The funerary iconography of the Classical Athenian woman

Women in Classical Athens: for a long time, it’s been a topic of discussion among scholars that proved to be both frustrating and interesting. Greek women might be less visible than their male counterparts in archaeology and literature, but this lack of evidence makes it all the more fascinating when they do show up. In this case I will look at their appearance in funerary contexts. Are women visible in death? What can we derive from their iconography and depictions on funerary items in relation to their role in funerary ritual?

Lekythoi and grave stelai from Classical Athens provide a wealth of data for the portrayal of (dead) women. Looking at their depictions of women, I will try to find out what phases of a woman’s life are depicted and in what kind of roles she appears, thereby hopefully discovering more about her life and her role in funerary ritual. I will present my results by following a timeline of a Classical Athenian woman’s life, from pregnancy to old age as seen in the funerary material record.”

Let’s start at the very beginning of life: scenes of pregnancy or actual childbirth. It so happens that there are no cases of pregnant women or babies being visibly born on stelai or lekythoi. Which is odd, because many women actually died in childbirth, making it a potential common scene for grave ornaments. You would also think giving birth is one of the most important moments in a woman’s life and it is surprising that artists would avoid a theme so close to reality on funerary items. However, this might be a classic case of imposing modern thinking on a different culture: it is possible that birth was less a moment for commemoration than it is nowadays, considering many babies died young. There is also the fact that birth was a very private occasion that happened inside, as we read in Attic literature and see in the dedications of celebration of successful birth at shrines of female deities (LEWIS, 2002). It might have been too personal and private a topic for pottery and stelai that mostly celebrate the public aspects of Greek life. Scenes of a woman being in labour however are depicted on some lekythoi and especially on grave stelai. This is to either show the cause of death (dying in childbirth) or the profession of the woman (midwife), which becomes clear from their inscriptions. The focus remains solely on the woman though: no pregnant bellies are visible, and the fact remains that we do not see female babies – or any babies for that matter – in childbirth.

Babies weren’t very visible after birth either. The ones we do find are mostly on lekythoi or stelai and are either depicted as male or with an indeterminate sex. Especially grave stelai seem to avoid this by showing swaddled babies (see image 1 below), which is not only truer to life but also makes sense, since stelai were required to suit a variety of customers (LEWIS, 2002). This hiding of the genitals isn’t very surprising, because in most of these cases the focus is on the dead woman as a mother, emphasizing her interaction with the child. Therefore the child’s sex simply doesn’t matter that much.

1. BABY ON STELE: 430-400 BC, 2232, The British Museum. Notice the swaddled baby.

But what about young girls? The most prominent source of depictions of children actually come from choes: miniature jugs that were associated with the festival of the Choes, part of the Anthesteria (HAMILTON, 1992). But this research isn’t focused on choes. And beyond those, girls fall out of the picture in pottery, while boys actually enter it with scenes of masculine childhood (like playing games, being with their fathers in public etc.). This falls back to that same distinction between public and private: boys were becoming part of the visible public Greek life, while the lives of girls started to focus on the household. Pottery that was meant for export displayed a view of Greek public life where the importance of girls was limited. However, within the city itself, that importance was greater, and this shows on the grave stelai and lekythoi.

Stelai solely depicting girls have been found and here they are portrayed with pets, signifying their childhood. These stelai are simply meant to show that the deceased person was a female child.

2. GIRL ON STELE: Marble grave stele, 450–440 BC, 27.45, Met Museum New York. Notice the dove.

Besides that, girls on funerary items are mostly and frequently portrayed in the context of ritual mourning. Typical scenes like decorating the tomb or the prosthesis scene, where people gather around the deceased on their bier and mourn, are very common and very often have a girl being present as seen in images 3 and 4. The girls do not appear as child-like as they do on the choes: they’re not holding toys as attributes anymore and appear more like miniature women.,0.7874,0.44

3. DECORATING THE TOMB: Attic white-ground lekythos, 460-450 BC, 1826, J. Paul Getty Museum. Notice the girl on the right.

4. PROSTHESIS SCENE: White-ground lekythos, 430-420 BC, 1952.75, M. Sackler Museum. Notice the girl mourning on the right image.

The most important role of the Athenian woman in funerary iconography is that of the mother. As we’ve seen, many stelai and lekythoi have been found emphasizing the bond between mother and child. Another scene in the same sentiment that is common on lekythoi is the so-called ‘departing warrior’-scene (LEWIS, 2002): a young man is leaving to go to war and his family members stand around him, including a woman. The woman in this scene is usually ageless, so it’s hard to tell if it’s a departure scene between a mother and a son or a wife and husband. However, a mother mourning her son is a common theme in Greek literature and it reflects reality: a son once lost is lost forever, whereas a new husband can potentially be found.

5. DEPARTING WARRIOR: White-ground lekythos, 450 BC, Α 01818, National Archaeological Museum, Athens. Notice the warrior on the right.

Apart from being a mother, domestic scenes of women have been found on lekythoi as well, though not many. One task that comes forward most is wool-working. The production of clothes was an important contribution to the economy of the oikos and the work marked women as female and virtuous. This explains why items that were used to make clothes are often found as votive offerings and grave goods, much like weapons are for males. Therefore it makes sense that this domestic scene has been found on lekythoi as well.

6. WOOL-WORK: Lekythos, 480–470 BC, no. 29, Museum of Fine Arts Boston

On to older women then. When it comes to grave stelai, I can be brief concerning the depiction of older women: they are hardly ever depicted as such. It seems to be the convention to portray them young, even though the inscription indicates otherwise (see image). This is not surprising, since stelai are quite public and a more ideal portrayal might have been preferable. Older women aren’t frequently depicted on pottery either. When they are, they have a stooped posture, white hair and sometimes a wrinkled face, and it’s in a mythological context. When it comes to lekythoi, they are hardly present at all. The only one I’ve found is a scene where an older woman fills the cup of a young man. In this case her age and weakness seem to underline the young man’s youth and masculinity.

7. OLDER WOMAN: Ampharete stele, 400 BC, Kerameikos P 695, I 221, Oberleander Museum.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                       Inscription: “It is my daughter’s child that I hold here with love, the one whom I held on my lap while in life we looked on the light of the sun and now (still) hold, dead as I am dead.” (SEG 21.208; IG II.2 10650). Notice that the grandmother isn’t depicted as an older woman.

My conclusion would be that Classical Athenian women are remarkably visible in death. They may have had a limited role in daily public Greek life, but their presence on funerary scenes tells us they had a significant role in funerary ritual – seen in their assisting appearance at decorating the tomb or mourning at the bier. They mostly appear in the role of mourner, as a girl or a mother. Other aspects like old age, pregnancy, or any out-side activities are hardly present. This can be explained: an older woman isn’t the ideal image of a woman one would want to become public, childbirth or pregnancy is too intimate to depict, and the most usual role of a woman was that in her household. So, funerary iconography emphasizes the woman in the context of ritual and mourning, but the question is why? Women have always had a special role in ritual and worship , but I think her significance in funerary ritual is connected to with her ability to give life. She is literally present at the beginning of life, and her life is more domestic-oriented than that of a man, so isn’t it rather fitting she is present when someone leaves this world?

J.J.D. vd H  – 2016




BEAUMONT, L. A., (2012), Childhood in ancient Athens: iconography and social history,
Routledge: Londen.

DEMAND, N. H., (1994), Birth, Death and motherhood in Classical Greece, John Hopkins
University Press, Baltimore.

FANTHAM, E., (1994), Women in the Classical World, New York

GILHULY, K., (2009), The feminine matrix of sex and gender in classical Athens, Cambridge

GROSSMAN, J. B., (2001), Greek funerary sculpture : catalogue of the collections at the     

            Getty Villa, Los Angeles

HALAND, E. J. (2014). Rituals of death and dying in modern and ancient Greece. Writing     

             history from a female perspective. Newcastle upon Tyne, Cambridge Scholars Press.

HAMILTON, R. (1992), Choes and Anthesteria: Athenian iconography and ritual, University of
Michigan Press.

LEWIS, S. (2002), The Athenian woman: an iconographic handbook, Londen

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American Journal of Archaeology 91, p. 399-409

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10 thoughts on “The funerary iconography of the Classical Athenian woman

  1. Great job! Thumbs up for your good writing and your clear and original structure (stages of life)! I also like the fact that you give some possible explanations for the things you noticed. That guessing makes you think. What you could do to improve your blog is adding links to some difficult words (e.g. Anthesteria festival). What I am asking myself is how many women are actually depicted. At the end you say that ‘the Classical Athenian women are remarkably visible in death’, but does this mean we have a lot of depictions of female figures? Did you find any statistics?


    • Hi there! I saw you included links in your blog; something I didn’t think of, but it’s clever and I’ll keep it in mind for the future.
      I honestly have no idea about an actual number op statistics, but what I meant with that statement is that women are *relatively* remarkably visible in death, i.e. they appear on funerary items more often than other pottery, displayed by the examples I showed in class.
      Anyway, thank you very much for reading and your nice replay!


  2. Really nice research, your contribution is very well-structured and clear! I was wondering about the development of young girls’ presence on the pottery you have analysed. It appears to me, and this is of course very much guesswork since I have only seen those images on here, that the presence of young girls (at least from your selection of images) seems to generally originate from around the second half of the fifth century. Is this correct or do children in fact appear in the first half of the fifth century as well? If this is correct, it would be interesting to assess the implications of this omission in the imagery.


    • Hallo there! Thank you for reading my blog and your insightful reply. According to my reading (LEWIS), it indeed took a while for children to appear more often on pottery. Which is interesting, and could possibly be explained by the fact that painters experienced some difficulty doing it: how do you paint children accurately when you’ve hardly painted them before? What should you do to distinguish them from adults, or make clear their different age-stages, to a public who isn’t too familiar with girls on pottery as well? It must have taken some practise to get them right and for their depictions to become more common. Of course, there could be an explanation that has more cultural roots; perhaps the social view on girls was changing and they became more present in Athenian public life? Which would indeed be very interesting to research more thoroughly.
      Good catch and thank you for bringing this forward!


  3. Very clear and easy to read! I like how the images support the information you’re giving about the different stages in life, this way you can imagine the timeline of a Classical Athenian woman more vividly. At the end, you mentioned that the role women had in funerary practices may have something to do with their ability to give life. I think this is an interesting thought that gives the subject more depth to it. I would have liked more interpretations of this kind throughout the text to stay focused on the second question you asked in your introduction. What can we derive from the depictions? For example, why are these ‘departing-warrior’ scenes depicted? To call in mind specific literary scenes? To emphasize the role of the mother, who gave birth to the man who now may die in war? I would like to know what you think about these scenes! To conclude: I liked your blog and the images you picked (especially the structure!) and I think this would be an interesting topic to do further research about!


    • Thank you for your reply! Glad you liked it. You are right about the interpretations; I focused mostly on the actual appearance of women on lekythoi/stelai and finding examples of these, that this aspect fell a little bit behind. I think I did dive a little bit into the warrior scene though: the mother-son relationship has always been a special one in Greek literature (think of Hector and his mother Hecube in the Iliad, whose relationship received more attention in terms of scenes dedicated to it than his relationship with his wife Andromache, for example). I think depicting this scene makes sense for both a mother’s or a warrior’s grave, because it has a very bittersweet element to it. The warrior would be depicted as brave but also heading towards his certain death, and for the mother this scene would mean both pride and sorrow for her son (all of which falling in line with what we have learned about “the beautiful death”). Of course, it wouldn’t hurt to research this more, and especially the idea of a woman being the bearer of life intrigues me, and I would genuinely like to find out more about it after this class.
      Anyway, thank you for reading my blog and your comments!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Hi! I have two questions about two statements you’ve made:

    My first question is on the following statement: “Stelai solely depicting girls have been found and here they are portrayed with pets, signifying their childhood. These stelai are simply meant to show that the deceased person was a female child.”

    Does the depiction of pets on stelai exclusively signify female childhood? I was wondering since I did research on white-ground lekythoi, which also show adult women with pets. This has been interpreted as the pets referring to an oikos (a household), with women staying inside most of their life, thus accompanied by pets. Are women on stelai sometimes also accompanied by pets, or is it only the case for girls?

    My second question is on this statement: “Apart from being a mother, domestic scenes of women have been found on lekythoi as well, though not many.”

    I was wondering what your source was on this conclusion, since I’ve found that domestic scenes are actually one of the most common themes depicted on white-ground lekythoi (about 200 of ca. 700 found white-ground lekythoi depict women in a domestic scene (in: Oakley, J. H. (2004) Picturing Death in Classical Athens: the evidence of the white lekythoi. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.)). It’s interesting to see that you’ve found a different interpretation!


    • Hey there! Thank you for your comments. Regarding your first question, I have indeed found depictions of children (both boys and girls), especially on choes, where they were either depicted with toys or, in this case, with pets like dogs and mostly birds. I did see one example of a lekythoi with a woman and a bird, but not a stele. So I’d say that based on this, pets would probably be more associated with childhood than the domestic adult woman, but your suggestion is surely interesting and shows that things are always more complicated and nuanced than at first sight.
      When it comes to your second question, I got this from LEWIS (see bibliography). I think this difference in interpretation might lie in the fact that your source focuses solely on white-ground lekythoi, whereas mine focuses in all funerary iconography. I think I might have made the mistake by stating that domestic scenes are not often found on lekythoi, when I meant to say they are relatively speaking less frequent than mourning/ritual scenes. Still, it is rather remarkable and thank you for bringing this to my attention. It shows that it remains important for me to be critical of my sources!


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