A lekythos is an ancient Greek vase made of ceramic; the plural of lekythos is lekythoi (Reference #2). It has a narrow neck, single handle, and is tall with a small, deep mouth (Reference #7). The lekythos was used as a flask, used to hold olive oil and perfumes (Reference #1), and were developed in ancient Athens during the fifth century. In Classical Athens, lekythoi were painted in white ground with figurative scenes.
White ground is a form of art used by Athenians in which they created the vase, fired it, and then the lekythos was painted in white. The figures and scenes were then painted on top of the white ground. This method meant that the paintings did not last as well, but were very beautiful in their original state (Reference # 8). Lekythoi were mainly used during funerary rituals, but they were also used by Greek athletes. In ancient Greece, the athletes would practice and compete outdoors, getting themselves covered in sand and dirt.
Rather than cleaning themselves at the bath-house, they would rub themselves down with olive oil from a lekythos, then scrape off the excess dirt and oil, leaving their skin soft and clean (Reference #8). The lekythoi used by athletes would be covered in depictions of scenes from Greek mythology, often including imagery of Greek goods such as Zeus and Achilles (Reference #8). The role of lekythoi in funerary rituals is made clear by their excavation from cemeteries and tombs (Reference #7).
A lekythos that was meant to be used during a burial ceremony would be painted with scenes of mourning or scenes from the life of the deceased (Reference #5). These lekythoi were sometimes painted with scenes depicting Greek gods, perhaps to cast the deceased in the light of heroic warriors of history (Reference #8). Researchers have been able to put together the funeral process the Athenians went through, and have found that lekythoi played a key role in funerary rites.
Firstly, a lekythos would be brought in during the preparation of the body for burial. The body would be prepared by a woman from the same household as the deceased, and it would then be anointed by the oil from the lekythos (Reference #6). Secondly, some lekythoi were filled with scented oils and perfumes and placed around the body, while others were set along the approach to the grave or placed beside the tomb (Reference #5). This was done as a part of the religious focus of the burial ceremony, and was given as an offering.
Lastly, a lekythos would often be brought to the gravesite or tomb of the deceased after the burial. It was very important to ancient Greeks to visit the gravesite of loved ones quite often, and when they visited, they would bring offerings to the deceased such as fruit, a feast, or a lekythos filled with olive oil or perfume (Reference #6). In time, the Lekythos was developed into a much larger version of itself, being called “Huge Lekythoi”. These were often left on top of a grave, or beside a tomb opening, almost as an ancient grave marker (Reference #7).
Though they would not be inscribed with any words or the name of the deceased, they would have a painted scene depicting the deceased, some scene from their life, or a scene depicting a sport or activity the deceased greatly enjoyed. Many lekythoi have been recovered and are currently housed in museums all over the world. Though many are not in their original glory, most have been reconstructed. New lekythoi have been made in Greece and are still used today in some small Greek communities during the preparation of the body, and left by the tombstone of the deceased.
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