Greek Notion of Afterlife

  March 15, 2022   Read time 2 min
Greek Notion of Afterlife
As is the case with other cultures, the Greeks and Romans entertained a variety of ideas about the afterlife, some of which were mutually exclusive; they called on different ideas as the situation required.

Thus, they spoke of the dead as present and angry when ill luck and a guilty conscience suggested that the deceased might be wreaking vengeance; they spoke of them as potential benefactors when paying them cult; and on yet other occasions they spoke of them as if they were completely absent from the world of the living. Both because the attitudes varied and because our information for this, as well as most other aspects of Greek and Roman antiquity, is lacunose, any survey, including the one that follows, tends to impose an artificial order on what were actually complex matters.

Although the Greeks and Romans shared many beliefs and practices concerning death, there were also significant differences between the two cultures and they must be treated separately. Greece will be considered first. Funerary rituals. Children and other surviving kin were expected to ensure that the dead received proper funerary rites; if they did not, the deceased could not be considered truly dead and its soul might wander restlessly between the upper world and the underworld.

What constituted “proper rites” varied from place to place and time to time, but honorable disposal of the corpse by burial or cremation was the very least that was required, lest the corpse otherwise become prey for scavengers. Even symbolic burial, such as Antigone performed for her brother by sprinkling dust over his body, would suffice (Sophocles, Antigone 254–255). If a body were irretrievable, rites might be performed for the deceased anyway, in hopes that the soul would find rest (e.g., Odyssey 1.290–292). People who turned up alive after having had such rites performed were called “double-fated” (deuteropotmoi) and had to undergo a symbolic rebirth (Plutarch, Roman Questions 264f–265b; cf. Euripides, Alcestis 1144– 1146).

Ideally, the deceased’s female relatives would wash the body on the same day as death had occurred and wrap it in a shroud for burial. The next day would be given over to mourning—the informal mourning of family members being supplemented with that of hired mourners when the family could afford it and the sumptuary laws of the city allowed it. Gifts would be given to the deceased, including small objects such as he or she would have used in life. On the third day, counting inclusively, the body was buried or cremated. Libations were poured into the grave where the body or ashes had been buried and were repeated periodically, usually for at least a year. Survivors might also cut their hair and lay it upon the grave; an absent survivor could dedicate hair at a later date. A marker was set up and could be decorated with ribbons and myrtle branches. Other rituals might also be performed, depending on the desires of the deceased and his or her family. People who had no family could join funerary associations that ensured all of these rites would be carried out. (On burial rites, see Kurtz and Boardman, 1971).

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