THE SANCTUARY OF HERA

The archaeological site of the -Heraion lies in the south west corner of the Kambos plain, 6.5km from Pythagoreio (open daily, except Mon, 8.30–3). Excavated periodically since the beginning of the 20th century, mostly by the German Archaeological Institute in Athens, this is one of the most thoroughly investigated and documented sanctuaries of the Aegean. Photographs of the site taken during the excavations of the 1950s and 60s show a remarkable density of building foundations and finds, which reveal a relentless superimposition and addition of structures throughout the long history of the sanctuary from Mycenaean, to Roman and Early Christian times. Today, much of this has been covered over again leaving only some of the upper levels of the foundations of structures visible; as a result, the site can appear confusing on a casual visit. One impression never fades, however—the sheer size of the remains of the 6th century bc temple of Hera, which was the last of many temples on the site, and which was begun, and left unfinished, by the tyrant Polycrates. Its predecessor on the site, of comparable dimensions, was already the largest structure of its kind in the Greek world: only the great Temple of Artemis at Ephesus—minimally larger—was to exceed it. It was faced by a magnificent altar and surrounded by a multitude of other sacred buildings which it dwarfed; to a visitor arriving from along the Sacred Way, it would have been glimpsed at the end of a long avenue of votive monuments and dedicatory sculptures, which were to be counted, not in their tens, but in their hundreds—amongst them the giant Kouros now in the museum in Vathi. The sound of peacocks that wandered freely through the sanctuary would have been audible from a distance. Though unknown in Homer’s time, peacocks came into the Ancient Greek world shortly after, from India through the medium of the Persian Empire. They were sacred to Hera, and shared with the often brooding and vindictive goddess, a potent combination of consummate beauty and the sound of embittered complaint.

The cult of Hera

    It is not known at what point the cult of the Great Mother Goddess, widespread in Asia Minor, was first established on the edge of this plain; but it was probably already 500 years old when Ionian colonists settled here shortly before 1000 bc, and gave to the pre-existing ‘Mother Goddess’ a more precise identity as ‘Hera’. The myth had evolved that she was born amongst the osiers that lined the edge of the imbrasos River: Pausanias says that in his time (the 2nd century ad), the ‘Sacred Willow’ under which she was born was still to be seen at Samos (Decrip. VII.4.4), and he reckoned it to be the oldest tree of any of the Greek sanctuaries (ibid.VIII.23.5)—older even than the Sacred Oak of Zeus at Dodona. The tree may have been what is known today as a Chaste Tree, the Vitex agnus-castus, a tall, fragrant shrub with lilac flowers which grows in similar habitat, and whose name derives from the fact that it was believed since Ancient times to be a calmant of sex ual appetite and a promoter of chastity—though this marries oddly with Hera’s favouring of female fertility.

   The early Mother Goddess was apparently venerated not in a statue or idol, but in a piece of wood—a xoanon, or ‘wooden image’, described as ‘not made by the hands of man’. This was a not uncommon state of affairs: the 3rd century bc poet, Callimachus, mentions something similar in reference to the early cult statue of Athena at Lindos—namely that her statue was an ‘un-worked wooden board’ (Fragment 105). This in itself is an indication of consider able antiquity and has obvious resonances of earlier tree-worship. Whether the xoanon here was a piece of drift-wood with an unusually evocative form, or a board of wood whose natural veining appeared to delineate an image of the divinity, or whether it was simply the stump of a sacred tree, we do not know: there is an understandable reticence among poets and writers to describe such sacred objects exactly. In later, historic times, according to Pausanias (Descrip. VII.4.4.), there was an image which was the work of a certain ‘Aeginetan, called Smilis ‘¦ who was a contemporary of Daedalus’; it must there fore have been a figure-image at least by that stage. Whatever its exact form, it was the focus of cult; and its presence gives rise to the complex history of the architecture in the sanctuary.

Samos Island is part of the Northern Aegean Island Group, Greece.

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