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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