Sickness and Knowledge

Sophocles, Trachiniae 1120-1121

“Say what you need to and leave! I am sick
And I can’t understand any of your ancient subtleties”

εἰπὼν ὃ χρῄζεις λῆξον· ὡς ἐγὼ νοσῶν
οὐδὲν ξυνίημ᾿ ὧν σὺ ποικίλλεις πάλαι.

 

Euripides, Orestes, 229-230

“Look, when someone is sick, their bed is dear.
It may be an annoying thing, but it’s still what they need.”

ἰδού. φίλον τοι τῷ νοσοῦντι δέμνια,
ἀνιαρὸν ὄντα κτῆμ᾿, ἀναγκαῖον δ᾿ ὅμως.

314-315

“Even if someone isn’t sick, but thinks they are,
They are struck by exhaustion and helplessness.”

κἂν μὴ νοσῇ γάρ, ἀλλὰ δοξάζῃ νοσεῖν,
κάματος βροτοῖσιν ἀπορία τε γίγνεται.

395-396

[Menelaos] “What thing do you suffer? What disease destroys you?
[Orestes]: “Understanding—that I know the terrible things I have done.”

ΜΕΝΕΛΑΟΣ τί χρῆμα πάσχεις; τίς σ᾿ ἀπόλλυσιν νόσος;
ΟΡΕΣΤΗΣ ἡ σύνεσις, ὅτι σύνοιδα δείν᾿ εἰργασμένος.

Hans Sebald Beham, The Death of Herakles

The Body as A Cloak for the Soul

Plato, Phaedo 89b-e

“Why, therefore, the reasoning would go, do you still not believe it when you see that the weaker part still exists after the person has died? Doesn’t it seem to you necessary that the part which lasts long should be preserved still in this time? Think about this when you consider what I am saying. Like Simmias, I guess, I need some kind of an analogy.

It seems to me as if someone is saying similar things when he makes the comparison of an old weaver who has died. He claims that the man is not dead, but is still somewhere safe somehow because he can provide as proof a cloak which the man wove himself and was wearing and is still safe and has not perished. And if someone were skeptical at this, he would ask whether a human being lives longer than a cloak which was used and worn and the when he answered that human beings last longer than cloaks in general, he would think he had proved that the person remains sound since the shorter-lived thing had not withered.

This, Simmias, I do not think is true. Think about what I am saying. Everyone would imagine that it is stupid when someone says this. For this weaver, although he has worn out and then woven many of these kinds of cloaks, died and disappeared long after they did when there were many of them. But he did not before the last one. Even in this the person is no weaker or less complex than the cloak.

I think that the soul responds to the same analogy and anyone who said the same things about it would seem sensible to me. The soul is longer-lived, and the body is weaker and has less time. But if you were to say that each soul wears out many bodies, or something else if it has many years—since the body wears out and could be ruined while the person still lives, but the soul could always reweave what gets worn out—whenever the soul perishes, it would the be necessary for it to have taken on its final garment and to perish before only this one. Once the soul dies then, the body would display the nature of its weakness and disappear by rotting quickly.”

 τί οὖν, ἂν φαίη ὁ λόγος, ἔτι ἀπιστεῖς, ἐπειδὴ ὁρᾷς ἀποθανόντος τοῦ ἀνθρώπου τό γε ἀσθενέστερον ἔτι ὄν; τὸ δὲ πολυχρονιώτερον οὐ δοκεῖ σοι ἀναγκαῖον εἶναι ἔτι σῴζεσθαι ἐν τούτῳ τῷ χρόνῳ; πρὸς δὴ τοῦτο τόδε ἐπίσκεψαι, εἴ τι λέγω· εἰκόνος γάρ τινος, ὡς ἔοικεν, κἀγὼ ὥσπερ Σιμμίας δέομαι. ἐμοὶ γὰρ δοκεῖ ὁμοίως λέγεσθαι | ταῦτα ὥσπερ ἄν τις περὶ ἀνθρώπου ὑφάντου πρεσβύτου ἀποθανόντος λέγοι τοῦτον τὸν λόγον, ὅτι οὐκ ἀπόλωλεν ὁ ἄνθρωπος ἀλλ’ ἔστι που σῶς, τεκμήριον δὲ παρέχοιτο θοιμάτιον ὃ ἠμπείχετο αὐτὸς ὑφηνάμενος ὅτι ἐστὶ σῶν καὶ οὐκ ἀπόλωλεν, καὶ εἴ τις ἀπιστοίη αὐτῷ, ἀνερωτῴη πότερον πολυχρονιώτερόν ἐστι τὸ γένος ἀνθρώπου ἢ ἱματίου ἐν χρείᾳ τε ὄντος καὶ φορουμένου, ἀποκριναμένου δή ὅτι πολὺ τὸ τοῦ ἀνθρώπου, οἴοιτο ἀποδεδεῖχθαι ὅτι παντὸς ἄρα μᾶλλον ὅ γε ἄνθρωπος σῶς ἐστιν, | ἐπειδὴ τό γε ὀλιγοχρονιώτερον οὐκ ἀπόλωλεν. τὸ δ’ οἶμαι, ὦ Σιμμία, οὐχ οὕτως ἔχει· σκόπει γὰρ καὶ σὺ ἃ λέγω. πᾶς ἂν ὑπολάβοι ὅτι εὔηθες λέγει ὁ τοῦτο λέγων· ὁ γὰρ ὑφάντης οὗτος πολλὰ κατατρίψας τοιαῦτα ἱμάτια καὶ ὑφηνάμενος ἐκείνων μὲν ὕστερος ἀπόλωλεν πολλῶν ὄντων, τοῦ δὲ τελευταίου οἶμαι πρότερος, καὶ οὐδέν τι μᾶλλον τούτου ἕνεκα ἄνθρωπός ἐστιν ἱματίου φαυλότερον οὐδ’ ἀσθενέστερον. τὴν αὐτὴν δὲ ταύτην οἶμαι εἰκόνα δέξαιτ’ ἂν ψυχὴ πρὸς σῶμα, καί τις λέγων αὐτὰ ταῦτα περὶ αὐτῶν μέτρι’ ἄν μοι φαίνοιτο λέγειν, | ὡς ἡ μὲν ψυχὴ πολυχρόνιόν ἐστι, τὸ δὲ σῶμα ἀσθενέστερον καὶ ὀλιγοχρονιώτερον· ἀλλὰ γὰρ ἂν φαίη ἑκάστην τῶν ψυχῶν πολλὰ σώματα κατατρίβειν, ἄλλως τε κἂν πολλὰ ἔτη βιῷ—εἰ γὰρ ῥέοι τὸ σῶμα καὶ ἀπολλύοιτο ἔτι ζῶντος τοῦ ἀνθρώπου, ἀλλ’ ἡ ψυχὴ ἀεὶ τὸ κατατριβόμενον ἀνυφαίνοι—ἀναγκαῖον μεντἂν εἴη, ὁπότε ἀπολλύοιτο ἡ ψυχή, τὸ τελευταῖον ὕφασμα τυχεῖν αὐτὴν ἔχουσαν καὶ τούτου μόνου προτέραν ἀπόλλυσθαι, ἀπολομένης δὲ τῆς ψυχῆς τότ’ ἤδη τὴν φύσιν τῆς ἀσθενείας ἐπιδεικνύοι | τὸ σῶμα καὶ ταχὺ σαπὲν διοίχοιτο.

Hieronymous Bosch, “Christ in Limbo”

The Original Virgin Suicides

Here’s an anecdote that is chilling and a bit upsetting. CW: it contains misogyny as well as reference to suicide clusters. In general, this reminded me of the suicide clusters in Silicon Valley discussed widely a few years ago. But–and I think this is more important–it also points to groups of suicide as an attempt to wrest agency in response to desperation, a lack of agency, and marginalization.

Aulus Gellius, Varia Historia 15.10

“In his first of the books On the Soul, Plutarch included the following tale when he was commenting on maladies which afflict human minds. He said that there were maiden girls of Milesian families who at a certain time suddenly and without almost any clear reason made a plan to die and that many killed themselves by hanging.

When this became more common in following days and there was no treatment to be found for the spirits of those who were dedicated to dying, The Milesians decreed that all maidens who would die by hanging their bodies would be taken out to burial completely naked except for the rope by which they were hanged. After this was decreed, the maidens did not seek suicide only because they were frightened by the thought of so shameful a funeral.”

Plutarchus in librorum quos περὶ ψυχῆς inscripsit primo cum de morbis dissereret in animos hominum incidentibus, virgines dixit Milesii nominis, fere quot tum in ea civitate erant, repente sine ulla evidenti causa voluntatem cepisse obeundae mortis ac deinde plurimas vitam suspendio amississe. id cum accideret in dies crebrius neque animis earum mori perseverantium medicina adhiberi quiret, decrevisse Milesios ut virgines, quae corporibus suspensis demortuae forent, ut hae omnes nudae cum eodem laqueo quo essent praevinctae efferrentur. post id decretum virgines voluntariam mortem non petisse pudore solo deterritas tam inhonesti funeris.

Suicides of public figures cause disbelief because of our cultural misconceptions about depression and about the importance of material wealth and fame to our well-being. While some clusters of suicide can be understood as a reflex of the “threshold problem”, we fail to see the whole picture if we do not also see that human well-being is connected to a sense of agency and belonging. Galen, in writing about depression, notes that melancholy can make us desire that which we fear.

Galen, De Locis Affectis 8.190-191

“But there are ten thousand other fantasies. The melancholic differ from one another, but even though they all exhibit fear, despair, blaming of life and hatred for people, they do not all want to die. For some, fear of death is the principle source of their depression. Some will seem paradoxical to you because they fear death and desire death at the same time.”

ἄλλα τε μυρία τοιαῦτα φαντασιοῦνται. διαφέρονται δὲ ἀλλήλων οἱ μελαγχολικοὶ, τὸ μὲν φοβεῖσθαι καὶ δυσθυμεῖν καὶ μέμφεσθαι τῇ ζωῇ καὶ μισεῖν τοὺς ἀνθρώπους ἅπαντες ἔχοντες, ἀποθανεῖν δ’ ἐπιθυμοῦντες οὐ πάντες, ἀλλ’ ἔστιν ἐνίοις αὐτῶν αὐτὸ δὴ τοῦτο κεφάλαιον τῆς μελαγχολίας, τὸ περὶ τοῦ θανάτου δέος· ἔνιοι δὲ ἀλλόκοτοί σοι δόξουσιν, ἅμα τε καὶ δεδιέναι τὸν θάνατον καὶ θανατᾷν.

In thinking about the impact of agency and belonging on our sense of well-being and relationship to death, I have been significantly influence by this book:

Sheldon Solomon, Jeff Greenberg and Tom Pyszczynski. The Worm at the Core: On the Role of Death in Life. London: Allen Lane, 2015.

Related image
Picture found here

If you or someone you know feel alone, uncertain, depressed or for any reason cannot find enough joy and hope to think life is worth it, please reach out to someone. The suicide prevention hotline has a website, a phone number (1-800-273-8255), and a chat line. And if we can help you find some tether to the continuity of human experience through the Classics or a word, please don’t hesitate to ask.

Rejoicing at the Death of a Tyrant

Suetonius, Divus Tiberius 75

“The people were so happy about his death that some people went around shouting after its announcement, “Tiberius into the Tiber!” while others prayed to the Earth and the divine Shades to give him no place in death except with the damned.

Others still were threatened his body with a hook and the Mourning Stairs, angered over the memory of recent cruelty: for the senate had decreed a stay of ten days for all condemned to execution. But that day came about for some when the news of Tiberius’ death surfaced. Although they were pleading for public help since no one could be approached and appealed to oppose their punishments now that Gaius was gone, the jailors strangled them and threw them out on the Mourning Stairs anyway, afraid of acting against the law. So hatred for the tyrant only increased since his brutality remained even after his death.”

LXXV. Morte eius ita laetatus est populus, ut ad primum nuntium discurrentes pars: “Tiberium in Tiberim!” clamitarent, pars Terram matrem deosque Manes orarent, ne mortuo sedem ullam nisi inter impios darent, alii uncum et Gemonias cadaveri minarentur, exacerbati super memoriam pristinae crudelitatis etiam recenti atrocitate. Nam cum senatus consulto cautum esset, ut poena damnatorum in decimum semper diem differretur, forte accidit ut quorundam supplicii dies is esset, quo nuntiatum de Tiberio erat. Hos implorantis hominum fidem, quia absente adhuc Gaio nemo exstabat qui adiri interpellarique posset, custodes, ne quid adversus constitutum facerent, strangulaverunt abieceruntque in Gemonias. Crevit igitur invidia, quasi etiam post mortem tyranni saevitia permanente

Apollo’s Esteem for Human Beings

Schol. BT ad. Il. 21.465

“Whenever the poet turns his gaze to divine nature, then he holds human affairs in contempt.”

ὅταν δὲ ἀποβλέψῃ εἰς τὴν θείαν φύσιν ὁ ποιητής, τότε τὰ ἀνθρώπινα πράγματα ἐξευτελίζει. b(BCE3)T

Iliad 5.440-442

“Think, son of Tydeus, step off, don’t wish to think
Equal to the gods, since not at all similar are the races
Of immortal gods and humans who walk on the ground.”

φράζεο Τυδεΐδη καὶ χάζεο, μηδὲ θεοῖσιν
ἶσ’ ἔθελε φρονέειν, ἐπεὶ οὔ ποτε φῦλον ὁμοῖον
ἀθανάτων τε θεῶν χαμαὶ ἐρχομένων τ’ ἀνθρώπων.

Iliad 21.461-465

“Then lord Apollo the far-shooter answered,
“Earthshaker, you would not think that I would be prudent
If indeed I fought with you over mortals,
Wretched men who are like the leaves now flourish
Until they grow full, eat the fruit of fields,
And then they diminish until they die…”

Τὸν δ’ αὖτε προσέειπεν ἄναξ ἑκάεργος ᾿Απόλλων·
ἐννοσίγαι’ οὐκ ἄν με σαόφρονα μυθήσαιο
ἔμμεναι, εἰ δὴ σοί γε βροτῶν ἕνεκα πτολεμίξω
δειλῶν, οἳ φύλλοισιν ἐοικότες ἄλλοτε μέν τε
ζαφλεγέες τελέθουσιν ἀρούρης καρπὸν ἔδοντες,
ἄλλοτε δὲ φθινύθουσιν ἀκήριοι…

 

Image result for Ancient greek vase apollo

Death and Side-Parts: Or, Only the Appearance of Good and Evil

Seneca, Moral Epistle  82.13-16

“But, as I began to say, you observe that death is neither bad nor good. Cato met it with the most honor; Brutus faced it most shamefully. Every affair that did not have glory assumes it when virtue is added. We claim that a bedroom is shining and bright when the same place is the darkest at night. Days infuse it with light and night take it a way.

That’s the way it is which those things which are indifferent to us and called middling like wealth, strength, beauty, honors, offices and their opposites such as death, sickness, exile, pain and all similar evils: we get more or less upset because we fear them, but wickedness or virtue gives a name of good or evil.

A thing is not hot or cold through itself. It becomes warm when it is tossed in a furnace and gets cold again when plunged into water. Death is honorable because it is related to an honorable thing, that is virtue and a soul rejecting the worst behaviors.

There are also huge differences in the things we put in the middle class. For instance, death is not as meaningless as whether you part your hair in the middle or on the side. Death is one of those things which are not evil but have the appearance of evil. For we have a native love of protecting and preserving ourselves coupled with a reluctance of returning to nothing because death seems to deprive us of many good things, to take us away from the plenty we have gotten used to.

There is also another aspect that alienates us from death: we know those other things, but we shudder at the unknown, and we are ignorant about where we are going in the future. It is only natural, then, to fear the world of shadows where death allegedly takes us. So, while death is an indifferent to us, it is still not something we can ignore. The soul needs to be strengthened through rigorous practice to tolerate death’s sight and approaching step.”

Sed, ut coeperam dicere, vides ipsam mortem nec malum esse nec bonum; Cato illa honestissime usus est, turpissime Brutus. Omnis res quod non habuit decus, virtute addita sumit. Cubiculum lucidum dicimus, hoc idem obscurissimum est nocte. Dies illi lucem infundit, nox eripit; sic istis, quae a nobis indifferentia ac media dicuntur, divitiis, viribus, formae, honoribus, regno et contra morti, exilio, malae valetudini, doloribus quaeque alia aut minus aut magis pertimuimus, aut malitia aut virtus dat boni vel mali nomen. Massa per se nec calida nec frigida est; in fornacem coniecta concaluit, in aquam demissa1 refrixit. Mors honesta est per illud, quod honestum est, id est virtus et animus extrema contemnens.

Est et horum, Lucili, quae appellamus media, grande discrimen. Non enim sic mors indifferens est, quomodo utrum capillos pares an inpares habeas. Mors inter illa est, quae mala quidem non sunt, tamen habent mali speciem; sui amor est et permanendi conservandique se insita voluntas atque aspernatio dissolutionis, quia videtur multa nobis bona eripere et nos ex hac, cui adsuevimus, rerum copia educere. Illa quoque res morti nos alienat, quod haec iam novimus, illa, ad quae transituri sumus, nescimus, qualia sint, et horremus ignota. Naturalis praeterea tenebrarum metus est, in quas 16adductura mors creditur. Itaque etiam si indifferens mors est, non tamen ea est, quae facile neglegi possit. Magna exercitatione durandus est animus, ut conspectum eius accessumque patiatur.

Just a Lazy Sunday Morning Contemplating the Nature of Things

Cicero, Tusculan Disputations. 3.16

“To begin with, they wrongly reject prior meditation on future affairs. For there is nothing which works so well to calm or relieve anxiety as much as the thought throughout your life that there is nothing that is can’t happen; there’s no contemplation better for our human condition as the law of of life and learning obedience to it—this doesn’t make us sad all the time but keeps us from ever being so. For the person who reflects on the nature of things, on the variety of life, and the precarity of human existence is not sad in considering these things but is carrying out the duty of wisdom in the fullest way.

For they pursue both in enjoying the particular harvest of philosophy by considering what happens in human life and in suffering adverse outcomes by cleansning with a three-part solace. First, by previously accepting the possibility of misfortune—which is the most way of weakening and managing any annoyance and second, by learning that human events must be endured humanely; and third, by recognizing that there is nothing evil except for blame and there is no blame when the event is something against which no human can endure.”

Principio male reprehendunt praemeditationem rerum futurarum. Nihil est enim quod tam obtundat elevetque aegritudinem quam perpetua in omni vita cogitatio nihil esse, quod non accidere possit, quam meditatio condicionis humanae, quam vitae lex commentatioque parendi, quae non hoc adfert, ut semper maereamus, sed ut numquam. Neque enim qui rerum naturam, qui vitae varietatem, qui imbecillitatem generis humani cogitat, maeret, cum haec cogitat, sed tum vel maxime sapientiae fungitur munere. Utrumque enim consequitur, ut et considerandis rebus humanis proprio philosophiae fruatur officio et adversis casibus triplici consolatione sanetur: primum quod posse accidere diu cogitavit, quae cogitatio una maxime molestias omnes extenuat et diluit; deinde quod humana humane ferenda intelligit; postremo quod videt malum nullum esse nisi culpam, culpam autem nullam esse, cum id, quod ab homine non potuerit praestari, evenerit.

 

Lucretius, De Rerum Natura .540-147

“Unless matter itself had been eternal before our time
Everything would have already reverted to nothing
And whatever we see would also have come from nothing.
But since I have demonstrated that nothing can be made from nothing
And what has been made cannot be returned to nothing
There ought to be a primal creation for the immortal body
Where everything diffuses again at the final moment
to supply matter itself for the rebirth of things.”

raeterea nisi materies aeterna fuisset,
antehac ad nilum penitus res quaeque redissent,
de niloque renata forent quaecumque videmus.
at quoniam supra docui nil posse creari
de nilo neque quod genitum est ad nil revocari,
esse inmortali primordia corpore debent,
dissolui quo quaeque supremo tempore possint,
materies ut suppeditet rebus reparandis.

Pharmorphix, Cambridge
https://www.diamond.ac.uk/Home/News/LatestNews/14-11-14.html

Four More Funerary Epigrams

415

“You’re dragging your feet past the grave of Callimachus
He knew: how to sing well and the right time to laugh well over wine.”

Βαττιάδεω παρὰ σῆμα φέρεις πόδας, εὖ μὲν ἀοιδὴν
εἰδότος, εὖ δ᾿ οἴνῳ καίρια συγγελάσαι.

447

“The stranger was short, his poem is too: so I will not speak long.
Thêris the son of Aristaios was from Crete, for me, a long enough song.”

Σύντομος ἦν ὁ ξεῖνος· ὃ καὶ στίχος· οὐ μακρὰ λέξω·
“Θῆρις Ἀρισταίου, Κρὴς” ἐπ᾿ ἐμοὶ δόλιχος.

451.—ΚΑΛΛΙΜΑΧΟΥ

“Here Akanthios Dikôn’s son sleeps his sacred sleep.
Don’t say that good men die.”

Τᾷδε Σάων ὁ Δίκωνος Ἀκάνθιος ἱερὸν ὕπνον
κοιμᾶται. θνάσκειν μὴ λέγε τοὺς ἀγαθούς.

452.—ΛΕΩΝΙΔΑ

“Ye who pass me by, remember Euboulos the wise.
Let’s drink. For Hades is our common harbor.”

Μεμνησθ᾿ Εὐβούλοιο σαόφρονος, ὦ παριόντες.
πίνωμεν· κοινὸς πᾶσι λιμὴν Ἀΐδης.

Image result for funerary epigrams greek
Taken from archaeology.wiki

Weekend Plans with Alcaeus

Alcaeus, Fr. 38A (P. Oxy. 1233 fr. 1 ii 8–20 + 2166(b)1)

“Drink and get drunk with me, Melanippos.
Why would you say that once you cross the great eddying
River of Acheron you will see the pure light of the sun again?
Come on, don’t hope for great things.

For even the son of Aiolos, Sisyphos used to claim
He was better than death because he knew the most of men.
Even though he was so very wise, he crossed
The eddying river Acheron twice thanks to fate
And Kronos’ son granted that he would have toil
Beneath the dark earth. So don’t hope for these things.

As long as we are young, now is the time we must
Endure whatever of these things the god soon grants us to suffer.”

πῶνε [καὶ μέθυ᾿ ὦ] Μελάνιππ᾿ ἄμ᾿ ἔμοι· τί [φαῖς †
ὄταμε[. . . .]διννάεντ᾿ † Ἀχέροντα μέγ[αν πόρον
ζάβαι[ς ἀ]ελίω κόθαρον φάος [ἄψερον
ὄψεσθ᾿; ἀλλ᾿ ἄγι μὴ μεγάλων ἐπ[ιβάλλεο·
καὶ γὰρ Σίσυφος Αἰολίδαις βασίλευς [ἔφα
ἄνδρων πλεῖστα νοησάμενος [θανάτω κρέτην·
ἀλλὰ καὶ πολύιδρις ἔων ὐπὰ κᾶρι [δὶς
δ̣ιννάεντ᾿ Ἀχέροντ᾿ ἐπέραισε, μ[έμηδε δ᾿ ὦν
αὔτῳ μόχθον ἔχην Κρονίδαις βα [σίλευς κάτω
ελαίνας χθόνος· ἀλλ᾿ ἄγι μὴ τά[δ᾿ ἐπέλπεο·
θᾶς] τ᾿ ἀβάσομεν αἴ ποτα κἄλλοτα ν [ῦν χρέων
φέρ]ην ὄττινα τῶνδε πάθην τά[χα δῷ θέος.

Image result for medieval manuscript acheron
Dante Being rowed across Acheron, 5th c, Yates Thompson MS 36, f. 6r. B.L.

Some of us can’t say this any more…

Death from the Sea and Cities of Men: Odysseus and Mortality

A re-post in honor of Odyssey Round the World

Homer, Odyssey 11.119–137 [cf. 23.265–284]

“But after you kill the suitors in your home
Either with a trick or openly with sharp bronze,
Then go, taking with you a well-shaped oar,
until you come to people who know nothing of the sea,
men who do not eat food that has been mixed with salt.
These people also know nothing of purple-prowed ships,
Nor well-shaped oars which give the ships their wings.
I will speak to you an obvious sign and it will not escape you.
Whenever some other traveler meets you and asks
Why you have a winnowing fan on your fine shoulder,
At that very point drive the well-shaped oar in the ground
And once you sacrifice a bull a a boar which has loved sows,
Go home again and complete holy hekatombs
To the immortal gods, who live in the broad sky,
All of them in order. And then from the sea death will come
To you in a gentle way, and it will kill you
Already taken by a kind old age. Your people
Will be prosperous around you. I speak these things truly.”

αὐτὰρ ἐπὴν μνηστῆρας ἐνὶ μεγάροισι τεοῖσι
κτείνῃς ἠὲ δόλῳ ἢ ἀμφαδὸν ὀξέϊ χαλκῷ,
ἔρχεσθαι δὴ ἔπειτα, λαβὼν εὐῆρες ἐρετμόν,
εἰς ὅ κε τοὺς ἀφίκηαι, οἳ οὐκ ἴσασι θάλασσαν
ἀνέρες οὐδέ θ’ ἅλεσσι μεμιγμένον εἶδαρ ἔδουσιν·
οὐδ’ ἄρα τοὶ ἴσασι νέας φοινικοπαρῄους,
οὐδ’ εὐήρε’ ἐρετμά, τά τε πτερὰ νηυσὶ πέλονται.
σῆμα δέ τοι ἐρέω μάλ’ ἀριφραδές, οὐδέ σε λήσει·
ὁππότε κεν δή τοι ξυμβλήμενος ἄλλος ὁδίτης
φήῃ ἀθηρηλοιγὸν ἔχειν ἀνὰ φαιδίμῳ ὤμῳ,
καὶ τότε δὴ γαίῃ πήξας εὐῆρες ἐρετμόν,
ἕρξας ἱερὰ καλὰ Ποσειδάωνι ἄνακτι,
ἀρνειὸν ταῦρόν τε συῶν τ’ ἐπιβήτορα κάπρον,
οἴκαδ’ ἀποστείχειν ἕρδειν θ’ ἱερὰς ἑκατόμβας
ἀθανάτοισι θεοῖσι, τοὶ οὐρανὸν εὐρὺν ἔχουσι,
πᾶσι μάλ’ ἑξείης. θάνατος δέ τοι ἐξ ἁλὸς αὐτῷ
ἀβληχρὸς μάλα τοῖος ἐλεύσεται, ὅς κέ σε πέφνῃ
γήρᾳ ὕπο λιπαρῷ ἀρημένον· ἀμφὶ δὲ λαοὶ
ὄλβιοι ἔσσονται. τὰ δέ τοι νημερτέα εἴρω.’

Why does Odysseus leave home again and how does he die? According to the prophecy, he still has to make amends with Poseidon. From this perspective, his journey is a type of expiation. As with many details in the Odyssey, however, we have only Odysseus to trust: he is the one who narrates the prophecy! One slight difference between the two versions of the prophecy gives me pause.

Odysseus does not come straight out and tell the story to his wife. Instead, he merely outlines that there will be more troubles and uses language of toil and suffering which is familiar from the rest of the epic.

Odyssey 23.248–253

“Wife, we have not yet come to the end of our struggles
But toil without measure is still in front of us,
Great and hard toil, all the things which I have to complete.
For the spirit of Teiresias prophesied this to me
On that day when I went to the home of Hades
To inquire about my companions’ homecoming and my own.”

“ὦ γύναι, οὐ γάρ πω πάντων ἐπὶ πείρατ’ ἀέθλων
ἤλθομεν, ἀλλ’ ἔτ’ ὄπισθεν ἀμέτρητος πόνος ἔσται,
πολλὸς καὶ χαλεπός, τὸν ἐμὲ χρὴ πάντα τελέσσαι.
ὣς γάρ μοι ψυχὴ μαντεύσατο Τειρεσίαο
ἤματι τῷ, ὅτε δὴ κατέβην δόμον ῎Αϊδος εἴσω,
νόστον ἑταίροισιν διζήμενος ἠδ’ ἐμοὶ αὐτῷ.

For someone who has suffered so much in this epic with not knowing the outcome of events, with the paralysis that comes from grief that is unresolved, Penelope is compelled to ask Odysseus to tell her (256-262) ending with a gnomic plea that “it is not at all worse to know right away” (πεύσομαι, αὐτίκα δ’ ἐστὶ δαήμεναι οὔ τι χέρειον). Odysseus winds up his story and prepares to recite the prophecy, but he begins differently.

Odyssey 23.265–279

“But I will tell you and I will not hide it.
My heart will not take pleasure in it. For I take no joy
Since he ordered me to go again through many cities of men
Holding a well-shaped oar in my hands…”

…αὐτὰρ ἐγὼ μυθήσομαι οὐδ’ ἐπικεύσω.
οὐ μέν τοι θυμὸς κεχαρήσεται· οὐδὲ γὰρ αὐτὸς
χαίρω, ἐπεὶ μάλα πολλὰ βροτῶν ἐπὶ ἄστε’ ἄνωγεν
ἐλθεῖν, ἐν χείρεσσιν ἔχοντ’ εὐῆρες ἐρετμόν.

After building up the suffering and forestalling any clarification, he seems almost to protest too much that he will not enjoy what the future brings. His curse, he claims, is that he is ordered to go through many cities of men. The absence of this line in the original narration alone would be telling, but it is even more marked because it recalls the third line of the epic’s proem: πολλῶν δ’ ἀνθρώπων ἴδεν ἄστεα καὶ νόον ἔγνω (“he knew the cities and the mind of many people”. This traveling through many cities for which Odysseus is famous enough to be marked at the beginning of the poem does not really happen in our epic.

Note as well, that Odysseus’ tale of the future undoes much of what the Homeric Odyssey accomplishes. His future toils are his alone: there is no room for the lives of his son, elderly father, or wife. So, even though Odysseus is home and reunited with his family, this new revelation is enough to imply, perhaps, that when this story is over, Odysseus returns to himself, the one before the Odyssey brought him home again.

This is, I think, the inspiration behind Cavafy’s startling poem on the topic.

C. P. Cavafy, Second Odyssey [Walter Kaiser, trans.]

A great second Odyssey,
Greater even than the first perhaps,
But alas, without Homer, without hexameters.

Small was his ancestral home,
Small was his ancestral city,
And the whole of his Ithaca was small.

The affection of Telemachus, the loyalty
Of Penelope, his father’s aging years,
His old friends, the love
Of his devoted subjects,
The happy repose of his home,
Penetrated like rays of joy
The heart of the seafarer.

And like rays they faded.

The thirst
For the sea rose up with him.
He hated the air of the dry land.
At night, spectres of Hesperia
Came to trouble his sleep.
He was seized with nostalgia
For voyages, for the morning arrivals
At harbors you sail into,
With such happiness, for the first time.

The affection of Telemachus, the loyalty
Of Penelope, his father’s aging years,
His old friends, the love
Of his devoted subjects,
The peace and repose of his home
Bored him.

And so he left.

As the shores of Ithaca gradually
Faded away behind him
And he sailed swiftly westward
Toward Iberia and the Pillars of Hercules,
Far from every Achaean sea,
He felt he was alive once more,
Freed from the oppressive bonds
Of familiar, domestic things.
And his adventurous heart rejoiced
Coldly, devoid of love.

Another reception of Odysseus that echoes some of these themes is Tennyson’s “Ulysses”. The poem begins with frustration, the complaint that it is useless for a king to sit and rule men less than he with an aging wife, a crowd that cannot understand him (1–5). Tennyson’s Odysseus has retreated into an interior life, rejecting the dismal repetition of his life at home, and imaging him self as he once was. For this hero, a life at home is a life of wasted opportunities. The poem’s Ulysses confesses “I cannot rest from travel: I will drink / Life to the lees…” (6–7). This Ulysses understands his coming transformation: “…I am become a name” (11) and this name is made up of his travels, his suffering, and his joys (11–20). The narrator continues (20–30):

How dull it is to pause, to make an end,
To rust unburnish’d, not to shine in use!
As tho’ to breathe were life! Life piled on life
Were all too little, and of one to me
Little remains: but every hour is saved
From that eternal silence, something more,
A bringer of new things; and vile it were
For some three suns to store and hoard myself,
And this gray spirit yearning in desire
To follow knowledge like a sinking star,
Beyond the utmost bound of human thought.

Although in the next portion of the poem, Ulysses looks briefly back at the world he leaves to his son (31–42), this passage homes in on the Odyssey’s hero in a different light. Odysseus is looking forward to the boundary of death and although he concedes it is closer than ever before, he seems determined to inhabit it and atomize it, turning what remains of life to something like Zeno’s paradox, as if by filling every portion of it, he may always have another portion to fill. As will become clear from the prophecy itself, boundaries and limits are at the very core of his worry.

Tennyson’s Ulysses returns to the sea just as the Odyssey’s protagonist promises. He narrates a journey through the space of the sea that is also a straining against the bounds of time. This final battle, personal if epic still, culminates in Tennyson’s final, grasping boast: “To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.”

But to what is this Odysseus yielding? The story of the prophecy is ultimately that of an externally imposed compulsion. In its simplest form, this is death. In the more complex vision of the poem, this is fate, the very thing Zeus says men make worse through their own recklessness at the beginning of the epic.

Perhaps what is really chilling is that Odysseus is looking forward to the end of his story, to his own death. Few of us embrace the idea of our own ending. And when we know that the milestones of life and perhaps our greatest accomplishments are behind us, we often have little choice but to look toward the end on the horizon. This is a different type of helplessness from what Odysseus endures during his ‘exile’ with Kalypso–when he is stranded on Ogygia he has no where to go and all the time in the world. Once he gets home, he can go anywhere, but where has all that time gone?

In a way, Odysseus continues on the journey of his life rather than stopping and facing the reality around him. In other heroic tales–Bellerophon and Herakles especially, but Gilgamesh too–after a hero completes his great deeds, he metaphorically and literally challenges death only, ultimately, to fail. The fall of a hero is an allegory for what happens to us all when we are no longer young but not yet old: we either scan the horizon for our ending, or run to avoid even looking for it.

But I think there may be another allegory beyond this one. As Alex Purves (2006) and John Peradotto (along with Ann Bergren 1983) note, Odysseus’ emphasis the fact that they are not at “the limits of their suffering” (πάντων ἐπὶ πείρατ’ ἀέθλων) and on the “boundless toil” (ἀμέτρητος πόνος) strains against the limits of the narrative and the poem. But this epic is also about the boundaries of a life as it is lived. To look for the experiences of the life beyond the story we are living is to look for the promise that this story that our story will not end.

And, again, in that oar–as Alex Purves notes–we find a promise of transformation as the relationship between signifier and signified breaks down. The oar becomes a thing it isn’t when it is transported into different lands and, once planted, it is a “clear sign”, a sema of what has been accomplished.  In the Iliad (7.81-91), a sema is the burial mound which will tell the story of what has transpired to future generations. It reduces an active, living thing, to a still, singular sign of the past. Here, of course, is the paradox of kleos perhaps articulated by Achilles’ rejection of the Iliadic ethos when he appears in the Odyssey: the story that continues on and does not change is not the self. The memory of the person is not the person remembered.

And in the Odyssey, it has already been established that an oar can function as the marker for a tomb–this is precisely what Elpenor requests when he meets Odysseus after dying (11.68-78). As a marker, a tombstone is final and, without readers, simple rather than complex. The single sign in the future Teiresias promises in the first version of the prophecy stands at odds with the multiplicity of meanings within the Odyssey and the multiple versions of the man whose tale it tells. So, while others have argued well that the prophecy anticipates a day and a place beyond the bounds of the heroic world, of epic meaning, and the range of epic transmission, I would add that this moment also reflects anxiety about the limits of the self.

(for a longer bibliography see at the end of the post)

Porphyry has an allegorical take Odysseus’ death and the tale of the sea.

Porphyry, On the Cave of the Nymphs 35

“And thus one may not escape from his toils, but when he has emerged from the sea altogether that his thoughts are so untouched of the sea and material matters, that he believes that an oar is a winnowing fan because of his total inexperience of the tools and affairs of the sea.”

ἵνα γυμνωθεὶς τῶν ῥακέων καθέλῃ πάντα καὶ οὐδ’ οὕτως ἀπαλλαγῇ τῶν πόνων, ἀλλ’ ὅταν παντελῶς ἔξαλος γένηται καὶ ἐν ψυχαῖς ἀπείροις θαλασσίων καὶ ἐνύλων ἔργων, ὡς πτύον εἶναι ἡγεῖσθαι τὴν κώπην διὰ τὴν τῶν ἐναλίων ὀργάνων καὶ ἔργων παντελῆ ἀπειρίαν.

Of course, in ancient myth, the “death from the sea” bit was not always considered an allegory. Homeric interpreters struggle over whether the phrase “from the sea” means a death that travels from the sea or one that happens away from the sea. Most versions settle on the first interpretation.

According  to Aeschylus’ fragmentary Psychagogoi, Teiresias prophesied to Odysseus that his death would come from the sea in an avian fecal format:

<ΤΕΙΡΕΣ.> ‘ἐρρω<ι>διὸς γὰρ ὑψόθεν ποτώμενος
ὄνθω<ι> σε πλήξε<ι>, νηδύιος χειλώμασιν.
ἐκ τοῦ δ’ ἄκανθα ποντίου βοσκήματος
σήψει παλαιὸν δέρμα καὶ τριχορρυές’.

“As a heron flies on high, he will strike you with shit from his stomach’s end.
And the thorns from that watery food will rot your old and balding skin.”

This may correspond to the Odyssey‘s cryptic note that “death will come from the sea”. For a great discussion, see Timothy Gantz. Early Greek Myth. 1993. 711-712.

A scholiast to the Odyssey glosses the “death will come to you from the sea” line as follows: “Some also say that Hephaistos at the bidding of Kirkê fashioned a spear from Telegonos from a sea sting-ray’s stinger, which Phorkys had killed while it was trying to eat fish in his harbor. The spear-base was adamantine and the handle was gold and that killed Odysseus.” (καί φασιν ὡς ἐντεύξει τῆς Κίρκης ῞Ηφαιστος κατεσκεύασε Τηλεγόνῳ δόρυ ἐκ τρυγόνος θαλασσίας, ἣν Φόρκυς ἀνεῖλεν ἐσθίουσαν τοὺς ἐν τῇ Φορκίδι λίμνῃ ἰχθῦς• οὗ τὴν μὲν ἐπιδορατίδα ἀδαμαντίνην, τὸν δὲ στύρακα χρυσοῦν εἶναι, τὸν ᾿Οδυσσέα ἀνεῖλεν,Schol. ad. Od. 11.134).

This is the story recorded in Apollodoros’ Epitome 7.36:

“Telegonos, after learning from Kirkê that he was the child of Odysseus, sailed out looking for him. After he arrived in Ithaka, he began to steal some of the Island’s cattle and he wounded Odysseus in the hand, who came out to help against him, with a spear that had a point made of a sting-ray’s spine. Then Odysseus died.”

[36] Τηλέγονος δὲ παρὰ Κίρκης μαθὼν ὅτι παῖς Ὀδυσσέως ἐστίν, ἐπὶ τὴν τούτου ζήτησιν ἐκπλεῖ. παραγενόμενος δὲ εἰς Ἰθάκην τὴν νῆσον ἀπελαύνει τινὰ τῶν βοσκημάτων, καὶ Ὀδυσσέα βοηθοῦντα τῷ μετὰ χεῖρας δόρατι Τηλέγονος τρυγόνος κέντρον τὴν αἰχμὴν ἔχοντι τιτρώσκει, καὶ Ὀδυσσεὺς θνήσκει.

This poisonous sting-ray weapon, as you might imagine, is exactly the type of thing Hellenistic authors might get excited about. The fragmentary historian Dictys tells a bit of a more complicated story: he has Odysseus send Telemachus away because dream-interpreters told him he would be killed by his son. According to Dictys, Telegonos struck him in the lung (τιτρώσκει τὸν ᾿Οδυσσέα κατὰ τοῦ πλευροῦ) “with a sting-ray’s point given to him by Kirkê” (ὅπερ ἔδωκε κέντρον θαλάσσιον τῆι Κίρκηι, FGH 1a49F fr. 10).

When Eustathius discusses Odysseus’ death from the sea (Comm. ad Od. 1.404) he first makes it clear that what is interesting is that Odysseus doesn’t die on the sea (ἀλλ’ ὁ θάνατός σοι οὐκ ἐν αὐτῇ ἔσται ἀλλ’ ἔξω αὐτῆς.) He then presents features both from the scholia (the special stin-ray spear) and Dictys while also explaining that Oppian tells us more about this in the Halieutica. Eustathius explains that the spear-point made from a sting-ray was considered especially sharp by some (αἰχμὴ δὲ τρυγόνος τὸ ἐπὶ τῷ ἀδάμαντι ὀξύτατον). A basic point to be drawn from his extensive discussion is that the sting-ray spear was a generally well-known motif.

It is so well-known, of course, that the Scholia to Lykophron must present an alternative. There, Telegonos does kill Odysseus but Kirkê resurrects him with her drugs, only after which was Telegonos married to Penelope and Telemakhos was married to Kassiphone, his half-sister. (ἄλλοι δέ φασιν ὅτι ἀναιρεθεὶς ὁ ᾿Οδυσσεὺς ὑπὸ Τηλεγόνου πάλιν ὑπὸ τῆς Κίρκης φαρμάκῳ ἀνέστη καὶ ἐγήματο *Κασσιφόνην* Τηλεμάχῳ, Πηνελόπη δ’ ἐν Μακάρων νήσοις ἐγήματο Τηλεγόνῳ, Schol ad. Lykophron 805). But that’s a story for another day.

[updated c. 2 hours later with an assist from Erik (see comments for his addition of the Tennyson poem)]

Some works consulted

Benardete, S. 1997. The Bow and the Lyre: A Platonic Reading of the Odyssey. Lanham.

Bergen, Ann, 1983. “Odyssean Temporality: Many (Re)Turns,” in C. A. Rubino and C. W. Shelmerdine, eds., Approaches to Homer. Austin. 38–73.

Buchan, M. 2004. The Limits of Heroism: Homer and the Ethics of Reading. Ann Arbor.

Foley, J. M. 1997. “Traditional Signs and Homeric Art,” in E. Bakker and A. Kahane, eds., Written Voices, Spoken Signs: Tradition, Performance, and the Epic Text. Cambridge, Mass. 56–82.

Nagy, G. 1990. Pindar’s Homer: the Lyric Possession of an Epic Past. Baltimore.

Nagy, G. “The Cult Hero in Homeric Poetry and Beyond”

Olson, S. D. 1997. “Odysseus’ ‘Winnowing-Shovel’ (Hom. Od. 11.119–37) and the Island of the Cattle of the Sun,” ICS 22.7–9.

Purves, Alex. 2006. “Unmarked Space: Odysseus and the Inland Journey.” Arethusa 39: 1-20.

Purves, Alex. 2010. Space and Time in Ancient Greek Narrative. Cambridge.

Peradotto, J. 1985. “Prophecy Degree Zero: Tiresias and the End of the Odyssey,” in B. Gentili and G. Paioni, eds., Oralità: cultura, letteratura, discorso. Rome. 429–59.

_____. 1990. Man in the Middle Voice: Name and Narration in the Odyssey.Princeton.

Image result for death of odysseus
A frieze in the new Queen’s Gallery at Buckingham Palace by Alex Stoddard