Mythological tradition of Herakles in Kos
The mythical hero Herakles and his companions were driven ashore by a tempest in the area of Cape Lakateras, Kardamaina, whilst homeward bound after the labour of seizing the girdle of the Amazon Hippolyta. There they clashed with the renowned Koan athlete Antagoras, when they took refuge in his sheepfold, in search of food. The inhabitants of Kos, the Meropes, ran for help and forced Herakles and his companions to flee. In order to protect himself, the hero dressed in women’s clothes. Immediately afterwards, having rallied round, they succeeded in counteracting the Meropes. After the victory, Herakles, wearing female attire, married Chalkiope, daughter of King Eurypylos of Kos. She bore him a son, Thessalos, father of Antiphos and Pheidippos, who commanded the 10 ships that Kos, Nisyros, the Calydnian islands and Kasos sent to the Trojan war (Iliad II, 676-679).
The cult of Herakles in Kos
The cult of the mythical hero Herakles who, according to local tradition, was founding-father of the Koans, was one of the oldest and most important on the island. Representations of the crab, attribute of the hero, on the earliest Archaic coins of Kos, and of the head of Herakles on the coin issues of the new city underline his significance in the local pantheon. His sanctuary, in a prominent position in the ancient city, was one of the first to be founded in the late 4th-early 3rd century BC on a trapezoidal area created for this purpose by relocating the harbour wall further east. It is located in the Eastern Archaeological area.
Herakles was also considered a patron-deity of marriage. Impecunious couples could celebrate their nuptials in his sanctuary. He is also associated with young men’s entry in the body of citizens, a feature that endowed him with political status.
Information on the content of his worship is drawn from epigraphic texts, the earliest of which, of the 4th century BC, refers to the founding of the cult of the hero as property-owner, by the Koan citizen Diomedon. This records, inter alia, that the sanctuary included a temenos (sacred precinct), xenonas (guesthouse), garden, buildings, lesche (council) and peripatos, as well as cultic paraphernalia. A two-day annual festival was celebrated on the 16th and 17th month Pedageiton (December or May). This included sacrifices and a ritual meal (xenismos). One sacrifice involved offering small fish. Interesting information n the sanctuary is contained in an inscription of sale of hierosyne for the office of priest of Herakles Kallinikos, in the 1st century BC.
The attribution of the sanctuary to Herakles is based on epigraphic testimonies and part of a lion-skin from the colossal statue of the mythical hero, presently built into the wall of the Loggia mosque, which were found in the vicinity of the sanctuary.
The sanctuary was founded in the late 4th-early 3rd century BC on a trapezoidal area created for this purpose by relocating the harbour wall further east. A temple was possibly constructed on the site, but no remains have been identified. A stoa on the north side served as the monumental propylon of the sanctuary.
In the early 2nd century BC, the temple was built in the form of a simple oikos upon a podium and was 12.60 x 7.50 meters in dimension. Access was via a flight of ten steps. A stoa, small parts of the foundation of which are preserved, was added to the west side.
In the 1st-2nd century AD, porticoes with rooms were added to the north, south and east sides of the court. After the catastrophic earthquake in 142 AD, repairs were made mainly to the ancillary rooms. Mosaics of exquisite art, with representations referring to the cult of Herakles, were laid in some of these.
The sanctuary was destroyed by the earthquake of 469 AD, by which period it had perhaps already lost its religious status. Thermae (baths) were built upon its ruins, continuing its existence until the 7th century AD.
During the Hospitaller period, the church of St. Demetrios was erected on the remnants of the temple. It was demolished by the Italians after the 1933 earthquake, in order to uncover the sanctuary in its entirety.
The remains of a little temple (7.2X4.8m), of an unknown deity, probably from the Hellenistic Age, can be seen between the basilica (item 2) and the sanctuary of Heracles.