Graves, Signs, and Glory

Homer, Iliad 7.89-91

“…They will heap up a mound [sêma] on the broad Hellespont
And someone of the men who are born in the future may say
As he says over the wine-faced sea in his many-benched ship:
This is the marker [sêma] of a man who died long ago,
A man whom shining Hektor killed when he was at his best”
So someone someday will say. And my glory will never perish”

σῆμά τέ οἱ χεύωσιν ἐπὶ πλατεῖ ῾Ελλησπόντῳ.
καί ποτέ τις εἴπῃσι καὶ ὀψιγόνων ἀνθρώπων
νηῒ πολυκλήϊδι πλέων ἐπὶ οἴνοπα πόντον·
ἀνδρὸς μὲν τόδε σῆμα πάλαι κατατεθνηῶτος,
ὅν ποτ’ ἀριστεύοντα κατέκτανε φαίδιμος ῞Εκτωρ.
ὥς ποτέ τις ἐρέει· τὸ δ’ ἐμὸν κλέος οὔ ποτ’ ὀλεῖται.

Iliad 24.801–804

“After heaping up the mound [sêma] they returned. Then
Once they were well gathered they shared a fine feast
In the halls of the god-nourished king, Priam.
Thus they were completing the burial of horse-taming Hektor.”

χεύαντες δὲ τὸ σῆμα πάλιν κίον· αὐτὰρ ἔπειτα
εὖ συναγειρόμενοι δαίνυντ’ ἐρικυδέα δαῖτα
δώμασιν ἐν Πριάμοιο διοτρεφέος βασιλῆος.
῝Ως οἵ γ’ ἀμφίεπον τάφον ῞Εκτορος ἱπποδάμοιο.

Hektor’s grave is described a little differently earlier. (I explain the “emptiness” of the tomb in another post)

Homer, Il. 24.797–800

“They quickly placed the bones in an empty trench and then
They covered it with great, well-fitted stones.
They rushed to heap up a marker [sêma], around which they set guards
In case the well-greaved Achaeans should attack too soon.”

αἶψα δ’ ἄρ’ ἐς κοίλην κάπετον θέσαν, αὐτὰρ ὕπερθε
πυκνοῖσιν λάεσσι κατεστόρεσαν μεγάλοισι·
ῥίμφα δὲ σῆμ’ ἔχεαν, περὶ δὲ σκοποὶ ἥατο πάντῃ,
μὴ πρὶν ἐφορμηθεῖεν ἐϋκνήμιδες ᾿Αχαιοί.

Odyssey 11.72-78 (Elpenor asking to be buried)

“Don’t leave me unmourned, unburied when you turn around
And go back—so that I might not be a reason for the gods to rage—
But burn me with my weapons and everything which is mind
Then build a mound [sêma] for me on the shore of the grey sea,
For a pitiful man, and for those to come to learn of me.
Finish these things for me and then affix an oar onto my tomb,
The one I was rowing with when I was alive and with my companions”

μή μ’ ἄκλαυτον ἄθαπτον ἰὼν ὄπιθεν καταλείπειν
νοσφισθείς, μή τοί τι θεῶν μήνιμα γένωμαι,
ἀλλά με κακκῆαι σὺν τεύχεσιν, ἅσσα μοί ἐστι,
σῆμά τέ μοι χεῦαι πολιῆς ἐπὶ θινὶ θαλάσσης,
ἀνδρὸς δυστήνοιο, καὶ ἐσσομένοισι πυθέσθαι·
ταῦτά τέ μοι τελέσαι πῆξαί τ’ ἐπὶ τύμβῳ ἐρετμόν,
τῷ καὶ ζωὸς ἔρεσσον ἐὼν μετ’ ἐμοῖσ’ ἑτάροισιν.’

Odyssey 11.126–129 (Teiresias’ prophecy)

I will speak to you an obvious sign [sêma] 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 into the ground

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

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

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.

“To live in Flight”: Seneca Makes ‘Carpe Diem’ Seem Mild

Seneca, Consolation ad Marciam 10.5

“The spirit must be warned that it loves things which will one day leave—no, they are already leaving. Whatever is granted to you by fortune, take it as if it has no guaranty. Seize up the pleasures of your children and allow your children to enjoy you in turn. And drink down every bit of joy without stopping.

Nothing is promised to you for this evening—I have granted too much a pledge—nothing is promised for this hour. You must hurry, we are being chased from behind. Soon this friend will be elsewhere, soon these friendships will be lost lost when the battle’s cry is raised. In truth, everything is stolen away. Poor are you fools who do not know how to live in flight.”

Saepe admonendus est animus, amet ut recessura, immo tamquam recedentia. Quicquid a fortuna datum est, tamquam exempto auctore possideas. Rapite ex liberis voluptates, fruendos vos in vicem liberis date et sine dilatione omne gaudium haurite; nihil de hodierna nocte promittitur—nimis magnam advocationem dedi—, nihil de hac hora. Festinandum est, instatur a tergo. Iam disicietur iste comitatus, iam contubernia ista sublato clamore solventur. Rapina verum omnium est; miseri nescitis in fuga vivere!

It's #MorbidMonday and here comes death riding a skeletal horse @BLMedieval Yates Thompson 6 f. 137

 @BLMedieval Yates Thompson 6 f. 137

The Shoot That Rises from the Fire: Some Herodotus and Homer for the Fires in Greece

Herodotus, Persian Wars Book 8.55

“I will now explain why I have told this story. There is in the Akropolis  an olive tree and a little salt pond inside the shrine of the one called the Earth-born Erekhtheus. The story among the Athenians is that after Poseidon and Athena struggled for the land they put these there as commemoration.

That olive tree was burned along with the temple by the barbarians. Yet, on the day after it burned, when some of the Athenians who were ordered to go there to sacrifice arrived at the temple, they saw a new shoot about as long as a cubit already growing from the trunk. They then told this story.”

 Τοῦ δὲ εἵνεκεν τούτων ἐπεμνήσθην, φράσω. ἔστι ἐν τῇ ἀκροπόλι ταύτῃ Ἐρεχθέος τοῦ γηγενέος λεγομένου εἶναι νηός, ἐν τῷ ἐλαίη τε καὶ θάλασσα ἔνι, τὰ λόγος παρὰ Ἀθηναίων Ποσειδέωνά τε καὶ Ἀθηναίην ἐρίσαντας περὶ τῆς χώρης μαρτύρια θέσθαι. ταύτην ὦν τὴν ἐλαίην ἅμα τῷ ἄλλῳ ἱρῷ κατέλαβε ἐμπρησθῆναι ὑπὸ τῶν βαρβάρων· δευτέρῃ δὲ ἡμέρῃ ἀπὸ τῆς ἐμπρήσιος Ἀθηναίων οἱ θύειν ὑπὸ βασιλέος κελευόμενοι ὡς ἀνέβησαν ἐς τὸ ἱρόν, ὥρων βλαστὸν ἐκ τοῦ στελέχεος ὅσον τε πηχυαῖον ἀναδεδραμηκότα. οὗτοι μέν νυν ταῦτα ἔφρασαν.

There are terrible wildfires in Attica, as many news outlets have reported (although in the US the events are incredibly under-reported). Our hearts are with our friends, colleagues, and everyone else affected by this. I will add to this post any suggestions for responsible charities to help with the suffering and the recovery. Words can do no justice to the suffering and loss in Attica this week.

As Harper’s Magazine reports, severe fires are likely to be the rule rather than the exception thanks to our use of resources, lack of preparedness and global warming. We can donate to help those affected, but in the long term we need to act to elect leaders who will acknowledge that we are hastening our own doom and we must hold accountable corporations that put short-term profit ahead of all else.

The passage above is from the part of Herodotus’ Histories after the Athenians have abandoned the city and retreated to Salamis to wage the war from the sea. This move is one of the most critical decisions of the Persian Wars, one that, arguably, is far more radical and important that the Spartan stand at Thermopylae. There is a simple beauty in the shoot growing from the burnt tree. But it is a beauty available only in hindsight and not to those who lost their lives before the story was told. The promise of new growth offers little solace to the dead and bereaved families.

The promise of new life from destruction is central to one of my favorite similes from Homer as well.

Homer, Odyssey 5.488-493

“Just as when someone hides a firebrand in black ash
On the farthest edge of the wilderness where there are no neighbors
And saves the seed of fire when there is no other way to kindle it,
Just so Odysseus covered himself in leaves. Then Athena
Poured sleep over his eyes so he might immediately rest
From his exhausting toil, once she closed his dear lashes.”

ὡς δ’ ὅτε τις δαλὸν σποδιῇ ἐνέκρυψε μελαίνῃ
ἀγροῦ ἐπ’ ἐσχατιῆς, ᾧ μὴ πάρα γείτονες ἄλλοι,
σπέρμα πυρὸς σῴζων, ἵνα μή ποθεν ἄλλοθεν αὕοι,
ὣς ᾿Οδυσεὺς φύλλοισι καλύψατο. τῷ δ’ ἄρ’ ᾿Αθήνη
ὕπνον ἐπ’ ὄμμασι χεῦ’, ἵνα μιν παύσειε τάχιστα
δυσπονέος καμάτοιο, φίλα βλέφαρ’ ἀμφικαλύψας.

For those who are able, let’s be the good neighbors the Greeks need right now. For the rest of us, let’s remember that the promise of life and regrowth is contingent on the conditions that give life to begin with. We have the ability to make our lives together better or worse. We will never rid ourselves of all risk and disaster, but we can make the decision not to rush headlong into it.

From a Greek correspondent:

Cicero Lays It All Out: Better Not to Live Than See These Things!

This is a real passage from Cicero, unlike some others.

Cicero to Titus, 46 BCE Letters to Friends 5.16

“If your own sorrow moves you or if you are weeping at the thought of your own affairs, then I believe that you cannot easily use up all your pain. If, however, the greater spirit of love tortures who and you grieve over the loss of those who have died, I will not repeat those things which I have most frequently read and heard—that there is nothing bad in death since if any sense of it exists then it should not be considered death but some immortality, while if there is no sense of it at all than what cannot be felt should not be considered pitiable.

But I can still assert this without a second thought: whoever has departed from the current events which have been whipped up and prepared and are hanging over our country has been robbed of nothing. What room is there left any more for shame, honor, virtue, honest pursuits, the noble arts, any kind of liberty or even place of safety?”

Quod si tuum te desiderium movet aut si tuarum rerum cogitatione maeres, non facile exhauriri tibi istum dolorem posse universum puto; sin illa te res cruciat quae magis amoris est, ut eorum qui occiderunt miserias lugeas, ut ea non dicam quae saepissime et legi et audivi, nihil mali esse in morte, ex qua si resideat sensus immortalitas illa potius quam mors ducenda sit, sin sit amissus nulla videri miseria debeat quae non sentiatur, hoc tamen non dubitans confirmare possum, ea misceri, parari, impendere rei publicae quae qui reliquerit nullo modo mihi quidem deceptus esse videatur. quid est enim iam non modo pudori, probitati, virtuti, rectis studiis, bonis artibus sed omnino libertati ac saluti loci?

The Original Virgin Suicides

When looking at discussions of suicide in the ancient world I have been struck by how different attitudes were then when compared to our own. I guess I always knew this, but had not really thought too deeply upon it. I am reluctant to post some of them, because I think that out of context they could be read harmfully as a support for if not glorification of suicide. At the same time, however, I think it probably does more harm than good not to take a hard look at ancient attitudes.

Here’s an anecdote that is chilling and a bit upsetting. Warning: 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.

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.

“The Course Fortune Gave Me”: Cicero and Seneca on Suicide

Ibykos, Fr. 32

“It is not possible to find medicine to bring life to the dead.”

οὐκ ἔστιν ἀποφθιμένοις ζωᾶς ἔτι φάρμακον εὑρεῖν

Basil, Letter 131

“Since we both need consolation, may we be solace to one another.”

ἐπεὶ οὖν ἀμφότεροι χρῄζομεν παρακλήσεως, ἀλλήλοις γενώμεθα παραμυθία

Attributed to Socrates (in Stobaeus)

“The sick need doctors; the unlucky need encouragement from friends.”

Τοῖς μὲν νοσοῦσιν ἰατρούς, τοῖς δ’ ἀτυχοῦσι φίλους δεῖ παραινεῖν.

Prior to the spread of Christianity, Romans and Greeks had somewhat different attitudes on suicide from our own, but they were by no means consistent and harmonious. Some–like Aristotle in his Nicomachean Ethics–viewed suicide as cowardly. Roman authors like Cicero and Seneca go far to the other direction, seeming to glorify it at times while granting the act far greater complexity on other occasions.

For those of us who have suffered from depression or have lost loved ones to substance abuse or suicide, ancient comments on suicide and mental health can provide little comfort. Greek and Roman attitudes on the subject are important to reckon with, however, for the very reason that they can seem so different from our own.

The Ancient touches upon ours but does not necessarily need to define it. The boundaries of life and death cannot be crossed again. 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.

Cicero, De Officiis 1.112-113

“This diversity of charactertistics has so much power that it may be required for one person to bring about his own death but forbidden for another. For wasn’t Marcus Cato in one kind of need and others were in different situations when he gave himself up to Caesar in Africa? Perhaps there would have been condemnation of the others if they had killed themselves because their style of life and their habits had been easier while life granted Cato an unbelievable seriousness which he himself strengthened through unending dedication as he remained always persistent in his plans and his decisions. He had to die before gazing upon the face of a tyrant.

Think of how much Odysseus endured on his prolonged journey when he even served women—if Cicero and Calypso must be called women—and he labored to be likable and pleasant to everyone in every speech! Indeed, once at home he even put up with the insults of slaves and slave-girls so that he might finally come to the end he desired. But Ajax—thanks to the spirit he is given—would have preferred a thousand deaths to such indignity.”

 Atque haec differentia naturarum tantam habet vim, ut non numquam mortem sibi ipse consciscere alius debeat, alius [in eadem causa] non debeat. Num enim alia in causa M. Cato fuit, alia ceteri, qui se in Africa Caesari tradiderunt? Atqui ceteris forsitan vitio datum esset, si se interemissent, propterea quod lenior eorum vita et mores fuerant faciliores, Catoni cum incredibilem tribuisset natura gravitatem eamque ipse perpetua constantia roboravisset semperque in proposito susceptoque consilio permansisset, moriendum potius quam tyranni vultus aspiciendus fuit.

Quam multa passus est Ulixes in illo errore diuturno, cum et mulieribus, si Circe et Calypso mulieres appellandae sunt, inserviret et in omni sermone omnibus affabilem [et iucundum]3esse se vellet! domi vero etiam contumelias servorum ancillarumque pertulit, ut ad id aliquando, quod cupiebat, veniret. At Aiax, quo animo traditur, milies oppetere mortem quam illa perpeti maluisset.

Seneca, De Beata Vita 19

“They deny that Diodorus the Epicuruean philosopher who in recent days took his own life with his own hand was not obedient to Epicurus when he cut his own throat. Some would wish that this deed be seen as insanity, others as fear—but he, at the same time, announced that he was happy and full with good conscience as he left life. He praised the time of life spent peaceful in port at anchor and spoke words which you have heard unwillingly as if you must do the same: “I have lived and I have completed the course fortune gave me.”

Diodorum, Epicureum philosophum, qui intra paucos dies finem vitae suae manu sua imposuit, negant ex decreto Epicuri fecisse, quod sibi gulam praesecuit. Alii dementiam videri volunt factum hoc eius, alii temeritatem; ille interim beatus ac plenus bona conscientia reddidit sibi testimonium vita excedens laudavitque aetatis in portu et ad ancoram actae quietem et dixit, quod vos inviti audistis, quasi vobis quoque faciendum sit:

Vixi et quem dederat cursum fortuna peregi.

Image result for ancient greek ajax

Ajax’s earlier burden

Why Pursue Scholarship? (Hint: Not to Be Happy)

Take time to be sick in the right way….

Epictetus, 3.10-12

“But, am I not a scholar? Why do you pursue scholarship? Servant, do you do this to be content? Do you do it to be safe? Do you do it to grasp nature and live in accordance with it? What stops you when you’re sick from having your principle align with nature? This is the test of the matter, the crucible for any philosopher. This is also a part of life, like a stroll, a voyage, a trip, the fever too! Do you read while walking? No! And you don’t read while having a fever.  But if you walk well, you deliver the promise of one who walks.

If you have a fever, then do what one who has a fever should do. What does it mean to be sick well? Don’t blame god, or man. Don’t be undone by the things that happen. Await death bravely and correctly, and do what is given to you.”

Ἀλλ᾿ οὐ φιλολογῶ;—Τίνος δ᾿ ἕνεκα φιλολογεῖς; ἀνδράποδον, οὐχ ἵνα εὐροῇς; οὐχ ἵνα εὐσταθῇς; οὐχ ἵνα κατὰ φύσιν ἔχῃς καὶ διεξάγῃς;  τί κωλύει πυρέσσοντα κατὰ φύσιν ἔχειν τὸ ἡγεμονικόν; ἐνθάδ᾿ ὁ ἔλεγχος τοῦ πράγματος, ἡ δοκιμασία τοῦ φιλοσοφοῦντος. μέρος γάρ ἐστι καὶ τοῦτο τοῦ βίου, ὡς περίπατος, ὡς πλοῦς, ὡς ὁδοιπορία, οὕτως καὶ πυρετός. μή τι περιπατῶν ἀναγιγνώσκεις;—Οὔ.—Οὕτως οὐδὲ πυρέσσων. ἀλλ᾿ ἂν καλῶς περιπατῇς, ἔχεις τὸ τοῦ περιπατοῦντος· ἂν καλῶς πυρέξῃς, ἔχεις τὰ τοῦ πυρέσσοντος. 13τί ἐστὶ καλῶς πυρέσσειν; μὴ θεὸν μέμψασθαι, μὴ ἄνθρωπον, μὴ θλιβῆναι ὑπὸ τῶν γινομένων, εὖ καὶ καλῶς προσδέχεσθαι τὸν θάνατον, ποιεῖν τὰ προστασσόμενα·

Let’s Talk about [Death] Baby: #DeathAndClassics

Roman Epitaph, B808

“[Hey,] you who are reading this epitaph, remember that you too will be dead.”

Qui legis hunc titulum, mortalem te esse memento.

A few days ago I posted the following tweet.

Aelian, Fragment 187/190 (from Stobaeus 3.29.58)

“Solon the Athenian, the son of Eksêkestides, when his nephew sang some song of Sappho at a drinking party, took pleasure in it and asked the young man to teach it to him. When someone asked why he was eager to learn it, he responded: “So, once I learn it, I may die.”

Σόλων ὁ ᾿Αθηναῖος ᾿Εξηκεστίδου παρὰ πότον τοῦ ἀδελφιδοῦ αὐτοῦ μέλος τι Σαπφοῦς ᾄσαντος, ἥσθη τῷ μέλει καὶ προσέταξε τῷ μειρακίῳ διδάξει αὐτόν. ἐρωτήσαντος δέ τινος διὰ ποίαν αἰτίαν τοῦτο σπουδάσειεν, ὃ δὲ ἔφη ‘ἵνα μαθὼν αὐτὸ ἀποθάνω.’

There were lots of interesting answers–it would be annoying to post all the tweets here, but I have added some to give an idea of the range of responses.

Simonides, Fragment 15

“Human strength is meager
Our plains incomplete
Toil follows toil in our short lives.
Death looms inescapable for all—
People who are good and bad draw
of that an equal portion.”

ἀνθρώπων ὀλίγον μὲν
κάρτος, ἄπρακτοι δὲ μεληδόνες,
αἰῶνι δ’ ἐν παύρωι πόνος ἀμφὶ πόνωι·
ὁ δ’ ἄφυκτος ὁμῶς ἐπικρέμαται θάνατος·
κείνου γὰρ ἴσον λάχον μέρος οἵ τ’ ἀγαθοὶ
ὅστις τε κακός.

Fragment 16

“Since you are human, never claim what tomorrow might bring.
Nor, if you see a fortunate man, how long it will last.
For not even the time of a tender-winged fly
Is not as fast.”

ἄνθρωπος ἐὼν μή ποτε φάσηις ὅ τι γίνεται 〚αὔριον〛,
μηδ’ ἄνδρα ἰδὼν ὄλβιον ὅσσον χρόνον ἔσσεται·
ὠκεῖα γὰρ οὐδὲ τανυπτερύγου μυίας
οὕτως ἁ μετάστασις.

Here are the tweets I sent to try to contextualize the question:

I ask the #deathandclassics question in all seriousness because it is a question I actually consider often (1/8)

I actually have been memorizing the opening lines of the #Odyssey to recite to myself in times of agitation. And I think, if I know I am going to die, I will recite it to myself. (2/8)

Why the #Odyssey? I think the #Iliad is the poem of death and the Odyssey is the poem of life. Both poems are at some level about what it means to be a person, but the Odyssey is about how life is lived. #deathandclassics (3/8)

In a way, it will be like a replaying of my life through a story I have read many times. There is also the ancient allegorical tradition that the Odyssey is about the transition from one realm to the next, the movement of a soul from one plane to another #deathandclassics (4/8)

Even without the allegory, the Odyssey is about the journey of a person and the journey that IS the person. #deathandclassics (5/8)

I think that this might be nice to think about in the final moments—that even though I individual am passing on, I am drifting away on words that have moved through a thousand years #deathandclassics (6/8)

Continue reading

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

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