“Windblown dreams and shadows of glory”: Greek Poets on Human Life

In an earlier post, I presented a series of passages that compared man’s life to a shadow. Thanks to a twitter contribution from deadgod, I have to post a little more…

Sophocles, fr. 945

“O wretched and mortal race of men:
We are nothing more than image of shadows,
Wandering back and forth, an excessive weight on the earth.

ὦ θνητὸν ἀνδρῶν καὶ ταλαίπωρον γένος,
ὡς οὐδέν ἐσμεν πλὴν σκιαῖς ἐοικότες,
βάρος περισσὸν γῆς ἀναστρωφώμενοι

The passage from Sophocles above made me think of the following lines from Homer

Homer. Od. 10.495

“Persephone allowed him to have a mind, even though he is dead,
He alone is able to think. The others leap like shadows”

τῷ καὶ τεθνηῶτι νόον πόρε Περσεφόνεια
οἴῳ πεπνῦσθαι· τοὶ δὲ σκιαὶ ἀΐσσουσιν.’

The scholia have a few interesting things to add to this.

Schol. ad Hom. Od. 10.495

“They leap like shadows”: The rest of the dead apart from Teiresias are shadows and they move like shadows, just like the shadows that follow men who are moving. This term is used instead of souls [psukhai]. Certainly the poet has the rest of the dead come forward for comparison in this, but the rest of the dead move like shadows”

τοὶ δὲ σκιαὶ ἀΐσσουσιν] οἱ δὲ ἄλλοι νεκροὶ πλὴν τοῦ Τειρεσίου σκιαί εἰσι καὶ ὡς σκιαὶ ὁρμῶσι, καθάπερ αὗται παρέπονται τοῖς κινουμένοις. Q. ἀντὶ τοῦ αἱ ψυχαί. ὁ μέντοι ποιητὴς πρὸς τοὺς ἄλλους νεκροὺς ποιεῖται τὴν σύγκρισιν ἐν τῷ, οἱ δὲ ἄλλοι νεκροὶ ὡς σκιαὶ ἀΐσσουσιν. B.Q.T.

Image result for Ancient Greek ghost vase

Stobaeus (1.49.54) in discussing shadows and death, notes that “if they meet their near and dear, they cannot see them nor can they converse with them, but they are walled off from aesthetic reality, they appear to them something like shadows”

Εἰ δὴ τοῖς οἰκείοις ἐντυγχάνοντες οὔτε ὁρῶσιν αὐτοὺς οὔτε προσδιαλέγονται, ἀνενέργητοι δέ εἰσιν αἰσθητικὴν ἐνέργειαν, πρὸς αὐτοὺς ἐοικότες εἶεν <ἂν> ταῖς σκιαῖς·

He also brings up the image of smoke evoked in the Iliad (23.100-101)

“He could not grasp him, but his soul went over the earth,
Twisted, just like smoke…”

οὐδ’ ἔλαβε· ψυχὴ δὲ κατὰ χθονὸς ἠΰτε καπνὸς
ᾤχετο τετριγυῖα…

An uplifting proverb to close:

Arsenius, 17.66

“Windblown dreams and shadows of glory”: A proverb applied to those hoping for things in vain.

῾Υπηνέμια ὀνείρατα καὶ ἐπαίνων σκιαί: ἐπὶ τῶν μάτην ἐλπιζόντων.

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