8 Aug 2007

Everything you wanted to know about pillars and tombs

When you die, rest be assured that your mourning loved ones, assuming they loved you at all (maybe not), will find some way to honour your now-permanent absence with some sort of funerary rite. They may find or create some sort of container made of some sort of reasonably durable material to tuck your decaying corpse into, unless of course you go for cremation, in which case your ashes might either be yet again poured into some container like an urn, or sprinkled about into the open air, floating upon the open breeze until some unsuspecting woodlands creature (or lumberjack) breathes in your dusty aether, by which act one might sardonically presume your reincarnation process will be jumpstarted.

Speaking of things to deposit a dead body into, "pillar tombs", that is, open tombs purposefully sculpted into the shape of pillars, were an exclusive speciality of ancient Lycians (read here). The tombs are something to behold and stand tall over the landscape. Rather than being placed in a dark and gloomy chamber below, the deceased were more optimistically given a view of the horizon under the watchful eyes of the sun and moon.

Meanwhile in Tarquinia, a late Etruscan grave chamber known as the Tomb of the Typhon was built during Roman rule. Now, if you're gifted enough at detail you might notice something at the center of the tomb. Did you see it? Yes! It's a pillar. You may go, "But so what, Glen? It's just holding up the tomb, right?" Actually, not according to this picture:

There is a strong religious significance to it, for why else would the pillar be enriched with such a beautifully painted winged deity. For that matter, we might ponder on who this deity might be. Is this common pillar symbolism across miles and miles of sea just coincidence or is there a thread of iconography weaved throughout the classical world?

Few Etruscologists seem keen enough so far to respect the importance of extending one's understanding of classical worldview past the overbearing Greek and Roman cosmos and into the realm of Near Eastern religion. Hopefully this is one of many examples to show why we modern readers need to open our minds and shed some of the rhetoric so far published on the subject by narrow-minded specialists.

The pillar symbolism was a derivative of the more ancient World Tree symbolism, which remained intact, for example, in the Norse myth of Yggdrasil, the tree that held up the sky and which was nourished by the primordial waters below. Likewise, this abstractified tree-turned-pillar inherited the same prominent significance in ancient worldview across the Mediterranean. This symbolism is also historically related to phallic imagery and the cults of Hermes. The sacred pillar not only linked the sky with the depths below, but also the world of the living with the world of the dead. And this is precisely what that pillar is doing in that Etruscan tomb.


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