of Oeta (which Taplin noted) has led to several references to the site being a typical mountaintop sanctuary of Zeus, and he fails to note the proximity to Trachis. 

It is also important to know the size of the site.  Taplin suggests that the play may have been produced at the festival of Artemis mentioned by the chorus (lines 633-9).  If one grants that, it seems just as likely that the play was produced at the pyre itself since this site is capable of accommodating a considerable crowd.

The pyre site is a low ridge, rising some 50 feet above the road, from the crest of which one has a dramatic view of Mount Oeta.  I would like to show some twenty slides, most of the site itself, showing the stoa, other remains, and the view of Oeta.  I will also give the site's location and its orientation to Trachis since it is not found in standard guide books and maps.

            I will need a slide projector.


P. E. Easterling,  Sophocles Trachiniae (Cambridge, 1982)

M.  Nilsson, The Mycenaean Origin of Greek Mythology (Berkeley, 1932), p.


Ibid.  "Fire Festivals in Ancient Greece," JHS 43(1923)144 ff.

H. Shapiro, "Heros Theos: The Death and Apotheosis of Herakles," Classical

World 77:1 (1983), p. 15

T.C.W. Stinton. 'The scope and limit of allusion in Greek tragedy', and 'The apotheosis of Heracles from the pyre,' reprinted in Collected Papers on Greek Tragedy (Oxford 1990) 454-492, 493-508

Taplin, Oliver.  "Spreading the Word through Performance," in Performance Culture and Athenian Ideology, Simon Goldhill and Robin Osborne, eds.  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999, pp. 33-57.

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