Tuesday, May 11, 2021

Professional mourners in the ancient world


Statues of Mourning Women, South Italian (Apulian, Canosan), 300-275 BCE Terracotta, now in the collections of the J. Paul Getty Museum, Villa venue, Pacific Palisades, California

This group of mourning women, often understood as female figures in prayer (orantes), was likely produced in the area of Canosa in south-eastern Italy. Although there are considerable differences in terms of clothing, poses and hairstyles, the four statues seem to depict a type of youthful female figure, probably envisioned as one of the mourners who expressed their grief during funerary ceremonies. The group was intended to be placed around a funerary couch (kline), and was probably produced for a fairly prestigious client who, in the context of Romanization in the area, aspired to underscore his economic prosperity, personal identity, and native traditions. The figures were made not with molds, as has been previously conjectured, but rather through a modeling process over a fairly thick conical structure. Working from the bottom up, clay pieces were laid over this hollow structure to define the anatomy and iconographic details of the figure. The forearms, created separately, and the head, made with a bivalve mold, were inserted in holes specially made by the craftsman. The tubular structure was then modeled from within to establish the round shapes of knees and breasts, and from the exterior, through the application of clay parts, to depict the details of the chiton and himation. A spatula and other sharp tools were used to define the hair, eyes, and various details of clothing. Colors were applied after the firing over a preparatory layer of white slip, which has been preserved in several areas. The palette shows little variety, consisting of pink, red, white, possibly dark brown, and black. - J. Paul Getty Museum

These sculptures probably represented women who were known by the Romans as praeficiae, professional mourners, who followed musicians in the funeral procession and sang a funeral song praising the deceased. Paying mourners to attend your funeral showed society the importance of your social status.

The practice of hiring professional mourners has been documented in ancient Egypt, China, and the Middle East as well as in Greece and Rome.  In ancient Egypt only childless women could become professional mourners as it was considered unseemly for men to weep in public. These women could not have any body hair and had the names of goddesses tattooed on their shoulders.

Mycenaean larnakes, burial chests, depict mourners performing ritual laments. During the Greek Archaic Period, greater simplicity in burial practices coincided with  the rise of democracy and the egalitarian military of the hoplite phalanx.  But during the 4th century BCE,  the decline of democracy and the return of aristocratic dominance was accompanied by the return of more elaborate funerary rituals.

"Ancient Romans honored their dead through extended mourning. Men would typically mourn for a period of a few days, during which they would always wear black and would not cut their hair or beards. Women would wear white and might not cut their hair as well. However, while formal mourning usually only lasted a few days for men, when a woman lost a husband or parent, it wasn’t uncommon for her to mourn for a year. Adopting traditions from the ancient Greeks, many Romans also periodically visited their deceased loved one’s tombs or burial sites to offer gifts and sacrifices. Toward the end of February, ancient Romans sometimes celebrated Feralia as well. This was a general festival for honoring the dead. Romans would traditionally celebrate by bringing food to the sepulchers of the deceased." - Joe Oliveto, State University of New York at New Paltz

Statue of Mourning Woman, South Italian (Apulian, Canosan), 300-275 BCE Terracotta, now in the collections of the J. Paul Getty Museum, Villa venue, Pacific Palisades, California

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