Symbol of the Month – The Woman from Samaria or a Greek goddess?

The Caryer headstone in 2011 , All Saints Frindsbury Photo Kent Archaeological Society

I featured part of this symbol on the Caryer headstone in an earlier Symbol of the Month – the All seeing Eye.    The Kent Archaeological Society website had given me the epitaph and also a reference to the Woman of Samaria with a  question mark next to it.

In March 2020, I visited All Saints, Frindsbury where the Caryer headstone is and looked at it and my photos and wasn’t quite sure if they were right.   Then I looked again at their photo of it taken in 2011 and what a difference 9 years makes!

As you can see, erosion has blurred a lot of the fine detail seen in the 2011 photo and it’s now hard to make out the image of the woman with such clarity now.  It doesn’t help that the headstone is leaning over so making it quite hard to get a decent photo.    In the 2020 image some of the detail has been lost. The stone is darker but. despite the erosion, it is a wonderful example of the stone carver’s art and skill.  This would have been an expensive headstone.

So what have we got? In the 2011 photo, A glamorous, somewhat scantily clad woman who was really well carved. She wears classical style diaphanous robes and wisps of lie across her exposed leg. She has her hair up in a Classical hairstyle and is sitting side on to the viewer wearing a pensive expression. She seems to be sitting on pebbles – is she at a river or at a beach? She holds a water jug and there are clouds above her.  The all seeing eye of God is on the other side of the headstone which may have been comforting to those left behind.

The reference to the Woman from Samaria being a possible source  is. I think, that the lady is holding a water jug and seems to be near water. So does she carry the waters of eternal life that Christ promised in the Bible? Or is she just a scantily clad woman holding a water jug?

The Woman from Samaria appears in the Gospel of John 4: verses 4-26.   Here they are:

There cometh a woman of Samaria to draw water: Jesus saith unto her, Give me to drink.

 (For his disciples were gone away unto the city to buy meat.)

 Then saith the woman of Samaria unto him, How is it that thou, being a Jew, askest drink of me, which am a woman of Samaria? for the Jews have no dealings with the Samaritans.

Jesus answered and said unto her, If thou knewest the gift of God, and who it is that saith to thee, Give me to drink; thou wouldest have asked of him, and he would have given thee living water.

The woman saith unto him, Sir, thou hast nothing to draw with, and the well is deep: from whence then hast thou that living water?

Art thou greater than our father Jacob, which gave us the well, and drank thereof himself, and his children, and his cattle?

Jesus answered and said unto her, Whosoever drinketh of this water shall thirst again:

But whosoever drinketh of the water that I shall give him shall never thirst; but the water that I shall give him shall be in him a well of water springing up into everlasting life.

The woman saith unto him, Sir, give me this water, that I thirst not, neither come hither to draw. King James Version

The meeting between the woman and Christ has inspired many artists and here are two interpretations.   But I had my doubts.   For instance, there’s no well visible on the headstone and, although she could be seen as bathing in the water of eternal life, the living waters referred to in the Bible, with a clear reference to resurrection it just didn’t feel right.   It also felt a bit tortuous to try and fit it all in.

Christ and the Samaritan Woman at the Well Angelica Kauffman (1741-1807) Shared under Wikipedia Creative Commons
Jesus at the Samaritan Woman – Gervais Drouet Shared under Wiki Creative Commons

But there are other images of female water bearers and one of the most obvious is associated with the Zodiac sign of Aquarius.  She is often depicted holding a water jug aloft or pouring from it.  But no, I carried on looking. Sometimes researching symbols is like detective work!

But there is another symbol that involves a woman as water bearer and that is the Zodiac sign of Aquarius.  In fact it is known as the water bearer.  

However, there is also the Greek goddess, Hebe, or the cup bearer. She was the daughter of Zeus and was the cupbearer for the gods and goddesses of Mount Olympus.  Hebe served nectar and ambrosia to them until she married Heracles.  She also had influence over eternal youth and the ability to restore youth to mortals.  In fact, Hebe comes from the Greek word meaning youth or prime of life.

Statue of Hebe Antonio Canova (1757-1822) Shared under Wiki Creative Commons

She was a popular subject in art during 1750-1880 and that would fit in with the date of the headstone. Hannah was the first to buried there and she died in 1809.   There many depictions of Hebe and in fact it was well known that all that was needed to summon her was a floaty white dress, some flowers in the hair and cup to hold. A setting in the clouds helped as well and maybe our Frindsbury lady isn’t sitting on pebbles but on puffy clouds.  In some portraits of Hebe a degree of nudity was allowed.    She was often depicted with wings which can be seen behind the figure on the headstone.  In art Hebe often appears with an eagle. Hebe also had her own personal cult and figures of her were popular in the 19th and early 20th centuries for fountains.

Painting of Hebe – Jacques Louis Dubois (1768-1843) Shared under Wiki Creative Commons

So I think that the figure is a classical one and probably based on Hebe.  Our glamorous lady in the floating draperies may be a reference to the deceased always remaining eternally young in death.  Hannah was only 30 when she died but that wasn’t unusual in an age of low mortality.   She is protected by the watchful Eye of God. It’s interesting to see a pagan symbol beside a more conventionally Christian one.

We will never know the inspiration behind the image used on this headstone.   It may have been skillfully copied from a printed image or painting and may have had personal significance to her husband who is also buried there together with their young son.  It would have been the height  of Classicism and it’s interesting to find it in a country churchyard.  It is sad to see much it has eroded over the years but one see the confidence of stone masons at that time in tackling subjects such as this.

So, in my opinion, our lady may not be the Woman from Samaria but a representation of Hebe.  But of course she could just be another elegant lady showing a bit of leg as she sits for all eternity above the Caryer family.

©Text and photos Carole Tyrrell unless otherwise stated.

References and further reading

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Samaritan_woman_at_the_well#:~:text=The%20woman%20appears%20in%20John,was%20sitting%20by%20the%20well.

https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=John%204%3A7-29&version=KJV

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hebe_(mythology)

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Symbol of the Month – The Mourning Woman

 

A fine example from Kensal Green Cemetery on the Isabella Shaw memorial.
©Carole Tyrrell

 

This month’s symbol is the Mourning Woman who is derived from Classicism and its association with ancient Greece and Rome.  I would hesitate before describing their presence in Victorian cemeteries and churchyards as a monstrous regiment but they have mostly been on duty for over a hundred years.  They patiently watch over and grieve for the departed.  An eternal mourner, often with a veil covering her head and swathed in flowing robes, she keeps vigil.

The Mourning Woman can be a free standing statue on top of a monument or plinth looking sorrowfully down on the viewer.  She can also be in the form of a 3D relief weeping over an urn containing the beloved’s ashes as in these examples:

 

At West Norwood cemetery there is this example of one resting on a lifesize cross (I hate to say it but whenever I see her I’m always reminded of the George Formby song ‘I’m Leaning on a lamp post…etc.).

A full view of the mourning woman as she rests on a cross on the Herbert Warren memorial, West Norwood Cemetery.
©Carole Tyrrell

 

Classicism held sway when London’s Magnificent Seven cemeteries were created. The anti-Catholic movement from the Georgian era was still a major influence with the cry ‘No Popery!’ loudly shouted.   So no crosses, no statues of Jesus or any angels were permitted.  Instead the clear cool lines of the ancient world were used as well as some of their traditions.

Mourning women were one of these as women played an integral part in the funerary ritual in ancient Egypt, Greece and Rome.   In the latter they were paid professional mourners as the more mourners there were at a funeral the more wealthy and prestigious the departed had been in life.  In the funeral procession which took place prior to the cremation the professional mourning women, who were not part of the deceased’s family, would loudly wail, rip out their hair and also scratch their faces in mourning according to contemporary records.  It was felt that women could more easily express emotions as it was unacceptable for a man to weep in public.

There are several Biblical references to the mourning women.  They are mentioned in Amos 5:16, Chronicles 35:25 and also in Jeremiah 9:17 as below

Thus saith the LORD of hosts,

Consider ye, and call for the mourning women,

that they may come;

and send for cunning women, that they may come:
King James Bible

 

The reference to ‘cunning’ women means ‘skilled’ women.

They would often weep noisily and copiously spilling their tears into vessels known as tear catchers or lachrimosa.  At the recent excellent Museum of Docklands exhibition, The Roman Dead, there were some on display.  They were small glass vessels and were placed in tombs, presumably overflowing, after the funeral was complete. Again, if many tears were collected, it signified that the deceased was held in high esteem and those crying the most would receive a higher payment.

Incidentally the tear catchers became fashionable again in the 19th century with the Victorian cult of death.  But this time the bottles had special stoppers that allowed the tears to evaporate and when they did the mourning period would be over.  There is also a Biblical association with the practice of collecting tears in bottles in Psalms 56:8:

Thou tellest my wanderings:

put thou my tears into thy bottle:

are they not in thy book?

King James Bible

 

In ancient Greece it was again women who prepared the body and then laid it out ready for viewing on the second day.

Kinswomen, wrapped in dark robes, stood round the bier, the chief mourner, either mother or wife, was at the head, and others behind. This part of the funeral rites wasthe prothesis. Women led the mourning by chanting dirges, tearing at their hair and clothing, and striking their torso, particularly their breasts.

Wikipedia

 

Here is a 6th century depiction of ancient Greek professional mourning women in full flow:

Body lying in state attended by family members with the mournign women ritually tearing their hair, Terracotta plaque – late 6th century BC. Walters Art Museum, Baltimore, USA
Shared under Wiki Creative Commons

 

So for centuries women have been associated with, and played a major part, in the funerary process which may have been one of the reasons for the Mourning Woman appearing in cemeteries.

I feel that these women could be seen as a forerunner of the winged angels that flew into cemeteries towards the end of the 19th century.  Both of them were guardians of the dead protecting them for eternity.

To end on, here is an lovely example that I unexpectedly discovered while on a Sunday afternoon stroll in the ‘secret’ graveyard behind St Nicholas’s church in Sevenoaks.  She stands, surrounded by back gardens, and is a particularly elegant version.  The memorial beneath her feet is dedicated to Elizabeth Dick and was erected by her sorrowing husband.

Sleep well for eternity Elizabeth and all those guarded by the mourning women.

©Text and photos Carole Tyrrell unless otherwise stated

References and further reading:

https://victorianmonsters.wordpress.com/victorian-funerary-practices/https://victorianmonsters.wordpress.com/victorian-funerary-practices/

https://www.ancient.eu/article/96/the-roman-funeral/

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Roman_funerary_practices

http://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Roman/Texts/secondary/SMIGRA*/Funus.html

https://www.psychologytoday.com/gb/blog/understanding-grief/201802/professional-mourners-ancient-tradition

https://biblehub.com/jeremiah/9-17.htm

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Professional_mourning

http://www.lachrymatory.com/History.htm

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ancient_Greek_funeral_and_burial_practices

http://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Roman/Texts/secondary/SMIGRA*/Funus.html