On my would-be annual trip to the National Archaeological Museum of Athens (‘would-be’ because I wasn’t in Athens in 2016, but visited the museum in 2014 and 2015), I probably spent far too much time looking at funerary stelae.
I can explain.
This past term, while taking a course on Greek Cities and Sanctuaries, I thought that what I wanted to write my final research paper on was sanctuaries of Hera. I worked for several weeks on that topic, ordered dozens of books from the library, and even struggled through German publications, but in the end I had to throw in the towel and pick something else (for various reasons). This led to me choosing to research marble funerary lekythoi instead, and their relationship to marble loutrophoroi and the cultural attitude towards the death of unmarried young men and women. So, naturally, my affinity for funerary stelae was set in stone (no pun intended).
I could probably talk forever and a day about marble lekythoi – I not only have photos from the National Archaeological Museum but also from the Kerameikos Museum (which I refrained from bombarding my Facebook friends with because there are A Lot of photos). But instead, I realized that I found myself thinking a lot about the depictions of animals on funerary stelae. This is probably because there was an entire room full of stelae depicting people holding things – from pyxides to fruits to birds – and accompanied by dogs.
But what intrigued me the most were the birds. In that room alone, there were three funerary stelae depicting scenes featuring a bird being offered by one figure to another.
Upon seeing these stelae, my first impression was that it was interesting that all three of them depicted a similar scene involving a bird, but it wasn’t until I got back to my apartment and started looking at them more closely that I could see how similar they really were. In all three of the scenes, there are two people depicted, the figure on the left always older than and offering the bird to a younger figure on the right. What’s more is that I realized that a similar composition had appeared to me before, in my research on marble lekythoi several months ago.
In this scene, there are four figures depicted, but on the left side of the composition a seated older woman, like in the previous three scenes, offers a bird to a young girl to her right. So, if this motif is depicted on so many different funerary monuments, they must mean something, right?
The first discussion of the symbolism of the bird in funerary art was this 2013 blog post entitled “The Symbolism of Birds on Ancient Greek Grave Steles.” In this post, the author discusses the relationship between the bird and funerary stelae for deceased children, emphasizing the bird’s liminal existence and its use as a ‘plaything’ for children both in life and in death. The second half of the post deals with the connection between doves and Aphrodite, explaining that, in this capacity, the dove represents “love, joy, procreation, and sexuality.” However, the author goes on to say that this reading cannot apply because “children are not sexual nor have they procreated.” I disagree with this on a few levels.
First, perhaps this connection between birds on the stelae of children could have been for the purpose of “sad irony” because young girls who had died had not procreated yet and would never be able to, but this seems unlikely in many cases. Several of the examples of stelae that the author of the post uses depict girls far too young to have been able to bear children, so, while it is possible that their parents were always thinking of their duty to the family and to society (as mothers, wives), I can’t bring myself to believe that a parent would have included a bird on the stele of a young girl to symbolize something they would have been more suited for in their early teens.
My second point leads into my main argument: that the birds (perhaps turtle-doves or sparrows), contrary to what the author of the aforementioned post may think, did symbolize love because of their connection to Aphrodite. However, I do not think that this love was sexual at all – I argue that this love was familial, whether representing the love of one’s parent(s) or sibling(s). This is in one part due to the fact that turtle-doves were not only associated with Aphrodite, but also with Demeter.
“White Turtle-doves are often to be seen. These, they say, are sacred to Aphrodite and Demeter.” –Aelian, On Animals 10.33 (trans. Schofield)
Demeter’s love as a mother, especially in the case of the abduction of her daughter Persephone by Hades, is a perfect example of the kind of familial love I am thinking of. In many ways, Persephone’s descent into the Underworld symbolizes a kind of death, which can find parallels with the death of the children depicted on funerary stelae like the ones I have been discussing.
While it is nearly impossible to truly know who the deceased is on a funerary stele depicting several figures, it has often been argued that the deceased is the person or persons who is named in the accompanying inscription. I have argued that the deceased, on stelae which depict seated figures shaking the hand of a standing person, is the figure who is standing. In the case of these stelae (excluding the marble lekythos), I would say that the deceased is in fact the younger figure, depicted on the right side of the composition.
Birds are “metaphors to suggest [the funerary scene’s] emotional message…The bird petted by the boy represents his parents’ love for him…” –A Companion to Families in the Greek and Roman Worlds, ed. Beryl Rawson
The reason for this goes back to the idea of familial love. If the turtle-dove does, in fact, symbolize the love of a family member for the deceased young person as I have suggested, then it should follow that the older (possibly living) figure is offering this symbol of their love to the deceased in these particular scenes. Moreover, all of this is in accordance with the idea that birds are most often depicted on the funerary stelae of children, because in all of these scenes (including the marble lekythos) there is a young boy or girl depicted interacting with the bird.
These are just some thoughts I had, but I am totally open to any other interpretations you all might have! Grad school has made me a much more analytical museum-goer than I was before… I can’t tell if I like it or not…