From Cremated Ashes to Holy Water for a Bride’s Ritual Bath, The Loutrophoros Was No Ordinary Vase
A loutrophoros is a distinctive type of Greek pottery characterized by an elongated neck with two handles. It is a specific type of amphora, which was a type of Greek container used as early as the Neolithic Period. These amphorae were used to transport and store various liquids, dry goods, and sometimes the ashes of the deceased. However, the vessel was much more than just an ordinary vase to the Greeks. In English “loutrophoros” can be translated as “bathwater,” from loutron, and “carry,” from phero; as such, it was used to carry water for a bride’s prenuptial ritual bath. It was also used in funerary rituals and as place markers for the graves of the unwed. Examples of this vessel, either as artifacts themselves or examples in art, date back as early as the 8 th century BC, but by the Roman period this type of amphora was largely phased out.
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A Symbolic Grave Marker
From the surviving literary record, it can be concluded that, in the classical period, the term “loutrophoros” referred to a person who carried the water for a ritual bath, especially for a bride or groom before their wedding. From this, a loutrophoros would stand symbolically as a grave-marker for those that had died prematurely and were unwed. However, this is a complicated matter in the archaeological evidence as there are no persons seen carrying a water jug in the classical funerary monuments. The alternative conclusion is that, at some point, the significance of the word transferred from person to object and the vessel became the symbolic grave marker. This can be seen in the archaeological record, and later in the surviving lexical record. It has been suggested that the term referred to the person in antiquity and was only given to the vessel in more modern times.
Analatos Painter: Couples dancing to the sound of the aulos. Neck of a proto-Attic loutrophoros. ( CC BY NC-SA 2.0 )
A 2,600-Year-Old Style
The loutrophoros was a very tall vessel with a funnel-shaped neck, set on a slender, elongated body. Sometimes there was a foot at the bottom, other times there was no bottom at all. The handles reach from the shoulder to just below the lip, forming a large loop that was sometimes open and sometimes filled in. This vessel can also appear in the form of a hydria with a third handle reaching from the shoulder to the lip. This style harkens back to the amphorae of the Late Geometric Period as well as Early Attic vases. From this, the shape continues from the late 6 th century BC to the late 4 th century BC. As time progressed, the vessel became more elongated and spindly. In the early black-figure, ca. 7 th century BC, the loutrophoros was reserved for funerary purposes, used mainly as a grave marker. In the 5 th century BC the vessel starts to be used for ritual purposes like weddings or funerals. As such, the vessels are usually decorated with scenes of mourners or wedding processions depending on its use.
While the loutrophoros was used for both weddings and funerals, it is unclear which was the primary purpose. One theory suggests that the use in funerals was secondary, and arose from the primary function in wedding rituals. In this way, as a grave marker, the deceased was given a post-mortem symbol of marriage. However, the opposing argument points to loutrophoroi being placed on graves from very early on, until the 5 th century when they started to be replaced by a more durable monument of stone. Similarly, the earlier vessels depict funerary themes, such as the prosthesis, or “laying out of the body,” which was a funerary ritual. It wasn’t until later that the vessels started to depict marriage scenes.
Terracotta loutrophoros depicting body in prosthesis, 6 th century BC, Greek. Met Museum ( Public Domain )
The Funerary Role
One archaic example of a loutrophoros, from the late 6 th century BC, can be found at the Metropolitan Museum. This specific vessel is made from terracotta and was extensively decorated with funerary scenes. On the shoulder of the vase a youth lays on a couch in prothesis, surrounded by grieving women. These women are shown with short hair and hands held high signifying the pulling out of their own hair in grief. Their open mouths match those of the mourning men on the reverse showing that they are all singing funeral songs. On the neck, another group of mourning women can be seen, one holding a loutrophoros. Below, horse men raise their hands and tear out their hair in lamentation. It is the presence of these scenes of mourning, along with the lack of a bottom, that lead scholars to believe that this loutrophoros was used as a grave maker. The vessel would have been made without a bottom so that onlookers and mourners could pour libations into the vessel and they would eventually reach the deceased.