Hero Shrine of Menelaus
The Menelaion is not the only archaeological remain to be found at this site. The remains of Mycenaean palaces, or mansions, dating centuries before the shrine can also be found. The remains of three different buildings dating from the 15th-13th centuries BC, putting them in the time period of the supposed Trojan War, have been identified at the site. Each mansion was built on top of the other after its apparent destruction, by an earthquake and by fire respectively, and the remains at the site and are associated with being the possible home and palace of Menelaus himself. As well as pottery fragments, excavations in 1974 also discovered the remains of three skeletons which, when dated, may match the time of the mansion’s final destruction.
The shrine's Remains:
The association with Menelaus led to the interpretation that the shrine may have been placed there as the Spartans believed it to be the home of the hero they were worshipping. However, there is no continuous usage link between the two site, but they may still have been related in terms of local tradition and history. The shrine may have originally lacked any structure as offerings have been found in large numbers near to the existing shrine which date to the early 8th century BC, suggesting that offerings were made in this location long before the shrine was built. The shrine itself was built in the late 8th, early 7th century BC and was most likely pedimental in style. The shrine was later rebuilt sometime in the 5th century BC as a monument built on top of a rectangular earthen mound. The mound was surrounded by a retaining wall of ashlar blocks with a ramp which led up to the monument. A buttressing wall was later added to improve the stability of the structure. The remains of this shrine are the ones we still see today.
- The site was first identified by L. Ross in 1883 who undertook several days of excavations of the Menelaion.
- In 1909 the British School at Athens, led by J. P. Droop, M. S. Thompson, and A. J. B. Wace conducted the first thorough excavation of the Menelaion site. They also uncovered the third mansion.
- In 1910 a team under R. Dawkins followed on the British School in Athens’ work on the mansions, fully excavating the 3rd mansion.
- In 1970 the British School in Athens returned under H. Catling to focus on the Mycenaean remains and attempt to find a link between them. He uncovered the remains of mansions one and two and also found the first offerings dedicated to explicitly to Helen and Menelaus.
The Menelaion was built in honour of Menelaus and Helen, the famous King and Queen of Sparta. Menelaus was the King of Sparta during the Trojan War and Helen was his Queen and would be ‘the face that launched a thousand ships’. Menelaus and Helen became Pan-Hellenic heroes through the distribution of Homer’s Iliad. However, the worship at the Menelaion seems to be a local phenomenon and the personae of the two gods differs from that of other Shrines (such as Helen Dendritis).
In myth Menelaus was the King of Sparta during the Trojan War and it was the rape of Helen from him by Paris which incensed him to go to war with his brother Agamemnon (also worshipped as a hero). Menelaus appears to only have been worshipped at the Menelaion, perhaps why it took his name, and in regards to the evidence, seems somewhat less important than Helen. He appears less frequently in wider art and literature but as a powerful, and worshipped king he was probably of greater importance in Sparta itself than Pan-Hellenic evidence suggests. As a warrior king Menelaus may have been associated with the protection of Sparta and of its soldiers, hence the shrines increased use during war. Menelaus appealed to all areas of society as to Spartiates he was a heroic leader and warrior of high status but he would also have been an ancestor of the Helots and Perioikoi who were native to Lakonia.
In myth, Sparta is the Birthplace of Helen as her mortal mother (Leda) lived there. Helen was also the daughter of the goddess Nemesis and so held semi-divine status. Heroines often received their status from their association with a hero but this does not seem to be the case for Helen. Whilst she is clearly associated with Menelaus she seems to also to have been a stand-alone heroine and was worshipped in a second shrine in the city as well as at the Menelaion. Helen also appears more in art and literature than her husband. We also have much more evidence for Helen’s role in Greek and Spartan life. Helen appears to be associated with fertility as several votives depict farming and animal related images. This may reflect the shrines increased use after war when the production of offspring was important. Helen appealed to all areas of society as to Spartiates she was a queen of high status and great beauty but she would also have been an ancestor of the Helots and Perioikoi who were native to Lakonia.
Some also suggest that the site was originally sacred to the vegetation Goddess Helen and was later appropriated by Menelaus and Helen. However, evidence found at and around the site suggests that it was more likely a Hero shrine than a divine shrine.
Little evidence has been found at the site to explicitly show the use of sacrifice at the shrine. However, the existence of an altar, and the common practice of sacrifice seen within Greek religion would suggest that sacrifices would have been made. Pausanias describes two forms of sacrifice, which are discussed by Ekroth, 'thuein' and 'enagizein'. Thuein is the general term for sacrifice in which the bones and fat are burned and the meat is eaten by the people. In enagizein, on the other hand, the whole sacrifice is burned. This type of sacrifice only appears in the worship of cationic cults, the category which Hero cults fall in to. Pausanias uses enagizein to describe sacrifice in the majority of the places which he states are related to the burial of a Hero. The differences in the types of sacrifice shows a marked difference in the worship of the Gods and of Heroes
The shrine provided a wealthy deposit of offerings and dedications which were found both at the site and nearby to the site. Dedications have been found with both Menelaus’ and Helen’s names on which supports the idea that the shrine was wholly for hero worship. A large number of the finds were lead placards dedicated to Menelaus and votive offerings to Helen were also found when the site was excavated and are on show in the Archaeological Museum of Sparta.
The first evidence of dedication to Menelaus came in the late 1970’s during Catling’s excavations of the site. His team found a blue limestone stella (originally attached to a statue) with the inscription ‘Euthikrenes dedicated [this] / to Menelaos’ which dated to the 5th century BC. A large number of lead votives were also found which depict soldiers and these have been associated with Menelaus as war and weaponry were linked to his persona. These offerings may have been left either by warriors themselves or for their loved ones.
The first evidence of dedication to Helen also came from Catling’s dig in the form of a bronze pointed aryballos (a small perfume or oil flask), dated from the mid-7th century BC, which had the inscription ‘Deinis dedicated these to [Helen, wife of] Menelaos’. This find was doubly interesting as the name Deinis, which is used in Pindar, is a male name and so shows us that worship of Helen was not simply from females. Many votives depicting common farm animals and horses, as well as a number of ploughshares were found at the shrine. These appear to have been offered in the hope of a fertile harvest or for the successful breeding of animals, for which Helen was associated.
There is no evidence which securely mentions the existence of a festival for Helen and/or Menelaus in regards to the Menelaion. However, a festival called the Heleneia which allegedly celebrates Helen is found solely in Hesychius’ fifth-century AD lexicon. Theocritus' “Epithalamium to Helen,” Idyll 18 also may allude to a festival practice associated with Helen which celebrated her marriage to Menelaus by racing along the Eurotas naked and oiled before garlanding a tree. Some suggest that the inclusion of the tree links in to Helen being a fertility goddess but there is no further evidence to support this. In any case this festival appears to be celebrated at Helen’s urban shrine rather than at the Menelaion.
Rules and Regulations
note here any rules and regulations relating to sanctuary use that have been found inscribed in and around the site.
Significance of the Site:
The site at which the Menelaion sits seems to have varied in its significance over time. The original shrine is one of the earliest examples of Laconian monumental building above ground level. Large numbers of finds have been found dating to the building of the shrine and to the century before the structure was built, suggesting that the shrine was important to the people at this time. The association of the Mycenaean ruins with Menelaus seems to be an important factor in the significance of the shrine, the diffusion of Homer’s epics across Greece catalysing the worship at this site. The number of offerings appears to lessen in the centuries after this, however, the fact that the shrine was rebuilt in the 5th century BC suggests that it was still in popular use for some time or it would not have needed to be rebuilt. Despite this the shrine seems to go into decline from this point onwards.
Causes of Significance:
The times of particularly large numbers of dedications and of extensions coincide with times of war when the people would want support from their hero’s and when they would have the money from spoils in order to build the shrine. The building of the shrine may coincide with Sparta’s victory is the Messanian war and its rebuilding and extension may coincide with victory against the Persians in the 2nd Persian War. The site was damaged, possibly by an earthquake, during the Hellenistic period and fell into further disrepair during the Roman period as no further reconstruction or repairs were made. This suggests that over time the shrine became less significant to the people and was no longer used at frequently or as widely as it once had been. The falling popularity of the shrine appears to coincide with Sparta’s decline as a power, suggesting that the shrine may have been run by the state and as it fell from power it no longer had the funds to support the shrine. This decline can also be seen in Pausanias as he chose not even to visit the site at all as he did not think it was worth the time.
The site is however, of significance to modern scholars, as it provides us with insights to the cult of hero-worship. The remains of the mansions are also of great significance as they are dated to be older than most other examples of Mycenaean palaces making them some of the oldest examples of their kind. Furthermore, the fact that no remains of Mycenaean Sparta have been found makes these remains particularly important as they are the only archaeological evidence of Mycenaean Sparta which we have.
Who used the site, and where did they come from?
The site was used primarily, if not exclusively by the people of Sparta, which the shrine is built just outside of, and also by the people in the surrounding areas of Sparta. The variety of offerings found at the site suggest that it was used by people of both sexes and from all reaches of Spartan society. This crossover is somewhat of a rarity in Sparta, which often was strictly separated based on gender and class. More ornate offerings found at the site obviously came from higher class citizens and images of horses and exotic animals may reflect the wealth and power of the individual making the offerings. Simple lead offerings found may have been those of poorer citizens as well. The presence of farming implements as offerings also suggests that the perioikoi and helots may have also used the shrine as they were the ones who took part in farming whereas Spartiates did not. Offerings from both men and women are also found showing us that the shrine was indeed used by all people from all areas of Spartan society and provided a rare focal point for the integration and unification of society. The common appeal of Helen and Menelaus, through their exempla status for Spartiates and common ancestry for Perioikoi and Helots may have helped to create a more unified society. This is reflected in the way that Lakonian Helots were much less rebellious than Messenian Helots. As a local cult, it is unlikely that it received many foreign visitors although this is by no means a definite fact.
Select Site Bibliography
-Herodotus, Histories, 6.61
-Isokrates, Oration, 10.63
-Pausanias, Description of Greece, 2. 11. 7; 3. 9; 3.19.9
-Polybius, Histories, 5. 14. 21
-Catling, H. and Cavanagh, H, “Two Inscribed
Bronzes from the Menelaion, Sparta,” Kadmos 15 (1976)
-Catling, H. "Excavations at the Menelaion, Sparta, 1973-6." Archaeological Reports 23 (1976-7)
-Coldstream, J. "Hero-cults in the Age of Homer." JHS. (1976)
-De Armond, T. The Menelaion: A Local Manifestation of a Pan-Hellenic Phenomenon. (2009)
-Edmunds, L. “Helen’s Divine Origins,” Electronic Antiquity. (2007)
-Ekroth, G. Heroes and Hero Cult. (1999)
-Farnell, L. Greek Hero Cults and Ideas of Immortality. (1921)
-Larson, J. Greek Heroine Cults. (1995)
-Pomeroy, S. Spartan Women. (2002)
1- De Armond, T. (2009). 10;
Herodotus, Histories, 6. 61;
Isokrates, oration 10. 63;
Polybius, Histories, 5. 14, 21 ff;
Pausanias, Description of Greece, 3. 9.
2- De Armond, T. (2009). 12
3-Ekroth, G. (1999). 148
4-Pausanias. 2. 11. 7; Larson, J. (1995). 14
5- De Armond, T. (2009). 89;
Catling, H. and Cavanagh, H.(1976). 36
6- De Armond, T. (2009). 89;
Catling, H. and Cavanagh, H.(1976). 149-153
7- De Armond, T. (2009). 99;
Edmunds, L. (2007) 13
8- De Armond, T. (2009). 100;
Pomeroy, S. (2002). 24.
9- De Armond, T. (2009). 95
10- Pausanias. 3. 19. 9
The Menelaion is located to the east of Sparta in the plain of the river Eurotas. It is built on the hill Protitis Ilias on the opposite side of the river to the city which Pausanias dubbed Therapne. The site is found on a narrow rocky ridge overlooking the city and the fertile plains below although the ridge may have originally been much wider but has been eroded away over time to result in the existing feature. This erosion is evidenced in the building of the shrine as it seems to have a design which is conscious of stability.
Site Plan of Mycenaean Mansions
Remains of the Mycenaean Mansions
Remains of the Menelaion
Remains of the Menelaion
Aryballos (mid 7th Century BC) inscribed 'Deinis dedicated these to [Helen, wife of] Menelaus'. Drawing of image in H. W. Catling, Excavations at the Menelaion, Sparta 1973-75.
Bronze Harpax (570 BC) inscribed 'To Helen'. The objects use is unknown. Drawing from H. W. Catling, Excavations at the Menelaion, Sparta 1973-75.
Stela (early 5th Century BC) inscribed 'Euthikrenes dedicated these to Menelaus'. Drawing of image in H. W. Catling, Excavations at the Menelaion, Sparta 1973-75.
Lead votives (various dates) depicting warriors. Photograph from A. J. B Wace et al, 'The Menelaion, Annual of the British School in Athens XV 1908-09.
Animal shaped votives (various dates) showing, clockwise from the top: a terracotta lion, a lead goat, a bronze lion head and a bronze bull head. Drawing of image from A. J. B Wace et al, 'The Menelaion, Annual of the British School in Athens XV 1908-09.
Lead votives (various dates) depicting winged godesses. Photograph from A. J. B Wace et al, 'The Menelaion, Annual of the British School in Athens XV 1908-09.