Death in Greek Art

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Sleep and Death In Greek Art

An in depth study in death in early Greek culture is not an easy topic

to review, but it is indeed an interesting one. The trail into life after death

needs some limitations however since death in itself is so kaleidoscopic, as

changeable as life itself and as beautiful as love. There is a lack of

experience with death and the after life. What is painted, sculpted and

written about is a work of fiction, pure speculation on the part of the artist.

Bones cannot tell us a story. They cannot tell us what comes next.

It is fairly easy to discover how humans in the past treated their dead.

Archeology helps us study the life of past cultures. We can study grave

yards, tombs, pyramids, how well preserved bones and mummies were, and

if possible read what was written on their rituals and observances. Artists

painted the ceremonial expressions of grief and tried to show us what the

funerals looked like. Poets put pen to paper bringing forth images of love,

longing, loss, and even what they thought the heaven like Elysium Fields

where the dead still moved about in a pale imitation of life and the hell-like

Tartarus looked like.

While the Greeks may not have established elaborate ceremonies like

those of the Ancient Egyptians they still obviously had strong feelings for

their dead. A large part of their artist energies were focused on themes of

death and burial. Many times the scenes of death were painted onto a vessel.

There are countless examples of red-figure vessels, black-figure vessels and

white ground-red figure vessels available that depict things such as funerals,

souls, images of Hermes, Thanatos and Hypnos carrying off the dead to


There is a lovely Attic red-figured vessel depicting classical mourning

gestures.# There is a dead man reclining on a couch as a woman is shown

tearing out her hair and a man is shown holding the head of the deceased as

if he is about to place a kiss on his head. It is odd to see how little things

have changed over countless centuries. If you go to a funeral today with a

digital camera and take pictures you would likely be able to catch pictures

with mourning gestures such as those depicted on the vessel.

Hermes is a figure shown in man of these painted vessels. He is the

messenger of the gods and the guide of travelers. He even helps the dead

journey to the underworld. #The most widely displayed vessel shown al over

the internet and in countless books is a beautiful red-figure "vase" with

paintings of the winged figures of Hypnos and Thanatos dressed as warriors

as they carry away the body of Sarpedon from the battlefield at Troy under

the guidance of Hermes. It is a scene from Homer's Illiad and scenes

depicted aplenty from such epic stories.

Hades is both the god of the Underworld and the underworld itself.

He is hardly ever depicted in scenes of death but there are indeed examples

of him shown. #There is lovely vessel showing the triad of Zeus, Poseidon

and Hades with two winged sphinx-like figures flanking them.

Thanatos is the Greek representation of Death and is usually drawn

with his brother Hypnos (Sleep) and occasionally with Morpheus (Dreams).

Neither Hades nor Thanatos are really worshipped in ancient Greek culture

for Death is not viewed as an enemy but as a part of life. Thanatos merely

represents what happens when life as we know it stops. Thanatos can be

represented in art as a cloud, either black or purplish in color, or a mist

painted around the head. He can also be depicted with wings and may in fact

be where we got our modern version of winged heavenly angels from.

Hypnos is the Greek god of sleep. He is often shown over a person's

head almost as if he is making their death painless by allowing them to die

in their sleep. #There...
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