Hera and her ship models

When I wrote the post about the Samos Heraion, I quickly mentioned this impressive dedication of a boat in the sanctuary, but left out other ship and navigation related offerings that have been discovered there. The conservation state in Samos was expectional (allowing wooden objects to have survived!), which is why it is an important source. However, small ship miniatures have been found in quantity in other sanctuaries too, and while they are not exclusive to Hera, they deserve some attention.

In fact, ship models constitute a recurring offering in the Greek world and have been found in 12 sanctuaries, 4 of them being dedicated to Hera. As I’ve mentioned, Samos is exemplary as we have found about 40 of those models, some being in wood. Others could be made of terracotta or bronze.

Now, the most obvious way to analyse this information is to take a look at the location of those temples. Most of them are, indeed, placed close to a river or a harbour, if not an island. However, Hera’s link to the sea doesn’t stop there, especially if we consider her role in the myth of the Argonauts and the importance of Jason as a hero dear to her and a founder of sanctuaries sacred to her like Samos and Poseidonia.

Helmut Kyrieleis, former director of excavations at the Heraion in Samos, tells us this about the ship models:

“[they] reproduce the elegant shape of Greek warships and trading vessels in simplified form’. Given their rough workmanship he doubts that these were dedications: ‘Their appearance […] might suggest that these boats played a role in the ritual of festivals of Hera as a kind of symbolic cult object. “

Now, it’s difficult to generalize the use of those ship models as a whole based solely on the findings of a sanctuary, but if, like Kyrieleis suggest, those aren’t dedications, then we’re missing something important about Hera’s festivals. Another sanctuary, located in Foce Del Sele, has shown similar ship models. One of the interpretations given so far is that those were used as part of a procession, such as during the Samian Tonaia, where the statue of Hera would taken to the shore. The festival itself commemorated the Tyrrhenian pirates’ failed attempt at kidnapping Hera. As for the two actual (life sized) boat that were placed on sanctuary grounds, they were dedicated to both Hera and Poseidon, thus obviously linking the goddess to the marine world.

It’s obviously difficult to consider those aspects of hers when we have so little information about her maritime cult and it is tempting to say this role was relevant to the lives of many Greeks who lived on the coast and, therefore, sought protection on sea. That being said, most of those ship models were dated between the 8th and 7th centuries BC and it is also very likely that this aspect of hers pre-dates the pan-hellenisation of the pantheon and might have been somewhat abandoned when Hera became mainly worshipped as Zeus’ wife, instead of on her own.

Further reading:

  • Boedeker D., Hera and the Return of Charaxos, in: The Newest Sappho: P. Sapph. Obbink and P. GC inv. 105, frs. 1–4, 2016
  • de La Genière J., Héra. Images, espaces, cultes, 1993 (republished 2019)

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