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Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Mycenaean and Homeric Burial Practices

Dying Centaur
(photo by me!)
I've been doing a LOT of reading regarding funerary and burial practices of Mycenaean Greeks, and particularly those living in Bronze Age Thessaly, and I have learned a great many things -- the most important being, while Homer makes much of the funeral pyre and cremation of the dead, there is little to no evidence of cremation taking place in Mainland Greece during the period (LH IIIB ish) of the Trojan War.

There's evidence for it elsewhere, sure. Other cultures absolutely honored their dead with cremation via the funeral pyre. But in Mycenaean Greece? Cremation doesn't seem to show up until the Early Iron Age, and even then, it's not at all widespread. But as someone writing historical fiction built off the mythic traditions and heroes of Homer -- this presents a bit of a quandary to me, as the author.

Historically speaking, the inhumation of the dead into tombs (of varying size and style) or simple graves is more correct. But is the reader more familiar with the funeral pyre? Will they be expecting it? And if I don't make use of it, how do I reconcile or explain the difference between the practices of these heroes before they set out to war, and their sudden alteration while afield?

Ultimately, while the difference between cremation and inhumation APPEARS to be large, it seems that the burial and funerary practices of Mycenaean Greeks are not entirely different from what occurs within the pages of the Iliad. In fact, according to Mylonas (who, I will grant you, was doing his research in the 40s -- which was a very long time ago in terms of Archaeological practices, technology, and the vast amount of new information available to us today), it seems that apart from the actual disposal of the body itself, the practices and rites surrounding that ultimate disposal are VERY much the same, and the Homeric accounts of things like gifts of jars of oil and honey set around the bier for the dead, and even the funeral games and the feasting, seem to be holdovers from the earlier tradition of inhumation, when the shade might have lingered during the much longer process of decomposition of the flesh, and could appreciate the supplies and honors bestowed upon his corpse.

But ultimately, the novel I'm revising is a book in which no one passes peacefully into death. The Centauromachy is a violent slaughter, and the bodies certainly would have piled up. And in my reading and research I have yet to find a reference to any kind of mass burial due to war -- no large numbers of people all entombed together. And I wonder if that might have made a difference in how the bodies of the dead were honored or addressed.

I haven't decided yet how I'll work through this particular challenge -- if Homer or the Archaeological record will rule in this particular novel. But it's a fascinating problem, all the same! And I have to admit, I kind of love the learning along the way.


  1. Homer's version of Mycenaean burial practices borrows heavily from the Bronze Age. But the Hittites did cremate their dead, and the funerary finds below the Bronze Age citadel do fit with the Trojan War scenario. It's not implausible that a Greek occupying force might have cremated their dead as a better way of dealing with plague, battle casualties, sanitation problems, etc.

    1. My greater concern is melding it in a way that makes narrative sense to readers to bridge the pre-Trojan war with the events of the Trojan War itself. Those who have read the myths might have an expectation of cremation in the stories leading up to that point, and as an author, that's something I definitely want to address, rather than leaving them scratching their heads!