Loutrophorai: Greek, Attica, c.440BC, (Penn Valley); Greek, Classical Period, 450–425 BC (MFA);Greek, South Italian, Early Hellenistic Period c.320–310 BC

From Cremated Ashes to Holy Water for a Bride’s Ritual Bath, The Loutrophoros Was No Ordinary Vase

(Read the article on one page)

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.

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.

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, 6th century BC, Greek.  Met Museum

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.

Comments

I NOTICED THAT THE VASES DID NOT HAVE STRAIGHT BLOND HAIRED WHITE PEOPLE PAINTED ON THEM TO REPRESENT PRESENT DAY WHITE EUROPEANS.  INSTEAD,  THE VASES MOSTLY SHOW THICK "WOOLLY DARK HAIRED" PEOPLE WHOSE HAIR RESEMBLED WOOLLY AFRO HAIR, AND SKIN TONES RANGING FROM LIGHT TO "black".  I FIND THAT FACT TO BE VERY INTERESTING, WHICH MEAN THAT ANCIENT GREEKS DID NOT RESEMBLE WHAT WE CALL PRESENT DAY WHITE PEOPLE AT ALL.  I GUESS THAT THOSE OLD GREEK MOVIES WITH ALL THOSE BLOND HAIR, BLUE EYED PEOPLE ARE JUST AN IMAGINATION OF WHAT WHITE PEOPLE WANT ANCIENT GREEKS TO LOOK LIKE, INSTEAD OF LOOKING LIKE GARAMANTES, PELASGIANS, ETC WHO CAME FROM WESTERN AND NORTHERN AFRICA ACCORDING TO ANCIENT GREEK HISTORIANS SUCH AS HERODOTUS, AND DIODORUS SICULUS, AS WELL AS MANY OTHERS.…."WOOLLY HAIRED AFRO STYLING ANCIENT GREEK PEOPLE"....

Charles Bowles

Register to become part of our active community, get updates, receive a monthly newsletter, and enjoy the benefits and rewards of our member point system OR just post your comment below as a Guest.

Top New Stories

Denisova cave, some 150 km (93 mi) south of the city of Barnaul, is the only source of Denisovan's remains. Pictures: The Siberian Times
The distance from the only currently known home of the Denisovans in Altai region to the nearest point of Australia is roughly akin to the length of the Trans-Siberian railway, and yet it is looking increasingly likely that these ancient species of humanoids somehow made this epic journey deep in pre-history, perhaps 65,000 years ago.

Myths & Legends

A vase-scene from about 410 BC. Nimrod/Herakles, wearing his fearsome lion skin headdress, spins Noah/Nereus around and looks him straight in the eye. Noah gets the message and grimaces, grasping his scepter, a symbol of his rule - soon to be displaced in the post-Flood world by Nimrod/Herakles, whose visage reveals a stern smirk.
The Book of Genesis describes human history. Ancient Greek religious art depicts human history. While their viewpoints are opposite, the recounted events and characters match each other in convincing detail. This brief article focuses on how Greek religious art portrayed Noah, and how it portrayed Nimrod in his successful rebellion against Noah’s authority.

Human Origins

Sumerian creation myth
Sumer , or the ‘land of civilized kings’, flourished in Mesopotamia, now modern-day Iraq, around 4500 BC. Sumerians created an advanced civilization with its own system of elaborate language and...

Ancient Technology

The School of Athens
Much of modern science was known in ancient times. Robots and computers were a reality long before the 1940´s. The early Bronze Age inhabitants of the Levant used computers in stone, the Greeks in the 2nd century BC invented an analogue computer known as the Antikythera mechanism. An ancient Hindu book gives detailed instructions for the construction of an aircraft –ages before the Wright brothers. Where did such knowledge come from?

Our Mission

At Ancient Origins, we believe that one of the most important fields of knowledge we can pursue as human beings is our beginnings. And while some people may seem content with the story as it stands, our view is that there exists countless mysteries, scientific anomalies and surprising artifacts that have yet to be discovered and explained.

The goal of Ancient Origins is to highlight recent archaeological discoveries, peer-reviewed academic research and evidence, as well as offering alternative viewpoints and explanations of science, archaeology, mythology, religion and history around the globe.

We’re the only Pop Archaeology site combining scientific research with out-of-the-box perspectives.

By bringing together top experts and authors, this archaeology website explores lost civilizations, examines sacred writings, tours ancient places, investigates ancient discoveries and questions mysterious happenings. Our open community is dedicated to digging into the origins of our species on planet earth, and question wherever the discoveries might take us. We seek to retell the story of our beginnings. 

Ancient Image Galleries

View from the Castle Gate (Burgtor). (Public Domain)
Door surrounded by roots of Tetrameles nudiflora in the Khmer temple of Ta Phrom, Angkor temple complex, located today in Cambodia. (CC BY-SA 3.0)
Cable car in the Xihai (West Sea) Grand Canyon (CC BY-SA 4.0)
Next article