Funeral Rites and Death-Ritual Practices in Greek Tragedy

Funeral Rites and Death-Ritual Practices in Greek Tragedy
© Photograph by Zubair Aslam

Classical scholars have identified the primary roles of women in Archaic and Classical Greek death ritual, especially Athenian, as preparers of the body for burial and as mourners of the dead, particularly as performers of the lament.

These rites are but two components of the several that could define the customary Greek, specifically Athenian, funeral: preparation of the body (bathing, anointing, crowning, clothing), provqesiÍ (the laying out of the body), ejkforav (the procession to the grave), lamentation (at various stages), burial (grave digging, sacrifice, tomb construction), perÇdeipnon (funeral meal), purification, post-funeral visitations to the tomb (e.g., third- and ninth-day rites), and conclusion of mourning (thirtieth-day rites).

While preparation of the body for burial in a private funeral was apparently the prerogative of female relatives, male and female relatives jointly participated in the provqesiÍ , ejkforav , lamentation, perÇdeipnon , purification rites, and post-burial visitations to the tomb.

Male relatives, however, were most likely responsible for conducting the act of burial itself (i.e., inhumation or cremation, grave digging, and tomb construction).

Despite the various aspects of the Greek funeral in which a woman could participate, scholarly attention has mainly focused on women’s involvement in mourning rituals such as lament. This attention is explicable, in part, because of the numerous examples of funerary lament found in Greek tragedy and its emotional and literary appeal in comparison to other funeral rites documented in historical sources or depicted on ancient artefacts.

When this scholarly emphasis on funerary lament and women as performers of lament, and mourning in general, is coupled with the evidence for women as the preparers of the body, the impression one may develop is that women are the prominent players in and managers of Greek death ritual.

In her seminal work on Greek ritual lament, Margaret Alexiou writes in her discussion of funeral legislation and lamentation: “It remains to explain why women were so hard hit by the restrictive legislation. From earliest times the main responsibility for funeral ritual and lamentation had rested with them: they were therefore in control of something which in the archaic period had played a vital part in the religious and social life of the génos […].”

While Alexiou’s work and those of other scholars of lament (and of women’s roles in religious rites) clearly document the role of women in this element of Greek funeral ritual, the evidence for their participation in this one rite does not equate to female control of and responsibility for funeral rites and their completion.

Funeral legislation cited by Alexiou indicates that it was, in fact, the male members of the society who exerted control over funeral rites, at least at the state level and, in turn, at the domestic level.

I suggest that in seeking to recognise some contribution by women in a male-dominated society such as ancient Greece, scholars have overplayed the evidence of women’s activities in funeral rites as a way of giving voice to a collective body of people who have virtually no voice.

In other words, we have privileged the evidence for female activity in private Greek death ritual because it provides us with something to say about women when much of the evidence we have to work with says very little.

It is attractive to be able to speak of women having a predominant role in Greek funeral ritual, but is it an accurate assessment? We know that men, too, mourned the dead, and, although the manner of mourning was different from women’s displays of grief, it was an act of mourning nonetheless; caution must be exercised, then, when stating that one gender had a more prominent role over the other in certain death rituals, unless we define what “prominent” means in the context of all possible funeral rites and rituals.

Moreover, to bolster our limited resources on the lives of women in ancient Greece, scholars frequently look to tragedy, but the validity of using evidence from Greek tragedy as evidence for women’s roles in actual, historical practices must be questioned, since tragedy is a “source” fundamentally different from historical sources such as histories, inscriptions, orations, and so on.

These historical sources supply the best extant evidence for documenting real-life practices and should be used first to establish what were the cultural norms. We can then look to tragedy to examine whether these cultural norms are maintained or altered. Without a firm understanding of actual customary funeral rites practised by Classical Athenians, scholars run the risk of misreading tragedy.

For example, Larry Bennett and William Blake Tyrrell claim that women are “the sex traditionally responsible for the burial of the dead,” and this erroneous viewpoint affects their interpretation of Sophokles’ Antigone.

For another approach to the study of funeral rites and, in particular, their representation in Greek tragedy, I have chosen to focus on one aspect of funeral rites that are often neglected in death-ritual scholarship: responsibility for and management of the performance of funeral rites.

In this first and foremost part of death ritual, without which no funeral can begin or take place, it will be shown that in real-life Classical practices this duty fell to male relatives or male friends of the dead, not to female relatives.

This cultural norm, however, is challenged in Greek tragedy by the examples of Klytaimestra, Antigone, and Medea, who assume responsibility for and control of the performance of funeral rites in their respective dramas (Aischylos’ Oresteia , Euripides’ Medea , Sophokles’ Antigone).

I will argue, however, that their actions do not evidence that women could initiate or conduct funerals in Classical Athens and, thus, cannot support the assumption that women were the predominant players and powers in Greek funeral rituals; rather, the actions of those heroines represent a corruption of standard social, cultural, and religious roles for women as expected by the Classical audience.

Furthermore, these examples of manipulation of the funeral ritual by the Greek tragedians will clearly bring into question the validity of using tragedy as a consistent and reliable source for actual death-ritual practices.

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