Passages describing the funeral pyres of the Achaean and Trojan warriors in Homeric epics are our primary literary sources for cremation as a funerary rite in ancient Greece. More specifically, the funerals of Patroclus and Hector in the Iliad, and Achilles and Elpenor in the Odyssey add considerable information to our understanding of cremation, fire rituals, and the passage of the soul. On the other hand, interpreting these passages in terms of their religious implications has proven difficult.
Approaching this question solely from a philological point of view can be misleading. While Homer describes certain stages of cremation funerals in considerable detail, a multidisciplinary approach embracing archaeology, anthropology, and forensic science should be adopted to investigate the purpose and function behind these rituals. To this end, this paper will call upon archaeological evidence from cremation sites and cemeteries, as well as an anthropological analysis of cremated human remains. Special consideration will be given to the relationship between pragmatic and religious concerns behind the use of fire in funerals. How important, for instance, was the duration of the fire or the degree of cremation as far as Greek religious beliefs were concerned? In his treatise on the funerary practices of the Iliad, Mylonas (1962: 481) argues that “the sinews and flesh were believed to tie the psyche to the world of the living and to prevent its admission to the circle of phantoms; …. the bones had no significance after they were deprived of the flesh and sinews which covered them.” This approach suggests that the consumption of the flesh, not the bones, was the ultimate goal of cremation. Modern anthropological studies on cremated human remains, however, show that the fire was allowed to continue well after the flesh had burned away. Evidence from archaeological contexts indicates that the Greeks indeed achieved temperatures in excess of 800°C. Experiments regarding the color of burnt bone in relation to the duration of the fire revealed that the calcination of bone can only be achieved through sustained high temperatures (Byers, 2002: 364).
Further Homeric references this paper will discuss are (1) the treatment of the body with unguents prior to cremation, (2) animal sacrifices during the funeral and the placement of the carcasses on the pyre, (3) the use of liquids (wine, honey, olive oil, etc.), and (4) the condition and treatment of the bones after cremation. Were these steps purely religious, connecting the funerary pyre to the original Olympian sacrifice, or purely pragmatic, aiming to expedite the cremation of the body through the addition of flammable substances? Or can this be a case of compromise between religion and practicality?