Saturday, January 2, 2016

Lachrymatories: Ancient Mourning Practice, or Marketing Strategy?

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Lachrymatories, or tear catchers, are tiny bottles purported to have a very unique purpose: to catch and hold tears.

Picture mourners using them to capture the embodiment of their sorrow as offerings for the dead. Women holding onto them when they were separated from their lovers by war, the better to be able to show them just how much they'd been missed upon their return. Not all of them were for sadness and mourning, though-- sometimes a lachrymatory was presented as a wedding gift or upon the birth of a child, the better to remember tears of joy.

[caption id="attachment_1906" align="aligncenter" width="239"]Photo by Georges Jansoone, via Wikipedia. Photo by Georges Jansoone, via Wikipedia.[/caption]

Though these tiny bottles are best known for frequently appearing in ancient Greek and Roman tombs, their use is disputed. There's more evidence that they were for perfumes and unguents than for catching tears from mourners. That didn't stop later artisans and manufacturers from making them, and it's easy to find stunningly beautiful Victorian-era lachrymatories of blown glass and gold. Occasionally, it's possible to find a collection (like this one from ottomanembroideries) of carefully preserved pieces in cobalt blue and clear cut glass. Modern glassblowers and ceramicists create still more elaborate pieces in bright colors and unusual shapes, and there are some really pretty pieces from Czechoslovakia with metalwork.

Lachrymatories hold a strange kind of fascination for me. I've always absolutely loved the idea of something somber given a bright, beautiful form-- it's a big part of my preoccupation with painting ravens, crows, and other carrion birds. The idea of a tear catcher rendered as a delicate blown glass confection has definite appeal, in an aesthetic sense. However, as Victorian Gothic says in The Enigmatic Lachrymatory, or Tear Bottle:
Google Books searches reveal no discussion of the lachrymatory custom in etiquette manuals, nor do they appear in product catalogs. There are seemingly no unambiguous descriptions of real or fictional characters making actual use of a tear bottle as a normal part of Victorian mourning practice.

In an ironic twist of life imitating art, the stories of mourners capturing their tears in tiny vials has influenced the creation of modern tear catchers. Even though they're sold to hold perfume or essential oils, it's the romanticized image of a tearful Victorian heroine that gives them their cachet.

Fortunately, due to the abundance of vials found in ancient burial sites and Victorian boudoirs, collecting tear catchers is easy. There are any number of eBay and Etsy listings of bottles ranging from modern blown glass to ceramic circa 100 BCE. Even though they may never have held the tears of an ancient mourner, isn't it a poetic notion?

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