Guarding tombs, leading souls. Apotropaic and divine figures in the necropoleis of the Hellenistic and Roman Near East
Bilal Annan, 2021-06-24
The welfare of the dead has been a primordial concern for mankind since time immemorial and, in the ancient world, communities resorted to a number of symbolic devices and ritual practices to ensure the appeasing of the dead and their prosperity in the hereafter. This religious apparatus found an adequate expression in funerary iconography, as one encounters, in the Greek world, painted on the walls of hypogea or carved on tomb façades, stelai and sarcophagi, a number of apotropaic figures (such as Cerberus, Gorgoneia, sphinxes, lions or snakes) that were invested with the protection of the tomb and the deterrence of looters. Specific deities and heroic figures, entrusted with the soul’s successful journey to the Underworld, such as Hermes or the Dioscuri, also featured prominently in the ornamentation of tombs.
This paper aims to discuss the occurrences and significance of such figures in the necropoleis of the Hellenistic and Roman Near East (Phoenicia, Syria, Palestine and Arabia). The investigation of this repertoire, which migrated from the Greek world to the Near East with the advent of Graeco-Macedonian rule, is particularly interesting in that it bears testimony to cultural encounters and to processes of religious syncretism – the Gorgoneion and the Dioscuri, for instance, overlapped with their equivalents in indigenous mythologies and pantheons. Yet ample epigraphic evidence, particularly in Late Antique contexts, attests to legal provisions (threat of fines, explicit titles of property) being taken against looting and the expropriation of tombs, thus questioning this apotropaic bestiary’s perceived efficiency and, ultimately, its raison d’être.