Electra On The Couch

Electra’s mother, and her mother’s lover, killed her father, Agamemnon. Her brother, Orestes, is in exile. She misses her father, and her relationship with her mother and stepfather isn’t good. As you’d imagine, Electra has the blues.

The question, though, is whether in Sophocles’ depiction of Electra’s grieving has tipped into pathology; whether melancholia has replaced mourning.

Based on Freud’s discussion of pathological grief in his essay “Mourning and Melancholia,” Electra might well need therapy:

Freud:

“The distinguishing mental features of melancholia are a profoundly painful dejection, abrogation of interest in the outside world, loss of capacity to love, inhibition of all activity, and a lowering of self-regarding feelings”

Electra in soliloquy (103-106):

I will not put an end to this bleak lament and weeping
While I gaze on the stars’ radiant twinklings
Or on the day.

Electra to Chorus (821-22):

It would be a kindness if someone killed me
And a pain if I were to live.
I have no appetite for life.

Freud:

“The inhibition of the melancholic [a loss of interest in life] seems puzzling because we cannot see what it is that absorbs him [or her] so entirely.”

Chorus to Electra (121-123):

O child, child of a miserable mother–
Electra, what unrelenting lamentation
Destroys you unendingly?

Freud:

“They [melancholics] give a great deal of trouble, perpetually taking offense and behaving as if they had been treated with great injustice.”

Clytemnestra to Electra (519-522):

Now that Aegisthus is away, you show me no respect.
To top it off, time and again you’ve told lots of people
Things about me–that I’m brash, I rule unjustly,
I mistreat you and the things that are yours.

Freud:

“…like mourning, melancholia is the reaction to a real loss of a loved object. . . The loss of a love-object constitutes an excellent opportunity for the ambivalence in love-relationships to make itself felt and come to the fore.”

Electra to Chorus on the subject of Orestes (164-172):

I waited for him without fail, childless,
Forever suffering through life, unmarried,
Wet with tears and doomed to endless misfortunes.

But he forgets what he suffered and what he learnt.
Isn’t that why no message arrives without dashing my hopes?
He’s always longing,
Longing, but does not think to appear.

103-106

ἀλλ᾽ οὐ μὲν δὴ
λήξω θρήνων στυγερῶν τε γόων,
ἔστ᾽ ἂν παμφεγγεῖς ἄστρων
ῥιπάς, λεύσσω δὲ τόδ᾽ ἦμαρ

821-822

ὡς χάρις μέν, ἢν κτάνῃ,
λύπη δ᾽, ἐὰν ζῶ: τοῦ βίου δ᾽ οὐδεὶς πόθος.

121-123

ὦ παῖ, παῖ δυστανοτάτας
Ἠλέκτρα ματρός, τίς ἀεὶ
τάκει ςε ὧδ᾽ ἀκόρεστος οἰμωγὰ. . .;

519-522

νῦν δ᾿ ὡς ἄπεστ᾿ ἐκεῖνος, οὐδὲν ἐντρέπῃ
ἐμοῦ γε· καίτοι πολλὰ πρὸς πολλούς με δὴ
ἐξεῖπας ὡς θρασεῖα καὶ πέρα δίκης
ἄρχω, καθυβρίζουσα καὶ σὲ καὶ τὰ σά.

164-172

ὅν γ᾿ ἐγὼ ἀκάματα προσμένουσ᾿ ἄτεκνος,
τάλαιν᾿ ἀνύμφευτος αἰὲν οἰχνῶ,
δάκρυσι μυδαλέα, τὸν ἀνήνυτον
οἶτον ἔχουσα κακῶν· ὁ δὲ λάθεται
ὧν τ᾿ ἔπαθ᾿ ὧν τ᾿ ἐδάη. τί γὰρ οὐκ ἐμοὶ
ἔρχεται ἀγγελίας ἀπατώμενον;
ἀεὶ μὲν γὰρ ποθεῖ,
ποθῶν δ᾿ οὐκ ἀξιοῖ φανῆναι.

Statue of a Mourning Woman. Terracotta. 
300-275 BC. Found in Canosa, Italy. 
Paul Getty Museum.)

Larry Benn has a B.A. in English Literature from Harvard College, an M.Phil in English Literature from Oxford University, and a J.D. from Yale Law School. Making amends for a working life misspent in finance, he’s now a hobbyist in ancient languages and blogs at featsofgreek.blogspot.com.

Physician’s Notes on a Depressed Patient

Hippocrates, Epidemics 7

“Bouts of depression and a longing for death afflicted Parmeniskos before too; but he was in turns touched by a sense of elation. Once, in Olynthos during the Autumn, he went to bed without a voice and rested, not even trying to begin speaking for some time. At other times, he spoke a bit, but then again went silent. Sleep overcame him but then he would be awake, turning repeatedly in silence and delirium. His hand would go to his hypochondria as if he were in pain.

Sometimes he would turn away and lie very still. He had a continuous fever but was breathing easily. He said afterwards that he knew who the people who entered were. Sometimes, he would refuse the water they offered for a whole day and night; at other times, he would grab the pitcher and drink it all. He had urine as thick as a mule’s. But he was better by the 14th day.”

Παρμενίσκῳ καὶ πρότερον ἐνέπιπτον ἀθυμίαι καὶ ἵμερος ἀπαλλαγῆς βίου, ὁτὲ δὲ πάλιν εὐθυμίη. ἐν Ὀλύνθῳ δέ ποτε φθινοπώρου ἄφωνος κατέκειτο ἡσυχίην ἔχων, βραχύ τι ὅσον ἄρχεσθαι ἐπιχειρέων προσειπεῖν· ἤδη δέ τι καὶ διελέχθη, καὶ πάλιν ἄφωνος. ὕπνοι ἐνῆσαν, ὁτὲ δὲ ἀγρυπνίη, καὶ ῥιπτασμὸς μετὰ σιγῆς, καὶ ἀλυσμός, καὶ χεὶρ πρὸς ὑποχόνδρια ὡς ὀδυνωμένῳ· ὁτὲ δὲ ἀποστραφεὶς ἔκειτο ἡσυχίην ἄγων. ὁ πυρετὸς δὲ διατέλεος, καὶ εὔπνοος· ἔφη δὲ ὕστερον ἐπιγινώσκειν τοὺς ἐσιόντας· πιεῖν ὁτὲ μὲν ἡμέρης ὅλης καὶ νυκτὸς διδόντων, οὐκ ἤθελεν, ὁτὲ δὲ ἐξαίφνης τὸν στάμνον ἁρπάσας τοῦ ὕδατος ἐξέπιεν· οὖρον παχὺ ὡς ὑποζυγίου. περὶ δὲ τὴν τεσσαρεσκαίδεκα ἀνῆκεν.

A doctor examines a patient's urine in an illustration from the 13th century. Uroscopy, the study of urine, was one of the medieval physician's most effective tools, and is still employed today. (Photo by Bridgman Art Library)

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.

Physician’s Notes on a Depressed Patient

Hippocrates, Epidemics 7

“Bouts of depression and a longing for death afflicted Parmeniskos before too; but he was in turns touched by a sense of elation. Once, in Olynthos during the Autumn, he went to bed without a voice and rested, not even trying to begin speaking for some time. At other times, he spoke a bit, but then again went silent.

Sleep overcame him but then he would be awake, turning repeatedly in silence and delirium. His hand would go to his hypochondria as if he were in pain. Sometimes he would turn away and lie very still. He had a continuous fever but was breathing easily. He said afterwards that he knew who the people who entered were.

Sometimes, he would refuse the water they offered for a whole day and night; at other times, he would grab the pitcher and drink it all. He had urine as thick as a mule’s. But he was better by the 14th day.”

Παρμενίσκῳ καὶ πρότερον ἐνέπιπτον ἀθυμίαι καὶ ἵμερος ἀπαλλαγῆς βίου, ὁτὲ δὲ πάλιν εὐθυμίη. ἐν Ὀλύνθῳ δέ ποτε φθινοπώρου ἄφωνος κατέκειτο ἡσυχίην ἔχων, βραχύ τι ὅσον ἄρχεσθαι ἐπιχειρέων προσειπεῖν· ἤδη δέ τι καὶ διελέχθη, καὶ πάλιν ἄφωνος. ὕπνοι ἐνῆσαν, ὁτὲ δὲ ἀγρυπνίη, καὶ ῥιπτασμὸς μετὰ σιγῆς, καὶ ἀλυσμός, καὶ χεὶρ πρὸς ὑποχόνδρια ὡς ὀδυνωμένῳ· ὁτὲ δὲ ἀποστραφεὶς ἔκειτο ἡσυχίην ἄγων. ὁ πυρετὸς δὲ διατέλεος, καὶ εὔπνοος· ἔφη δὲ ὕστερον ἐπιγινώσκειν τοὺς ἐσιόντας· πιεῖν ὁτὲ μὲν ἡμέρης ὅλης καὶ νυκτὸς διδόντων, οὐκ ἤθελεν, ὁτὲ δὲ ἐξαίφνης τὸν στάμνον ἁρπάσας τοῦ ὕδατος ἐξέπιεν· οὖρον παχὺ ὡς ὑποζυγίου. περὶ δὲ τὴν τεσσαρεσκαίδεκα ἀνῆκεν.

A doctor examines a patient's urine in an illustration from the 13th century. Uroscopy, the study of urine, was one of the medieval physician's most effective tools, and is still employed today. (Photo by Bridgman Art Library)

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.

The Original Virgin Suicides

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.

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.

What’s Troubling Telemachus?

When Athena first goes to Ithaca to see Telemachus in the Odyssey, the narrator shifts focus and describes Odysseus’ son witnessing Mentes’ appearance (Athena in disguise, 1.113-120):

“God-like Telemachus saw her first by far.
For he was sitting among the suitors, tortured in his dear heart,
Dreaming about his noble father in his thoughts, if he should come home
From somewhere and scatter the suitors from his home,
And have his own place [honor] and rule over his possessions.
As he say imagining these things, he saw Athena,
And went straight to the entryway, rebuking himself
That a guest should stand in the doorway for so long…”

τὴν δὲ πολὺ πρῶτος ἴδε Τηλέμαχος θεοειδής·
ἧστο γὰρ ἐν μνηστῆρσι φίλον τετιημένος ἦτορ,
ὀσσόμενος πατέρ’ ἐσθλὸν ἐνὶ φρεσίν, εἴ ποθεν ἐλθὼν
μνηστήρων τῶν μὲν σκέδασιν κατὰ δώματα θείη,
τιμὴν δ’ αὐτὸς ἔχοι καὶ κτήμασιν οἷσιν ἀνάσσοι.
τὰ φρονέων μνηστῆρσι μεθήμενος εἴσιδ’ ᾿Αθήνην,
βῆ δ’ ἰθὺς προθύροιο, νεμεσσήθη δ’ ἐνὶ θυμῷ
ξεῖνον δηθὰ θύρῃσιν ἐφεστάμεν·

Telemachus is roused from a reverie by the appearance of a new stranger—and the characterization of his repose intrigues me. He does not appear to me to be a man of action except in the offering of hospitality. His emotional state is withdrawn: he inhabits his own thoughts, he is emotionally distressed, and he fantasizes about things being different from what they are. His first response is to rebuke himself for failing to live up to the very standard of hospitality that has been offered to the suitors, the abuse of which is a source of his frustration, and his daydream that his father will come home and put everything to rights.

telemachusgiovanni-battista-tiepolo-c-1740
By Giovanni Battisa Tiepolo, 18th Century

Although the phrase τετιημένος ἦτορ (“tortured/troubled in the heart”) does not have broad representation in the extant epic tradition, it does appear to have a rather marked one that indicates forced action or unwilling inaction. For instance, in the Iliad Ajax has to retreat from the Achaeans unwillingly (ὣς Αἴας τότ’ ἀπὸ Τρώων τετιημένος ἦτορ / ἤϊε πόλλ’ ἀέκων, 11.556-557). Odysseus describes himself the same way when mentioning the night he spent sleeping alone in the bushes on the shore of Skheria (7.287). The conceptual union between these two instances is that both Ajax and Odysseus are compelled to action by external forces. Later on in the Odyssey, the narrator describes Amphinomos suffering in the same way in book 18 when he feels fear at Odysseus-in-disguise’s prophecy (153-155)

“He went through the dear home, tortured in his heart,
And nodding his head. For he was imagining doom in his mind.
But there was no way to flee his fate….”

αὐτὰρ ὁ βῆ κατὰ δῶμα φίλον τετιημένος ἦτορ,
νευστάζων κεφαλῇ· δὴ γὰρ κακὸν ὄσσετο θυμῷ.
ἀλλ’ οὐδ’ ὧς φύγε κῆρα·…

Here, we have a thematic parallel for Telemachus’ first appearance. Amphinomos is full of dread over what he has just heard and cannot escape the future he is fearing. Note how both Amphinomos and Telemachus are characterized as occupied by their own thoughts, living an internal dream rather than engaging in the outside world.

There are other accounts that strengthen these associations in variations on the standard Homeric texts. When commenting upon Odysseus’ first appearance in book 5, the scholia record Aristonicus’ comment that the language is more fit (οἰκειότερον ἐν ᾿Ιλιάδι) for the Iliad at 2.721 where Philoktetes is described as “he lies there on the island suffering harsh pains” (ἀλλ’ ὃ μὲν ἐν νήσῳ κεῖτο κρατέρ’ ἄλγεα πάσχων, =Od. 5.13). He adds that it would be right for him instead to be “tortured in his heart” (νῦν δὲ ἔδει τετιημένος ἦτορ εἶναι, Schol. H ad Od. 5.13). Similarly Menelaos retreats from Patroklos’ body under force in book 17 of the Iliad, described as “troubled in his mind” (τετιηότι θυμῷ) and unwillingly—a phrase the scholia record appeared in the alternative τετιημένος ἦτορ in some manuscripts (Schol. Ad Il. 17.664b2). Another textual variant offers support: after Hera has been rebuffed by Zeus at the end of Iliad 1, most manuscripts depict Hephaestus as ministering to his mother, “white armed Hera” (λευκωλένῳ ῞Ηρῃ, 1.572) while the scholia report τετιημένῃ ἦτορ as a variant (Schol. bT ad Il. 1.572 Did. (?) λευκωλένῳ ῞Ηρῃ: ἄμεινον γράφειν „τετιημένῃ ἦτορ”). Hera’s ability to affect the action or even know Zeus’ plan has recently been limited—it makes sense that she would be characterized as being upset, unwilling, and trapped.

The description appears again once more with Telemachus and at a rather important juncture. After he has announced his departure at the assembly, Telemachus returns to his home in book two “tortured in his heart” (2.298) before he insults the suitors and declares that he is a grown man with a plan Od. 2.312–317):

“Isn’t it enough that you wasted my many fine possessions before, when I was still just a child [νήπιος], suitors? But now, when I am big, and I have learned by listening to the speech of other men, and the heart within me grows, I will discover some way that I may visit upon you wicked fates either when I go to Pylos or here in this country.”

ἦ οὐχ ἅλις, ὡς τὸ πάροιθεν ἐκείρετε πολλὰ καὶ ἐσθλὰ
κτήματ’ ἐμά, μνηστῆρες, ἐγὼ δ’ ἔτι νήπιος ἦα;
νῦν δ’ ὅτε δὴ μέγας εἰμί, καὶ ἄλλων μῦθον ἀκούων
πυνθάνομαι, καὶ δή μοι ἀέξεται ἔνδοθι θυμός,
πειρήσω, ὥς κ’ ὔμμι κακὰς ἐπὶ κῆρας ἰήλω,
ἠὲ Πύλονδ’ ἐλθὼν ἢ αὐτοῦ τῷδ’ ἐνὶ δήμῳ.

The application of the “tortured in the heart” phrase here troubled ancient readers—a scholion glosses its use as “not because he is sullen, but because he is thinking about how to leave” (φίλον τετιημένος ἦτορ] οὐκ ἐσκυθρωπακὼς, ἀλλὰ καὶ φροντίζων ὡς ἀποδημεῖν μέλλων, Schol ES ad Od. 2.298). The scholiastic adjustment here points both to the ‘typical’ interpretation of the line—that it indicates an isolated rumination—and the sense that something critical has changed here. As Telemachus moves into action and declares himself as an agent and a thinker, he also moves from his state of paralysis and rumination into a different part of his tale.

Physician’s Notes on a Depressed Patient

Hippocrates, Epidemics 7

“Bouts of depression and a longing for death afflicted Parmeniskos before too; but he was in turns touched by a sense of elation. Once, in Olynthos during the Autumn, he went to bed without a voice and rested, not even trying to begin speaking for some time. At other times, he spoke a bit, but then again went silent. Sleep overcame him but then he would be awake, turning repeatedly in silence and delirium. His hand would go to his hypochondria as if he were in pain. Sometimes he would turn away and lie very still. He had a continuous fever but was breathing easily. He said afterwards that he knew who the people who entered were. Sometimes, he would refuse the water they offered for a whole day and night; at other times, he would grab the pitcher and drink it all. He had urine as thick as a mule’s. But he was better by the 14th day.”

Παρμενίσκῳ καὶ πρότερον ἐνέπιπτον ἀθυμίαι καὶ ἵμερος ἀπαλλαγῆς βίου, ὁτὲ δὲ πάλιν εὐθυμίη. ἐν Ὀλύνθῳ δέ ποτε φθινοπώρου ἄφωνος κατέκειτο ἡσυχίην ἔχων, βραχύ τι ὅσον ἄρχεσθαι ἐπιχειρέων προσειπεῖν· ἤδη δέ τι καὶ διελέχθη, καὶ πάλιν ἄφωνος. ὕπνοι ἐνῆσαν, ὁτὲ δὲ ἀγρυπνίη, καὶ ῥιπτασμὸς μετὰ σιγῆς, καὶ ἀλυσμός, καὶ χεὶρ πρὸς ὑποχόνδρια ὡς ὀδυνωμένῳ· ὁτὲ δὲ ἀποστραφεὶς ἔκειτο ἡσυχίην ἄγων. ὁ πυρετὸς δὲ διατέλεος, καὶ εὔπνοος· ἔφη δὲ ὕστερον ἐπιγινώσκειν τοὺς ἐσιόντας· πιεῖν ὁτὲ μὲν ἡμέρης ὅλης καὶ νυκτὸς διδόντων, οὐκ ἤθελεν, ὁτὲ δὲ ἐξαίφνης τὸν στάμνον ἁρπάσας τοῦ ὕδατος ἐξέπιεν· οὖρον παχὺ ὡς ὑποζυγίου. περὶ δὲ τὴν τεσσαρεσκαίδεκα ἀνῆκεν.

A doctor examines a patient's urine in an illustration from the 13th century. Uroscopy, the study of urine, was one of the medieval physician's most effective tools, and is still employed today. (Photo by Bridgman Art Library)

Better to Laugh at Life Than Mourn

Seneca, De Tranquilitate Animi 15

“There is no advantage to have disposed of the causes of private sorrow, for the hatred of humankind is at times overwhelming. When you have considered how uncommon simplicity is, how unknown innocence is, and how trust is hardly anywhere unless it brings some benefit, or when the mass of successful crimes occurs to you along with the profit and losses of desire—each equally hateful—or of ambition so incapable of staying without its limits that it shines forth because of its foulness. The mind descends into night because of these thoughts as if the virtues had been reversed, those qualities it is neither possible to acquire nor profitable to practice, and shadows hang over us.

In this process, however, we should bend ourselves so that all the common faults seem not hateful to us but instead absurd and we should imitate Democritus rather than Heraclitus. The latter, whenever he stepped outside, used to weep; but the former used to laugh. To one, all human deeds seemed pitiful; to the other, they seemed signs of incompetence. Everything should be taken more lightly and endured with an easy spirit. It is more human to laugh at life than to hate it.

Consider too that that the person who laughs at humanity instead of mourning it deserves better from it. For the one reserves some space for good hope; while the other foolishly weeps affairs which he believes may not possibly be corrected.”

  1. Sed nihil prodest privatae tristitiae causas abiecisse; occupat enim nonnumquam odium generis humani. Cum cogitaveris, quam sit rara simplicitas et quam ignota innocentia et vix umquam, nisi cum expedit, fides, et occurrit tot scelerum felicium turba et libidinis lucra damnaque pariter invisa et ambitio usque eo iam se suis non continens terminis, ut per turpitudinem splendeat: agitur animus in noctem et velut eversis virtutibus, quas nec sperare licet nec habere prodest, tenebrae oboriuntur. In hoc itaque flectendi sumus, ut omnia vulgi vitia non invisa nobis sed ridicula videantur et Democritum potius imitemur quam Heraclitum. Hic enim, quotiens in publicum processerat, flebat, ille ridebat; huic omnia quae agimus miseriae, illi ineptiae videbantur. Elevanda ergo omnia et facili animo ferenda; humanius est 3deridere vitam quam deplorare. Adice quod de humano quoque genere melius meretur qui ridet illud quam qui luget; ille ei spei bonae aliquid relinquit, hic autem stulte deflet quae corrigi posse desperat.
Royal_ms_12_f_xiii_f042v_detail
Royal MS 12 F XIII, f. 42v (found here)

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.

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.