Funerals, Mourning Practices, and the Underworld

Though the Ancient Greeks didn’t have nearly as deep an obsession with death as the Ancient Egyptians, respect for the dead was very important to them. (Ever heard of a little play called Antigone?) Every culture has social mores about how to treat the dead, and the Ancient Greek, Mycenaean, and Hellenistic cultures were no exception.

The Material World

In the material world, there were three stages of mourning.

Andromache Mourning Hector by Jacques Louis David

During the prothesis, or laying out of the body, female relatives (or subjects) of the deceased would wash and anoint the body before dressing it in an ankle-length robe, a bridal gown if it was a woman recently married, or battle armor if the deceased was a soldier. The women would then lay the body out on a high bed or couch within the house. Relatives and friends could then visit and pay their respects.

Those who came to call would find a bowl of water outside the house and branches hanging over the body, as well as professional mourners, leading the singing of laments.

There are many different words for lament in Ancient Greek: epikedeiontalemosgoos (an improvised lament sung by relatives or close friends), threnos (a formal lament sung by threnon exarchoi, professional mourners.) Euripides uses most of these forms in Alcestis which is a play that is in many ways about the process of mourning, but he focuses most on threnos and kommos (a formal lament heard only onstage in Greek tragedy.)

The ekphora, or funeral procession, usually occurred right before dawn, the morning of a few days after the deceased had passed. Some evidence suggests chariots and carts were used, but many archaeologists also believe the body could have been carried from the house to the cemetery, which would be at the edge of the borders of the town. In Euripides’ time, processions were used as a way of demonstrating the wealth and power of the deceased’s family. The number of professional mourners, the offerings being taken, the size of the band of musicians were all a way to show status. There are very few pre-Classical representations of funeral processions, so it seems like this opulence was a new development. (One that Euripides references by having Apollo try to tempt Death with the promise of a lavish burial for Alcestis if s/he lets her go.)

Princess Diana or Queen Alcestis?

The final stage was the deposition, the disposal of the body, either by inhumation or cremation (the more common method in Homer’s Bronze Age stories, in Greek tragedy, and in space epics.)

The remains would then be placed in a piece of pottery and be buried in a mound, and the pyre put out using libation wine. In earlier times, the deceased was often buried with food, wine, possessions, even the remains of animal and human sacrifices, though this practice dropped off later.

Terms

Psychorrhagema is the word for the struggle of the soul to free itself from the material body. In our version of Alcestis, we illustrate this moment on stage.

In the play, Alcestis herself falls under a few different categories of the dead. The first is aoros, someone who dies young. This is especially important because Admetus and Pheres later argue over there is a difference in dying at an older or younger age. The Greeks had a separate word for “untimely” death, so Pheres might have buried himself in a bit of a hole as far as that one goes. Alcestis is also a makarios, or “blessed dead.” Finally, she is a deuteropotmos, “second-fated,” or someone who returns from the dead. (Historically, these cases probably happened often because the Greeks buried their dead the same day that they died, leaving to coma victims being buried before actually passing away.)

Admetus asks Alcestis to come to him in his dreams. This is the Greek concept of eidolon, or the dead appearing to the living. There are still many urban legends and anecdotes tied to the idea of a dead person appearing to a loved one near the hour of their death.

If you want bonus points for terms, you can remember that Asclepius, Apollo’s son and the great physician, is a diobletos, “smitten by Zeus,” a person who was struck by lightning.

Journey to the Underworld, or “Over There”


In order to keep a soul from wandering the Earth you needed to bury a body with money to pay the ferryman, Charon, who would help the soul cross the marsh and rivers of the Underworld to reach its permanent destination. The Underworld is referred to as ekai in Ancient Greek, or “over there.” This is a vague term for a permanently obscured construct. Unlike Dante’s easily mapped Inferno, the Greek Underworld’s geography shifts depending on the poet’s purpose and focus.

The general consensus is that at least part of it is a confluence of rivers, including Styx (“Wrath” or “Hate”), Acheron (“Woe”), Pyriphlegethon (“Fire”), Cocytus (“Wailing”), and Lethe (“Oblivion.”) These rivers flow into the Acherusian Lake, the Stygian marsh, and Tartarus, the greatest depths of the Earth, a place of punishment, and the origin of chtonic (under-ground) monsters.

When a soul first entered the world below, zhe was usually accompanied by Hermes or Thanatos, who would help zhim cross Oceanus, and then given to Charon to cross the Styx and/or the Stygian marsh to arrive at Hades.

Hades (both the palace and the god) is guarded by Cerberus, the three headed guard dog of Hades’ house.

Heracles subdued Cerberus when he went down to the Underworld to get Theseus. (This would be after the events of Alcestis.)

Hades and Persephone live together in the palace and if you want to beg for a soul, you usually do it in their throne room after getting past the dog. (This is based on the myths of Heracles and Orpheus. Odysseus snuck into the Underworld to visit some old friends without going to Hades.)

Hades and Persephone in the palace Hades named after himself.

The other important area in the Underworld is Elysium, or the Elysian Fields, where heroes wrestle and swim and lay in the grass. It’s about as close to the Judeo-Christian Heaven that you’re going to get.

Mythology Link has a lot more in depth information with quotes from various primary sources.

The Agency of the Dead

Another interesting topic to examine is the literary and cultural depictions of the dead. In Homer, the dead heroes Odysseus meets are shades of their former selves, mostly devoid of the strong wills and attitudes we saw in them in the preceding poem, the Iliad. Yet, the spirits seem to maintain some power in the material world, as many heroes are told to avoid attending the funerals of those they killed and libations are offered up to the dead with the intention of “appeasement.” The dead can’t outright kill or attack you, but they can push others in certain directions, especially when the living stand near their graves. (Don’t you think Clytemnestra would be all up on Agamemnon immediately?)

Sources:

The Metropolitan Museum of Art “Death, Burial, and the Afterlife.”

Robert Garland’s The Greek Way of Death.

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