Naples:life,death &
                Miracle contact: Jeff Matthews

  entry August 2010            

The Heraion near Paestum

Technically, the site is called
, in Italian, the Heraion alla foce del Sele (Temple to Hera at the Mouth of the Sele) to note its presence near the Sele river and to distinguish it from another temple to the same goddess in the Greek city of Poseidonia (Paestum), itself, a couple of miles away.

Most people prefer ancient ruins that have been restored to look as if they have been falling apart just since the other day and not the other millennium. Certainly, all major Greek and Roman archaeological sites frequented by tourists have had mountains of stone moved back into place to make the sites look "weathered," yes, but not totally blown off the map.

Save your illusions; they're good for you! You will, however, be disappointed by the sparse ruins of this particular Heraion (though, logically, there is no reason to be). It was not uncovered until the 1930s and since that time the site has been cleared and meticulously cataloged, but not much has taken place other than (!) to move all the precious objects that were found into a small, fine museum that has been in existence now for ten years (photo, right) and to reconstruct where this and that structure stood on the original site. The museum seems to serve a small number of random walk-ins such as myself and a great number of school field trips, for which there are good audio-visual aids, maps, charts and display cases full of items recovered from the site.

The cult of Hera originated in the city of Argos. She was the Greek queen of the gods and the goddess of marriage, women and health. In The Greek Myths, Robert Graves says, "Hera's name, usually taken to be a Greek word for 'lady', may represent an original Herwā ('Protectress'). She is the pre-Hellenic Great Goddess. Samos and Argos were the chief seats of her worship in Greece." (She was also married to her twin brother, Zeus, and their wedding night was said to have lasted 300 years, but I refrain from moralizing!) This particular temple was founded at about the same time as Poseidonia, itself, according to archaeologists. The goddess is termed Hera Argiva  and was also called Argonia, both of which recall her Argive (the adjective from "Argos") origins and the protection offered to Jason's ship, the Argo (since the Argonauts are said to have built the temple).*note The spread of the cult is amply documented by literary sources, by sanctuaries within or near cities, and by votive inscriptions throughout and beyond the Aegean.

This temple to Hera Argiva was centered around two main altars and a number of secondary structures meant to house pilgrims, serve meals, and store gifts to the goddess. Some of the structures were built or at least enhanced by those who supplanted the Greeks in the area—first, the Lucanians (a Samnite people) and then, of course, the Romans.

This sanctuary to Hera was on the left bank (as you face the sea) of the river Sele and marked the northern boundary of the Greek settlement. North of the river was a vast fertile plain stretching to the end of the gulf (near modern Salerno). That area was in the hands of the Etruscans, centered near modern Pontecagnano. The Sele was, thus, a frontier across which two cultures, Greek and Etruscan, faced and met each other, weaving complex relations. The sanctuary of Hera certainly performed several functions beyond religious ones. It was likely a meeting point and even a trading-post since one of the reasons the Greeks settled along this part of the Italian coast in the first place was to have commercial contact with the Etruscans. (For more on that particular aspect of early Greek expansion, see the entry on Pithecusa.)

One interesting item that the worshipers of Hera passed on to the Christians who came after them was the icon of the pomegranate, a symbol of righteousness and plenty. Statues of Hera often show her holding a piece of that fruit. There is a church in nearby Capaccio called the Madonna of the Granato (Madonna of the Pomegranate). Within the church is a wooden sculpture of the Madonna; she holds a pomegranate.

*note on Jason: As usual, it is difficult to square legend with hard-nosed archaeology. If Jason was an historical figure and we accept the usual chronology, then he lived and traveled at about the time of the Trojan War (around 1200 BC); thus, he couldn't have built the temple to Hera if that temple is from c. 600 BC. If archaeologists are wrong, then anything is possible. For the sake of a good story, a little "double think" is always a handy thing to have around—after all, it's only 600 years!   ^to text

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