Imagining the Afterlife in the Ancient World

Reddit icon
e-mail icon
Twitter icon
Facebook icon
Google icon
LinkedIn icon
Juliette Harrisson
  • New York, NY: 
    , August
     214 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Imagining the Afterlife in the Ancient World collects ten articles exploring the archaeology, myths, and rituals associated with Greek, Etruscan, and Roman ideas about life after death. Parts 1 and 2 of the book focus on funerary sites and material culture, while parts 3 and 4 are concerned more with textual sources. As editor Juliette Harrisson explains in her engaging introduction, the topics range from conceptions of the soul’s existence after death, to methods of corpse disposal and the meanings behind them, and how the living keep alive the memory of the dead. Harrisson also reviews some methodological concerns, such as the relevance of the concept of “belief” in the Greco-Roman world, the problematic nature of the sources, and the risk of overgeneralizing about what different individuals in a given society actually believed. These concerns are embedded in the book’s title, stressing that the afterlife is not solely a matter of belief, but also of imagination. In other words, people do not necessarily believe what they create or speculate upon. The examples Harrisson chooses to illustrate her points are chosen from letters, inscriptions on monuments, and literary texts, taking in such diverse related subjects as immortality, ghosts, divination, and disbelief.

The collection’s focus on newer scholars not only provides PhD candidates and postdocs with a venue for publication of their research issued by a prestigious publisher, but also ensures that readers are getting some of the most state of the art research in the field.

In her study of 5th century Athenian funerary vessels, Molly Evangeline Allen observes that while details about the Greek underworld are known primarily from descent myths such as those of Odysseus and Orpheus, visual representations of such myths were largely absent. Instead, emphasis was on providing proper burials to ensure that spirits would be integrated into the afterlife, preventing them from having a potentially negative influence upon the living. Such practical concerns were of more immediate relevance than speculating about postmortem fates, and explain why funerary rather than underworld scenes were depicted on the vessels. When mythological themes were present they depicted the soul of the deceased being led by a psychopomp (a spirit guide who assisted the deceased on his or her journey),  again emphasizing concern for the dead to arrive safely in the otherworld. Similar dynamics are explored by Gabriela Inge in relation to funerary dining depictions in Roman tombs which appear to have served various functions, including reassuring the dead that they are being cared for via proper rites and/or a symbolic substitution for those rites.

Isabella Bossolino’s study of netherworld demonology takes an important step towards disentangling the unique identities and functions of the various Etruscan demons, who were previously seen as interchangeable or were conflated into a single entity. Bossolino argues, for example, that both Vanth and Thurms are psychopomps who are responsible for guiding the soul of the deceased on separate stages of the journey, while Culsu is a guardian of the door to the netherworld. Though obviously not the subject of her paper, an interesting methodological question not addressed by Bossolino is why scholarship often assigns these Etruscan figures the status of “demon” while their Greek counterparts such Hermes or Hecate are considered “deities.”

Safari F. Grey’s paper on “Cosmology, Psychopomps, and Afterlife in Homer’s Odyssey” is another highlight of the collection. Grey analyzes general themes of darkness, dream states, and anonymity in relation to the Homeric conceptualizations of death, Hades, and the association between one’s existence and one’s name. Going beyond a simple symbolic reading of the text, Grey offers insightful new interpretations of its underlying meanings, including that the primary role of Hermes was psychopomp rather than messenger, and especially that Odysseus’s journey was essentially a spiritual one “through various forms of death” (115).

Julia Doroszewska and Janek Kucharski reassess the textual evidence for the Greek maschalismos funerary rite, and present a historiographical survey of how that evidence has been (mis)interpreted by scholars. The maschalismos was said to involve severing unspecified “extremities” from the corpse and hanging them around its neck and armpits. The rite has been widely interpreted as having an apotropaic function: to prevent harmful actions from the angry souls of murder victims. Alternatively, it has been seen as an act of vengeful wrath intended to further humiliate the victim. Modern reappraisals, however, have argued that descriptions of the ritual were merely “fanciful musings” of ancient and Byzantine writers. Doroszewska and Kucharski reject the latter and suggest a novel new interpretation, considering the first two possibilities alongside evidence from Greek fashion.

Frances Foster examines Servius’ commentary on descriptions of the afterlife found in Virgil’s Aenid. In doing so, she not only evaluates Servius’ understanding of Virgil, but also demonstrates how the commentary reveals which elements of the text would have been most relevant to readers of late antiquity. In particular, she examines how multicultural, multireligious students were taught about this highly detailed, “iconic and ambiguous” afterlife text.

The interdisciplinary approach of many of the articles is also to be commended. Josipa Lulíc enlists cognitive anthropology and art history in her iconographical study of representations of Mercury as psychopomp on Roman funerary reliefs. Nick Brown draws heavily on literary theory to explore the interaction of text and representation on Archaic Greek grave monuments. Stephanie Crooks views the motif of Daphnis’ tomb in Virgil’s 5th Eclogue through the lens of French sociologist-philosopher Pierre Bourdieu, demonstrating its socio-cultural situation in the wider context of 1st century BCE Rome. Harrisson’s own contribution uses the folklore of contemporary online ghost stories as a hermeneutic tool for comparison with poetry involving ghosts in Propertius. Rather than comparing content, however, she is concerned with the presentation of such narratives as truthful in relation to how they are received; though she also adopts methodology from folklore studies to examine motifs in Propertius in the wider context of Greek and Roman ghost lore and ritual.

The regional boundaries of the collection means that the title is something of a misnomer, for readers will not find contributions on ancient Egypt or Mesopotamia, for example. Although the selections are situated in classical studies and some contributions include linguistic discussions and other specialist material that will be alien to the non-classicist, Greek and Roman passages are translated and terms defined. Harrisson’s introduction is also helpful in setting the stage for Classicists and non-Classicists alike. Readers from the study of religions, archaeology, history, and other disciplines will find much of interest in this collection.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Gregory Shushan is the author of Conceptions of the Afterlife in Early Civilizations, and Near-Death Experience in Indigenous Religions, and is Research Fellow at the Religious Experience Research Centre at the University of Wales, Trinity St. David.

Date of Review: 
February 3, 2020
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Juliette Harrisson is Senior Lecturer in Ancient History at Newman University in Birmingham. Her primary research interests lie in Roman period myth and religion, and in the reception of ancient Greece and Rome in modern popular culture, especially film, television and novels. Her monograph, Dreams and Dreaming in the Roman Empire: Cultural Memory and Imagination was published in 2013, and she is also the co-editor of Memory and Urban Religion in the Ancient World (with Martin Bommas and Phoebe Roy).


Reading Religion welcomes comments from AAR members, and you may leave a comment below by logging in with your AAR Member ID and password. Please read our policy on commenting.