Cypriote. Cast of the original in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Limestone stele from the necropolis at Golgoi, late 5th century BCE.
The capital of this stele is designed with lotus flowers and volutes, which enclose a sacred tree and sphinxes. According to Cesnola, the figure of the sphinx, like that of the harpy and the siren, was associated with burial rites.
The ancient Greek conception of the afterlife and the ceremonies associated with burial were already well established by the 6th century BCE. In the Odyssey, Homer describes the Underworld, deep beneath the earth, where Hades, the brother of Zeus and Poseidon, and his wife, Persephone, reigned over countless drifting crowds of shadowy figures—the “shades” of all those who had died. It was not a happy place. Indeed, the ghost of the great hero Achilles told Odysseus that he would rather be a poor serf on earth than lord of all the dead in the Underworld.
The Greeks believed that at the moment of death the psyche, or spirit of the dead, left the body as a little breath, or puff, of wind. The deceased was then prepared for burial according to the time-honored rituals. Ancient literary sources emphasize the necessity of a proper burial, and refer to the omission of burial rites as an insult to human dignity. Relatives of the deceased, primarily women, conducted the elaborate burial rituals that were customarily of three parts: the prothesis (laying out of the body), the ekphora (funeral procession), and the interment of the body or cremated remains of the deceased. After being washed and anointed with oil, the body was dressed and placed on a high bed within the house. During the prothesis, relatives and friends came to mourn and pay their respects. Following the prothesis, the deceased was brought to the cemetery in a procession, the ekphora, which usually took place just before dawn. Very few objects were actually placed in the grave, but monumental earth mounds, rectangular built tombs, and elaborate marble stelai and statues were often erected to mark the grave and to ensure that the deceased would not be forgotten. Immortality lay in the continued remembrance of the dead by the living. From depictions on white-ground lekythoi, we know that the women of Classical Athens made regular visits to the grave with offerings that included small cakes and libations.