Where it all comes together for me: a sacred space of the goddess Hērā

2016.03.16 | By Gregory Nagy

Participants from the 2016 Harvard Spring Break travel study program explore the Hēraion
Participants from the 2016 Harvard Spring Break travel study program explore the Hēraion.

2016.03.15 was a day when I revisited the sacred space of the goddess Hērā overlooking the Plain of Argos. I was in good company, accompanied as I was by a group participating in the 2016 Harvard Spring Break travel study program (they will all be listed at the conclusion of this short essay). Almost exactly a year earlier, 2015.03.18, I had visited the same place in the company of an earlier group participating in the 2015 version of the same travel study program. As I write, 2016.03.16, I am about to visit Delphi, both the ancient site and the museum there, in the good company of the 2016 travel study group. Housed in that museum are twin statues representing the heroic figures of Kleobis and Biton, two young sons of a priestess of Hērā. According to a story retold by the notional ‘father of history’, Herodotus, these two youths experienced a mystical death inside the sacred space of Hērā and were then honored in a very special way by the people of Argos, who arranged for the placement of statues representing Kleobis and Biton in the sacred space of Apollo at Delphi. By a stroke of good fortune, these twin statues were unearthed in modern times and now occupy pride of place in the Museum at Delphi. As you enter the museum and turn right and then left, they are the first thing you see on display. There they are, larger-than-life-size, just standing there and giving you an ethereal stare. But they are not really staring at you, since their grand stature makes it seem as if they were looking not at you when you look back at them but beyond you. The way they look, you would think that they are viewing their own heroic story. The significance of that story, as I emphasized last year in my posting for 2015.03.20, is all-important for the historical project of Herodotus. But this year I emphasize, as I signaled already in the title for this posting of 2016.03.16, the significance of this same story for my own ongoing quest to understand the relationship of the goddess Hērā to the very idea of what it is to be a hero.

As I say already in the title of my posting here, it all comes together for me when I stand in the sacred space of Hērā and look down from the heights of this holy place, viewing below the expansive Plain of Argos. Here was the setting for the ordeal endured by Kleobis and Biton as substitutes for the sacrificial oxen that were meant to pull the ceremonial cart carrying the priestess of the goddess Hērā across the length of the plain in a sacred procession that started at the city of Argos and reached its climax at the heights of the sacred space of the goddess, known as the Hēraion.

In my book The Ancient Greek Hero in 24 Hours 13§§11–22 (see also 11§17), I quote and analyze the story as told by Herodotus in his Histories at 1.31.1–5 (see H24H Hour 13 Text D) about the heroic ordeal of these two young men.

To read this story, I argue, is to understand how the goddess Hērā, as the guiding cosmic principle that makes everything come together, was worshipped as the divine force that defined for the ancient Greeks what it means to become a hero.

This short essay is dedicated to the group participating in the 2016 Harvard Spring Break travel study program: Stefan Ahlblad & Louise Wolf & Hannah Ahlblad, Justine Anderson, Kim Bendheim, Page Caufield, Marina Cheilitsi, Qingqing Dawn Chong, Tayt Harlin, Debbie Desilet-Dobbs & Gabrielle Dobbs & Michael Dobbs & Tyler Dobbs, Robert Dolgoff & Margarita Nicole, Barry Feirstein & Holly Feirstein, Jess Garcia, Marwa Harp, Jinhee Kim & Avery Kim, Mari Kinoshita, Christina Kwon, Suzanna Lansing, Eleni Palaiologou, Elliott Schlang & Gail Cohn Schlang, Jacob Verrey, Klaus Koester & Johanna Walser, Den-Tung Wang, Eleni Zachariou, Christina Zeina.