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

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.

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