Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Phoenician Burial Rites

In this article, I will be looking at the burial rituals and practices of the Phoenicians. I chose this culture specifically to learn more about it as it is an enigmatic and mysterious culture, and kings, like Hiram I, play a role in the legend of the Masonic fraternity. First I will define certain terms then I will give an introduction of the Phoenician people, the Phoenician religion, an introduction into funerary rituals and practices, early burial rites and practices of the Phoenicians, evolution of these rituals and practices, foreign influence on the Phoenicians, and placement of the cemeteries.

In this article, several terms and phrases will be used such as funerary rites and/or mortuary rites. To make all things clear, I will define specific terms. Rite is defined as “a ceremonial act or action.” Rites are often planned sets of activities that bring together aspects of an organization or culture in a single event. Rituals are repeated communication performances during a rite or ceremony that communicates a particular value or role definition. There are a variety of rituals: personal rituals, societal rituals such as burial rituals, and task rituals (weekly staff meetings). A ceremony is a “formal act or event that is a part of a social or religious occasion.” Burial Rite is defined as “any of the ceremonial acts or customs employed at the time of death and burial.” This is also synonymous with the word 'funeral' which is a ceremony connected with the burial or cremation of the dead. There are two types of ways to deal with the dead, either inhumation or cremation. Inhumation is defined as to bury, inter, or place in a grave/tomb. Cremation is to reduce a body to ashes by burning or incineration.

When researching Phoenician burial rituals, there is an issue with the sources. The most notable sources from ancient times are Philo of Byblos, Eusebius of Caesarea, and Porphyry of Tyre, but these sources lived long after the early burial rituals and each seems to be discounted by most scholars for a variety of reasons. Philo’s accuracy has been called into question. Porphyry’s writings are now just fragments maintained in works of others and while from the city-state of Tyre, he never referred to himself as Phoenician and held a negative view of the culture. Eusebius seemed to hold a negative view of the Phoenicians as he was Christian and saw their culture as pagan and heretical. Even the Bible which talks about the Canaanites and Phoenicians was less concerned about the particulars of their ritual and more focused upon the fact that they did not consider Phoenician rituals as proper worship. With insufficient primary texts, scholars and researchers have had to use archaeological evidence to reconstruct Phoenician culture.

The Phoenicians were an ancient civilization that emerged sometime between the 16th and 13th centuries BCE on the coast of the Levant. Scholars now view Phoenicians as descendants of Bronze Age Canaanites who gained independence with the decline of Egyptian influence in the region around 1200 BCE. The mainland boundaries ranging from northern modern-day Israel into southern Syria with the Lebanon Mountain range as its eastern border. Their major cities were Tyre, Sidon, Byblos, and Arwad. Phoenicia appears to have been a confederacy of city-states in which each city has its own ruler, but retaining cultural ties such as their religion. The Phoenicians became a maritime power in the Mediterranean and soon Phoenician traders began to expand their trade. In turn, this expansion led to the establishment of colonies around the Mediterranean such as Carthage, and as far west as Spain. They traded first with wood, metals, salves, wine, and glass, but one of the trades it was known for, was its rare purple dyes which were used primarily by royalty as it was so costly. It was the purple dye that gave the Phoenicians their name as Phoenician means "purple people," originating from the Greek word "phoinios" meaning "purple."

Eventually, the Phoenicians would eventually be conquered by the Persians and divided into four vassal kingdoms. Under Persian control, the Phoenicians still flourished, but this ended, around the 4th century BCE, when Alexander the Great sought to control the naval bases along the eastern Mediterranean coast. Even under the Persians, Phoenicia was a confederacy of city-states and each city resisted Alexander in their own way: Arwad, Sidon, and Byblos surrendered without putting up a fight, but Tyre does not. Alexander the Great attempted to lay siege, but was originally unsuccessful as Tyre was a well-fortified island city-state. He had to destroy Ushu, a town on the mainland that supplied Tyre, to build a causeway to the island was he enabled to bring siege engines and scale the walls of Tyre. He was brutal to the people of Tyre; he executed many of the males who were of age to serve in the military, sold thousands to slavery, and razed the city to the ground. This brutality stems from the Tyrians killing an ambassador that Alexander has sent to them asking for a peace treaty. Soon Greek influence is seen intruding into the Phoenician culture and would not regain independence until the 3rd century CE, but never regained the prominence it once had.

When discussing the Phoenician religion, one must be cautious because, as Richard J. Clifford states, the primary source material is “seriously deficient.” Helen Dixon states that the “Phoenician religion is presented as simply impossible to know given the current state of evidence.” It is complicated to fully understand this religion as sometimes it is seen as a unified religion and at other times as a confederacy with city-gods and the appearance of a pantheon that extends throughout the region; usually, the triad of this pantheon is the main city-god with a fertility goddess and a “rising god.” Things are further complicated as the names of gods could also be used as a title or share the name of the city. Death played a major role in the Phoenician religion as they sought to appease their ancestors and the gods by performing rituals that would send the soul to the afterlife there to be reunited with its ancestors in the underworld.

Figure 1
Funerary rituals and practices are an important aspect of any culture. While they serve a religious function, that of properly sending the deceased’s soul into the afterlife, it also serves a social and psychological function, whereby society can further build a communal memory and create a strengthened memory between the living and the dead. Through funerary rituals, one may express their feelings of the deceased, often in a way that is consistent with cultural and religious values; provides support for the living; and helps the living acknowledge the reality of death. This holds true to the Phoenicians who saw it was their duty to properly bury their dead and ensure they were not disturbed thereafter. The study of Phoenician funerary rites and practices also helps with understanding the “boundaries of the Phoenician homeland, markers of ethnicity in this territory, and our understanding of the Phoenician religious practice.”

The earliest evidence of Phoenician burial rituals dates back to around the 13th century and the rituals surrounding the preparation and burial varied according to the region and the deceased’s social status. They employed both inhumation and cremation, but there is no evidence that anyone in the upper class was ever cremated; that appears to have been used by the lower class and then possibly only to save space or due to a lack of time such as in warfare. The archaeological evidence shows that the upper class (royal, noble, and aristocratic families/individuals) were often embalmed then buried in a sarcophagus while lower classes used partial cremation and stored the remains in vessels such as jars or amphora (see Figure 1). Some tombs contained just an individual and some excavated tombs are found with hundreds of bodies buried in them. The youngest individuals found buried are said to have been between 12 and 14-years of age; young children and infants it is reported were found to be buried beneath the floor of the house.

Figure 2
With the use of sarcophagus, they may be plain or ornate (See Figure 2). The ornate ones would have relief sculptures or carved motifs on the sides and lid, and/or include inscriptions that cursed those who dared disturb the tomb. In these early tombs, there would also be found bracelets, pins, necklaces, and various vessels such as jars, amphora, and bowels. Once the tomb was sealed, for those who could afford it, there would be a stele (an upright stone slab or column) placed atop the tomb to serve as a grave marker and identify who was in that particular tomb.

For lower classes, there were a variety of ways observed in how they buried their dead. In the case of inhumation, the poor would only use very plain coffins (made of wood instead of stone). Jars and possession would be left around the coffin. In the case of cremation, some tombs contained two jars for a person where one jar held the ashes and the other contained the charred bones as well as the possessions of the deceased.

With the expansion of other cultures and/or empires such as the Roman and Greek, there appear to be some changes in burial rites. Some notices are that a lot of emphasis on the legacy of the king is placed on inscriptions, whether on the stele or tomb itself. Many royal tombs seem to get more lavish, but there is nothing to suggest that this didn’t happen earlier and that the evidence is missing or destroyed. It could also suggest outside influence on the funerary rites from cultures around the Phoenicians. Both are plausible, particularly the latter since the Phoenicians were a maritime power who had traveled and colonized throughout the Mediterranean and elsewhere. One example of outside influence is seen with the use of ankhs similar to those seen in Egyptian funerary rites.

The Phoenicians often placed their cemeteries away from the city in distance or used natural barriers such as rivers to divide the living from the dead. In the case of the island settlement of Tyre, the cemetery was placed on the mainland adjacent to the island.

In conclusion, we see a culture that saw the importance of burying and caring for the deceased, but we see differences in how the deceased were buried according to their social status. We see that they view the need to properly treat the dead and prepare them for the afterlife, regardless of their social status. In this article, I defined specific terms to assist in understanding the subject of Phoenician funerary rites. We looked at the Phoenicians and their religion, mortuary rites, and practices practiced by them as shown from existing archaeological evidence, some influences by neighboring cultures, and the placement of the cemeteries. From the evidence available we don’t see a typical burial practice completely uniform across the entire Phoenician culture, but this could be due to it being a decentralized culture. Ancient texts are hard to place a value on and have been scrutinized, but cannot be wholly dismissed. They must be used in conjunction with inscriptions and other archaeological evidence. The classical texts on the Phoenicians is an article unto itself as modern scholars are hesitant in taking them literally since many of them held hostile views of the Phoenicians and the writings are best described as terse.


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3. Clifford, Richard J. “Phoenician Religion.” Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research 279 (1990): 55-64. 

4. Department of Ancient Near Eastern Art. “The Phoenicians (1500-300 B.C.).” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2004. 

5. Dixon, Helen M., “Phoenician Mortuary Practice in the Iron Age I-III.” PhD diss., University of Michigan, 2013. 

6. Emery, Katy M. “Not Quite Burned, Not Quite Buried.” Bones Don’t Lie. 

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8. Merriam-Webster Dictionary. “Rite.” Last Accessed on December 13, 2014. 

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10. Merriam-Webster Dictionary. “Cremate.” Last Accessed on December 13, 2014. 

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12. Reference Dictionary. “Burial Rite.” Last Accessed on December 13, 2014. 

13. Reference Dictionary. “Inhumation.” Last Accessed on December 13, 2014. 

14. The Free Dictionary. “Cremation.” Last Accessed on December 13, 2014. 

15. The Free Dictionary. “Funeral.” Last Accessed on December 13, 2014. 

16. The Free Dictionary. “Inhumation.” Last Accessed on December 13, 2014. 

17. TimeMaps. “Civilization: Phoenicians.” Last Accessed on November 30, 2014. 

18. Wolfelt, Alan D. “Why Is the Funeral Ritual Important?” Center for Loss & Life Transition. Last Accessed on November 30, 2014.

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