Women and Funeral Rites in Archaic and Classical Greece

When someone died during the Archaic and Classical periods in Greece, it was the responsibility of the women to perform the funeral ritual. The ritual was divided into three main parts: the prothesis (the laying out of the body), the ekphora (the procession to the place of interment), and the deposition of the remains. Evidence for these roles belonging to women can be found through the study of a phormiskos from the sixth century B.C.E. and a law from Solon in the sixth century B.C.E..

The Prothesis – Within 24 Hours of Death

Figure 1
A phormiskos, 6th century B.C.E. Kerameikos Museum, Athens, Greece.

The prothesis was the first rite in the funeral ritual and it was the period in which the body was prepared for burial. The corpse was first washed and dressed by the women of the household. Then it was anointed with oil, dressed in clean red or white robes, and placed on a bier.

Lamentations were performed during this step as can be seen on the phormiskos from the sixth century B.C.E. seen on the left. A phormiskos was a globular jug that would have contained the oil used to anoint the corpse. On this particular jug, the fragmented scene depicts a group of women surrounding a female corpse on a bier (funeral bed) and pulling on their hair. The action of women pulling on their hair is commonly referred to as being a symbol of mourning, along with tearing at their clothes and cheeks. According to the Greek written on the jug, the name of the deceased is known to be Myrrhine and the presence of her daughter amongst the mourners is noted.

Another type of lamentation performed during this period was the singing of dirges, particularly the goös, a lament that is improvised and sung by relatives or close friends of the dead person.

The Ekphora – Three Days After Death

The second rite in the funeral ritual, the ekphora, was the procession of the corpse through the streets to the grave. The corpse, being carried either in a hearse drawn by a horse or donkey or by pall bearers, was taken to its grave with the men heading the cortège and the women following behind them, performing lamentations.

The lamentations performed at this stage of the ritual were just like those performed during the prothesis, pulling on their hair, tearing at their clothes and cheeks, and singing dirges. The only difference was that they were now being performed in public instead of inside the home. Women performed the lamentations due to a perceived notion that they were more likely to express emotion than men and therefore they openly mourned for both themselves and the men.

The public lamentations in the processions were so extravagant that Solon, an Athenian statesman, established a funeral law in the sixth century B.C.E.. His law survives through Plutarch’s biography in book 21, chapter 4:

He also subjected the public appearances of the women, their mourning and their festivals, to a law which did away with disorder and licence. When they went out, they were not to wear more than three garments, they were not to carry more than an obol’s worth of food or drink, nor a pannier more than a cubit high, and they were not to travel about by night unless they rode in a wagon with a lamp to light their way. Laceration of the flesh by mourners, and the use of set lamentations, and the bewailing of any one at the funeral ceremonies of another, he forbade.

Still Day 3: The Deposition of the Corpse

The final stage of the funeral ritual was the deposition of the body into its grave. The Greeks appear to have deposed of their dead in two different ways: inhumation and cremation, with both being practised concurrently from the eighth century to the fourth century B.C.E.. Evidence suggests that after 700 B.C.E., the process of inhumation was common for infants and youths while adults were cremated within the grave itself. However by 550 B.C.E. and later, adults were once again inhumed in graves. As far as the ceremony itself is concerned, very little is known and what is known is that a priest was not required to be present at the burial, even in a personal capacity.

A Video to Summarise

This video depicts the funeral process in Archaic and Classical Greece. It also goes further into the upkeep of the tomb after the period of mourning is over.

Burial in Ancient Greece. Погребение в Древней Греции


Works Cited

Books:

  • Citizen Bacchae: Women’s Ritual Practice in Ancient Greece by Barbara Goff
  • The Greek Way of Death by Robert Garland
  • Women in the Classical World by Fantham et. al.

Academic Articles:

Primary Sources:

Other Sites:

 

 

 


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