Common Points in Burial Customs

of the Hittites and Homeric Rituals

Among the tablets from Boghazkoy are a number of fragments of a series describing the funerary ritual of a king or a queen. The ceremonial lasted for no less than thirteen days possibly longer, but the disposal of the body was probably completed in the first two days, and for the second day a well-preserved text was discovered in the excavations of 1936.

This text clearly implies that during the preceding day or night the body had been cremated, and indeed the fragment of the text for the first day refers to 'fire' and 'burning'. The text for the second day continues as follows:

        On the second day as soon as it is light the women go [to] the pyre to collect the bones; they extinguish the      fire with ten jugs of beer, ten [jugs of wine], and ten jugs of walhi.
        A silver jar of half a mina and twenty shekels' weight is filled with fine oil. They take up the bones with silver tongs and put them into the fine oil in the silver jar, then they take them out of the fine oil and lay them on a linen gazarnulli, under which lies a 'fine garment'.
        Now when they have finished collecting the bones, they wrap them up together with the linen cloth in the 'fine garment' and place them on a chair; but if it is a woman, they place them on a stool.
        Around the site of the pyre where the body is burnt they put twelve loaves, and on the loaves they put a tallow cake. The fire has already been quenched with beer and wine. Before the chair on which the bones are lying they place a table and they offer hot loaves,... loaves and sweet loaves for breaking. The cooks and 'tablemen' set the dishes at the first opportunity and at the first opportunity they take them up. And to all who have come to collect the bones they offer food to eat. Then they give them three times to drink and even three times they give his soul to drink. There are no loaves or musical instruments of Ishtar.

There follow some magical operations performed by the 'Old Woman' and her 'companion', but these are obscure and difficult to follow on account of the bad state of the tablet at this point. Afterwards the text continues as follows:

        [Now] two oxen and two lots of nine sheep have (meanwhile) been brought from the palace. One [ox and nine sheep] they sacrifice to the Sun-goddess [of Earth], but one ox and nine sheep (they sacrifice) [to the soul of] the deceased. [Then] thay take up the bones and [carry them away] from the ukturi and bring them into his 'stone-house'. In the 'stone-house' in the inner chamber they lay out a bed, take the bones from the chair and lay them on the bed; a lamp [... and?...of...] shekels in weight with fine oil they place in front of the bones; then they sacrifice an ox and a sheep to the soul of the deceased.

The rest of the tablet is fragmentary, and the text for the following days is lost. The texts for the eight, twelfth, and thirteenth days appear to be concerned with rituals and sacrifices of a general nature. 

The interest of this matter is enhanced when we compare the ceremony described above with the funerals of Patroclus and Hector in the Iliad XXIII.223-61 and XXIV.782 to end:

But they that were with the son of Atreus gathered in a throng and the noise and din of their oncoming aroused him (Achilles); and he sat upright and spoke to them saying, 'Son of Atreus and ye other princes of the hosts of Achaia, first quench ye with flaming wine the burning pyre, even all whereon the might of the fire hath come, and thereafter let us gather the bones of Patroclus, Menoitius' son, singling them out well from the rest; and easy they are to discern, for he lay in the midst of the pyre, while the others burned apart on the edges thereof, horses and men mingled together. Then let us place the bones in a golden urn wrapped in a double layer of fat, until such time as I myself be hidden in Hades. Howbeit no huge barrow do I bid you rear with toil for him, but such a one only as beseemeth ye that shall be left amid the benched ships when I am gone.’ So spake he, and they hearkened to the swift-footed son of Peleus. First they quenched with flaming wine the pyre, so far as the flame had come upon it and the ash had settled deep; and with weeping they gathered up the bones of their gentle comrade into a golden urn, and wrapped them in a double layer of fat, and placing the urn in the hut they covered it with a soft linen cloth. Then they traced the compass of the barrow and set forth the foundations thereof round about the pyre, and forthwith they piled the up-piled earth. And when they had piled the barrow they set them to go back again. But Achilles stayed the folk even where they were, and made them sit in a wide gathering; and from his ships he brought forth prizes, cauldrons and tripods and horses and mules and strong oxen and fair-girdled women and grey iron.
So spake he, and they yoked oxen and mules to wagons, and speedily thereafter gathered together before the city. For nine days' space they brought in measureless store of wood, but when the tenth dawn arose, giving light unto mortals, then bare they forth bold Hector, shedding tears the while, and on the topmost pyre they laid the dead man and cast fire thereon. But soon as early dawn appeared, the rosy-fingered, then gathered the folk about the pyre of glorious Hector. And when they were assembled and met together, first they quenched with flaming wine all the pyre, so far as the fire's might had come upon it, and thereafter his brethren and his comrades gathered the white bones, mourning, and big tears flowed ever down their cheeks. The bones they took and in a golden urn, covering them over with soft purple robes, and quickly laid the urn in a hollow grave, and covered it over with great close-set stones.Then with speed heaped they the mound, and round about were watchers set on every side, lest the well-greaved Achaeans should set upon them before the time. And when they had piled the barrow they went back, and gathering together duly feasted a glorious feast in the palace of Priam, the king fostered of Zeus.

The Hittite and Homeric rituals have the following points in common: 

  1. the body is burnt;

  2. the pyre is quenched with potable liquids;

  3. the bones are dipped or wrapped in oil or fat;

  4. the bones are wrapped in a linen cloth and a fine garment;

  5. they are placed in a stone chamber (this does not apply to the funeral of Patroclus)

  6. there is a feast.

On the other hand, they differ in the following respects:

  1. the Homeric warriors place the bones, wrapped in fat in a golden urn, which is not mentioned in the Hittite ritual;

  2. in the Hittite ritual the bones are placed on a chair or a stool;

  3. the Hittite 'stone-house' is apparently complete in itself, whereas the Homeric warriors raise a barrow over the grave;

  4. the magical operations are peculiar to the Hittite ceremony, the athletic games to the Homeric.

At Boghazkoy and at Alishar numerous inhumations were found by the excavators, the body being laid either in a pair of large pots (pithoi) placed mouth to mouth, or simply in an earth grave; at Boghazkoy the earth graves were usually in the houses themselves. Cremation of the dead has commonly been regarded as a characteristic practice of Indo-Europeans, and since the ritual outlined above is a royal ritual, it was natural to suppose that the Hittite aristocracy had introduced this practice into a country that had been accustomed to inhumation. However, this simple assumption cannot be sustained. In the first place it appears that the kings of the Hittite Old Kingdom DID NOT practice CREMATION, for the oration of Hattusilis I closes with an instruction to his wife:

        Wash my body, as is seemly; hold me in your bosom, and at your bosom bury me in the earth.

Conversely, in recent years it has been found that at Boghazkoy, in rocky outcrops outside the city, and at several other sites in central and south-eastern Anatolia, cremation and inhumation had been practiced concurrently at least from the Early Bronze Age - the time of the Assyrian colonies and Anittas. It is at present impossible to judge whether this was the result of a mingling of peoples with different beliefs about death and the afterlife, but at least it can be said that the area in which the conjunction of these different customs is attested is hardly the direction from which the Indo-Europeans might be supposed to have entered the country. In the north-west at Troy there is abundant evidence for cremation, but not before the sixth city, which was contemporary with the Hittite Empire. It may then have been from this direction and at this time that the elaborate cremation ritual, with its striking resemblance to that of the Homeric heroes, reached the Hittites.

Panche Hadzi-Andonov , AAI
 Copyright 2000 

All rights reserved.
Revised: September 07, 2000