Marriage and Funeral Rites in Classical Athens

Til Death Do Us Part: Marriage and Funeral Rites in Classical Athens

Jana Shopkorn

In the ancient Mediterranean world there was hardly room for choice: not only was marriage destiny, but so was death. The identity of the Classical Greek world is established through the traditional sacrifices and rituals that were practiced in these times of bliss and mourning. The sacred wedding and the dramatic funeral compliment each other in character and content, for the ceremonies are both interwoven with ritual meaning and overlapping rites. Evidence for these formalities, both literary and artistic, help to provide a complete account of Greek customs in order to form the general picture of the wedding, the funeral, the parallels, the writings, and the vase paintings.

Every respectable woman in Athens became a wife if she could. There was no real alternative other than marriage. The bride and the groom prepared for the wedding by means of offerings, dedications, and sacrifices. All of these rites had a purificatory and propitiatory character.[1] Marriage in Classical Athens is constituted by the acts of engue , ekdosis , and gamos.

Engue refers to the betrothal arranged by the kurioi , usually the fathers. It may also refer to the relationship between the guardian of the bride and the groom himself, if the groom has reached the majority age of eighteen.

This ceremony consists of a private verbal contract where the woman is transferred. The Greek marriage is composed of both transfer and transformation: a transfer is enacted in the engue and transformation is the responsibility of the woman. Many actions are symbolic of a woman's transfer to a new status. By cutting her hair, in removing the girdle which is worn since puberty, by taking a ritual bath in water drawn from a sacred spring, in shifting from childhood to adulthood and from virginity to wife hood, the bride undergoes many significant transformations. The bride is not considered a legal agent, thus her presence is not necessary at the engue where the arrangement of the dowry is settled. The dowry is designed to provide the wife with protection if her husband abandons or divorces her.

The wedding is designated by the terms ekdosis and gamos . Ekdosis is the giving away of the bride from father to husband in order to create an oikos.

The ekdosis does not render a single moment, but is a process of transfer where a variety of preliminary sacrifices are performed. The offerings presented before the wedding consist of dedications to various gods. Many offerings and sacrifices are made to divinities, especially to Artemis who is associated with menstruation, virginity and childbirth.[2] The most frequent dedication is locks of hair. The recipients of these hair offerings are representative of virginity. The offering of hair by the bride to virgin deities might be understood as a substitute for the bride herself who is about to leave the virginal way of life.[3] The bride's passage from childhood to maturity is marked by her dedication of a lock of hair at the shrine. On the wedding day both the bride and groom are each given a ritual bath with water brought from the Kallirroe spring.[4] The nuptial bath is believed to induce fertility.[5] The special vessel used for this purpose is the loutrophoros which means, "someone who carries the bath water."[6] Among these activities the bride is assisted in adorning herself for the wedding night. At a banquet given at the family's home, the bride first appears veiled. The unveiling of the bride, anakalupteria ,

possibly took place at this celebratory feast where music and dancing play a large role in the festivities. Both the bride and groom wear a crown or garland to mark the occasion. The actual transfer of the bride from father to groom takes place at night after the bridal banquet.

The central event of the Athenian wedding is the procession in a chariot from the home of the bride to the home of the groom. The veiled bride stands in the cart as her husband mounts it in preparation for their journey. The families follow the chariot by foot, bearing gifts. In the procession the bride's mother carries torches which stressed her protective role.[7] Traditionally, this journey took place at night, hence the figures carrying the torches to light the way. The flames of the torches and the sound of the music function against evil spirits which intend to harm the bride during the procession.[8]

As a part of the incorporation rites, the bride eats a quince or an apple, demonstrating that her livelihood now comes from her husband. This is a way of marking her initiation into the new oikos . The fruit and nuts which the bride and groom are showered with act as agents of fertility and prosperity. Different interpretations of this action suggest that this consumption exemplifies a sympathetic guarantee of fertility.[9] The physical union of bride and groom takes place in the nuptial bed where intercourse marks the goal in the transferal of the bride to her husband. The gamos is the consummated marriage. One day after the wedding the couple receives gifts in a ceremony called the epaulia , an outdoor procession of people bringing gifts or an indoor gathering with only women in attendance. The gifts are carried in procession to the house and are presented to the couple. Some of the gifts include vases filled with greenery, baskets, pots, furniture, jewelry, combs and perfume which allude to the domestic role or sexual identity of the new wife, and mirrors or wreaths which are attributed to the bride. Ultimately, the "Athenian marriage was a relationship between a man and a woman which had the primary goal of producing children and maintaining the identity of the oikos unit within the social and political community."[10]

The kedeia (funeral) is a three part drama consisting of the prothesis (laying out of the body), the ekphora (conveyance of body to its place of internment), and the deposition of the body. The funeral presents opportunities for a display of wealth, family pride, and family bonding. As in weddings, women play the most significant role in mourning rituals including: washing, anointing, dressing, crowning, and covering the body after adorning it with flowers. Upon a person's decease, the eyes and mouth are shut to secure the release of the psyche from the body.[11] A ritual washing of the body is performed by the women of the household. The funeral ritual consummates with laying out the corpse at the prothesis on a kline (bed) where it remains on view for two days. It was a widespread custom for the deceased to wear a long, ankle-length garment and to be crowned. Pottier suggests that the crown "allowed a last chance to contemplate the deceased under a guise of tranquil and serene beauty."[12] The crowns and branches incorporated into the funeral ritual serve at most sacred occasions in order to add dignity and lustre to the proceedings. Women generally stand over the corpse at the top end of the couch where they may beat their head, raise their hands, or tear their hair. Men, when present, often raise their right hands with their palms out to the Gods. When mourners paid their respects to the deceased they dressed in black. In wearing dark clothing similar to the deceased, the mourners exemplify honor and respect by identifying with the dead. During this principal ceremony, women would sing ritualized laments . After the prothesis the corpse is removed for the burial at the ekphora before the dawn of the third day after death. If it was affordable, the transport of the body was done by cart. Men led the procession and the women followed. Whether the body is inhumed or cremated, the dead are buried along with gifts and offerings such as pottery, stone vases, mirrors, and other personal belongings. As with the wedding, formal prayers are exempt and mourners make offerings of fruit. After the burial, when singing and performing dances would cease, the men and women would leave the burial site separately. The women probably left first in order to supervise the preparation of the perideiprion

(banquet) that the funeral party attended in honor of the deceased.

General agreement exists on the practices of the fifth century wedding and funeral, if not a significance between the two rituals. Wedding rituals of purification, the adorning of the bride, the shearing of hair, and the procession accompanied by song are paralleled by rituals which took place at funerals. The funeral, like the wedding, is a special concern of the women of Classical Athens. Both events are family festivals and an initiation to another realm.[13] There are numerous overlapping elements in the two rituals of marriage and death. A bride in fifth century Athens offers, as a dedication, a lock of hair before marriage, whereas mourners offer the same when visiting the deceased. Both the bride and groom, like the dead, are ritually bathed in sacred water, dressed and adorned, and ultimately crowned by women who play critical roles in both ceremonies. The duality of marriage and death persists with the parallel of covering both the bride and the corpse with a veil and a sheath respectively. Both events involve a night journey to a new home, taken by a cart or chariot in a procession with torch-bearers where song and dance are ritualistic. Just as a wedding culminates in the nuptial bed, the dead are laid out on a bed as well. Each ritual contains blessings, both over the married couple and over the deceased. Both festivals define an irreversible, physical change -- the loss of virginity and the loss of life. This idea of loss, rebirth, and renewal is present in both marriage and sacrifice.[14] The overriding continuity between wedding and funeral rites suggests the significance of these rituals in Classical Athens.[15]

A connection between weddings and funerals is exhibited in young Athenians who died unmarried. Such untimely deaths demand the crowning of the grave site with loutrophoroi , representing the ritual vessel for nuptial bathing. When someone died unmarried they had to receive a posthumous bridal bath in order to attain the goal of life.[16] One of the loutrophoroi pots might also have been buried with the young deceased. Death before marriage signifies a marriage with the underworld. The notion that unmarried girls have made a marriage with Hades invokes the paradigm of Persephone in The Homeric Hymn to Demeter.

Many rituals of marriage and death are exposed in The Homeric Hymn to Demeter. The link between death and marriage is very real in the myth. Persephone marries Death himself, and in doing so she loses her identity. Persephone's abduction by Hades happens when she is picking flowers in a meadow among the company of virgins. Persephone, the young virginal bride, exemplifies innocence because of her young age.[17] While she is gathering a narcissus, the earth gapes and Hades "snatche[s] the unwilling maid into his golden chariot and [leads] her off lamenting."[18] As a parallel to the Greek wedding procession it is reasonable that Hades should have a chariot when he carries Persephone off. Like the typical Athenian bride's incorporation rites, Persephone's eating of a pomegranate seed binds her to marriage with Hades in the underworld. This fruit, as a symbol of both blood and death and marriage and fertility, signifies the marriage of Persephone and Hades. With this seed, Hades coerces Persephone to stay with him.

The myth portrays an intimate relationship between mother and daughter which elicits two distinct phases in a woman's life: maidenhood and motherhood. Parallel to this transformation of virgin to wife in the myth is the transition of the female in a traditional Greek marriage. Demeter's role as mother corresponds to that of the bride's mother, since she is the person who is most affected by her daughter's separation.[19] Her heart grieves because of this painful disunion, a parallel to what occurs when the bride is taken away from the family circle in which she has been nurtured. Demeter, "holding torches ablaze in her hands," imitates the experience of the mother of the bride who carries flaming torches in the bridal procession.[20] These blazes of light beared by Demeter in search of her daughter are a significant emblem utilized in the myth. The torches may be associated with purification, the bringing of fertility, and the emergence of light from dark.[21] Like mourners at a funeral, "revered Demeter of the dark robe" still wears her dark garb during, and even after, her reunion with her daughter as a reminder of mourning.[22] The Homeric Hymn to Demeter provides a mythological paradigm for marriage and death rites.

Through literature and art, writers and painters look at the world around them. Vase paintings are one of the main sources of evidence of both the wedding ceremony and the funeral ritual. The form of the vase on which the painting appeared strongly influenced the design. Loutrophoroi are linked with weddings and funerals since they are used to bring water (loutron) for the wedding bath and serve as grave offerings for those who died unmarried. The loutrophoros had a specific function of carrying sacred water, whereas the lebes gamikos ,

a nuptial cauldron, had various functions. It has been used as a bowl for mixing wine or preparing food at a wedding banquet, as a storage vessel during festivities, as a container for warming the nuptial bath, as a vase for flowers, or simply as a symbol.[23] Predominant scenes on the lebetes gamikoi are processions and scenes of gift offerings. A red-figure lebes gamikos vase, Mississippi 1977.3.91,

depicts preliminary wedding preparations and a gift offering. The bride is shown seated to the left, holding a small casket or chest which has been presented to her as a gift by the girl facing her. This nuptial vessel sits on a raised pedestal and has been exclusively used as part of the wedding ritual. It is probably one of the gifts given to the bride. Lebetes gamikoi also depict funeral scenes which juxtaposes the two rituals.

The vases with wedding scenes may have been presented as gifts to the bridal couple as a reminder of the highest moment of their life.[24] Some of the most common marriage motifs show the gesture of unveiling and chariot processions with the bride and the groom. Williams 1919 CG 42, an Attic black-figure vase delineates the nuptial chariot. This image celebrates a traditional Athenian procession containing a bridal couple in a four-horse chariot being led by the light of flaming torches. Wedding scenes are by far most frequent on loutrophoroi and lebetes gamikoi , where ritual function is reflected in the painted scene. The Tampa 86.78 vase reveals a bride wearing a crown with a woman beside her donning a crown and carrying a torch. The groom is crowned with a wreath marking fecundity, and between them flies a winged Eros who is engaged in adding to the beauty of the bride since grace and splendor are symbolized by his presence. Behind the groom is a winged Nike who seems to indicate divine approval, or more precisely, approval of a favorable outcome. Nike represents success and fulfillment in the transition of the wedding. The images on this vase elicit the significance of symbols that are reflected in a marriage scene.

As so far as funeral representations, certain traits are shared with marriage rituals.[25] The processional image, so commonly found on wedding vases, is also distinguishable in funeral scenes. Philadelphia 30-4-1 is a loutrophoros which portrays a funeral scene of men in procession with their right arms extended and their palms held out in a gesture of respect or farewell to the dead.[26]

As it is understood and as it is depicted, women have a definite place in funeral rituals. The distinction between male and female roles are clearly delineated. Men and women not only play distinct roles but adopt different gestures and occupy separate parts of the vase. Louvre CA 453, is a loutrophoros vase which exposes the duties of female mourners who lament by striking their heads and tearing at their hair. In another prothesis image of the same vase, women surround the kline , hold the head of the corpse, and raise their hands in gestures of grief. All of these actions are traditional ritual gestures of women mourners during the prothesis and the ekphora. .

In both funeral and wedding scenes, a popular motif often utilized is the image of the vessel on the vessel. In this type of scene it is typical for there to be images of women carrying loutrophoroi on the vase itself.[27] A funeral scene on the Malibu 82.AE.16

vase reveals the ritual use of the decoration of the painted loutrophoroi on the loutrophoros vase. A mourning Niobe is pictured standing between two loutrophoroi. The loutrophoroi represent the funeral bath that will be received and point to its final use as a grave gift. The composition of the vase-type on the vase itself unites iconography with function.[28]

The Athenians incorporated images of weddings and funerals in order to reveal the most popular iconography for these family festivals and initiations. Scenes of ritual gestures, wedding preparations, nuptial processions, or visits to the deceased's tomb allude to the Classical Greek way of ritual. The events practiced in their every day society are eloquently expressed in the powerful utilization of form and function in their imagery. The significance of marriage and funeral rites are illustrated, not only in vase paintings which are a vital source of evidence of the ancient Greek world, but also in textual documentation. Through examining The Homeric Hymn to Demeter and its attitude to the institution of marriage and death, an understanding of the ancient world of wedlock and sacrifice is developed for the modern world. The idea of marriage to death exposes a juxtaposition which proves so forceful that one ritual seems to engender the other. These two rituals reveal an interrelationship -- one which penetrates further than a mere attraction of opposites.


Avagianou, Aphrodite. Sacred Marriage in the Rituals of Greek Religion. Peter Lang: Bern, 1991.

Blundell, Sue. Women in Ancient Greece. Harvard University Press: Cambridge, 1995.

Duby, Georges and Perrot, Michelle. A History of Women in the West: From Ancient Goddesses to Christian Saints. The Belknap Press: Cambridge, 1992.

Foley, Helene P. The Homeric Hymn to Demeter. Princeton University Press: New Jersey, 1994.

Garland, Robert. The Greek Way of Death. Cornell University Press: Ithaca, 1985.

Morris, Ian. Key Themes in Ancient History: Death-Ritual and Social Structure in Classical Antiquity. Cambridge University Press: London, 1992.

Redfield, James. "Notes on the Greek Wedding," in Arethusa (1982) Vol.15, 181- 199.

Rehm, Rush. Marriage to Death: The Conflation of Wedding and Funeral Rituals in Greek Tragedy. Princeton University Press: New Jersey, 1994.

Seaford, R. "The Tragic Wedding," in Journal of Hellenistic Studies cvii (1987) 106- 130.

[1] Aphrodite Avagianou, Sacred Marriage in the Rituals of Greek Religion (Bern: Peter Lang, 1991) 3.

[2] Rush Rehm, Marriage to Death: The Conflation of Wedding and Funeral Rituals in Greek Tragedy (New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1994) 12.

[3] Avagianou 3.

[4] Rehm 14.

[5] Avagianou 6.

[6] Rehm 15.

[7] Georges Duby and Michelle Perrot, A History of Women in the West: From Ancient Goddesses to Christian Saints (Cambridge: Belknap Press, 1992) 141.

[8] Avagianou 11.

[9] Rehm 17.

[10] Ibid 18.

[11 ] Robert Garland,The Greek Way of Death (New York: Cornell University Press, 1985) 23.

[12] Garland 26.

[13] Redfield, James, "Notes on the Greek Wedding," Arethusa 1982: 187.

[14] Sue Blundell, Women in Ancient Greece (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1995) 123.

[15] Rehm 29.

[16] Avagianou 7.

[17] Ibid 130.

[18] Helene P. Foley, The Homeric Hymn to Demeter (New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1994) 2.

[19] Avagianou 134.

[20] Foley 4.

[21] Ibid 38.

[22] Ibid 20.

[23] Rehm 32.

[24] Avagianou 2.

[25] Duby and Perrot 163.

[26] Philadelphia 30-4-1 (Vase)

[27] Rehm 30.

[28] Ibid 32.

You Might Also Like