Death, Burials, & Funerary Vases: The Ancient Greek Way

Do you know how the Ancient Greeks dealt with death? Start by looking back to the Geometric period where there’s Hades’ Underworld, elaborate burial rituals, and detailed ancient Greek funerary vases like the terracotta krater! 

Looking Back to the Geometric Period

Ancient Greek society underwent a whirlwind of change during the Geometric Period (ca. 900 to 700 BC). Did they establish primary institutions? Yes! How about the creation of Greek city-states? Of course! The Greek alphabet? Heck yeah!  

Also, let’s not forget the increased trade and colonialization along Italy, Sicily, and Asia Minor. Nor the construction of large temples and sanctuaries that indicated the development of a state religion. I mean, the Olympian Gods and all their drama began! (Any Percy Jackson fans out there!?) 

Greek art and literature developed as well. We can’t ignore the amazing epic poetry of Homer! His iconic stories of the Iliad and the Odyssey provide insight into fabulous Greek heroes and Greek beliefs. And, of course, through art on vases, we can learn about the ancient Greek burial journey or Greek mythology.  

Whew, the Greeks sure got things done! 

Dealing with Death the Ancient Greek Way

Everyone likes to do things a certain way, even the Greeks! They dealt with death through their own burial rituals to honor the departed and ease their way into the afterlife.  

Homer’s Underworld

What happens when we die? Where do we go?  

Greek writer, Homer gives us insight into ancient Greek beliefs about death. The Greeks believed in the Underworld, the realm of the god Hadesthe brother of Zeus and Poseidon. He’s certainly one of the BIG three Olympians. To many, Hades got the short end of the stick since he had to watch over endless drifting ‘shades’ (what’s left of those that have died). Zeus, on the other hand, was nicely situated on Mount Olympus and Poseidon was having fun in the deep blue sea! If Hades appears grouchy, it’s probably due to his depressing and creepy Underworldly company.  

Funnily enough, in the Odyssey, the ghost of Achilles told Odysseus that he would prefer to:

“live on earth, to serve as the hireling of another, of some portionless man whose livelihood was but small, rather than to be lord over all the dead that have perished”  

Odyssey 11:489-91

Wow, seems like Hades has the worst job ever! Would you want to end up in the Underworld? 

Burial Rituals

Terracotta Funerary Plaque Showing the Prothesis, credit: Met Museum

Before heading off to the Underworld, a person’s spirit left their body as a tiny breath! As the spirit heads down below, the living relatives (typically women) would conduct a series of burial rituals. Moreover, these rituals were very important. In fact, failure to complete them is the equivalent of a severe insult! 

The ancient Greeks had three main stages to burials: 

  1. Prothesis

During prothesis, the body is washed, anointed, dressed, and placed on a high bed within the family’s house. To mourn and pay their respects, relatives and friends visited the body.  

  1. Ekphora

Next comes ekphora! This stage consists of a funeral procession. Typically occurring before dawn, the body would be brought down to the cemetery! 

  1. Interment

Once the procession arrived at the cemetery, the body would be placed in either an earth mound or rectangular tomb. Depending on the time period, graves would be marked by stele, statues, or vases. Graves were marked to ensure that the deceased are never forgotten! As long as the dead are remembered by the living, their spirits remain immortal. 

Attica Through the Centuries

Attica, a region around Athens, is home to some of the finest grave monuments. In this region (specifically near outer Kerameikos) lies a cemetery that has been used for centuries. Here, terracotta kraters, dating all the way back to the 8th century B.C., mark the locations of graves. 

Attica also saw elaborate funerary monuments during the 6th century B.C. For instance, Attic aristocratic families built private burial grounds where relief sculpture, statues, and stele marked the graves. These monuments had an inscribed base to memorialize the dearly departed. Also, marble sculpture appeared colorful too!  

Excavations have also revealed tombs from the Classical Period. In fact, towards the end of the 5th century B.C., Athenians started burying the deceased in stone sarcophagi. They were placed in the ground within certain grave precincts arranged within terraces. Monuments were then found along the terrace’s edge. 

Whether graves are marked by statues, reliefs, or vases, these markers typically depicted images of the deceased, their possessions, or aspects from their life!  

A Closer Look at a Terracotta Krater 

Terracotta Krater, Geometric Period, Attic Greece, credit: the Met Museum

During the Geometric Period, terracotta kraters were the go-to grave marker! NYC’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, displays one of these ancient Greek funerary vases. It dates between ca. 750-735 B.C. All around the vase is decorated with funerary representations. The main scene lies between the handles. It shows the deceased laying upon a bier surrounded by household members and mourners (the prothesis stage). For viewing clarity, the poor dead man is laying on his side. In addition, the checkered shroud that normally covers the body is raised above the deceased. Interestingly, the sitting woman near the deceased could be his wife. And, the smaller figure on her lap, their child. 

Look at the other figures surrounding the dead man. See two protruding points coming from the triangular chests? Those points indicate breasts to identify the figures as women. Also, their arms are above their heads in a gesture of mourning. You’ll recall that women typically oversaw the burial rights!  

In the zone below the deceased figure, there is a procession of chariots and foot soldiers. These scenes most likely represent the dead’s military exploits or glorious ancestry. On the other hand, Homer’ stories tell how Greek heroes staged chariot races to honor the dead. So, these chariot depictions could also be such funeral games! 

Also, do you notice how the geometric shapes that make up this vase fit right in with the Geometric period’s namesake!?

Beyond the Burial

Ancient Greek vases didn’t just depict funerary representations. They also showed Greek myths, battles, and everyday life. If you’re in London, the British Museum displays a great collection of Greek vases. For example, one vase depicts the hero Theseus slaying the Minotaur!  

For Paris lovers, the Louvre’s Campana Gallery will also take you on an ancient Greek vase journey! Curious about Hercules and the three-bodied Geryon? Come to the Louvre and check it out! Better yet, sign up for a THATMuse Louvre hunt for some treasure-hunting fun!  

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