BMCR 2006.07.18

The Mycenaean Cult of the Dead. British Archaeological Reports International Series 1372

, The Mycenaean cult of the dead. BAR international series ; 1372. Oxford: Archaeopress, 2005. vi, 240 pages : illustrations, maps ; 30 cm.. ISBN 1841718149. £36.00.

Funerary evidence in the Mycenaean world remains a rich but under-exploited vein of archaeological data. This book is one of a small number recently to reconsider the theme.1 It is an argument for, and study of, a Mycenaean cult of the dead, specifically in the LHIIIA-B Argolid, Korinthia, Attica, Boeotia and Euboea, but by clear implication throughout the Mycenaean world and epoch. The author directly challenges the notion that a cult of the dead did not exist in the Mycenaean world and sets out a wealth of evidence to prove her assertion. This book will appeal to advanced students and researchers interested in Mycenaean funerary archaeology and, more generally, in the development and continuity of Mycenaean society. Much of the book’s utility will be found in the evidence it collates and presents, although the efficacy of its arguments may, on occasion, be open to question.

Three principal lines of evidence are examined, which can be broadly defined as art history, architecture and its setting, and practice, alongside which are presented an introduction, theoretical background, and conclusion. The brief introductory chapter offers a rationale for the book and outlines its scope and setting; it presents a summary of the other chapters; and it includes the site catalogue. The catalogue is brief (8 pages), consisting of little more than site names and principal references: the implication is that the reader should turn to Cavanagh and Mee for fuller information.2

In chapter two the author covers issues such as the definition and recognition of ritual, drawing heavily here on Renfrew,3 and the definition of ancestor cult, drawing on numerous authorities, principally and most recently Parker Pearson.4 Gallou’s conclusions here perhaps overstep those which her authorities would support and imply an unwarranted degree of universality (‘It is a basic human characteristic to search for logical explanations regarding death … ancestor cults … provide the participants with an assurance that the material world is insignificant’, p.15). The appeal to both Renfrew and Parker Pearson in setting out a theoretical framework suggests the book will draw eclectically on both processual and post-processual approaches to its evidence — a tactic requiring clarity of reasoning overall and at each individual moment of interpretation.

Chapter two continues with an exposition of the history of research in this area, offering summaries of the majority of scholars to have written on the theme.5 Much of the rest of chapter two is taken up with a discussion of Mycenae, first as a prototype site for a Mycenaean cult of the dead pre-LHIII, in particular in relation to Schliemann’s Grave Circle A, and then as a locus for cult activity in LHIIIB, especially as regards the ‘cult centre’ and the reinvented Grave Circle A. The aim of this section is to provide a background for subsequent discussion of LHIIIA-B ancestor cult. The understandable and traditional emphasis on Mycenae as source (which is present throughout the book) is unfortunately not balanced by other sites or areas in terms of the development of an ancestor cult. Since the particular practices described for Grave Circle A are not directly evidenced in the LHIIIA-B tholoi and chamber tombs under study in this book, Gallou argues instead for a continuity in the idea of ancestor cult from LHI to LHIII, with variation in practice and locale; however, such practices and locales are well-evidenced in MHIII-LHII tombs in areas such as Messenia and, indeed, the Argolid, including Mycenae itself.6

Chapter three attempts to tackle that most difficult of questions: what inferences is it legitimate to draw from a prehistoric society’s iconographic and symbolic repertoire? The question is made more difficult here by the limited nature of the evidence. Gallou relies heavily on the evidence from the Boeotian site of Tanagra, where excavations have unearthed a number of sarcophagi (‘larnakes’), many of which carry painted scenes on their sides. The problem with the Tanagra evidence is double-edged: because these larnakes are almost unique to this one site, one must question how far their evidence can be applied to Mycenaean society more generally; and, since they seem to derive or be inspired by Minoan prototypes, they raise questions about notions of identity not incorporated in the framework of this study.

A methodological approach to such limited material is often likely to be controversial; in this case, the principles of the author’s approach are not always clear. The aim of the chapter is to demonstrate a Mycenaean belief in ‘the soul’, although what is meant by the soul is not strictly defined (and is perhaps not necessary for a cult of the dead). Her preamble makes some claims to human universals (‘Whenever humans think about death and afterlife, they tend to imagine a spiritual tunnel that connects the burial shelter of the body and the soul’s eternal housing in a different dimension’, p.34). The first subject concerns possible depictions of the soul, to be found as winged and bird-like figures on Tanagra and Minoan larnakes and as the floating figures on the fresco from room 31 in the cult centre at Mycenae. Butterfly depictions are also employed to bolster the notion of a Mycenaean belief in the soul (butterflies are depicted on some non-functional scale pans, often related to the Egyptian belief in the judgement of the soul). The very limited nature of this evidence calls into question its usefulness in developing a universal theory of the Mycenaean soul and cult of the dead.

Next, in what she refers to as the ‘Mycenaean deathscape’, Gallou tries to reconstruct a Mycenaean iconography of the journey of the soul, represented by images and models of boats and chariots. However, beyond citing comparable beliefs in other areas and later mythology and listing examples of boats and chariots and the positions of previous authorities on the matter, she brings little new argument to bear on the matter. At one point she suggests that (p.48) ‘the Greek seascape per se played an essential role in the formulation and development of the connection between death and the sea’, without explaining how this came about. Gallou also makes the time-honoured suggestion that food and drink in the tomb might assist the soul on its journey, but there are other possible explanations for this, which she emphatically provides herself in chapter five.

The final topic in chapter three is that of figurines, beginning with the ubiquitous small figurines. This is a topic of considerable debate in the field, with no generally accepted conclusions, and the discussion here, concentrating on unusual variations from the norm, although interesting, remains inconclusive. On the subject of larger figurines, generally found in shrine contexts, Gallou connects a single instance of such a figurine in a tomb at Mycenae with a depiction of a figurine being carried at the head of a procession on a Tanagra larnax: these isolated instances ‘leave no doubt as regards the performance of festivals in honour of the dead, during which theophoria was also practiced [sic]’ (p.58).

Chapter four is concerned with architecture and topography. Two factors are discussed under the latter heading. The first is the location of tombs and cemeteries in relation to nearby ‘settlement’ sites (as many of the latter are unexcavated, the nature of these sites is not well-defined). Gallou concludes that there is no fixed orientation between settlement and cemetery. She confirms this by reference to the iconography asserted in chapter three to represent the passage of the soul: since the depicted soul might depart either to the left or the right on the canvas, cemeteries might be located in any orientation with settlement. The second topographic factor concerns water sources. Repeating the observations and conclusions of Dabney,7 Gallou suggests locations near flowing water were desirable for a host of reasons, both practical and symbolic. Detailed topographic and geomorphological data would be required to take the argument forward.

Turning to architecture, Gallou picks up on the tripartite division of dromos-stomion-chamber in tholos and chamber tombs, and relates this to the tripartite structure for rites of passage proposed by Van Gennep.8 Hence the dromos symbolises separation, and Gallou lists evidence for activities in the dromos that might be part of rites of separation; the stomion symbolises transition, and the author emphasises the liminal nature of the entrance threshold; and the chamber symbolises incorporation, where the dead joins the throng of the ancestors. These observations are interesting, although the direct relationship suggested to the rites of passage (which have a chronological, as well as spatial, element) is questionable. Some emphasis is placed on the minority of tombs with painted or architecturally impressive façades; however, rather than expanding the notion of transition, the hardly original explanation is that they would have ‘reflected the special status of their owners’ and would have ‘had a psychological effect on the celebrants’ (p.70). Overall, Gallou argues that the tomb should be regarded as a sacred context, drawing on contemporary cult buildings to symbolise this sacred nature.

Chapter five, the longest and most substantive of the book, examines the evidence for ritual action constituting a Mycenaean cult of the dead. These actions are defined as libation, sacrifice, ‘secondary burial rites’, burning, and commemorative action (setting and tending tomb markers, feasting, and funerary games). Libation and sacrifice are seen to invite the dead to take part in feasting, and also to mimic central rites in the palaces. Evidence for libation is in pouring and (mainly) drinking vessels, though these are just as easily interpreted in terms of drinking rituals rather than specifically libation. Rhyta, often viewed as specialised libation vessels, do occur in tombs but with much less frequency than drinking vessels. Gallou rightly draws a distinction between the well-known drinking ceremonies that took place in the dromos and those that took place in the chamber of the tomb.9 However, in both cases, in order to make her point about sacrifice, the terms ‘libation’ and ‘drinking ceremony’ are used interchangeably — whereas only the former would specifically advance her theory. Evidence for animal sacrifice lies in iconography and in the remains of bones in tombs. The iconographic evidence is limited, restricted for the most part to the Ayia Triada sarcophagus from Crete and the scenes of sacrifice (by no means clearly related to funerary rites) on the Tanagra larnakes. Indisputable evidence for animal sacrifice from tomb contexts also is limited. Gallou makes much of apparent evidence for horse and dog sacrifice, though these examples are more significant for their unusual occurrence than for any ubiquity. In the absence of widespread evidence for animal sacrifice, the author suggests that animal figurines would have formed appropriate substitutes for the real thing. The spectre of human sacrifice in funerary contexts is also raised, but dismissed. In passing, Gallou suggests that the po-re-na of Pylos tablet Tn 316, often in the past suggested to be human sacrificial victims, should instead be regarded as referring to the large terracotta figurines associated with shrines.10

Gallou moves on to consider ‘secondary burial treatment’, that is, the evidence for interference with funerary contexts at a later date. This important line of evidence has been strongly downplayed in the past and Gallou is right to emphasise it. She explains rare instances of graves without bones by reference to the secondary ritual removal of those bones.11 Arrangements of bones within tombs can be explained as the result of meaningful activities that took place at some point after the decay of the flesh: Gallou provides a list of authorities and examples. On the subject of commemoration, and specifically tomb markers, the author admits ‘tomb markers are surprisingly rare’ (p.123), but goes on to state that ‘the organisation of the tombs within the cemeteries, the nature of Mycenaean multiple burials and the requirements of funerary and post-funerary ritual would have necessitated the existence of funerary stelai for identification reasons … [they] would have served as loci for offerings to the dead and … might even have been glistered with oil as symbols of the dead who, like the living, are wreathed on festive occasions’ (pp.123-4). We are therefore to assume that there stelai were wooden stelai or some other reason explains their absence in the data. Other examples of commemorative acts are feasting — perhaps difficult to separate in the evidence from sacrifice, mentioned above — and the possibility of funerary games. For this, the initial appeal is unsurprisingly once again to images on the Tanagra larnakes, but then the author attempts to develop a hypothesis that a processional way or ‘hippodrome’ at Thebes could have been the scene of funerary games. The chapter ends with an examination of Gallou’s findings in relation to Renfrew’s analysis of ritual: attention focusing, liminality, transcendence and offering.

In her concluding chapter, Gallou presents an overview of the evidence. The early Mycenaean period is presented as a period of evolution and development, followed by the supposed stability of LHIIIA-B. She seeks to use the evidence to investigate the creation, transformation and continuity of tradition.12 The narrative here is mostly concerned with identifying local distinction within an overall tradition, thus preserving a pristine Mycenaean identity while emphasising regional variation. She ends with an appeal for contextual analysis rather than oversimplified generalisations.

One general criticism of the book as a whole is that the author tends to adopt a top-down approach to the evidence: high-order conclusions, processes or observations are asserted and then confirmed by reference to appropriate evidence and authority. This tends to mask regional or chronological variations in the data and gives rise to a ‘one size fits all’ approach. An alternative route would have been to present the evidence as a whole and then to pick out the logical connections in the data that might support higher order conclusions. To be fair, regional variation is tackled in the final chapter, although chronological variation within ληιιια perhaps due to the nature of the evidence, is a less important factor in the study.

Following on from this, it may be observed that the author adopts a slightly formulaic approach to a subject: this may be summarised as assertion-authoritative recourse-recapitulation. Sections begin with a particular assertion, which is then examined in the light of a (typically) exhaustive summary of previous scholars’ thoughts on the subject, often combined with an outline of the appropriate evidence, to be followed by emphatic re-assertion of the original hypothesis. In many ways this makes the book a particularly useful reference work: if you want to research previous approaches to depictions of the soul in Mycenaean art, or the existence of cenotaphs in Mycenaean Greece, the references are handily summarised here. However, as an approach to building an argument, it lacks one crucial ingredient: the author’s own argued position on the evidence.

In conclusion, this book is a welcome addition to the recent corpus re-examining death in the Mycenaean world. Although in this reviewer’s opinion in some cases its methodological approaches serve to undermine its conclusions, those conclusions are welcome in fueling the debate surrounding the variety of Mycenaean funerary practice. It remains the case that this extraordinarily rich material has much to contribute to the direction, strategy and synthesis of Aegean prehistory.


1. For example, W. Cavanagh and C. Mee A private place: death in prehistoric Greece, Jonsered 1998; K. Branigan (ed.) Cemetery and society in the Aegean Bronze Age, Sheffield 1998; K. Lewartowski Late Helladic simple graves a study of Mycenaean burial customs, Oxford 2000; M. J. Boyd Middle Helladic and Early Mycenaean mortuary practices in the southern and western Peloponnese, Oxford 2002.

2. Cited above. A very full reference source to 1995 is K. T. Siriopoulou Ἡ προϊστορικὴ κατοὶκησις τῆς Ἑλλὰδος καὶ ἡ γὲνεσις τοῦ Ἑλλενικοῦ ἔθνους, Athens 1994/1995.

3. C. Renfrew The archaeology of cult the sanctuary at Phylakopi, London 1985.

4. M. Parker Pearson The archaeology of death and burial, Stroud 1999.

5. This subject is central to my 2002 book (cited in n.1 above), although Gallou seems not to have seen this.

6. Boyd 2002 passim.

7. M. Dabney, ‘Locating Mycenaean cemeteries’ in P. Betancourt, V. Karageorghis, R. Laffineur and W-D. Niemeier (eds.) Meletemata Studies in Aegean Archaeology presented to Malcolm H. Wiener as he enters his 65th year. Aegaeum 20. Liège and Austin 1999. I, 171-175.

8. Gallou gives full references to this debate on p.64f.

9. Contra Gallou (p.89), these dromos ceremonies were known, if perhaps unusual, pre-LHIII: Boyd 2002, p.64 and p.225 table 26.

10. For a more informed treatment of the text see, for example, Palaima, T. 1999 “Kn 2—Tn 316,” in S. Deger-Jalkotzy, S. Hiller, and O. Panagl, eds. Floreant Studia Mycenaea. Akten des 10. internationalen mykenologischen Kolloquiums (Salzburg, Wien) pp. 437-61; or Sacconi, Anna 1987, “La tavoletta di Pilo Tn 316: una registrazione di carattere eccezionale?” in Killen, John T., José L. Melena, and Jean-Pierre Olivier, eds. Studies in Mycenaean and Classical Greek Presented to John Chadwick. Minos 20-22. (Universidad de Salamanca, Salamanca) pp. 551-556.

11. In refuting the notion of ‘cenotaphs’, Gallou suggests that ‘it is obvious that Persson and the other ‘cenotaph theorists’ were blinkered by the Homeric tradition’, p.116. Nonetheless it should be noted that the Homeric tradition has exerted its influence on our author, who herself makes reference to that tradition with great frequency throughout the book.

12. Boyd 2002, 94-98.