Issue P012 of 22 December 2001

The Tanagra "Larnakes"
An Iconographic Analysis

Chiara Caleo
Dipl. (Class.), Laures/M.A. (Class.)

During the last period of the Mycenaean era, about 1200 BCE, in a secluded place in Boeotia, called Tanagra clay sarcophagi began to be produced, decorated with excruciating scenes of grief. They are the last amazing testimony of the long Mycenaean art tradition. Before this, the Mycenaeans had never created such realistic paintings that described their real life and attitude. So, after 3000 years, the Tanagra sarcophagi (greek "larnakes") give evidence of the different moments of the funeral ritual, such as female mourning, the "prothesis" (or the exposure of the dead), the processions of the men and the rites in honor of the dead. The study of the Tanagra "larnakes" opens a new window on the final period of the Mycenaean culture and leaves us very important data not only about the Mycenaean funeral ritual, otherwise almost unknown, but also on their beliefs about the afterworld. So, through the iconographic analysis of the Tanagra "larnakes" it is possible to identify some particular rites belonging to the funeral ritual and find them almost unchanged after four centuries, during the Geometric Period, which marks the beginning of Greek Art.

In the period of these Tanagra productions, the Mycenaean world was setting out towards its decline. The large Mycenaean palaces that were the economic and social heart of the Mycenaean world, with their archives and rich rooms decorated with wonderful wall-paintings, would suddenly disappear, dragging Greece down into the shadows of the "Dark Ages".

For the most part, Mycenaeans and Minoans left many wall-paintings with representations of ritual processions or cult like actions where charming women, wearing the traditional dress, were the protagonists. The analysis of the Tanagra "larnakes", where the female figures are undoubtedly the most frequent motif, partially complete the idea about the Mycenaean female figure and especially about the female role during the very particular moment of the funeral ritual. The women are often drawn sketchily and in outline, with the body deformed by stylization to such a point that sometimes it is difficult to recognize the female from the male figures. However in general, we can affirm that the female figures are the ones raising one or two hands to the head in sign of grief and the ones wearing a long dress. Although the dress is not an element of distinction for the different moments of the funeral ritual, on the basis of the dress and of the style of the body and of the face, it is possible to identify three different groups of female figures(1).

The first group includes the most elegant figures, reminiscent of the figures in the palatial frescoes. Here, usually the most elegant female dress, probably used on special occasions such as feasts or religious rites, was composed of a close-fitting, short- sleeved bodice, open in the front to show the breast, and of a complicated flounced skirt. The female dresses, to seem more precious, were often decorated with gold rosettes and ornaments. Undoubtedly, also a more simple clothing was used by Aegean women, but these dresses are rarely represented.

The women on the "larnakes" wear the traditional Minoan dress with slight modifications: the long flounced skirt is fastened with a waistband and the close fitting bodice has a band around the neckline. Unlike the traditional Minoan dress, however, the Tanagra figure's bodice is closed in the front and the woman's body is hidden from view. Often the hem of the skirt has some fringes at the ankles, probably a naive representation of a dress torn in grief. Sometimes it seems that the painter's intent is to show a fleece fabric, characterizing the dress with a half-circle or vertical line motif.

The second group is composed of less elaborated female figures, more schematic and simpler than those of the first group. These figures wear some straight, long dresses, similar to the simple and practical male clothes. Their dresses seem to have some ornament, probably copying some fabric weave, color and embroidery.

Even if the dresses of the female figures on the Tanagra "larnakes" have their roots in traditional apparel, they show two very interesting details: the so-called "streamers" and the feathered hat. These particularities of the apparel were not new in the Mycenaean dresses, but in the Tanagra "larnakes" they are used in an innovative manner. The "streamers" are a characteristic part, formed by some wavy designed strips coming out of the back of the dress near the figure's sides or shoulders. The same type of "streamers" is easy recognizable on the famous Ayia Triada sarcophagus(2), in the dresses worn by the figures involved in the religious libation and presentation scene. In this case, however, the "streamers" are more elaborated than in the Tanagra "larnakes", due to a more careful style and sophisticated technique. What did the artist try to represent? The interpretation of the streamers is not very clear. Certainly they are not hair because their color is not that normally used to indicate the hair. The more probable explanation is that they could represent a funereal feature of the dress, recalling hair locks cut in sign of grief. Undoubtedly they were worn only by figures involved in a cult like or religious action and this could mean that they were part of a specific costume used for particular rituals, such as is frequent in traditional societies.

Also, the other characteristic of the dress of the female Tanagra figures, the feathered hat, could be considered a part of a special costume. This cap is formed by a flat part posed on the head and by a long feather arriving to the shoulder length. In the Aegean world, this type of hat was well known and is often represented in wall paintings and on ivory, gold, and glass paste as well as on clay objects. Generally it is a typical characteristic of the sphinx, a fantastic animal connected to the religious and funerary world, but sometimes it is also worn by human figures. A very good example is recognizable in the Ayia Triada sarcophagus, where the feathered hat is worn by three figures performing ritual actions and who undoubtedly belong to a fantastic world. The cap in the Ayia Triada sarcophagus is formed by three different parts: first, there is a cone-shaped center part (without the pointed end) which is placed upside down on the head. This cone-shaped center is banded at the base and at the top with material of different colors, the top band being more ornate with curled pieces of glass, clay or metal. There is also a feather attached to this band, which arrives to the shoulders. L. Holland(3) thinks that this type of hat was formed by a gold circle and by a curl motif of different materials, inserted in a leather or material base. Even if in the Tanagra "larnakes", the hat is very simplified in comparison with the Ayia Triada sarcophagus; we are unable to distinguish if there was a real difference between the caps or if the difference was due to the painter's style. From the analysis of other figures wearing this type of cap, it seems evident that the figures with the hat are involved in a ritual situation or have a sacral aspect, so it is not unlikely that the cap was used also in the funerary practice.

Drawing from a Tanagra Larnax

In comparison to the women, the men on the Tanagra "larnakes" are in the minority, but the evidence shows that also the men took part in the funerary ceremony, even if in a different function from the women. The male dress represented in the wall paintings was usually simpler and different from the female one. All the male figures, except the complicated case of the "larnax" from tomb 22 (where it seems that the men are naked), wear a long, straight tunic, down to the ankles, characterized in the front by a large diagonal or vertical band born on the shoulders and coming down to the inferior hem of the dress. Clothing of this type is recognizable in Minoan-Mycenaean art and it is worn by some figures involved in ceremonial activities. The best examples come from the Knossos, Haghia Triada, Pylos wall paintings and from the Ayia Triada sarcophagus. In the wall painting called "The Meeting on the Hill" in the Miniature Fresco in the West House at Thera, all the men are wearing the long, white dress with a single or double band, but without the diagonal band characterizing the male figure's dress on the Tanagra "larnakes".

It has been suggested that this band could be a reminiscence of the sword belt(4), but this interpretation probably isn't correct; the sword belt must end at the figure's waist or sides, while in all the represented cases it goes to the bottom of the dress. It is a possibility that it was a particular type of dress, rolled around the body and fastened on the shoulder, so that the hem remained in diagonal along the body.

As like in some cases of the female dress, the male dress presents a decoration indicating the animal fleece used to weave the clothes, but it is interesting to note that in none of these cases does it appear on the hem, probably indicating that the men worn two different items of clothing, placed one on the top of the other.

The men on the Tanagra "larnakes" never wore the female feathered hat, but in some cases they probably wore an helmet or cap. In a "larnax" from tomb 6, the helmet worn by the male figure is divided in three irregular sections by two vertical lines coming down from the top of the head. This type of helmet is very different from the well known war helmet decorated with boar tusks, that was conical shaped and horizontally divided in three parts: each zone was decorated with sections of boar tusks, with the curvature positioned in alternate directions according to the zone. It seems that the cap or helmet worn in the Tanagra "larnakes" was probably made of leather or other rigid material.

Both the male and female dresses were often represented in the wall paintings with a complicated decoration. Probably the geometric and repetitive motifs painted on the dresses represented patterns interwoven in the fabric, and undoubtedly also embroidery were well known.

The pictures don't supply details to define the weave of the dresses. The only exception is a type of short skirt with an animal tail on the back, showing that it was a tanned hide. In general, it is very probable that wool was used for the dresses, as the Mycenaean economy was above all based on breeding and agriculture. Also, the Linear B tablets supply important proof about sheep breeding and about the use of the wool to weave the cloaks. Probably in the Aegean world linen was also well known and it is probable that the male tunic was woven of linen for the more important figures and of wool for the everyday version.

The study of the dresses, however, doesn't allow a division of the different functions during the funeral ritual, but it is probable that the differences in the dresses were simply due to the artistic skill of the painter. It seems also possible that some female figures with more complicated dresses heading the procession of mourning women had the function of guide of the mourning.

Drawing from a Tanagra Larnax

The iconographic analysis of the Tanagra "larnakes" shows that they are a new element in the minoan-mycenaean art tradition, proposing themes and subjects without comparison. The "larnakes" have some characteristics of popular art and they are a source of information both on the sequence of the funeral ritual and on the beliefs on the afterlife. This information is very precious as the Mycenaeans left little evidence about their religion and rituals and as the pictures on the "larnakes" strictly bring to mind the images painted during the Geometric Period, about 800-700 BCE.

The most important aspect reminiscent of the Geometric productions and, in general, the Greek attitude is the women's lament. Mourning the dead is a part of a very elaborated ritual and in the traditional societies it is performed for the most part by women. To the women it is allowed to cry and to despair, while the men have a dignified and masculine attitude.

On the "larnax" from tomb 3, a custom well known in the classic Greece and in the iconography of the Geometric Period Vases, a "prothesis" scene (or exposition of the dead) is recognizable; a similar scene is attested only one time in the Aegean world, in another "larnax" from Pigi Rethymnou in Crete. Much later, in the classical period, after some preliminary operations were performed on the body of the dead, such as the closure of the eyes and of the mouth, the corpse was prepared for exposition, which constitutes the initial part of the funeral. In the classical world, in Homer's description of the burial of Patroclus, it seems that the funeral rite began with the closing of the eyes and the mouth, the washing and the clothing of the body and, finally, the "prothesis". The "prothesis" was the central element in the pictures on the vases of the Geometric period: here the corpse is represented as placed on the bier, around which other figures are grouped. From the iconography of the "larnakes" it seems that also in the Mycenaean world, such as later in the classical period, the women had a decisive role in the development of the funeral ritual, because only female figures are painted near the corpse. During the classical period only the family women touched the corpse for the last attentions and the women had a predominant role in the mourning. Also today in the rural zone of Greece and of the south of Italy, only the women mourn for the dead. They usually stay near the corpse and, mourning the dead, perform some traditional actions such as beating and scratching breast and face, tearing the dresses and the hair. This last gesture particularly is present in many "larnakes" and is the most important iconographic motif also in the Geometric representations.

The scene on the "larnax" from tomb 3 has an intense emotionalism, such as the processions of mourning women in the other "larnakes". The deceased is posed probably in a bed with tapering feet, recalling some wood models, and very different from the strong square feet of the "larnakes". That particularity could indicate that the scene is developing in the person's house or in some public place, not in the tomb, such as will happen later on. The deceased wear a short loose tunic, leaving the inferior part of the legs uncovered. This type of tunic is worn by male figures only, involved in hunting scenes, painted on Cretan "larnakes"; this short tunic was undoubtedly more practical than the long processional clothing and was used in such activities requiring freedom of movements. However, here the short tunic could indicate also a difference in age from the figures wearing the long tunic. In the case of the "larnax" from tomb 3, the deceased is very small in comparison with the two female figures beside the bed, and it is likely that it is a child.

From the iconographic analysis of the Tanagra "larnakes" it seems possible that the next moment of the Mycenaean funeral was the deposition of the corpse into the "larnax"; this dramatic moment is well shown in the picture on the side of the "larnax" from tomb 22. One of the women is bent over the little corpse laid in the "larnax", without the legs visible. She is probably wrapped in a shroud. In some tombs, there was discovered some evidence of woven fabric, probably belonging to shrouds, and the bier cloth covering the dead occurs in almost all representations of the "prothesis" in the Geometric Vases. While one of the female figures besides the "larnax" touches her head in sign of grief, the other female figure touches the shroud and puts a hand into the sarcophagus. The general impression is that this is the dramatic moment when the women placed the body into the "larnax" and gave him the last attentions. This very important event could have begun the so-called "ekphora" or the moment of the transport of the body to the tomb, after the end of the "prothesis". It is also possible, however, that the placing of the deceased into the "larnax" was the final part of the "ekphora", not its beginning, because the considerable weight of the "larnax" seems to suggest that it was placed into the tomb before the funeral. If that hypothesis is correct it is possible that the scene painted on "larnax" from tomb 22 was developed in the tomb, after the "ekphora" was performed. It seems that the deceased was placed on a light wooden structure, probably to simplify his introduction into the sarcophagus. This structure allowed the transport of the deceased from the place where the "prothesis" took place, along the corridor of the tomb into the chamber where the "larnax" was already placed.

At the end of the process it seems that some farewell rites were performed in honor of the deceased. A very important scene is painted on the "larnax" from tomb 36, where two female figures are performing a rite with a cup, probably a libation in honor of the deceased or a farewell libation. The figure on the left side of the panel wears a long wool tunic leaving the breast bare, but the major difference between that tunic and the Minoan traditional dress showing the breast, suggests that in this case the painter would indicate a dress tore in sign of the grief. Also in the Classical Age, one of the most frequent gestures to indicate the mourning was to tear the clothes and to hit the head. The other figure present in the panel is making a very unusual gesture. Her left hand is holding a typical Mycenaean cup, the "Kylix". Even if the practice to offer libation was well-known in Minoan -Mycenaean world, the evidence in connection with funeral rituals is very scarce. Much important evidence comes from the tombs: in front of the entrance, there have been found many fragments of "kylikes". That could be the archaeological evidence of a special rite, probably the final action of the funerary ceremony, consisting in the offer of a farewell libation to the deceased, followed by a destruction of the cups against the door of the tomb, before the closure. The rite was collective and undoubtedly involved many people. The anthropologists think that the destruction of an object was a separation ritual; this use is well attested not only in Greece but also in the prehistoric and medieval Europe. The pouring of liquids was a very frequent act in the ancient religions and, particularly in the Greek religion, it was strictly connected to prayer and invocation. During the Classical Period it was usual to offer milk and honey at the tomb. The libations, poured out onto the earth, were destined to the dead and to infernal gods. A good example of this practice is described in the Iliad, where during the funeral of Patroclus, after that his body was burned, Achilles offers libations in honor of his friend.

The whole night long swift Achilles, holding a two-handled cup in his hand, drew wine from a golden bowl and poured it on the earth, and wetted the ground, calling ever on the spirit of unhappy Patroclus

Another particular case of rituals is represented by the "larnax" from tomb 22 where some bull games are depicted. The tradition of this type of game was very old and date back to the Minoan period; the game represented is not clear and the only certain element is that some young people jumped on a running bull, broke off its tusks and landed on the opposite side. This game is represented also in the Tanagra "larnax": three men are jumping on bulls, clinging to the tusks. On the other side of the sarcophagus, two fighting men are depicted. The presence of these themes on a sarcophagus is very problematic: did the game and the fight develop during the funeral ritual in honor of the deceased or were they depicted as a memory of the actions of the deceased? According to some scholars, the paintings on the "larnax" are reminiscent of the funeral games in honor of Patroclus described in Homer's Iliad: after the death of his friend, Achilles organized a series of games where many heroes could demonstrate their ability. However, Prof. Mario Benzi(5) demonstrated recently that this type of painting could have been related to another important moment of the life: the rites of passage. In antiquity and also today in some primitive populations, the moment of the change between the infancy and adolescence was marked by a test: the youth had to pass a physical test, such as, probably, hunting and bull games. M. Benzi thinks that the pictures on the "larnax" could indicate some phases of the rites of passage, probably due to the young age of the deceased posed into the sarcophagus. After the funeral libation the rite was very probably ended. The evidence at our disposal doesn't give any additional information.

Nevertheless, what did the Mycenaeans believe about the afterworld? Did they imagine a world similar to the Classical idea of the afterworld? Before the Tanagra discoveries, we had no answers to these questions. It has been suggested that the Minoans believed in a world beyond the sea and in a journey on a boat to reach it. It is strange, but in a "larnax" from Tanagra, there seems to be a boat distinguished by a series of hazy lines. Some scholars recognize this picture as the boat for the afterlife, surrounded by the souls of the dead people making a complaining gesture, admitting that this "larnax" is the only precious evidence at our disposal recalling a likely idea of the Mycenaean belief in the afterworld. Other scholars also think that the picture represents a boat in an underwater world, immersed between the seaweed; probably the last memory of a tragedy at sea. Once again, the style of the "larnakes" is very obscure, not allowing us to completely understand their message.

The Tanagra "larnakes", in an attentive analysis, seem to tell indirectly the complete rite of the funeral, almost unknown from other sources, and probably giving an important indication about the Mycenaean religious beliefs. The "prothesis" and the libation survived and continued into the Classical Greek world and testify that there isn't a clear separation between the Mycenaean and the Classical world, but that also during the long centuries called the "Dark Ages", some cultural traditions, such as the funeral ritual, were retained for time to follow.

1 The distinction in three groups was adopted by E. Vermeule 1965, by S. Immerwahr 1995 and by
  W. Cavanagh-   C. Mee 1995
2 See C. Long 1974
3 L. Holland 1929
4 Immerwahr S. 1995, 113
5 Benzi M. 1999


Benzi M., "Riti di passaggio sulla "larnax" dalla Tomba 22 di Tanagra?" In Epi ponton plazomenoi, Simposio Italiano di Studi Egei, Scuola Archeologica Italiana di Atene, Roma 1999, pp. 216 - 233.

Evans A. The Palace of Minos at Knossos, London: 1928.

Holland L. "Mycenaean Plumes", American Journal of Archaeology 33 (1929): 173-205.

Immerwahr S. A., Aegean painting in the Bronze Age, University Park & London: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1990.

__________. "Death and Tanagra larnakes", in J.B. Carter & S.P. Morris editors, The Ages of Homer. A tribute to Emily Townsend Vermeule, Austin: 1995, pp. 109-121.

Long C. "The Ayia Triada Sarcophagus. A study of Late Minoan and Mycenaean funerary practices and Beliefs", Sima XLI (1974).

Marinatos N., "Minoan and mycenaean larnakes": a comparison, in J. Driessen & A. Farnoux, La Crete mycenienne, BCH Suppl. 30 (1997): 282- 292.

Morgan L. The miniature Wall Painting of Thera, Cambridge: 1988.

Spyropoulos T. Excavations Reports in Praktika tes en Athenais Archaiologikes Etairias from 1969 to 1983.

Vermeule E., "Painted Mycenaean larnakes", in Journal of Hellenic Studies 85 (1965): 123-148.

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