Monday, June 3, 2013

I Visit the Shrine of Hercules

My wife is pretty tolerant when we travel.  In particular, while she certainly notices that we visit Roman sites quite often she is thus far appearing to accept my explanation that in Europe you really can't avoid them.  Those Romans were just....everywhere.

On our recent wanderings we had a longish drive day.  Looking at spots along the way suggested that we were passing through a rather tedious part of central France.  But, we did notice The Sources of Hercules museum near Luneville.

Hercules has always been something of a personal favorite of mine.  Back in the days when my sons were small enough to wrestle on the living room floor I would theatrically assume the role of Mighty Hercules, acted with considerable bluster and panache.

So I proposed a quick stop and my better half agreed.  She even insisted when we appeared to be a little behind schedule.

The website gives the location - a town called Deneuvre - but we were expecting something more rural.  The shrine in fact had been discovered when a farmer doing field work encountered what he thought was an old water pipe.  It was actually a tumbled column.

But the site had been excavated and relocated to a custom built museum in town.  At first glance it did not look very impressive.  The lady at the desk said it had been a quiet day. Her crossword puzzle was mostly done.  During our visit we were the sole patrons.

In fact the first room of the place was quite humble, just a few cases with bits of pottery and a video in  French showing the excavation process.  Then you turn a corner and go down a ramp to this:

Rather impressively they had recreated the shrine in a large underground space.  This shows about half of it.

The rural site in fact was the largest shrine to Hercules known in the Western Empire. There were at least two stone shrines and an earlier wooden one.  Devotees would come to make small offerings, and if they felt their request had been granted, would commission a stone altar to commemorate the event.  There were about 200 such altars found.  The best twenty or so are on display.  This was a near overdose of Mighty Hercules...

Note the classic Hercules paraphernalia, club on the left and Nemean lion skin on the right.

I was impressed with how "human" Hercules appears in these depictions.  This looks like a guy you would meet in a tavern.

Hercules at middle age.....

An interesting site.  Very well done and worth a visit.  I particularly liked the spooky lighting.  It puts you in the mood of a simpler, more primitive time...

Between our respective command of French and of Roman history we could piece together the information presented.  This was a site that met a violent end.  But not at the hands of barbarians.  When the Emperor Constantine proclaimed Christianity the official religion of Rome it became open season on "pagan" gods.  The Shrine of Hercules was pulled down, the statues attacked with hammers.  There was some sort of burning, perhaps a bonfire of everything not made of stone.  Of the 200 or so altars and statues most could not be salvaged by the archaeologists.

This is actually rather similar to something found at the Vindolanda site some years back. It had been puzzling me until I visited the Hercules museum.  Out in the western end of the Vindolanda civilian settlement the foundations of a shrine were located.  Everywhere there were tiny bits of statuary.  A fingertip here, an earlobe there.  It also must have been the work of Christians, in this case highly efficient ones, attempting to erase the image of earlier pagan gods.

In an age where "iconoclast" has acquired a mildly positive connotation it is something to ponder.  So much lost.

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