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Ancient Greek Funeral Practices
Transcript of Ancient Greek Funeral Practices
of Ancient Greek Funeral Ritual
Funerals are by definition focused on the dead, but when viewed critically generally tell us more about the people who will go on living. They are a ritual that must respect many value systems: those of the living and the dead, the personal and public, the emotional and political, and the spiritual and physical. Thus they create a unique lens by which we can investigate many facets of a society through one ceremony.
“Most of nature does not stop for death. But we do. Wherever our spirits go, or don't, ours is a species that down the millenia has learned to process grief by processing the objects of our grief, the bodies of the dead, from one place to the next."
Thomas Lynch, "Mortal Remains"
The Tame Death
Most ancient cultures share a view
of death that Philippe Aries calls
"The Tame Death." Within this view
death is something that, though feared,
is also familiar, inevitable, and natural.
The picture on this lexythos, or oil jar, a type of vessel often used for libations or cleaning of the body, shows Hermes, the god of travelers, represented as a guide for the dead to the underworld. The placement of Hermes on many of the vases found at burial sites alludes to the Greeks' understanding of death as a journey that was equally physical and spiritual.
A Greek Krater vase shows the laying out of a dead body; this type of vase was often used as a grave
marker or receptacle for remains. Surrounding the funeral scene are pictures depicting heroic Greek culture.
A Rite of Passage
Aries said that modern Westerners hold a view of "The Invisible Death:" they seek to sanitize, alienate, and deny death.
Most cultures who share the view of The Tame Death practice what has come to be called The Rite of Passage funeral: this type of funeral involves 3 stages of identity and 3 stages of time.
The Living The Dead The Soul
The Bereaved The Corpse Separate and Exiled
The Living At Physical Rest At Spiritual Rest
Stage 2 is a liminal state for all the players: It is a process, rather than an instantaneous act, that allows for the removal of the pollution of death from the land of the living to its own realm.
How did the ancient Greeks view death?
This terracotta figure of an ekphora depicts the three actors of the funeral: the mourners are visible, the dead lies within the bier, and the bird symbolizes the psyche outside of the body but still among the living.
The prothesis period traditionally lasted no more than three days, though the time might be lengthened for a person of high rank and importance. In later years the prothesis was legally mandated to last just one day. This period of time practically allowed for physical confirmation of the death, but the primary "purpose of the rite was to enable the mourners to sing a funeral dirge in honour of the dead in order to satisfy the claims of duty and to appease the soul of the departed."
The dead would be clothed in an ankle length robe or shroud and placed on a funeral bier with his feet facing the door. Someone, most often the closest female relative, would close the corpse's eyes and mouth signifying a closing off of the body to the soul. The bier would be decorated with branches, vines, small oil vessels, and possibly birds (symbols of the soul).
Most depictions of a prothesis show someone holding the head of the deceased. This usually appears to be the closest relative. Straps that would keep the dead's mouth closed have been found in tombs; this could have been done strictly for aesthetic purposes, but it also could have served to close the body to the spirit.
Many prothesis show the dead decorated with a crown. Scholars disagree about the significance of the crown: It might be a "sign of respect for the high sanctity of the departed," or simply present to "add to the dignity and lustre of the proceedings" as crowns and branches often appeared in sacred rites.
(Rhodes qtd. in Garland 26; Garland 26)
“The living respect and honour the dead,
but because of the miasma of death
they must purify themselves.”
A ritual bathing of the body was performed by the women of the household; they would clean the body and rub it with oil and clothe and shroud the body. This mirrors the ritual cleansing that would also have occurred at birth and before marriage. Special care would be given to the war dead to clean and care for their wounds as part of the bathing process.
Often if a person knew he were going to die, he would perform the ritual bath himself. This was the case for Socrates who was forced to drink poison. Plato recorded some of his last words to be,
“I am now already, as a tragedian would say, called by fate, and it is about time for me to go to the bath; for I think it is better to bathe before drinking the poison, that the women may not have the trouble of bathing the corpse.”
(Phaedo 115a, trans. H.N. Fowler.
Funerals were not regarded as religious ceremonies nor were they designed to pay homage to the gods. Rather priests were not allowed to be a part of the ceremony or be near the "pollution arising from the dead."
Funeral rituals dealt with issues of the spirit but they were part of the human arc of life rather than part of the realm of the gods; gods were the "immortal ones" and existed apart from death.
There are 52 known visual representations of the prothesis, but only 3 of the ekphora survive
. This can partly be explained by the incredible importance placed on the lament; it was in many ways equal in importance to the actual burial. That stage primarily focused on the grief of the living, and it served to create a clear claim of responsibility onto the deceased. Records show instances of groups stealing bodies out of a house in order to take over the burial rituals thereby staking claim to the inheritance entitled to the closest of kin. It can be inferred that "the holding of the prothesis, if unchallenged, signified that those conducting it had established their legal entitlement to inherit"
. Despite the importance of the first step to the living, the issue of the body itself still remained, a physical reminder of the dead's spiritual state. The Ekphora was the journey that would lead to the body's final deposition, and the beginning of rest for the both the living and the dead.
The ancient Greeks were so intent on taking the dead through the proper cycle that in the case of a deuteropotmoi, or “the second fated ones,” those who were thought to have died and then resuscitated, the person was forced to go through a ritual reenactment of the life cycle. They were symbolically birthed, breast-fed, and mothered before they were allowed to reenter society.
Until this occurred the person would not be welcome and was viewed with suspicion. The Greeks felt that person was “rejected by the powers below and unfit to mingle with his fellows above; he (was) highly taboo ... the only chance was for him to be born again”
(Harrison qtd. in Garland 101)
At some points in history, the bereaved regularly employed professional mourners to sing the goos, or funeral lament, but even when professionals were used the lament was most likely led by the closest female family member. The lament would have been antiphonal with a choral response. Often the lead mourner would call out to the dead by name. Some scenes show few mourners around the bier while others show very large crowds. This could have correlated to the importance of the deceased or simply been a product of the limits put on the artist by the size of the vase.
During the processional men would hold one hand to their head, or raise their right hand with the palm out as a gesture of salute. Men’s mourning is often described as rather reserved; they might state the deceased’s name out loud as a sign of their respect, but were traditionally stoic.
Women’s mourning is depicted as much more violent; they are the majority of the mourners and touch the bier while the men proceed around or behind it. Women are drawn with both hands at their heads tearing at their hair, beating their breasts, or scratching their faces. Women’s mourning rituals would became less violent over time; and later they were legally forbidden to cut their bodies. Pictures show that eventually a symbolic cutting of the hair replaced the violent tearing.
Both cremation and burial appear to have been practiced almost interchangeably throughout the centuries that comprise ancient Greece. Homer solely depicting cremation in his works might be a product of the heroes avoiding burial in alien lands. The actual deposition if the body is often mythically depicted on vases; scenes show winged gods taking over the body. In actuality hired hands probably took care of the burial.
It was incredibly important that the correct people take responsibility for the ceremony. The immediate family was expected to take control first; it was specifically the duty of a son to assure his father had a proper burial. It would have been deemed entirely inappropriate for a person to be buried by someone unrelated to him or her. Libations would be poured out for the dead or cups of wine used to extinguish a funeral pyre. Clusters of offerings, oil bottle, jewelry, urns have survived in tombs, and these were set around the head and feet of the dead. In the case of cremations, a new urn containing the dead’s bones was placed around other vases meant for libation offerings of wine, oil, or honey. In some burials intimate possessions were placed with the bodies, those discovered have included jewelry, toiletry items, athletic accessories such as an iron discus, and astragals, knuckle bones used as dice, in the graves of women and children.
“Death is fully consummated only when the decomposition has ended; only then does the deceased cease to belong to this world so as to enter another life.”
(Hertz qtd in. Garland 39)
The Triakostia, or the “thirtieth-day rites,” was a period of one month after a death set aside for mourning; during the Triakostia it was “customary to deposit sweepings from the house onto the grave,” and the relatives were viewed as between stages of life just as their deceased relative.
Evidence has been found of several ceremonies that occurred during this extended mourning period though we know very little about them: during the Ta Trita Ceremony (“the third day celebration”) & Ta Enata (“the ninth day celebration”) the living would most likely pour out libations on the grave from ceremonial cups that have been discovered around grave sites.
There is almost always a legally prescribed ending for the period of grief. Many records show this as 30 days, but in other areas it “could not exceed three months for men and four for women, whereas at Sparta only eleven days were allowed.”
The Role of Women
The ancient Greeks understood grief as characteristically female, and women are given a peculiar greatness of responsibility in the funeral; they prepared the body and lead the lament. Women were in essence in control of the private aspects of the ritual and the actions that were most important to the dead: “the private space, in which women gather to gesticulate around the deceased, is clearly distinct from the outside and the neutral space through which the men filed to salute the body from a distance.”
The close connection of bereavement to women is almost certainly attached to the ancient Greeks' view of death as part of the natural cycle that begins at birth. Pity for the dead was often understood in relation to a mother’s grief. The closest female kin, would hold the deceased’s head and mimic maternal gestures such as spoon feeding, caressing, or rocking.
Funeral practices became intensely legislated for various reasons: to keep clear public order, to reduce superstition, and to ensure public health and the rights of the dead, but they also specifically strengthened public control over matters that had been issues of smaller clan groups.
Funerary laws were effective tools for managing public opinion and energy “because theatrical displays of intense emotion publicized the solidarity of the mourning group with each other as well as with the deceased, they stirred up rivalry with opposing clans, especially when the dead person had been assassinated. Vendettas sparked by ritual lament could give rise to feuds and civil war. Solon’s reforms ... reduced the large families’ opportunities for displaying their treasured prestige and cohesion.”
As another symptom of this control, funerals for soldiers eventually became the responsibility of the state as opposed to the family; this firmly recognized the soldier as a citizen of Greece paramount to any other identity.
Laws Governing Burial and Funerals
“Nearly all the evidence we have about legislation for burials is concerned with limiting expense, noise, and the period of mourning” thereby limiting the spectacle of grief.
The Prothesis should take place inside or at the most extreme inner a courtyard
Restricted the number in attendance at funerals
Prohibited the cutting of the flesh as an act of mourning
Banned the singing of prepared dirges
Perhaps prevented the hiring of professional mourners
Solon Commanded men to lead the funeral procession and women to follow behind.
The number of flautist in a procession should not exceed 10.
Forbade the slaughter of oxen at the site of inhumation.
A separate funeral ordinance called for the burial garment to be a color ‘somewhere between white and black.’
One law restricted the amount of money spent on the clothing for the burial at 300 drachmas; a later law cut the amount to 35 drachmas.
Laying Out the Body
A type of vessel called Lekthyos, shown above, would be used to pour out oil on the graves. Many examples of funerary art survive on lekthyos, perhaps because of its specific role in the ceremonies.
Social and Political Connections
Stages of the Funeral
Prothesis, Ekphora, Burial, and Mourning
A large vessel of water, preferably filled with water from a moving stream, would be kept outside of a house through the whole period of mourning. Both to indicate that they had been visited by the pollution of death and to allow guests to symbolically wash themselves as they left the home and returned to their normal lives.
It was not just the flesh that was believed to be polluted. Cicero wrote about a ceremony in which seeds would be sprinkled over a grave for “purifying the land, thereby returning it to the use of the living”
. Laws were also devised to manage the cleaning of a home after the prothesis:
Once the dead has been taken from the place of his death only the polluted women are to re-enter the house ... The next day a freeman should cleanse the house first with sea water, then with plain water, having scattered earth; once it has been purified the house is clean and household offerings should be made.
The funeral bier would be pulled by a horse-drawn carriage or pall-bearers would carry the deceased. Earlier accounts describe the Ekphora as a noisy affair with profesional mourners and musicians hired to aid in the lament; they would stop the processional at busy street corners and draw as much attention to their grief and their dead relative as possible. Later laws aimed at limiting the spectacle of the funerals would prohibit this practice, and in fact, would only allow Ekphora to occur before sunrise in the quiet early morning hours. Most funeral laws were specifically aimed at the processional as this “represented a stage in which the anxieties of death break into the social life”
The climax of the funeral was most likely a sacrifice made to the dead after they were interred. Large-scale ritual sacrifice was not often performed; evidence shows these sacrifices to be as simple as a meal that was burned to symbolically represent the last meal of the dead. Human sacrifice, like that of the 12 Trojans by Achilles in Homer’s description of the funeral of Patroclus, appears to have happened only in exceptional situations. It would have been slightly more common to see the sacrifice of one person as a consort or servant for the dead rather than an act of slaughter for the sake of vengeance.
Men and women would leave the deposition rite separately, and return to the home of the deceased’s kin for the perideipnon, a banquet for all the family of the deceased. Relatives wore garlands and made speeches in honor of the dead and ended their days of fasting during the prothesis and ekphora. Eating represents life, and this meal signified the family as still whole though they had lost a member, ingesting sustenance as the first step back toward the land of the living.
Annual commemoration of the dead was also very important. Very little is known about the practices, but it is specifically mentioned in legislation, and “assurance of proper performance of annual rites was reason enough for a man to adopt a son.”
Some practices for the annual rites sound rather modern, such as decorating the graves with flowers; there also seemed to be a ceremonial element performed in the home. There is evidence that the ancient Greeks believed that their dead relatives returned in some capacity during the annual commemorative rites. Funeral games were also celebrated annually in Athens on behalf of all who had died in military service.
Political and Social Connections