Articles from the
Oxford Classical Dictionary
attitudes to death | disposal of the dead | psyche | soul | body | chthonian gods | pollution | purification | ritual | magic | Hades | Tartarus | Styx | Elysium | Orpheus | Orphism | Orphic literature | Persephone/Kore | Eleusis | mysteries | Greek funerary art | cemeteries | plague
This detailed scrutiny of the ancient Greek perception and understanding of life after death is principally concerned with how the Greeks communicated their beliefs. The first part of the book examines the Greek cult of the dead through Homer's works, such as in the presentation of Patroclus' funeral, the hero's 'psyche' and the underworld. Albinus secondly looks at the Orphic mystical tradition which originated in the 7th and 6th centuries BC and offered a more positive view of an individual's fate. The final section briefly examines other mystery cults, such as the Eleusinian cult. The argument, largely based on linguistic details, is aimed more at specialists in Greek mysticism than at a general readership.
The Ritual Lament in Greek Tradition
Margaret Alexiou's The Ritual Lament in Greek Tradition, first published in 1974, has long since been established as a classic in several fields. This is the only generic and diachronic study of learned and popular lament and its socio-cultural contexts throughout Greek tradition in which a great diversity of sources are integrated to offer a comprehensive and penetrating synthesis. Its interdisciplinary orientation and broad scope have rendered The Ritual Lament in Greek Tradition an indispensable reference work for classicists, byzantinists, neohellenists, folklorists, and anthropologists. Now a second edition, revised by Dimitrios Yatromanolakis and Panagiotis Roilos, has been made available. This new edition also includes a valuable up-to-date bibliography on ritual lament and death in Greek culture.
The Early Greek Concept of the Soul
Jan Bremmer presents a provocative picture of the historical development of beliefs regarding the soul in ancient Greece. He argues that before Homer the Greeks distinguished between two types of soul, both identified with the individual: the free soul, which possessed no psychological attributes and was active only outside the body, as in dreams, swoons, and the afterlife; and the body soul, which endowed a person with life and consciousness. Gradually this concept of two kinds of souls was replaced by the idea of a single soul. In exploring Greek ideas of human souls as well as those of plants and animals, Bremmer illuminates an important stage in the genesis of the Greek mind.
This compelling text and dramatic photographic essay convey the emotional power of the death rituals of a small Greek village--the funeral, the singing of laments, the distribution of food, the daily visits to the graves, and especially the rite of exhumation. These rituals help Greek villagers face the universal paradox of mourning: how can the living sustain relationships with the dead and at the same time bring them to an end, in order to continue to live meaningfully as members of a community? That is the villagers' dilemma, and our own. Thirty-one moving photographs (reproduced in duotone to do justice to their great beauty) combine with vivid descriptions of the bereaved women of "Potamia" and with the words of the funeral laments to allow the reader an unusual emotional identification with the people of rural Greece as they struggle to integrate the experience of death into their daily lives. Loring M. Danforth's sensitive use of symbolic and structural analysis complements his discussion of the social context in which these rituals occur. He explores important themes in rural Greek life, such as the position of women, patterns of reciprocity and obligation, and the nature of social relations within the family.
Most of the grandiose and often ostentatious Hellenistic monumental tombs were power- fully expressive and symbolic structures, built to glorify and display the wealth and power of kings, queens, nobles, and other persons of influence or to serve as shrines for the worship of the heroized dead. They were inventive in design and form, created to demonstrate the achievements of the dead in a public architecture of permanence and durability. This lavishly illustrated monograph brings together previously scattered information about Hellenistic funerary monuments and Janos Fedak's own research on the exterior architecture of these impressive structures in the Mediterranean region. The author first establishes a typology of main tomb forms and then considers some of the predecessors of the Hellenistic tombs. He explores the variations of form that resulted from differences in climate, building materials, and social and religious customs. Adherence to strong local traditional practice in building is visible in each region, but new ideas and novel funerary architecture were welcomed everywhere in the Hellenistic world. Fedak's wide-ranging approach makes the work of interest not only to specialists in Greek architecture and archaeologists but also to students of classical studies and historians of art and religion.
Below: Terracotta funerary plaque depicting prothesis (the laying-out of the deceased on a funeral bier); ca. 520-510 BCE.
Source/creator: The Metropolitan Museum of Art. License: CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication.
Laurie Brands Gagné believes the image of God as stern Father or Judge has done much damage over the centuries and has engendered a sense of shame and guilt, especially in women. She sees our own civilization as one that is cut off from the natural world and from the precious part of ourselves that is earthy and sensual. In this work, Gagné explores women's journeys through the underworld to reclaim the wisdom and sensuality contained in these stories for heirs of the God the Father tradition. She looks at the ancient stories of Inanna, Demeter, and Psyche and the reflections of these archetypal figures in the work of women such as Sylvia Plath, Joan Didion, Mary Gordon, Virginia Woolf, and Etty Hillesum to illustrate that the alternative tradition these journey stories represent has much to offer modern Christians. Gagné successfully demonstrates that only by turning to confront the mystery that has been obscured by the image of God as stern Father or Judge can a woman raised in the Christian tradition acquire a sense of self strong enough to integrate experiences of profound loss. Most importantly, by drawing on the wisdom of the goddess tradition, both men and women are able to effect a more meaningful reappropriation of Christianity. Gagné's examination of the dark experience of the underworld in the goddess tradition discovers the elements of all spiritual journeys: self-transcendence followed by self-transformation. Anyone who has struggled with love and loss and whose spirit has been suppressed by the image of God as Judge, yet who will not reject Christianity, will benefit from this work.
Surveying funerary rites and attitudes toward death from the time of Homer to the fourth century BCE, Robert Garland seeks to show what the ordinary Greek felt about death and the dead. The second edition features a substantial new prefatory essay in which Garland addresses recent questions and debates about death and the early Greeks. The book also includes an updated Supplementary Bibliography. "This [volume] contains a rich and remarkably complete collection of the abundant but scattered literary, artistic, and archaeological evidence on death in the ancient world as well as an extensive bibliography on the subject. Robert Garland conceives of death as a process, a rite of passage, a mutual but changing relationship between the deceased and [his or her] survivors.... A most useful collection of evidence, sensibly organized (no small feat) and lucidly presented.... A valuable source on the Greeks and on the always-lively subject of death." --American Historical Review.
Fascinating texts written on small gold tablets that were deposited in graves provide a unique source of information about what some Greeks and Romans believed regarding the fate that awaited them after death, and how they could influence it. These texts, dating from the late fifth century BCE to the second century CE, have been part of the scholarly debate on ancient afterlife beliefs since the end of the nineteenth century. Recent finds and analysis of the texts have reshaped our understanding of their purpose and of the perceived afterlife. The tablets belonged to those who had been initiated into the mysteries of Dionysus Bacchius and relied heavily upon myths narrated in poems ascribed to the mythical singer Orpheus. After providing the Greek text and a translation of all the available tablets, the authors analyze their role in the mysteries of Dionysus, and present an outline of the myths concerning the origins of humanity and of the sacred texts that the Greeks ascribed to Orpheus. Related ancient texts are also appended in English translations. Providing the first book-length edition and discussion of these enigmatic texts in English, and their first English translation, this book is essential to the study of ancient Greek religion.
Imagine you are a hunter-gatherer some 15,000 years ago. You've got a choice – carry on foraging, or plant a few seeds and move to one of those new-fangled settlements down the valley. What you won't know is that urban life is short and riddled with dozens of new diseases; your children will be shorter and sicklier than you are, they'll be plagued with gum disease, and stand a decent chance of a violent death at the point of a spear. Why would anyone choose this? This is one of the many intriguing questions tackled by Brenna Hassett in Built on Bones. Using research on skeletal remains from around the world, this book explores the history of humanity's experiment with the metropolis, and looks at why our ancestors chose city life, and why they have largely stuck to it. It explains the diseases, the deaths and the many other misadventures that we have unwittingly unleashed upon ourselves throughout the metropolitan past, and as the world becomes increasingly urbanised, what we can look forward to in the future. Telling the tale of shifts in human growth and health that have occurred as we transitioned from a mobile to a largely settled species. Built on Bones offers an accessible insight into a critical but relatively unheralded aspect of the human story: our recent evolution.
In our contemporary Western society, death has become taboo. Despite its inevitability, we focus on maintaining youthfulness and well-being, while fearing death’s intrusion in our daily activities. In contrast, observes Maria Serena Mirto, the ancient Greeks embraced death more openly and effectively, developing a variety of rituals to help them grieve the dead and, in the process, alleviate anxiety and suffering. In this fascinating book, Mirto examines conceptions of death and the afterlife in the ancient Greek world, revealing few similarities—and many differences—between ancient and modern ways of approaching death. Exploring the cultural and religious foundations underlying Greek burial rites and customs, Mirto traces the evolution of these practices during the archaic and classical periods. She explains the relationship between the living and the dead as reflected in grave markers, epitaphs, and burial offerings and discusses the social and political dimensions of burial and lamentation. She also describes shifting beliefs about life after death, showing how concepts of immortality, depicted so memorably in Homer’s epics, began to change during the classical period. this book straddles the boundary between literary and religious imagination and synthesizes observations from archaeology, visual art, philosophy, politics, and law. The author places particular emphasis on Homer’s epics, the first literary testimony of an understanding of death in ancient Greece. And because these stories are still so central to Western culture, her discussion casts new light on elements we thought we had already understood. Originally written and published in Italian, this English-language translation includes the most recent scholarship on newly discovered texts and objects, and engages the latest theoretical perspectives on the gendered roles of men and women as agents of mourning. The volume also features a new section dealing with hero cults and a new appendix outlining fundamental developments in modern studies of death in the ancient Greek world.
A view of the archaeological site at the ancient cemetery of the Kerameikos ('Potters' Quarter') in Athens.
Source: Wikimedia Commons. Creator: George E. Koronaios. License: CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication.
Plague and the Athenian Imagination: Drama, History and the Cult of Asclepius
The great plague of Athens that began in 430 BCE had an enormous effect on the imagination of its literary artists and on the social imagination of the city as a whole. In this book, Professor Mitchell-Boyask studies the impact of the plague on Athenian tragedy early in the 420s and argues for a significant relationship between drama and the development of the cult of the healing god Asclepius in the next decade, during a period of war and increasing civic strife. The Athenian decision to locate their temple for Asclepius adjacent to the Theater of Dionysus arose from deeper associations between drama, healing and the polis that were engaged actively by the crisis of the plague. The book also considers the representation of the plague in Thucydides' History as well as the metaphors generated by that representation which recur later in the same work.
At length, in dead of night, the ghost appears / Of her unhappy lord: the specter stares, / And, with erected eyes, his bloody bosom bares. / The cruel altars and his fate he tells -- The Aeneid. The literature of classical antiquity bristles with witches, ghosts, magic books, curses, voodoo-dolls, and other fiendish monsters. This book covers the literature of both Greek and Roman cultures over a period of more than a thousand years, through the advent of Christianity. Although classical culture was conservative, especially in regards to ghosts and witches which were strongly bound up in folklore, such tales preserve and conserve ideas about ghosts and witchcraft, and they survive to achieve this effect precisely because they are wonderfully engaging. Consequently, and also because they have directly and indirectly shaped our own culture's lore of magic and ghosts, these tales speak to us today still with a great directness and immediacy. In this book, Ogden uncovers the ancient foundations of the supernatural stories that have endured for generations.
War and Violence in Ancient Greece
The study of Greek warfare should involve much more than reconstructing the experience of combat or revisiting the great wars of the classical period. Here, a distinguished international cast of scholars explores beyond the usual thematic and chronological boundaries. Ranging from the heroes of Homer to the kings and cities of the Hellenistic age, the contributors set war in the context of other forms of Greek violence, private and public. At every turn they challenge received ideas about the causes and conduct of war, its development and its place in Greek society and culture.
Marble grave stele with a family group; ca. 360 BCE. Source/creator: The Metropolitan Museum of Art. License: CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication.