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 Epicruean 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.

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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…

 

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Penelope On the Brevity of Life and Immortal Fame

Penelope speaks to the disguised stranger in the Odyssey

Homer, Od. 19.325–324

“Stranger, how could you learn about me, if I am in any way
Superior to other women in my thought and clever wit,
Especially if you dine dressed terribly in the halls?
For human beings have short lives.
One who is harsh and knows harsh things,
All mortals will wish for him to have pains later
While alive and when he is dead everyone mocks him.
But whoever is blameless and thinks blameless thoughts.
Guests carry his kleos wide and far to all people.
And many say that he is a good man.”

πῶς γὰρ ἐμεῦ σύ, ξεῖνε, δαήσεαι, εἴ τι γυναικῶν
ἀλλάων περίειμι νόον καὶ ἐπίφρονα μῆτιν,
εἴ κεν ἀϋσταλέος, κακὰ εἱμένος ἐν μεγάροισι
δαινύῃ; ἄνθρωποι δὲ μινυνθάδιοι τελέθουσιν.
ὃς μὲν ἀπηνὴς αὐτὸς ἔῃ καὶ ἀπηνέα εἰδῇ,
τῷ δὲ καταρῶνται πάντες βροτοὶ ἄλγε’ ὀπίσσω
ζωῷ, ἀτὰρ τεθνεῶτί γ’ ἐφεψιόωνται ἅπαντες·
ὃς δ’ ἂν ἀμύμων αὐτὸς ἔῃ καὶ ἀμύμονα εἰδῇ,
τοῦ μέν τε κλέος εὐρὺ διὰ ξεῖνοι φορέουσι
πάντας ἐπ’ ἀνθρώπους, πολλοί τέ μιν ἐσθλὸν ἔειπον.”

Schol. ad Od. 19.328

“Human beings are short-lived”: she says this as a euphemism and is really talking about glory. For, since human beings have brief lives, they need to do well in their life and leave a good fame about themselves behind them.”

ἄνθρωποι δὲ μινυνθάδιοι τελέθουσι] τοῦτο πρὸς τὴν εὐφημίαν εἴρηκεν, καὶ ἀναφέρεται ἐπὶ τὸ κλέος. ὀλιγοχρόνιοι δὲ ὑπάρχοντες οἱ ἄνθρωποι ὀφείλουσιν εὖ πράττειν ἐν τῷ βίῳ, καὶ φήμην ἀγαθὴν περὶ ἑαυτῶν ἀπολείπειν. V.

 

 

The Ghost Giving Up the Mind: Psukhe, Eidolon, and Phrenes in the Iliad

Homer, Il. 23.103-4

“Wretches, really someone in Hades’ home
is a spirit and ghost but there are no phrenes altogether inside.”

ὢ πόποι ἦ ῥά τίς ἐστι καὶ εἰν ᾿Αΐδαο δόμοισι
ψυχὴ καὶ εἴδωλον, ἀτὰρ φρένες οὐκ ἔνι πάμπαν·

Schol ad Il. 23.104a-b ex

A: “Soul and ghost, “but the thoughts were not completely present:
Patroklos converses thoughtfully and with understanding. This line, then, is inserted from the Odyssey [where it does not exist]. For there [Homer] makes the psykhai into shadowy ghosts with no share of understanding.

Either he means that thoughts [phrenes] are not perceptive, but some part of the organs within the body as is said elsewhere: “they kept the phrenes and liver inside” and elsewhere “there really where the thoughts go/are”. Therefore this is the whole body from a part. Thus Aristophanes the grammarian. But there is a diplê: Homer depicts the souls of the unburied as still preserving thought.”

[lemma] Some [say] that phrenes are the body. For the phrenes are a portion of the body. But he means that he did not obtain them as long as he was stretched out. But, it is better that the dead do not have thoughts. For he criticizes [Achilles] that he does not care. And, certainly, the unburied often give prophecies. Or, it could also be, that they are present, but not completely.”

Did. (?) | ψυχὴ καὶ εἴδωλον, <ἀτὰρ φρένες οὐκ ἔνι πάμπαν>:
Ariston. ἐμφρόνως καὶ συνετῶς διείλεκται πάντα ὁ Πάτροκλος. ἐνσέσεισται οὖν
ἐκ τῆς ᾿Οδυσσείας ὁ στίχος (ubi non exstat)· ἐκεῖ γὰρ τὰς ψυχὰς εἴδωλα σκιώδη φρονήσεως ἀμέτοχα ὑπέθετο. ἢ φρένας λέγει οὐ τὸ διανοητικόν, ἀλλὰ μέρος τι τῶν ἐντὸς σώματος, ὡς καὶ ἀλλαχοῦ „ἔν τε φρένες ἧπαρ ἔχουσι” (ι 301) καὶ πάλιν „ἔνθ’ ἄρα τε φρένες ἔρχαται” (Π 481). ἔστιν οὖν ἀπὸ μέρους τὸ ὅλον σῶμα. οὕτως ᾿Αριστοφάνης ὁ γραμματικός (fr. 87, p. 227 N. [= p. 191 Sl.]). | ἡ διπλῆ δέ, ὅτι τὰς τῶν
ἀτάφων ψυχὰς ῞Ομηρος ἔτι σωζούσας τὴν φρόνησιν ὑποτίθεται. A
ex. ἀτὰρ φρένες οὐκ ἔνι πάμπαν: φρένες T τινὲς σῶμα· μέρος γὰρ σώματος αἱ φρένες. τοῦτο δὲ εἶπε, παρ’ ὅσον ἐκταθεὶς οὐκ ἔλαβε. κάλλιον δέ, ὅτι φρένας οἱ τεθνεῶτες οὐκ ἔχουσιν· ἐμέμφετο γὰρ ὡς ἠμελημένος (cf. Ψ 69—74). b(BCE3E4)T καὶ
μὴν οἱ ἄταφοι προμαντεύονται. T ἢ εἰσὶ μέν, οὐ μὴν πάμπαν.
b(BCE3E4)T

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