Is the scepter of Agamemnon a cult object?

For the last post I have chosen a subject – the question of the scepter of Agamemnon as a cult object – that arose during the conversation I had at the CHS symposium on November 30. Statues representing gods and other cult recipients are usually classified as “cult objects,” an assumption which I shall question in this post. As far as I know, the scepter of Agamemnon, although a non-statuary object, is the single exception. Why is the scepter a recipient of cult, and can it in fact be considered a cult object?

First mentioned in the Iliad, this scepter is the marker of authority of kings and of speakers in the assemblies:

Then among them lord Agamemnon stood up, holding in his hands the scepter (skêptron) which Hephaestus had toiled over making. Hephaestus gave it to lord Zeus, son of Cronos, and Zeus gave it to the messenger Argeïphontes; and Hermes, the lord, gave it to Pelops, driver of horses, and Pelops in turn gave it to Atreus, shepherd of men; and Atreus at his death left it to Thyestes, rich in flocks, and Thyestes again left it to Agamemnon to carry, to be lord of many isles and of all [1]

This passage provides interesting information regarding the object’s alleged genealogy and its transmission over generations. According to old Nestor, the scepter marks the privileges of royalty along with judicial pronouncements.[2] It also accompanies the warriors’ speeches and oaths. When Achilles retires from battle, he takes an oath in the name of the scepter, which he describes in a heated manner:

But I will speak frankly to you, and will swear a mighty oath on it: by this staff here – that will never again put out leaves or shoots since it first left its stump in the mountains, nor will it again grow green, for the bronze has stripped it of leaves and bark, and now the sons of the Achaeans that give judgment bear it in their hands, those who guard the laws that come from Zeus; and this shall be for you a mighty oath.[3]

Once he pronounces his oath, “down to the earth he dashed the staff studded with golden nails, and himself sat down.”[4]

Possessing or holding the scepter comes to be invested with a power guaranteed by Zeus. The king’s power, however, is not limitless. The council and the assembly control him. Thus Agamemnon is the holder of the scepter, but not its exclusive owner. He passes it around the community, signifying the sharing of an acknowledged power. When Achilles throws the scepter down to the ground, he does not break it. He does not try to destroy what the scepter represents, but simply refuses to give it to the herald of Agamemnon as he should. This gesture underlines the failure of a king who does not deserve to have the scepter back.

Yet at a later time, the scepter becomes the recipient of cult. According to Pausanias, “of the gods (theôn de), the people of Chaeroneia honor (timôsi) most the scepter which Homer says Hephaestus made for Zeus.” The scepter in this context receives a similar treatment to that of precious objects, and Pausanias goes on to report its genealogy in much the same way that Epic does:

Hermes received from Zeus and gave to Pelops, Pelops left to Atreus, Atreus to Thyestes, and Agamemnon had from Thyestes. This scepter, then, they worship (sebousi), calling it Spear (doru). That there is something peculiarly divine (theioteron) about this scepter is most clearly shown by the fame it brings to the Chaeroneans.[5]

Even though there is no temple erected for the scepter, “sacrifices (thusiai) are offered to it every day, and by its side stands a table full of meats and cakes of all sorts.”[6]

Which quality of the scepter could explain such a cult? Pausanias states that of all the artifacts attributed to Hephaestus because of their fame, the scepter is the only authentic object with regard to its genealogy (IX, 41, 1). Indeed, Pausanias never mentions any other objects which receive a cult or honors. Yet in this case he does not seem surprised by the fact that the scepter receives a cult. The best explanation for the fact that the people of Chaeroneia gave to the scepter a status equivalent to that of a god is because the scepter belongs to the divine sphere.[7] The expression ti theioteron (something peculiarly divine) that characterizes it is also relevant to the particular fame of its successive owners.

Although there is nothing in Pausanias’ text to raise doubts about the divine status of the scepter, a god-object is quite problematic for modern readers. As far as we are aware, there is no other reference to a sacrifice addressing an object “as to a god.” The vocabulary used by Pausanias, however, is closely related to ritual: timôsi theôn, to skêptro sebousi, ti theioteron, thusiai thuontai. Even though it is difficult to conceptualize, the scepter is not compared to a god but rather is actually a god. Thus the scepter – the sign of royal authority, of power, and the product of a god in Homeric poetry – deserves the honors received in Pausanias’ time. Its name changes into doru and its status shifts from that of a symbol of social power to that of a divine object. It is in fact more than a cult object – it is both the focus of the cult and the one to whom the cult is addressed.

[1] Iliad, II, 101-108. Transl. Murray.

[2] Iliad, IX, 96-99.

[3] Iliad, I, 233-239. See Nagy G. 19992 (1979), The Best of the Achaeans. Concepts of the Hero in Archaic Greek Poetry, Baltimore-London, 179-180.

[4] Iliad, I, 245-246.

[5] Pausanias, IX, 40, 11. Transl. Jones and Ormerod.

[6] Pausanias, IX, 40, 12.

[7] Pirenne-Delforge V. 2008, Retour à la source. Pausanias et la religion grecque (Kernos Suppl. 20), Liège, 79.