Wednesday, August 2, 2017

TFBT: The Nereid Monument

One Saturday in July we arrived at the British Museum about 11:30, just in time for the free tour of the Nereid Monument.  I always thought is was a nympheum; shrine to the Nereids, but it isn't.  Who knew?  Ends up it was the tomb of Arbinas the dynast of Lycia; sort of a sub-king to the Persian King.  
For those that don't know; after Alexander the Great conquered the known world and the Hellenistic age began; being "Greek" was very cool.  The meanest thing a Roman could say about another man's education is that "He has no Greek."  The New Testament was written in Greek.  All the sculptures were Greek.  So it is no surprise that Arbinas built a heroic shrine for himself that looks like an Ionic temple.  
the Hellenistic period, witnessing the diffusion of Greek culture through much of the mediterranean and middle east, a diffusion vastly accelerated by the conquests of Alexander the Great, and the various dynasties established by his generals after his death in 323 B.C. Over the Hellenised domains there was a common ruling class culture, using a common literary dialect and a common education system. The city of Alexandria in Egypt, founded by Alexander in 331 B.C., became a centre of scholarship and letters, housing an enormous library and museum, and hosting such renowned poets and grammarians as Callimachus, Apollonius Rhodius, Aristarchus and Zenodotus. …The Hellenistic period is usually said to end with the battle of Actium in 31 which the last portion of Alexander’s empire, Egypt, was annexed by the increasingly powerful and expanding Roman Republic.” (Introduction to the Classical Period, M.A.R. Habibttp://

Why Nereids then?  Well according to the British Museum "The three figures are sea nymphs, daughters of the sea god Nereus, riding over the waves on sea creatures.  They are thought to have escorted the soul of the deceased on its journey to the afterlife."  Apparently one, Filippo Buonarroti in 1698 inexplicitly made that comment that Nereids and Tritons in funeral art "represent the journey of the soul to the isles of the blessed." It is hard to tell here, but each figure is balancing on the head of a dolphin or sea-monster being swept along the surface of the wine dark sea.

I didn’t recall too many stories about Nereids as psychopomps, until I started doing a little research: 

·      Proclus in his Chrestomathy 458 tell us that the Nereid Thetis takes her son’s body from the funeral pyre and carries to the island of Leuce.  Leuce being one of the “Isles of the Blest” the Buonarroit, referenced.

·      At the end of Eurpides Andromache, the Nereid Thetis tells her aged, woe-laden mortal husband that she and her dancing sisters will come to fetch him home to live eternally in their father Nereus’ hall. 

·      (I just gotta add that Milton in Comus, has the Princess Sabrina immortalized by Nereus and made goddess of the Severn River) 

·      "Such is the tale told of the fair-throned maids of Cadmus, who suffered mightily, but heavy woe falls before greater good . . . The tale runs too, that in the ocean with the sea-maidens, Nereus' daughters, Ino was given undying life forever." (Pindar, Olympian Ode 2. 22ff)

Probably the myth most supportive of the British Museum’s position that Nereids helped “the soul of the deceased on its journey to the afterlife."  and   Buonarroti’s comment about Nereids and Tritons in funeral art, is the story of Helle.  Little Helle and her brother Phrixus were threatened with an awful fate and only saved at the last minuted by winged ram with a gold fleece.  Her story is told in the Argonautica;

"But lo! As dawn was breaking, the waves opened and scared the flying ship [of the Argonauts], and there stood before them Helle [i.e. the sister of Phrixus) who fell from the Golden-Ram and became goddess of the Hellespont chapleted, the sister now of [the Nereides] Panope and Thetis, and holding in her left hand a golden sceptre. Then she lulled the waves, and looking upon the captains and their leader accosted Jason with gently words…”straightway as I fell, Cymothoe [a Nereid] and Glaucus (a Triton) came swift to my succour; this abode too, this realm the father of the deep himself awarded me, willing justly, and our gulf envies not Ino's sea [the Gulf of Corinth]."  Valerius Flaccus, Argonautica 2. (annotated by Aaron Atsma)

And later;

"[In Colchis stands] the tomb of Phrixus, beside whom stands wrought in marble his sister [Helle],” Valerius Flaccus, Argonautica 5. 195   (annotated by Aaron Atsma)

Most Grecian temples are adorned with friezes depicting wars against centaurs, amazons, giants or barabarians.  The frieze around Arbinas’ “temple” depicts him conquering his own cities in order to reclaim his birthright to rule western Lycia on the Persian king’s behalf.    He was the seventh and the last of his family to rule Lycia.    What do you think?  Was he heroic enough to get a lift from the Nereids to an after life where he and other heroes;

“live untouched by sorrow in the Islands of the Blessed along the shore of deep swirling Oceanus, happy heroes for whom the grain-giving earth bears honey-sweet fruit flourishing thrice a year, far from the deathless gods, and Kronos rules over them; for the father of men and gods released him from his bonds. (Hesiod, Works and Days 156)     

 Did he make it to the Other Side?   Anyone know of other examples of the Nereids or other water gods helping a mortal along to the next world?  

Oh and bonus a "picture" of Homer in an adjoining gallery!

The vase is known as "The Apotheosis of Homer".


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. Very interesting Bill! Thanks for sharing.

    1. Thanks Ian, I thought it was really cool!


  3. Kenneth Clark in "The Nude" also says that the Nereids were chosen to be depicted on sarcophages as symbols of the freed soul and its transition to another world.

  4. Maya,

    Thanks for the additional reference, still I can find no myth or primary source mentioning any connection.