THE SANCTUARY OF HERA lies in the southwest corner of the Kambos plain, 6.5km from Pythagóreio (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 Vathý.
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 Ímbrasos 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 sexual 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 considerable 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 therefore 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.
The remains of Polycrates's unfinished temple are on your left as you enter; its predecessors were situated about 30m to the east of its east front (now covered by the more visible remains of an Early Christian basilica), and the chronological succession of altars stood about 30m further east of that. Archaeological exploration has provided considerable information about the development of the principal sacred building here, which, since it spans the fast evolving period from the 9th to the 6th century BC, encapsulates on one site much of the evolution of the Greek temple-form in general: • In the 10th century BC, the site would probably have consisted principally of a stone altar in front of a Sacred Willow or Chaste Tree. The focus of cult, the ‘σᾶνίς ἄξοος', or ‘un-sculpted board', in Callimachus's words, was probably beneath or beside the tree; or could even have been the tree stump itself.
Temple 1: With time, this ‘image' and others that were added, needed protection from the elements. There was also need for a place where the more permanent gifts and offerings left in honour of the deity could be stored. As a result of these needs, one of the earliest, large temples in the Greek world was constructed beside the tree in the 8th century BC, in order to house the image: this was a long hall, 100 Samian feet long (hence its subsequent name, the ‘hecatompedon') by 20 feet wide (c. 33 x 6.6m), with a row of 13 wooden columns down the middle to support the roof. Such a row of central columns inevitably hid the cult image from view, unless it were to be placed—unsatisfactorily— to one side.
Temple 2: Around 650 BC the hecatompedon was rebuilt, of the same size, on solid limestone foundations, but this time with a modified interior which resolved the problem of the placing of the image. The columns supporting the roof in the interior were now pushed back to both side-walls and the entrance wall, and formed thereby a running, interior colonnade on three sides, in the form of a Greek Π. The presence also of cylindrical column bases at the corners on the outside suggest that this was one of the earliest examples of a peripteral temple, i.e. with an external colonnade and columned entrance porch as well. This colonnade protected the temple's adobe walls from the elements, and provided welcome shade for the crowds who gathered on feast days.
Temple 3: As the wealth and power of Samos increased dramatically, and the international fame of the Sanctuary grew, a much grander temple was planned and begun between 570–560 BC, designed by Rhoecus, and assisted by another artist, Theodorus—the first architects in Greek history, both Samian, for whom we have names. Less than a century had passed, and the conception of a temple had evolved out of all recognition, transforming itself from chrysalis to butterfly. Around 540 BC, the temple of Rhoecus either collapsed, or was shaken by an earthquake, or just became unsafe, and a little over 30 years after it was begun it was dismantled and immediately rebuilt in a modified form and new position.
Temple 4: These are the remains that are seen today. The fact that the new and final Temple of Hera, begun by Polycrates, just after 540 BC and possibly built by the architect and engineer Eupalinos, was moved 40m to the west onto more solid ground, suggests that the earlier temple had manifested problems due principally to subsidence. The move also meant that there was now greater space for ceremony between the altar and the front of the temple. The temple was only slightly larger (108.63 x 55.16m) than its predecessor and was of similar proportions and form; but the inter-columniations were decreased, the columns were slimmed, and their total number increased from 104 to 155. They were almost 20m high, and the peristyle which they formed was two columns deep on the long sides, and three-deep at either end, thus breaking and refracting the light and shadow in a manner that was substantially different from the measured effect of a Doric temple, such as the Parthenon. Work on the temple was interrupted at Polycrates's death in 522 BC, taken up again around 500 BC, went into abeyance once more after 478 BC, and resumed in the 3rd century BC, but never with sufficient momentum to complete the building. The columns were never fluted, and neither the floor nor roof completed. Strabo (Geog.XIV.1.14), writing in the 1st century AD, refers to the temple as ‘hypaethral', i.e. open to the skies, leaving some doubt as to whether the temple was designed to have an open well of light in its naos, similar to the oracular temple at Didyma, or whether he simply meant that no roof had yet been built over it. On site it is not easy to make immediate sense of the temple remains: what is seen are the raised foundations for the rows of columns that were to bear the weight of the roof. These eventually would have been filled in between with beaten earth and stone and then covered by the marble floor laid above. This means that the steps visible at two points on the east and west of the naos may be no more than builders' ramps which would later have been covered over. At many points it can be seen how the dismantled material from Rhoecus's earlier temple—most conspicuously, the beautifully turned column-bases with fine horizontal fluting—have been incorporated into the foundations of the new temple as filling. There is a mixture of two materials: a yellowy-white Samian marble (for details and important elements), and a grey local limestone (for walls and steps), predominantly used in the earlier building. The low depression of the central naos area, which would have been filled to support the floor, is roughly bisected by the foundations of the western extremity of Rhoecus's temple. The solitary column, unfluted and dislocated by seismic movement, left from the 155 pillars of the original plan, stands only to about half its original height: it remains the only visual cue to the quite extraordinary height of the original building.
The altar The altar—always the focal point of the sanctuary—has similarly gone through a number of transformations in its even longer history; but after it was enlarged and redesigned by Rhoecus in 550 BC, it was changed little thereafter. Up until that time, the original altar—reconstructed no less than seven times since the Late Bronze Age—stood at an inexplicably oblique angle to everything else on the same spot: its outline is visible just to the south of the main stack of the 6th century BC altar, which stands today, 60m due east of the temple platform. Today, Rhoecus's altar is a confusing assemblage of decorated flotsam and jetsam: originally it was a monumental structure (38.4 x 18.7m) in the usual form of a wide, Greek pi, Π, whose open side directly faced the front of the temple and whose arms surrounded the altar-table proper on its raised platform.
A standing apse, defiantly abutting the ancient altar, announces a later Christian presence on the site in the form of a 5th century AD Christian basilica, constructed almost entirely out of blocks and fragments taken from the pagan buildings—many of them with inscriptions. The basilica is fitted snugly in between two pre-existing 2nd century AD, Roman constructions, whose walls and floors it incorporates: a small Corinthian-style shrine at its northwest corner and the Roman temple to Hera along its south side, built to house the cult statue, while work on the still unfinished great temple languished. There are also the remains of a complex of small, late Roman, thermal baths just to the west of the basilica. All these later buildings occupy the sacred space between altar and temple.
To have an idea of how beautifully decorated the Christian basilica was in later centuries, it is necessary to look at the fragments beside the modern storehouse at the south edge of the archaeological area, where a number of carved Middle Byzantine basket- and wheel-design elements of rare beauty, belonging formerly to its templon, are propped against the outside wall of the building. Nearby are other entablature fragments from an early Doric structure.
Not visible today, but discovered by the archaeologists below the area you have just crossed between the altar and the storehouse, was a particularly early example of a stoa—a structure that was later to dominate Greek civic architecture. The roof of the 70m long, south stoa of the 7th century BC would have been supported by wooden columns, and was positioned (running NW–SE) so as to look onto the bank of the river-course at that time. It was later eliminated by the building of Rhoecus's temple.
In the mid 6th century, another, much longer, north stoa was constructed along the northern perimeter of the sanctuary, perforated by a gate towards its eastern end.
Votive structures One thing that impressed Herodotus about this sanctuary was the wealth and variety of its votive dedications. He mentions one piece in particular (Hist. IV.152): a bronze vessel, surrounded by ‘…griffin's heads at the rim, and supported by three kneeling figures in bronze, eleven and a half feet high'. This piece was made from the proceeds of a tithe on the profits of a trading mission undertaken by the Samian mariner, Colaios, and was dedicated by him in gratitude to Hera. Colaios's journey was remarkable in that it had penetrated, in the early 7th century BC, into the Atlantic Ocean beyond the Straits of Gibraltar, and had reached as far as Tartessus, the area west of Seville—if not substantially further. He returned safely to Samos with a cargo, the profit on which alone was valued at 60 talents.
His journey is symbolic of the marine skills, courage and commercial spirit of the 7th and 6th century BC Greeks.
A series of stone bases found about 20m east of the south stoa, and directly south of the great altar, has generally been interpreted as the support for the votive dedication of a boat (a phenomenon encountered elsewhere, e.g on Delos and on Samothrace). Whether the boat were that of Colaios or not, is impossible to verify.
The only other dedication in this southern area stands on its own, just 10m south of the Early Christian basilica, and is semi-circular in form. It supported the honorific monument erected, around 58 BC to the Cicero brothers— in gratitude to the great orator, Marcus Tullius Cicero, who had famously prosecuted Verres (the distinguished art-collector and thief, whose covetous attentions Samos had not escaped) and to his brother Quintus, who was an able and beneficent Governor of Asia from 61 to 58 BC.
Most of the votive monuments, in the form of small temples, treasuries or shrines, however, occupied the northeastern area of the sanctuary. The lay-out of this area is revealing in the way in which the buildings fill the space randomly and are set at different angles to one another, with constantly varying orientations. A sanctuary which develops ‘organically' over time cannot necessarily have a master-plan: but the situation here seems to defy even the loosest concept of orderliness.
More clearly visible are the many votive statue bases that border the Sacred Way, sole remnants of the sculpture gallery that this avenue once was. Immediately on the left is the Geneleos Group, named after the sculptor who executed the work around 560 BC. These are casts of the original pieces which have been moved to the Museum in Vathý. They comprised originally a complete family group—father (reclining, right) and mother (seated, left), framing three daughters and an infant son—bearing names inscribed in their drapery, their clothes and features once brilliantly coloured. The prominent display of his beautiful daughters by a rich aristocrat, at such a conspicuous point of a sanctuary dedicated to the goddess who promoted and protected marriage, is probably not without a slightly solicitory purpose. To the left of the group are other honorific or dedicatory statue bases; some still preserve the fixing-dowels or the broken feet of a standing kouros, others have their dedicatory inscriptions, invoking the goddess's name. Directly across the Sacred Way from the Geneleos Group is the crescentshaped base of one of the sanctuary's most famous dedications, which is mentioned by Strabo (Geog. XIV.1.14). This was a colossal group of three figures—Hercules, being received on Mt. Olympus by Athena and Zeus—by the 5th century sculptor Myron, known to us best as the creator of the Discus-Thrower. Strabo says the sculptures were carried off to Rome by Mark Antony, but later returned again by Augustus, except for the Zeus which he placed in a custom-built shrine on the Capitol in Rome. Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Heraion_of_SamosWikidata ID: Q841207Trismegistos Geo: 54181Manto: 10270721
Info: McGilchrist's Greek Islands
(From McGilchrist’s Greek Islands, © Nigel McGilchrist 2010, excerpted with his gracious permission. Click for the books)