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The materiality of death, the supernatural and the role of women in Late Antique and Byzantine times
Author: Athanasios K. Vionis. ISBN 9781789693775-11.

Although the association between women, funerary ritual and ‘magic’ in a burial context may initially seem atypical, it should be acknowledged that women have been related to birth and death throughout history. Due to their biological role in giving birth to a new human life, they may also ‘be expected to play a symmetrical role at the end of life’.1 Different practices related to funerary ritual and the commemoration of the dead, to the use and deposition of ritual artefacts and accompanying materials, are altogether aspects connected to a large extent with women and the domestic sphere. It has to be noted, however, that notions such as ‘religion’, ‘funerary cult’ and ‘magic’ are not always clear-cut, especially throughout Late Antiquity – Early Byzantine era (late 4th–early 8th centuries AD), when religious syncretism, or the accommodation of polytheistic traditions in Christian ideology, was common sense and a subconscious aspect of everyday life.

This paper aims at identifying the materiality of female presence in the burial context along two main strands of funerary ritual and cultic behaviour. The first concerns the mourning of the dead and female devotional practice, while the second involves the deposition of personal objects carrying protective and apotropaic properties (usually related to health and fertility), and the creation of secret and mysterious κατάδεσμοι or defixiones (as expressions of sexual desire through binding curses). The ultimate aim is to visualise women in the Late Antique – Early Byzantine period within the often marginalised and overlooked domestic and cultic spheres, in order to appreciate their position in a (largely) Christianised Eastern Roman society between the late 4th and early 8th centuries AD. Material and visual evidence for female presence in funerary ritual and cultic context has been put together and consulted, while textual references and inscriptions related to binding curses and other ‘magic’ related paraphernalia have also been considered in order to read the gendered association of death. Religious iconography of later centuries depicting saintly women in funerary-related areas within churches and the acts of women as mourners, mothers and wives, on the other hand, help immensely in comprehending female manners and extraordinary behavioural patterns in both funerary ritual and cult.

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