Tuesday, November 5, 2013

The Symbolism of Birds on Ancient Greek Grave Steles

In this post, I argue that the portrayal of birds found on certain Ancient Greek steles is more than a mere representation of a pet. The ancient grave steles that I would like to analyze are those of young children (and that of females).

Hadrian-age gravestone for the child Olympia.
  It is completely probable that these birds which are often categorized as "doves" or "rock doves" or "pigeons" could be pets, as seen in the following stele of a young girl with her favorite pet and toy:

Attic Grave Stele of a Young Girl, "Melisto", c. 340 BC
Melisto's stele shows  herself with a small doll and a dog. Neil and Oakley attests to the fact that birds, cats, dogs, and even weasel were the playmates of ancient Greek children, but this does not explain the abundance of birds on steles instead of cats, dogs, or weasels. One then has to make various assumptions such as; bird were cheaper and easier to keep, or birds were cheaper and smaller to carve on a stele than a weasel or cat. However, Neils and Oakley state something that struck a nerve with me;  "Birds were commonly depicted with children on gravestones, but usually there is only one. There apparently perceived by the ancients as appropriate playthings for the dead, possibly because they, like the souls of the dead, were able to traverse the planes to the underworld to continue to be playmates (307-8)." Neil and Oakley also attest to the intimacy of the act of playing for children. "Many toys used by children have been uncover in their graves, as well as the bones of their pet birds.(199)"

Girl with Toy Roller Chasing Bird

Does this suggest that similar to the Egyptians, that pets were killed and buried with children in order to accompany them to the afterlife? This then begs to ask the question of why just birds, why not- cats, dogs, weasels, or even slaves? Are the Greeks flirting with Egyptian ideals or is a bird so far from "human" that they do not matter? Are the bird represented on these stele meant to emulate a companion to travel with them on the journey to the underworld as well a Egyptian "ba" role?

Grave Stele of Little Girl
Dove Stele
ca. 450–440 b.c.
Greek Parian marble

Why then is this stele is called the "Dove Stele" I am not quite sure. I am not a ornithologist so I do not know how one type of bird is discernible from another on a surface such as marble. But, for the sake of this stele, let us say it is a dove. One must ask why a dove? And why two? When Neil and Oakley have already graciously explained that birds were commonly put on gravestones only as soloists.  But then again, perhaps I am being too... rigid in a realm of grief, mourning, and remembrance.

The iconography of doves in ancient Greece can be tied to Aphrodite. Furthermore, it is not difficult to discern how  symbolism of doves formulate, because it is very similar to their use and iconography today. The dove represents purity, loyalty, love, and perhaps even a innocence. Obviously, these aspect are all due to the dove's white feathers; however, Aphrodite's affiliation with the dove lead it to also have the context of: love, joy, beauty, procreation, and sexuality.  Now, children are not sexual nor have they procreated and perhaps this part of the sad irony (the fact that these girls will never become women, mother, grandmothers, and so on) of using a dove on a young girl's grave stele.

 Grave Stele of a Girl, Plangon
with a doll and goose.


I would like then to argue that birds on stele represent more than mere pets, companions to the underworld, a representation of the soul or "ba,"  or a sad sense of irony. I would attest that a practice in funeral stele, where children are depicted with birds is a customary one. Almost as a metaphoric ( and the cases where children were buried with birds; literal) sacrifice to the chthonic deities involved with the Underworld: Mercury, Pluto, Proserpina, etc. (Hades, Persephone)

The following steles depict both girls with siblings, "mothers" with children (presumably girls who died in childbirth with or not with the child), mothers and slaves.

Marble Grave stele of Mnesagora and Nikochares from Vari, Attica.
420-410 BC.

Funeral Stele Depicting a Mother, Child and Cockerel

Funeral Stele with Child and Seated Woman

Stele of Timarete holding a bird and
 small child reaching out for her.
It is an interesting concept that mothers would be depicted on these funeral stele in a similar manner to "girls." How does one become a "woman" in ancient society; well a woman is a grown female child who has assumed her responsibilities as a mother, wife, and daughter of her polis. But what happens to those women who do not have children? Or can not? Are they forever revered as girls? Do they assume non-reproductive roles for their society? A priestess? A healer? etc.

If one dies in childbirth although married, is one forever considered a girl? It is an interesting term and idea of where boundaries lie in society.

This may be a bit far fetched, but I was reading( somewhere) that birds usually white ones were given by the bride to the groom in wedding ceremonies. It was a testament of the bride's loyalty and sexual purity. Could it then not be taken that these "girls" or females who died in child birth were then buried with stele's depicting a bird as if an offering to Hades or some deceased boy in the underworld; so that in death they could be married and wedded?

Death is an odd and complex idea which no society has any direct doctrine written. There is a sense of family, loss, religion, acceptance, grief, anger, and agglomeration of various emotions and duties that lend it to be a byzantine ritual: burying the dead.


  1. Nice post! Very informative. There is a modern Greek folksong in which a girl dies before being able to marry her would-be husband. She says to her mother at her deathbed: "Tell Constantine to marry another woman, because I am marrying Charon (king of Hades after antiquity)"
    Something like Antigone proclaiming, before she is buried alive, that the cave she is going to be trapped in is her bridal chamber (implying that she will be the bride of Hades himself).

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  2. I have a huge plaster relief wall hanging of Salome holding and leaning over (almost lovingly?) the head of John the Baptist on a platter. I can't find anything about the age or history of the piece. Anyone know where I might go to learn more?

  3. Very interesting; please have a look at this extensive essay on the god Pan


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