When most people discuss ancient Greek funeral rites, they often talk about Charon, the river Styx, Hades and Elysium. Many remember that people would put coins in the deceased’s mouth for Charon. But ancient Greek burial was much more complex than that.
For instance, Charon did not appear as a major Greek figure until around 500 BC. Before then, Hermes brought the dead to Hades. The earliest mention of placing coins in the deceased’s mouth was Aristophanes’ The Frog (450 BC). On top of that, Elysium (Paradise) did not rise in popularity until the 5th and 4th centuries BC, and it was only in certain religious groups.
If you pull from ancient Greek sources to work with the dead like I do, you’ll want accurate information. I have spent a long time researching ancient Greek burial rites. To save you some time, I’ve written an abridged version of what their funerals might have looked like. I’ll include sources at the end, too.
Views of the Afterlife That Many Don’t Discuss
Before I jump into ancient Greek funerals, I want to include certain perceptions of the afterlife that many other authors gloss over. According to Robert Garland, a historian and professor of Classics at Colgate University, the Greek view of death was much less uniform than we believe. Ideas of the afterlife varied by culture and city-state, especially during the Classical Era (500 - 323 BC).
According to most sources, when a person died, their spirit (psyche) left the body. Unlike other cultures, the body was no longer important to the spirit. The psyche either left through the mouth or through an open wound, if applicable. Homer mentioned a spirit from the heart (thumos) and viral spirit (aion), but these had no further role and were hardly ever mentioned.
As many know, the Underworld (often just called Hades) was surrounded by rivers. Although the most famous river is Styx, the Underworld actually had five rivers, as per The Odyssey and Aeneid: Acheron (the river of woe), Cocytus (the river of lamentation), Phlegethon (the river of fire), Lethe (the river of forgetfulness), and of course, Styx (river of unbreakable oath by which the Gods took vows.
However, a river was not the only way to get to the Underworld. Other sources mentioned souls going over the edge of Okeanos, the Western Sea. In many myths, people entered Hades through a cave. Oracles governed specific areas that connected to the Underworld. If a soul’s body was not buried, it could not enter Underworld, so the Greeks would even bury their war enemies.
Before Charon came onto the scene, Hermes escorted souls from Thanatos (the God of death) into Hades. Later, some believed that Hermes brought the souls to Charon, who guided them from there.
Souls had a neutral, calm existence in the Underworld. Many believed that they were happy with rites and funerals, but other than that, they had no contact with the living. However, during certain feasts and festivals, the dead were said to join the living and eat designated meals, similar to many modern-day feasts of the dead. When they did speak to the living (such as through necromancy or oracles), they conveyed wisdom relating to the future, past, or present.
With these facts in mind, let’s move onto ancient Greek funerals.
Burial or Cremation?
During Greece’s early history, most corpses were cremated. By 1100 BC, however, most Greeks switched to burial. Athens was the exception.
If corpses were cremated, they were still buried in simple, rectangular pits or placed in urns.
Historians received most information on Greek funerals from Attica, between the 8th and 4th centuries BC. These were rather lavish, and some families could not afford all of these steps. Even so, the ancient Greek funeral was divided into three stages.
Prothesis - The Laying of the Body
Side note: the Greeks considered anything that was in contact with a corpse to be “tainted.” That included the house and its water. A fresh bucket of water was placed outside the door for visitors to “cleanse themselves” after paying respects. I'll expand upon this later.
Ekphora - The Funeral Procession
Afterwards, on the second and third days, the mourners had a feast of the dead called perideipnon. They would return to the house with drinking, merriment, and libations to the Gods.
After the Burial
Because deaths (and births) were considered “polluted,” the ancient Greeks would cleanse themselves after these events. This act of purification was called lustration.
Since the prothesis occurred in the home, all areas of the home--including the water--were considered polluted. A “clean” bucket of water remained outside for visitors to wash their hands. After the funeral, the home was washed with “new water,” usually from an ocean or spring. In Argos, mourners even put a “new fire” into the hearth.
Other lustrations included: fumigation (often with sulphur or incense), rubbing oneself with clay, or “washing off” with animal blood. These were not exclusive to funerals, however.
Cemeteries were said to be slightly polluted. Ghosts were said to hover near the burial site. If one wanted to communicate with the dead, they would go one of the Underworld entrances mentioned above, or to the ghost's burial site.
What Can Practitioners Take Away from This?
After years of digging into ancient Greek funerals, I’ve pulled together correspondence lists that relate to that culture. If your Craft or faith pulls from ancient Greece, these might be useful to you.
Offerings for the Dead
Libations are usually poured downward into the earth or another container.
Keep in mind that these are not the only offerings for the deceased. They are just options that I took away from the sources in "Recommended Reading."
To Honor or Heal the Dead
For Spiritual Protection
Did I miss anything? Can you recommend other sources to people? If so, let me know in the comments below.