Tear flasks, cyprus, roman empire, grief, tears, crying, exhibition, aarhus2017, moesgaard, museum, death. dying

A Container of Grief? The myth of the tear bottle

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Europe

Warming up to the exhibition The Presence of Absence: Art, anthropology and archaeology about the life of the dead in Cyprus and Denmark, opening on the 23rd of September at Moesgaard Museum, we are presenting you with a few stories about the artefacts which will be displayed in the exhibition. Our guest blogger, Catriona Hodge, is a Heritage Management student, and assistant curator on the exhibition.

 

How can you measure your grief? Do more tears necessarily mean a greater loss? The owners of these little glass bottles may have thought so.

The common myth behind these tear bottles, or ‘unguentaria,’ presents them as containers for sadness, or literally, for one’s tears. Commonly found in graves within the Roman Empire, the story went that women who had lost a loved one would use these bottles to cry into during the funeral process. The higher the bottle was filled with tears, the greater missed this person would be – or at least so they said. Other variations told that the grief of the bereaved would disappear as the tears in the bottle began to evaporate. Only when the last drop was gone would the mourning process be over.

Tear flasks, cyprus, roman empire, grief, tears, crying, exhibition, aarhus2017, moesgaard, museum, death. dying

It is probable that these grave-findings were actually used to store oils or perfumes, However, the more romantic image seemed to prevail. Even the Bible paid heed to the little bottles; Thou tellest my wanderings, put thou my tears in Thy bottle; are they not in Thy Book?” (Psalm 56:8)

It is telling that this myth stood so firm, spanning many societies, and particularly finding a revival with those lovers of all things spooky; the Victorians. Even today you can buy your own tear bottles online if you so wish!

It seems that many of us, from many ages, share the idea that we can physically represent our pain when someone leaves. That we can prove to the world how much we loved someone through our actions or through an object itself. It is common for people to express their love for their family or friends in public; through flowers, gifts, even Facebook statuses – so perhaps it is just as common to express grief as well.

Tear flasks, cyprus, roman empire, grief, tears, crying, exhibition, aarhus2017, moesgaard, museum, death, dying

To see these beautiful bottles at Moesgaard, whilst they are on loan from the Antikmuseet, Aarhus University, then visit the new exhibition ‘The Presence of Absence’ which opens on the 23rd September and runs for 4 months. The exhibition explores similar ideas conjured by the bottles – how can someone be represented when they are gone? And how do we find ourselves conserving their memories through physical objects?

//Catriona Hodge

A Container of Grief? The myth of the tear bottle

The bottles arrived from Antikmuseet, in true Bond fashion in a padded silver suitcase

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One thought on “A Container of Grief? The myth of the tear bottle”

  1. Pingback: Order and Chaos: Building an exhibition | ethnographica

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