- Bonnie Effros
- Caring for Body and Soul: Burial and the Afterlife in the Merovingian World
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Swedish folklore documents the custom from the 18th into the 20th century.
So-called "ghost coins" also appear with the dead. These are impressions of an actual coin or numismatic icon struck into a small piece of gold foil. In a marble cremation box from the mid-2nd century BC, the "Charon's piece" took the form of a bit of gold foil stamped with an owl; in addition to the charred bone fragments, the box also contained gold leaves from a wreath of the type sometimes associated with the mystery religions. These examples of the "Charon's piece" resemble in material and size the tiny inscribed tablet or funerary amulet called a lamella Latin for a metal-foil sheet or a Totenpass , a "passport for the dead" with instructions on navigating the afterlife, conventionally regarded as a form of Orphic or Dionysiac devotional.
A functional equivalence with the Charon's piece is further suggested by the evidence of flattened coins used as mouth coverings epistomia from graves in Crete.
In a late Roman-era burial in Douris , near Baalbek , Lebanon , the forehead, nose, and mouth of the deceased — a woman, in so far as skeletal remains can indicate — were covered with sheets of gold-leaf. She wore a wreath made from gold oak leaves, and her clothing had been sewn with gold-leaf ovals decorated with female faces.
Prudentius says that auri lammina "sheets of gold" were placed on the bodies of initiates as part of funeral rites. In Gaul and in Alemannic territory, Christian graves of the Merovingian period reveal an analogous Christianized practice in the form of gold or gold-alloy leaf shaped like a cross,  imprinted with designs, and deposited possibly as votives or amulets for the deceased. These paper-thin, fragile gold crosses are sometimes referred to by scholars with the German term Goldblattkreuze.
The crosses are characteristic of Lombardic Italy  Cisalpine Gaul of the Roman imperial era , where they were fastened to veils and placed over the deceased's mouth in a continuation of Byzantine practice. Throughout the Lombardic realm and north into Germanic territory, the crosses gradually replaced bracteates during the 7th century.
These begin to appear in the late Iron Age and continue into the Viking Age. In form they resemble the gold-foil pieces such as those found at Douris, but the gullgubber were not fashioned with a fastening element and are not associated with burials. They occur in the archaeological record sometimes singly, but most often in large numbers. Some scholars have speculated that they are a form of "temple money" or votive offering,  but Sharon Ratke has suggested that they might represent good wishes for travelers, perhaps as a metaphor for the dead on their journey to the otherworld,  especially those depicting " wraiths.
Franz Cumont regarded the numerous examples found in Roman tombs as "evidence of no more than a traditional rite which men performed without attaching a definite meaning to it. The numerous chthonic deities among the Romans were also frequently associated with wealth. In his treatise On the Nature of the Gods , Cicero identifies the Roman god Dis Pater with the Greek Pluton,  explaining that riches are hidden in and arise from the earth.
The Republican poet Ennius locates the "treasuries of Death" across the Acheron. Chthonic wealth is sometimes attributed to the Celtic horned god of the Cernunnos type,  one of the deities proposed as the divine progenitor of the Gauls that Julius Caesar identified with Dis Pater.
The antler-horned god appears on coins from Gaul and Britain, in explicit association with wealth. From its 7th-century BC beginnings in western Anatolia , ancient coinage was viewed not as distinctly secular, but as a form of communal trust bound up in the ties expressed by religion. The earliest known coin-hoard from antiquity was found buried in a pot within the foundations of the Temple of Artemis at Ephesus , dating to the mid-6th century BC. The iconography of gods and various divine beings appeared regularly on coins issued by Greek cities and later by Rome.
Caring for Body and Soul: Burial and the Afterlife in the Merovingian World
Erwin Rohde argued, on the basis of later folk customs, that the obol was originally a payment to the dead person himself, as a way of compensating him for the loss of property that passed to the living, or as a token substitute for the more ancient practice of consigning his property to the grave with him. In Rohde's view, the obol was later attached to the myth of the ferryman as an ex post facto explanation.
In the view of Richard Seaford , the introduction of coinage to Greece and the theorizing about value it provoked was concomitant with and even contributed to the creation of Greek metaphysics. Attempts to explain the symbolism of the rite also must negotiate the illogical placement of the coin in the mouth. This dichotomy of food for the living and gold for the dead is a theme in the myth of King Midas , versions of which draw on elements of the Dionysian mysteries.
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The Phrygian king's famous "golden touch" was a divine gift from Dionysus, but its acceptance separated him from the human world of nourishment and reproduction: both his food and his daughter were transformed by contact with him into immutable, unreciprocal gold. In some versions of the myth, Midas's hard-won insight into the meaning of life and the limitations of earthly wealth is accompanied by conversion to the cult of Dionysus. Having learned his lessons as an initiate into the mysteries, and after ritual immersion in the river Pactolus , Midas forsakes the "bogus eternity" of gold for spiritual rebirth.
John Cuthbert Lawson, an early 20th-century folklorist whose approach was influenced by the Cambridge Ritualists , argued that both the food metaphor and the coin as payment for the ferryman were later rationalizations of the original ritual. Although single coins from inhumations appear most often inside or in the vicinity of the skull, they are also found in the hand or a pouch, a more logical place to carry a payment. The placement of the coin on the mouth can be compared to practices pertaining to the disposition of the dead in the Near East.
An Egyptian custom is indicated by a burial at Abydos , dating from the 22nd Dynasty — BC or later, for which the deceased woman's mouth was covered with a faience uadjet , or protective eye amulet. Bahraini excavations at the necropolis of Al-Hajjar produced examples of these coverings in gold leaf, one of which retained labial imprints.
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The seal may also serve to regulate the speech of the dead, which was sometimes sought through rituals for its prophetic powers, but also highly regulated as dangerous; mystery religions that offered arcane knowledge of the afterlife prescribed ritual silence. Before embarking on her descent , Psyche receives instructions for navigating the underworld :. And yet "the image of the ferry," Helen King notes, "hints that death is not final, but can be reversed, because the ferryman could carry his passengers either way.
Contrary to popular etiology there is little evidence to connect the myth of Charon to the custom of placing a pair of coins on the eyes of the deceased, though the larger gold-foil coverings discussed above might include pieces shaped for the eyes. Only rarely does the placement of a pair of coins suggest they might have covered the eyes.
In Judea , a pair of silver denarii were found in the eye sockets of a skull; the burial dated to the 2nd century A. Jewish ritual in antiquity did not require that the eye be sealed by an object, and it is debatable whether the custom of placing coins on the eyes of the dead was practiced among Jews prior to the modern era. John Chrysostom mentions and disparages the use of coins depicting Alexander the Great as amulets attached by the living to the head or feet, and offers the Christian cross as a more powerful alternative for both salvation and healing:.
With instructions that recall those received by Psyche for her heroic descent, or the inscribed Totenpass for initiates, the Christian protagonist of a 14th-century French pilgrimage narrative is advised:. Anglo-Saxon and early—medieval Irish missionaries took the idea of a viaticum literally, carrying the Eucharistic bread and oil with them everywhere.
Peter's Chains. The hunt is also associated with the administering of a herbal viaticum in the medieval chansons de geste , in which traditional heroic culture and Christian values interpenetrate. The chansons offer multiple examples of grass or foliage substituted as a viaticum when a warrior or knight meets his violent end outside the Christian community.
Sarah Kay views this substitute rite as communion with the Girardian "primitive sacred," speculating that "pagan" beliefs lurk beneath a Christian veneer. In Garin le Loheren , Begon is similarly assassinated next to the corpse of a boar, and takes communion with three blades of grass. In one spell attributed to Pitys the Thessalian, the practitioner is instructed to inscribe a flax leaf with magic words and to insert it into the mouth of a dead person.
The insertion of herbs into the mouth of the dead, with a promise of resurrection, occurs also in the Irish tale "The Kern in the Narrow Stripes," the earliest written version of which dates to the s but is thought to preserve an oral tradition of early Irish myth. In one miraculous story, recounted by Pope Innocent III in a letter dated , the coins in a moneybox were said literally to have been transformed into communion wafers. Among Christians, the practice of burying a corpse with a coin in its mouth was never widespread enough to warrant condemnation from the Church, but the substitute rite came under official scrutiny;  the viaticum should not be, but often was, placed in the mouth after death, apparently out of a superstitious desire for its magical protection.
Ideally, the journey into death would begin immediately after taking the sacrament. Ambrose , who received and swallowed the corpus Domini and immediately "gave up his spirit, taking the good Viaticum with him. His soul, thus refreshed by the virtue of that food, now enjoys the company of Angels. Paul refers in a letter to the Corinthians.
Although Charon has been a popular subject of art,  particularly in the 19th century, the act of payment is less often depicted. Close Figure Viewer.
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Browse All Figures Return to Figure. Previous Figure Next Figure. Email or Customer ID. Forgot password? Old Password. New Password. Password Changed Successfully Your password has been changed. I would like to begin by asking you a question that has long interested me: Why did Merovingian kings wear their hair long as a ritual custom? Was it symbolic of male virility and martial prowess on the battlefield?
Indeed, according to Merovingian historians and hagiographers, if one wanted to overthrow a Merovingian king, the act usually necessitated cutting his hair, and indeed tonsuring him like a monk, so that he could no longer legitimately occupy the throne of one of the Frankish kingdoms. In the last decade or so, however, some scholars have questioned our reliance on this image of Merovingian kings, since it seems to suggest that the Franks had not fully embraced Christianity even by the late sixth century CE.
Rather than being seen as a source of magical or pre-Christian power, as some Carolingian authors suggested, long hair, which had a role in Judeo-Christian tradition as well think Samson! JW: Much of your research involving the Merovingians has pertained to mortuary archaeology. This is a challenging area of inquiry as it requires you to blend history with archaeology, and anthropology with art history. What can mortuary archaeology tell us about the history of the Frankish kingdoms, once we strip away centuries of Carolingian propaganda, modern nationalism, and centuries of significant social change?
BE: One of the challenges offered by mortuary archaeology is that we rarely find burials in connection with the grave markers that might have once existed to identify the occupants of particular sepulchers. Thus, for nearly two centuries, archaeologists have wrestled with the question of how to read the contents of early medieval graves, which were not arranged by chance as in the case of the dead from a natural disaster, such as at Pompeii but by survivors.
The first point, then, to keep in mind is that graves are not mirrors of the lives of those buried within them but rather of the social relationships held by that individual to family, supporters, and other interested parties. Second, we should keep in mind that the most frequent tendency on the part of archaeologists, especially in the 19th century CE, an epoch of modern nation building, was to think foremost about the ethnicity of the dead. When graves were uncovered by engineers or agricultural workers, whether during the building of railroads or the planting of vineyards, the first question often posed by those involved was whose body they had found.
They raised the question of whether the deceased were possibly Franks or Romans or Burgundians, something they thought might be determined by the kinds of artifacts found with the dead. Typically, weaponry was seen as a sign of a Germanic burial whereas the lack of weaponry might be a Roman. Today, similar efforts are launched with the assistance of DNA studies of the skeletal remains in these same graves.
The difficulty, of course, in pursuing this line of inquiry is that it assumes that ethnicity was something biological and fixed, rather than being one of an assortment of identities expressed by every individual over the course of his or her lifetime; some of these facets of identity, like ethnicity, may have been mutable depending upon the circumstances. We thus need to avoid the type of questioning that brings with it many implicit assumptions not just about early medieval graves but early medieval society more generally.
These specific concerns likely reflect the concerns of 19th century CE historians more than they do the inhabitants of early medieval society. Finally, to come back to your question, I would argue that mortuary archaeology does not offer evidence particularly well suited to understanding the nature of entities as large and as amorphous as early medieval kingdoms. Rather, graves provide us with evidence better suited to revealing intimate details about individuals and the communities to which they belonged.
If a family had access to wealth, they might want to bury a loved one in a manner that reflected status or connections.
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If it was a much cherished child who died, parents might want to lay their infant to rest with his or her favorite possessions or in a place they thought would keep him or her protected after death. Our job is to try to sort out the significance of the remaining symbols with the recognition that we may not understand all of the circumstances that these items and rituals reflected. Effros, you have also conducted extensive research into the social significance of Merovingian burial rites.
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However, these practices eventually gave way to Roman Catholic Masses and prayers for the dead, which were performed by members of the clergy at churches. Why did this shift occur, and what do these changes suggest about the evolution of Merovingian society and personal piety? BE: Burial rites are intrinsically conservative customs; just as today, they tend not to change drastically from generation to generation unless catastrophic circumstances like disease or war force burials to be performed in a hurried manner or break the chain of the transmission of rituals between generations.
In the case of the Early Middle Ages c. We cannot tell from most early medieval graves whether the deceased was Christian or not, since there was no immediate shift in burial customs. The main exceptions are burials that occurred in churches or those that contained or were marked by objects or epitaphs with blatantly Christian references. For the most part, however, families continued to bury their dead much as they had before conversion.
Essentially, I would explain these circumstances by observing that priests were scarce commodities in the early medieval West outside of cities; at rural cemeteries found all across Europe, this meant that burial custom was conducted mainly by families and remained fairly stable in the era of Christian conversions. It was foremost in monastic houses and ecclesiastical communities that contemporary clerics began to effect change. At such sites, we can see surviving burial markers and tombs decorated with crosses and know that Masses were celebrated for the dead.
While many still opted to be buried even in churches with a wealth of grave goods, others adopted the language of a high status Christian burial which could involve non-traditional symbols, locations, and customs for that region. It would nonetheless be many centuries, sometime between the eighth and tenth century CE depending upon region , before the Church was in a position to forbid certain burial customs like mounds and developed exclusive cemeteries for Christians.
It is also likely but not easily confirmed for much of the early Middle Ages that a specifically Christian liturgy was not performed as a matter of course for the majority of Christians at the time of their burials.