Death in Ancient Greece

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Religion and Spirituality  |  House: Booksie Classic

A research paper written on the topic of death and the customs surrounding death in the culture and religion of ancient Greece. Written in 2003.

Death in Ancient Greece

Within every culture we realize that there is special attention given to death and those activities surrounding it. Some of man’s earliest records in history deal with death, the taboos concerning it, and the respect given to those who have passed on. Death beliefs and superstitions within ancient Greece is an interesting subject to discuss, for the Greeks were an avid religious people and as such they formulated specific ideas about the concept of a human soul, an afterlife, and certain respects and/or taboos to be regarded concerning the dead.1 This paper’s goal is to discuss these beliefs, rituals, and superstitions in greater detail.

The Concept of Death and Dying in Ancient Greece

The ancient Greeks had many thoughts concerning death and dying. They had belief in an afterlife and the human soul’s roles, actions, and location after death. They also have strict perceptions concerning the funerary rites performed after an individual died. Their beliefs concerning death and the soul played a large role in these ceremonies.

Funerary Rites

Greek funerals were comprised of three acts and were orchestrated down to the smallest detail of the ceremony. The three acts consist of the laying out of the deceased’s body, the journey to the grave site, and the burial of the deceased’s cremated remains.2

As with funerals in most civilizations today; funerals in ancient Greece were a time when the deceased’s family could display their wealth as well as their kinship ties.3 It was in part as much a social event as it was a ceremony to respect and bid farewell to the deceased.

What was the purpose of funerals in ancient Greece? Besides the event being a display of wealth and kinship it was also a ceremony depicting the rite of passage for the soul from the life of living into an afterlife. It was supposed to assist the soul along its journey.4

If the deceased was not buried it was believed the soul would be refused entrance into Hades.5 These funeral rites and their proper completion were extremely vital to the soul’s future after death. If a soul was not granted access to Hades it was believed by many that the soul would remain disembodied, unable to gain peace. The fear of this was so great that refusal of proper burial rites was often used as punishment for serious crimes. Death at sea was also feared for bodies were usually not retrieved and unable to be given a proper burial.6

Death Deities in Greek Myth and Legend

As with most (if not all) religions, there are deities that are given the roles and/or personification of death. This is no different in ancient Greece. There are several deities that either pertain to or are given the personification of death. Some of the more notable of these may be found below:

  • Thanatos: Thanatos is the son of Nyx, goddess of night, and the brother of Hypnos, the god of sleep. He is a Greek personification of death. When the time had come for an individual to die, it was he that would lead them into the underworld.7

  • Hades: Hades is the Greek god of the underworld, the place where the soul travels after the individual’s death. He presided over the punishment of the wicked after death, and kidnapped Persephone to be his queen. This god’s name also became a name for the underworld itself, and later became linked with the Christian concept of Hell.8

  • The Fates:The Fates are three sisters that are linked with human destiny in Greek mythology.9 As such, they are also linked with death for it is they who have determined how much time any individual is given in their life. They were comprised of three sisters: Clotho – the spinner of the person’s thread of life, Lachesis – who decided how long the person would live, and Atropos – who at the end of the person’s life cut the thread, thus ending their life.10

Greek Concept of the Soul and Afterlife

The Soul of the Living

The belief of the living soul in ancient Greece is split into two different concepts: The concept of the “free soul” which represents the personality of an individual and “body souls”, which are those things which actually give life and consciousness to the body. The free soul represented the individual’s personality but of itself possessed no psychological attributes. Homer discusses the concept of the free soul and explains that without it a person could not survive, as well as mention that it is most apparent during times of crisis. It was also believed that faints (swoons) were the result of the free soul leaving the body. Death is the permanent departure of the free soul to the underworld of Hades.11

“The body souls are active during the waking life of the living individual.”12 The body souls can also be divided into two parts: the life soul and the ego soul.13 The ego soul is what gives the body consciousness. In Homeric epic the most common form for the ego soul to take is the “thymos”. The thymos can inspire will into action and the hope to act. It is most importantly the source of all emotions, though not restricted to them.14

The Soul of the Dead

When the free soul leaves the body at the time of death it begins an afterlife. The soul is then considered a sort of “shade” or spirit. The Greeks believed the soul would maintain the appearance the individual had while living. It also appears that the physical, rather than the psychological, aspects of the soul maintained importance with the Greeks. They believed that the souls of the dead still operated as they had when living – moving and speaking – but also often described them as being unable to move or speak.15

The Power of the Dead

The way the dead were looked upon in ancient Greece rested on many levels. Discussed earlier were the free soul and the body souls, which are considered separate entities when considering the dead. It is implied that upon death the personality, or the free soul, is lost. It also appears that the dead were revered and respected. Solon made it a criminal offense to speak badly of those who were deceased. A more serious charge was that of telling lies concerning the dead. It was often believed that the dead were able to maintain legal rights after the time of the death.16It could also be considered a crime if an individual did not perform the rites at the family tomb after a member’s death. If the burial rites were denied to an individual it could also be considered a crime, for to do so was an act where the individual was placing their own judgment concerning the deceased over that of the gods.17

Death and Human Sacrifice

Practice of Human Sacrifice

Human sacrifice was treated many times the same as ritual animal sacrifices. It is obscure as to where these customs may have originated but there are instances mentioning where slaves would be killed so that they would be able to serve their masters in the afterlife. There are also instances of wives18 being killed at their husband’s funeral. There were many reasons why these types of acts took place and while many of them are similar not all of them would be considered human sacrifice.19

Funerary Ritual Killing

Throughout myths and literature ritual killing is mentioned many times. There are several historical references that mention the act where an individual that had committed murder was executed before the tomb of the deceased. In Plato’s Laws he mentions a recommendation that a slave “who has killed or plotted the death of a free man be taken by the public executioner to within sight of the dead man’s tomb…to be put to death.”20 Plato made reference that having the killer brought before the tomb would emphasize the severity of the crime that was committed.21 Also, it seems that there is the justice of alife for a life” by this practice being implemented by the ancient Greeks.

The “Special Dead”

There are instances that occur where the deceased may be considered one of the “special dead”22 Individuals that came to an early death or an untimely death tend to have more wealth displayed in their burial tombs. An example of this is that the tombs of children receive more attention and contain more expensive materials than those of adults. Also, the funerary rites for children and infants are not as complex, for since they were only recently departed from the realm of spirits and the underworld it would not be difficult for them to find their way back to that realm again.23

Heroes were also considered one of the “special dead”. Many times after a hero’s death, he was endowed with supernatural status. Hero worship is not an unknown practice in ancient Greece. Temples were erected for deceased heroes and they acquired worshipers. Also, many times heroes were incorporated into the city, so a hero might be buried in a special location within the city, such as a sanctuary or sometimes even built into the city walls.24

Beliefs Concerning a Return from the Dead

It does not seem that in the archaic period ghosts were common subjects of fear and discussion. This could be due to incomplete records. Plato later mentioned the existence of ghosts being present around tombs and in graveyards. There also seem to be festivals that focused on the possibility of ghostly appearances, such as during the Athenian festival of the Anthesteria. Within the activities of the festival leaves from the buckthorn25 were chewed, banquets were enjoyed, and drinking in silence also took place.26

Representations of Death in Art

In tomb excavations there are often funerary artistic pieces that are found within, such as vases, pottery, etc. On these types of objects art pertaining to death and mourning is often portrayed. On Geometric funerary vases there are often depicted two main views of the mourners.

Women are often portrayed as lifting their hands to their head and tearing at their hair. Men are often depicted with their hand to their forehead as though beating it but not tearing the hair. In later times it appears that women in funerary art were depicted as being in closer contact with the dead than those men that were depicted in the art.27

As in other cultures and ancient civilizations, art is often looked to as a major source of study, as civilizations often depicted their rituals and their actions within the artwork of their culture. While it does not answer all of the questions history asks when researching an ancient civilization, art is a valuable source when researching such topics as that this paper centers around.28


Within my research on this topic I realized that it is much more in-depth and intricate than what a few pages could possibly describe. The amount of material on this subject is vast and focuses on different aspects of the subject.

The ancient Greek ideas and beliefs concerning death were many and oftentimes complicated. Years could easily be spent upon the study of Greek death beliefs and rituals alone, but I hope this paper has served to give a brief overview and some valuable information concerning death beliefs and practices within Ancient Greece.

1 “The Religion of the Greeks and Romans” C. Kerenyi

2 “The Greek Way of Death” Robert Garland, 1985

3 See above footnote.

4 “The Early Greek Concept of the Soul” Jan Bremmer, 1983

5 Hades is the underworld, ruled by a deity of the same name. Later became associated with the Christian concept of Hell.

6 “The Early Greek Concept of the Soul” Jan Bremmer, 1983

7 “Encyclopedia Britannica: Ready Reference” 2003

8 “Encyclopedia Britannica: Ready Reference” 2003

9 See above footnote.


11 “The Early Greek Concept of the Soul” Jan Bremmer, 1983

12 See above footnote.

13 The concept of the life soul parallels to that of the “free soul”. In the same respect the body souls could be simplified into the ego soul, thus maintaining a simplified dualistic concept.

14 “The Early Greek Concept of the Soul” Jan Bremmer, 1983

15 See above footnote.

16 “The Greek Way of Death” Robert Garland

17 This is also referred to as hybris.

18 Sometimes this practice was also done with concubines.

19 “Human Sacrifice in Ancient Greece” Dennis D. Hughes, 1991

20 See above footnote.

21 See above footnote.

22 It appears that the “special dead” is in reference to those tombs of individuals receiving more attention that that usually found within tombs.

23 “The Greek Way of Death” Robert Garland, 1985

24 See above footnote.

25 The buckthorn was supposed to ward off apparitions.

26 “The Early Greek Concept of the Soul” Jan Bremmer

27 “The Greek Way of Death” Robert Garland; “Greek Religion” by Jan. Bremmer

28 “Religion and Art in Ancient Greece” Ernest A. Gardner

Submitted: November 11, 2009

© Copyright 2021 Anajiel. All rights reserved.

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