Skip to content Skip to navigation

Lesbian Historic Motif Project: #75 Younger 2002 “Women in Relief: ‘Double Consciousness’ in Classical Attic Tombstones”

Full citation: 

Younger, John G. “Women in Relief: ‘Double Consciousness’ in Classical Attic Tombstones” in Rabinowitz, Nancy Sorkin & Lisa Auanger eds. 2002. Among Women: From the Homosocial to the Homoerotic in the Ancient World. University of Texas Press, Austin. ISBN 0-29-77113-4

Publication summary: 

A collection of papers covering classical Greece

Younger, John G. “Women in Relief: ‘Double Consciousness’ in Classical Attic Tombstones”

The self-conscious deliberateness of art can mislead the researcher who is looking for “casual snapshots” of life and relationships. But that deliberation makes it all the more significant when unexpected bonds between individuals are portrayed. Funerary memorials were and important (and expensive) statement regarding the relationships between the deceased and those who erected the monument. When the relationships portrayed are not the expected ones of marriage or immediate family, it is reasonable to conclude that they were both publicly acknowledged and valued, whatever the specifics of those relationships may have been.

* * *

Although honoring the dead was a duty of Athenian citizens (i.e., men), the rituals of mourning and the work of tending to graves largely belonged to women. And an analysis of tombstones from the most important cemetery of 5-4th century Athens shows that women were more commonly featured on memorial carvings as well. Carved tomb markers frequently depict two or more figures: the deceased and persons who presumably were important in their life or who wished to be depicted as mourners. Details of the relative positions and interactions of the figures communicate information about their relationships, in addition to the information supplied by inscriptions. For example, clasped hands indicate a close family relationship such as spouse, parent, or sibling.

Within this context, we can identify tomb markers where the primary mourner of a deceased woman is another woman who does not have any indications of being an immediate family member. This is, at the very least, an indication that there were Athenian women of this era whose most important survivor was an unrelated (in the familiar sense) woman. The following is an example of this type:

Two women are depicted, standing facing each other but not clasping hands; both are named (and not related); there is an inscription, “Her companions crown this tomb of Anthemis with a wreath in their remembrance of her virtue and friendship.” (Praise of this sort for the deceased is often attributed specifically to a spouse or parents.)

Three markers share a similar layout: a woman stands on the left with her hand raised in a speaking gesture while another woman is seated to the right (by convention the seated woman is the deceased). There is no indication of a family relationship between them, or in some cases both are named and the names indicate no connection. In two other memorials with similar (non)-relatives, the two women are embracing. The most suggestive of the type, though from Thessaly rather than Athens, portrays two women facing each other with hand gestures that are associated with homosexual courtship when men are portrayed using them. The women offer each other flowers, generally accepted as a symbol of desire or good intentions in art of this era.

Whatever the exact nature of the relationships between these deceased women and their female mourners, there are indications of strong same-sex social (rather than familial) bonds that were significant enough to be memorialized.


Add new comment