Cremation as Reflective of the Roles of Fire and Burning in Greek Mythology

Introduction

Cremation as a means of body treatment and funerary practice presents a unique sets of insights into the motivations of the ancient Greeks when it came to the aspects of the body and person that were valued by the ancient Greeks.  While modern cremation may sometimes be viewed as a way of dealing with the body without religious affiliation (Erasmo 31), but for the Greeks the act of burning had strong mythological significance.  The fact that Greek bodies were occasionally treated in this manner strongly contrasts the Egyptian methods and motivations, which emphasized the preservation of the physical body above most other considerations; the soul in Egyptian thought needed a place to return to, and so the society went to great lengths to preserve that physical form, through mummification and, in some cases, the reconstruction of various extremities and facial features in order to maintain that physical completeness.  The burning of the body, therefore, in Greek practice, must represent a diametrically different paradigm, as it effectively transforms the body into a different form and reduces it to bone, or less.  To this end, a functionalist approach will be applied to the myth and material remains; the conclusions will concern the whole of society rather than the individual.

Fire’s strong symbolism, as well as its emergence in Greek funerary practice, may be explained by the element’s role in Greek mythology.  In one myth in particular, a mortal woman exposed to the lighting and fire of the Olympian gods is consumed by the flame but transcends her mortal existence to join the immortals.

The Myth: Semele and the Revelation of Zeus 

Semele, a mortal, has been romantically and sexually involved with Zeus, the king of the gods of Olympus notorious for his affairs with mortal women.  His wife, Hera, is known for her jealousy and, upon hearing of Zeus’ latest indiscretion with Semele, determines to put an end to it.  She disguises herself as a mortal and descends the earth, befriending Semele and asking about her relationship.  When Semele boasts that she has been with Zeus himself, Hera in her disguised form feigns disbelief, and convinces Semele that in order to truly know that the man she is with truly is the king of the gods, she must ask him to reveal himself to her in his true form.  After taking Hera’s advice, Semele asks this of Zeus, who, being unable to deny her this request, casts aside his mortal visage.  The power and lighting of Zeus instantly cause Semele to catch fire and burn, and Zeus scrambles to save their unborn child, the god Dionysus, from her ashes.  Semele’s exposure to this divine energy caused both her infernal demise and her assurance of immortality; after burning, Semele’s soul is transported to Olympus and she becomes immortal.   In another version of this myth, her son Dionysus collects her soul from Hades himself in order to elevate her divine status.

The death and burning of Semele, as depicted by Baroque painter Peter Paul Rubens.

This myth is significant both in its addition to the Olympian gods with the birth of Dionysus and in its demonstration of the duality of fire in Greek myth.  It both destroys and transforms Semele; her body is burned but her soul is given a higher purpose as it ascends to Olympus.  This idea is significant for the Greeks, who apply it to cremations as a means of destroying the body but freeing the soul.

 

Cremation in Archaeology and Practice

Textual representation of cremation in ancient Greek burial can be found, among other sources, in books 23 and 24 of Homer’s epic poem The Iliad.  These sections describe the funerals of Patroclus and Hector, two men killed in the fighting of the Trojan War.  The rhetoric of this text emphasizes the importance of burning in the soul’s journey into the Underworld; Patroclus insists to Achilles that he cannot make this transition until his remains are cremated.

From Book 23, the Iliad.  The ghost of Patroclus speaks to Achilles

The spirits keep me at a distance, the phantoms
Of men outworn, and will not yet allow me
To join them beyond the River.  I wander
Aimlessly through Hades’ wide-doored house.
And give me your hand, for never again
Will I come back from hades, once you burn me
In my share of fire.

This excerpt demonstrates the importance of burning at least in the Homeric tradition, as Patroclus clearly states that he cannot complete his journey to the afterlife until after cremation has occurred.

A relief depicting Patroclus’ body being removed from the battlefield

An excavated burial in Lefkandi, Greece, which dates to some 200 years before The Illiad was allegedly written down in 800 BC, provides evidence as to what this burning might have entailed.

Excavations at Lefkandi, Greece

The remains of a man, known as the Hero of Lefkandi due to the similarities between his burial and those of the heroes in Homer’s works, was discovered in 1980 and subsequently excavated.  Along with another woman’s, his remains are the most prominent of the site.  The cremation style employed at his burial is indeed Homeric: it is secondary, meaning that his remains were burned and then transported elsewhere for the burial itself, and evidence of burnt wood and cloth were also found with the remains.  This man’s body would have been burned on a wood pyre, and the bones would have then been removed and wrapped in cloth or some other rich substance, then placed in the amphora seen in the photo below before buried.

The amphora, now crushed, in which the cremated remains of the “Hero of Lefkandi” were discovered. The bones were wrapped in cloth and other pyre remains were excavated nearby.

Additionally, small fragments of burnt bone were found in the ashes of wood, which indicates that sacrifices were made and swept up with the remains of the funeral pyre (Popham 173).  Other material remains in the form of grave goods were discovered, including gold jewelry and various examples of weaponry.  Associated graves were also discovered, although these were at a later date and are an indication that people were buried here in attempts to associate themselves with the main burials in this location.

Further Analysis

Fire as a renewing and destructive force appears across Greek mythology.  It exemplifies divine force and immortal potential for Semele, and is the ultimate representative of the power and exclusiveness of the gods for Prometheus, the titan who suffers eternal torture for introducing fire to humanity.  According to the Eleusinian Mysteries, the goddess Demeter nearly granted a human boy immortality by holding him over a sacred flame (Christopolous et al. 263), and Hephaestus as the god of fire and the forge demonstrates the duality of fire’s creation and destruction in many stories (Christopolous et al. 154).  The power and reverence that fire has in mythology translates to its use in funerary practice and, therefore, to the mindset of ancient Greek society.  The male burial at Lefkandi demonstrates clear social power, judging from the apparent elaborate nature of his cremation, and by the plethora of nearby graves apparently attempting to associate themselves with this “hero.”  Cremation may have been used as a way of manifesting the power he may have held in life, the fire serving as a final representation of his elevation.  However, its use may say more about Greek society than it does about our Lefkandi hero; mythologically speaking, fire is tantamount to the power and prestige of the gods.  Its use in funerary ritual may be indicative of a tendency on the part of the Greeks to strive towards this larger ideal.  The underworld of Hades offered little comfort or distinction between souls, so the name and power of a person in life was very important.   Here is where functionalism and Binford’s models of processualism are useful in this analysis; by considering the implications of this practice on the larger Greek society, conclusions can be drawn that have a greater implications for what it must have mean to be a Greek when it came to funerary practice.

The lack of fire in Egyptian tradition can also be explained by these mythological motivators.  In the stories of ancient Egypt, the preservation and completeness of the body was emphasized.  After Osiris’ dismemberment via his brother Seth, the goddess Isis goes to great lengths to piece his body back together.  The Egyptians translated this mythological message of physical preservation into their funerary practices, by employing practices such as mummification and reconstructing missing body parts, in attempts to give the soul a physical place to return to.  Since these notions do not exist in Greek mythology, the complete nature of the body is unimportant and cremation becomes an option.   For the Greeks, fire was a way of converting the physical body into a form of higher being.

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