Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Tear Bottles

The first documented reference to collecting tears in a bottle appears in the Hebrew Scriptures. David prays to God, “Thou tellest my wanderings, put thou my tears in Thy bottle, are they not in Thy book?” (Psalms 56:8, approximately 1020 BCE)

Tear bottles, or lachrymatories, also abound in stories of ancient Egypt and Rome, as well as Middle Eastern societies.

Around 100 CE many of these small bottles were found in tombs. Because so many glass vials were found in tombs, the theory was developed that they were part of the mourning ritual. It was believed that mourners would fill the small glass vials with tears and place them in burial tombs as a symbol of love and respect. Sometimes mourners were even hired for wealthy funerals. Those crying the loudest and who produced the most tears received the most compensation. The more anguish and tears that were produced, the more valued and important the deceased person was seen to be, or so the stories go.

Glass blowing was prevalent during the Roman Period, and continued throughout most of history. Byzantine (East Roman Empire) Glass was well known, and even in Western Europe after the withdrawal of Roman power there, the Franks continued the tradition. Examples of glass blowing in the Islamic world, and to the East, in China and Japan are all attested. The western European Renaissance saw a tremendous upsurge in glass blowing, especially in Venice, where it is still famous today.

Because tear shaped bottles were an extremely popular shape during the Roman Period, it is debated whether or not the bottles were actually used to hold tears, possibly being used for perfumes and medicines instead. For instance, bottles found during the Hellenistic Period (300 CE) were very large, about 11-25 cm tall, and therefore would not have been very practical to hold tears.

The story of tear bottles continued unabated. During Victorian Era funerals, lachrymatory were distributed for guests to catch their tears in. The bottles held special stoppers, and it is said that when the tears evaporated, the period of mourning was complete. Stories have also been found of soldiers during the U.S. Civil War leaving their wives with tear bottles as they departed for battle. It was hoped that the bottle would be full upon their return, to show their wives love and devotion.

Therefore, while the exact origin and historical use of bottles to catch tears still remains a mystery, it is certain that they were an important part of legend and popular culture of the time.

Please visit the Rosicrucian Egyptian Museum to view some examples of Egyptian and Roman glass tear bottles in our Daily Life Gallery.

-- Jen Slauter, Docent

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