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.

Mekonion: Prepared Poppy Seeds. Or Newborn Poop

Pliny, Natural History 22 

“A poppy is boiled and consumed for insomnia. The same water is used for the face. Poppies grow best in dry conditions where it does not often rain. When the heads themselves are boiled with the leaves, the juice is called meconium and is a lot less potent than opium.”

decoquitur et bibitur contra vigilias, eademque aqua fovent ora. optimum in siccis et ubi raro pluat. cum capita ipsa et folia decocuntur, sucus meconium vocatur multum opio ignavior.

 

Aristotle, Historia Animalium 587a 31

“[Newborns] also discharge excrement right away, pretty soon, or at least within the same day. This material is greater than one might expect from the size of the infant and the women call it “poppy-juice” [mêkonion]. Its color is similar to blood but very dark and like pitch. Later on, it is milk-like once the baby immediately eats from the breast. Before it comes out, the newborn does not cry, even if the birth is difficult and the head sticks out while the whole body is inside.”

ἀφίησι δὲ καὶ περιττώματα τὰ μὲν εὐθὺς τὰ δὲ διὰ ταχέων, πάντα δ᾿ ἐν ἡμέρᾳ· καὶ τοῦτο τὸ περίττωμα πλέον ἢ τοῦ παιδὸς κατὰ μέγεθος· ὃ καλοῦσιν αἱ γυναῖκες μηκώνιον. χρῶμα δὲ τούτου αἱματῶδες καὶ σφόδρα μέλαν καὶ πιττῶδες, μετὰ δὲ τοῦτο ἤδη γαλακτῶδες· σπᾷ γὰρ εὐθὺς καὶ τὸν μαστόν. πρὶν δ᾿ ἐξελθεῖν οὐ φθέγγεται τὸ παιδίον, κἂν δυστοκούσης τὴν κεφαλὴν μὲν ὑπερέχῃ 35τὸ δ᾿ ὅλον σῶμα ἔχῃ ἐντός.

If you want more words for excrement in ancient Greek, we have you covered.

After oxidation, the juice of a poppy turns from white to, well, this:

Etymology of Mêkôn from Beekes (2010):

meconium

A Curse from Teos: Woe for the Drug-Makers!

SGDI 15632 (Teos, c. 475 BCE; from Buck, Greek Dialects: Ionic Inscriptions, 3)

“Who ever should make deadly drugs for the Teian community or for an individual, destroy him and his family. Whoever stops the importation of grain into the Teian land or repels it as it is being imported either with skill or device and on sea or on land, destroy him and his family.”

Tean

Aristotle (On Plants) and Galen (varia) define deleterious medicines (δηλητήρια φάρμακα) as those that are fatal to human beings, such as poisonous venom or substances coming from hemlock (or concentrations of opium, henbane etc.). Of course, such things are weaponized fairly early in human history as this threatening inscription above from Teos illustrates.

Scholia bT ad Il. 1.594

“[The Sintian men}: Philokhoros says that because they were Pelasgians they were called this because after they sailed to Brauron they kidnapped the women who were carrying baskets. For they call “harming” [to blaptein] sinesthai.

But Eratosthenes says that they have this name because they are wizards who discovered deadly drugs. Porphyry says that they were the first people to make weapons, the things which bring harm to men. Or, because they were the first to discover piracy.”

Σίντιες ἄνδρες] Φιλόχορός φησι Πελασγοὺς αὐτοὺς ὄντας οὕτω προσαγορευθῆναι, ἐπεὶ πλεύσαντες εἰς Βραυρῶνα κανηφόρους παρθένους ἥρπασαν· σίνεσθαι δὲ τὸ βλάπτειν λέγουσιν. ᾽Ερατοσθένης δέ, ἐπεὶ γόητες ὄντες εὗρον δηλητήρια φάρμακα. ὁ δὲ Πορφύριος, ἐπεὶ πρῶτοι τὰ πολεμιστήρια ἐδημιούργησαν ὅπλα, ἃ πρὸς βλάβην ἀνθρώπων συντελεῖ· ἢ ἐπεὶ πρῶτοι ληιστήρια ἐξεῦρον.

Herodian, 3. 5

“He also gave them some deadly drugs to give to him in secret if they were able to persuade some of the cooks or waiters, even though [Albinus’] friends were suspicious and advising him to safeguard himself against a deceptively clever adversary.”

ἔδωκε δὲ αὐτοῖς καὶ δηλητήρια φάρμακα, ὅπως τινὰς πείσαιεν, εἰ δυνηθεῖεν, ἢ τῶν ὀψοποιῶν ἢ τῶν πρὸς ταῖς κύλιξι, λαθεῖν καὶ ἐπιδοῦναι αὐτῷ <καίτοι> ὑποπτευόντων τῶν περὶ αὐτὸν φίλων καὶ4 συμβουλευόντων αὐτῷ φυλάττεσθαι ἄνδρα 6ἀπατεῶνα σοφόν τε πρὸς ἐπιβουλήν·

Image result for ancient greek Teos

A coin from Teos

A Description of Genius or Madness: An Epistle on Democritus

Hippocrates, Letter 10

A man of ours takes the greatest risks in the city now, Hippocrates, who both in the present moment and in the future has been a hope for fame for the city. May this, by the all the gods, never be a source of envy! When he has become so sick because of the great wisdom which possesses him that as a result he was afraid he might not obtain it—well, that’s how Democritus himself lost hits mind, and then abandoned our city of Abdera.

When he forgot everything, even himself before, he was awake both night and day and was laughing at everything great and small and believing that he would accomplish nothing at all for his whole life. Someone marries, another goes into business, another is a public speaker, another serves in office, he is old, he votes, he votes against things, he is sick, he is wounded, he dies. He laughs at everything, even when he sees the downcast and angry or even those who are happy.

The man is researching into the matters of Hades and he is writing these things and he says that the air is full of ghosts and he heeds the voices of birds. He often gets up alone at night and seems to be singing songs in the silence. And he claims that he often travels into the boundlessness and says that there are an endless number of Democriteis like himself. He lives with his skin ruined as ruined judgment. We fear these things, Hippocrates, and we are anxious about them: so save us, and come home quickly and help our country, do not put us off.”

     Κινδυνεύεται τὰ μέγιστα τῇ πόλει νῦν, ῾Ιππόκρατες, ἀνὴρ τῶν ἡμετέρων, ὃς καὶ τῷ παρόντι χρόνῳ καὶ τῷ μέλλοντι αἰεὶ κλέος ἠλπίζετο τῇ πόλει· μηδὲ νῦν ὅδε, πάντες θεοὶ, φθονηθείη· οὕτως ὑπὸ πολλῆς τῆς κατεχούσης αὐτὸν σοφίης νενόσηκεν, ὥστε φόβος οὐχ ὁ τυχὼν, ἂν φθαρῇ τὸν λογισμὸν Δημόκριτος, ὄντως δὴ τὴν πόλιν ἡμῶν ᾿Αβδηριτῶν καταλειφθήσεσθαι. ᾿Εκλαθόμενος γὰρ ἁπάντων καὶ ἑωυτοῦ πρότερον, ἐγρηγορὼς καὶ νύκτα καὶ ἡμέρην, γελῶν ἕκαστα μικρὰ καὶ μεγάλα, καὶ μηδὲν οἰόμενος εἶναι τὸν βίον ὅλον διατελεῖ. Γαμεῖ τις, ὁ δὲ ἐμπορεύεται, ὁ δὲ δημηγορεῖ, ἄλλος ἄρχει, πρεσβεύει, χειροτονεῖται, ἀποχειροτονεῖται, νοσεῖ, τιτρώσκεται,  τέθνηκεν, ὁ δὲ γελᾷ πάντα, τοὺς μὲν κατηφεῖς τε καὶ σκυθρωποὺς, τοὺς δὲ χαίροντας ὁρῶν. Ζητεῖ δὲ ὁ ἀνὴρ καὶ περὶ τῶν ἐν Αδου,

Ζητεῖ δὲ ὁ ἀνὴρ καὶ περὶ τῶν ἐν Αδου, καὶ γράφει ταῦτα, καὶ εἰδώλων φησὶ πλήρη τὸν ἠέρα εἶναι, καὶ ὀρνέων φωνὰς ὠτακουστεῖ, καὶ πολλάκις νύκτωρ ἐξαναστὰς μοῦνος ἡσυχῇ ᾠδὰς ᾄδοντι ἔοικε, καὶ ἀποδημεῖν ἐνίοτε λέγει ἐς τὴν ἀπειρίην, καὶ Δημοκρίτους εἶναι ὁμοίους ἑωυτῷ ἀναριθμήτους, καὶ συνδιεφθορὼς τῇ γνώμῃ τὸ χρῶμα ζῇ. Ταῦτα φοβούμεθα, ῾Ιππόκρατες, ταῦτα ταραττόμεθα, ἀλλὰ σῶζε, καὶ ταχὺς ἐλθὼν νουθέτησον τὴν ἡμῶν πατρίδα, μηδὲ ἡμᾶς ἀποβάλῃς·

Suda s.v. γλουτῶν

“Democritus of Abdera was called the “Laugher” because he laughed at the useless seriousness of human beings”

ὅτι ὁ Δημόκριτος ὁ ᾿Αβδηρίτης ἐπεκλήθη Γελασῖνος διὰ τὸ γελᾶν πρὸς τὸ κενόσπουδον τῶν ἀνθρώπων.

 

More on Democritus:

Robert Burton’s Sketch

Aulus Gellius with Laberius’ Play on Democritus’ Blinding

How To Talk to a Patient (And Look for the Signs of the Deranged)

Rufus of Ephesus, Quest. Medic. 2

“It is right to ask someone who is sick questions from which something of the matters concerning the sickness might be diagnosed and might be treated better. First, I advise to make inquiries from the one who is sick himself. For you might from this learn how much the person is sick or healthy in respect to judgment along with his strength and weakness and what type of sickness and what place he has suffered.

If the patient answers right away and properly and plausibly and without stumbling in speech or sense and if it is according to is typical matter—if he is otherwise orderly, in a gentle and orderly way, but, if otherwise bold or fearful, in a brash or timid manner—it is right to consider him to be in his right mind. But if you ask him some things and he should answer others or forget in the middle of speaking, if his speech is unsteady and unclear and there are shifts from his first manner to the opposite, these are all signs of being deranged.”

     ᾿Ερωτήματα χρὴ τὸν νοσοῦντα ἐρωτᾶν, ἐξ ὧν ἂν καὶ διαγνωσθείη τι τῶν περὶ τὴν νόσον ἀκριβέστερον καὶ θεραπευθείη κάλλιον. πρῶτον δὲ ἐκεῖνο ὑποτίθημι τὰς πεύσεις αὐτοῦ τοῦ νοσοῦντος ποιεῖσθαι. μάθοις γὰρ ἂν ἐνθένδε ὅσα τε κατὰ γνώμην νοσεῖ ἢ ὑγιαίνει ὁ ἄνθρωπος καὶ ῥώμην αὐτοῦ καὶ ἀσθένειαν, καὶ τίνα ἰδέαν νόσου καὶ τίνα τόπον πεπονηκὼς <εἴη>. εἰ μὲν γὰρ ἐφεξῆς τε ἀποκρίνοιτο καὶ μνημονικῶς καὶ τὰ εἰκότα καὶ μηδαμῆ σφαλλόμενος μήτε τῇ γλώττῃ μήτε τῇ γνώμῃ καὶ εἰ καθ’ ὁρμὴν τὴν οἰκείαν, —εἰ μέν ἐστιν ἄλλως κόσμιος, πράως καὶ

κοσμίως, ὁ δ’ αὖ φύσει θρασὺς ἢ δειλὸς θρασέως ἢ δεδοικ<ότ>ως—τοῦτον μὲν χρὴ νομίζειν τὰ γοῦν κατὰ γνώμην καλῶς ἔχειν. εἰ δὲ καὶ ἄλλα σὺ μὲν ἐρωτᾷς, ὁ δὲ ἄλλα ἀποκρίνοιτο καὶ εἰ μεταξὺ λέγων ἐπιλανθάνοιτο, αἱ δὲ τρομώδεις καὶ ἀσαφεῖς γλῶσσαι καὶ αἱ μεταστάσεις ἀπὸ τοῦ ἀρχαίου τρόπου πρὸς τὸ ἐναντίον, πάντα ταῦτα παρακρουστικά.

 

A Medical Justification for Taking Part in a Feast

Some helpful advice for all our friends taking part in feasts this weekend.

Plutarch, Table Talk 662 c–d

“He said, ‘We only unwillingly and rarely use pain as a tool for treatment because it is the most violent. No one could expel pleasure from all the other medical interventions even if he wanted to—for pleasure accompanies food, sleep, baths, massages, and relaxation, all of which help to revive a sick person by wearing away foreign elements with a great abundance of what is natural.

What pain, what deprivation, what kind of poisonous substance could so easily and quickly resolve a disease that it, once it is cleansed at the right time, wine may also be given to those who want it? Food, when it is delivered with pleasure, resolves every kind of malady and returns us to our natural state, just as a clear sky returning after a storm.’”

“σμικρὰ γάρ,” ἔφη, “καὶ ἄκοντες ὡς βιαιοτάτῳ τῶν ὀργάνων ἀλγηδόνι προσχρώμεθα· τῶν δ᾿ ἄλλων οὐδεὶς ἂν οὐδὲ βουλόμενος ἀπώσαιτο τὴν ἡδονήν, ἀλλὰ καὶ τροφαῖς καὶ ὕπνοις καὶ περὶ λουτρὰ καὶ ἀλείμματα καὶ κατακλίσεις ἀεὶ πάρεστιν καὶ συνεκδέχεται καὶ συνεκτιθηνεῖται τὸν κάμνοντα, πολλῷ τῷ οἰκείῳ καὶ κατὰ φύσιν ἐξαμαυροῦσα τὸ ἀλλότριον. ποία γὰρ ἀλγηδών, τίς ἔνδεια, ποῖον δηλητήριον οὕτω ῥᾳδίως καὶ ἀφελῶς νόσον ἔλυσεν, ὡς λουτρὸν ἐν καιρῷ γενόμενον καὶ οἶνος δοθεὶς δεομένοις; καὶ τροφὴ παρελθοῦσα μεθ᾿ ἡδονῆς εὐθὺς ἔλυσε τὰ δυσχερῆ πάντα καὶ κατέστησεν εἰς τὸ οἰκεῖον τὴν φύσιν, ὥσπερ εὐδίας καὶ γαλήνης γενομένης.

Image result for medieval manuscript banquet

Le Banquet des Vœux du Paon, Jean Wauquelin, Les faits et conquêtes d’Alexandre le Grand, Flandre, atelier de Mons, 1448-1449, Paris, BnF

Keep an Open Door: Galen on Living Honestly

Galen, Affections [De propriorum animi cuiuslibet affectuum dignotione et curatione] 5.25–26

“Always be on guard against the matter which is greatest in this, once you choose to honor yourself. For it is possible always to keep at hand the memory of the hideousness of the soul of those who get angry and the beauty of those who are untroubled by rage.

For whoever, thanks to being accustomed to a mistaken behavior over time, has developed a stain of emotions which cannot be washed away,  must for as great an amount of time attend to each of those beliefs by which a man might become noble and good, should he heed them. For we lose sight of a thing that falls easily from our minds because they have been previously filled by these emotions.

Therefore this must be pursued by each of those who want to be saved as if there were no proper season for taking it easy; and all of us must turn toward accusing ourselves, and we must listen to [others] gently, not for the sake of castigating them but for shaping them in turn.

Keep the door of your home open all the time and permit those who understand to enter at every opportune moment. If you are prepared in this way, be bold enough to be discovered as overcome by any of the major mistakes by none of those who enter. Just as it is possible to banish a bad feeling for one who is unwilling, it is easy to banish great ones for one who has made this decision.

When your door is open all the time, as I said, then let there be plenty of time for people who understand to enter. As all the other people who enter a public space attempt to act properly, so too act in the same way in your private home. But those who are ashamed before others only because they might be caught, do not feel shame before themselves alone: but you, feel shame before yourself especially, if you follow this precept.”

ὃ δ’ ἐϲτὶ μέγιϲτον ἐν τούτῳ, ἀεὶ φύλαττε, προῃρημένοϲ γε τιμᾶν ϲεαυτόν. ἔϲτι δὲ τοῦτο διὰ μνήμηϲ ἔχειν πρόχειρα τό τε τῶν ὀργιζομένων τῆϲ ψυχῆϲ αἶϲχοϲ τό τε τῶν ἀοργήτων κάλλοϲ. ὃϲ γὰρ ἁμαρτάνειν ἐθιϲθεὶϲ χρόνῳ πολλῷ δυϲέκνιπτον ἔϲχε τὴν κηλῖδα τῶν παθῶν, τούτῳ καὶ τῶν δογμάτων, οἷϲ πειθόμενοϲ ἀνὴρ γενήϲῃ καλὸϲ κἀγαθόϲ, ἐν πολλῷ χρόνῳ προϲήκει μελετᾶν ἕκαϲτον. ἐπιλανθανόμεθα γὰρ αὐτοῦ ῥᾳδίωϲ ἐκπίπτοντοϲ τῆϲ ψυχῆϲ ἡμῶν διὰ τὸ φθάϲαι πεπληρῶϲθαι τοῖϲ πάθεϲιν αὐτήν.

τοιγαροῦν παρακολουθητέον ἐϲτὶν ἑκάϲτῳ τῶν ϲωθῆναι βουλομένων, ὡϲ <δεῖ> μηδεμίαν ὥραν ἀπορρᾳθυμεῖν, ἐπι-τρεπτέον τε πᾶϲι κατηγορεῖν ἡμῶν <παρ>ακουϲτέον | τε πράωϲ αὐτῶν καὶ χάριν <ἰϲτέον> οὐ τοῖϲ κολακεύουϲιν, ἀλλὰ τοῖϲ ἐπιπλήττουϲιν.

ἀνεῴχθω ϲου ἡ θύρα διὰ παντὸϲ τῆϲ οἰκήϲεωϲ <καὶ> ἐξέϲτω τοῖϲ ϲυνήθεϲιν εἰϲιέναι πάντα καιρόν, ἢν οὕτωϲ ᾖϲ παρεϲκευαϲμένοϲ, ὡϲ θαρρεῖν ὑπὸ τῶν εἰϲιόντων εὑρίϲκεϲθαι μηδενὶ τῶν μεγάλων ἁμαρτημάτων ἰϲχυρῶϲ κατειλημμένον. ἔϲτι δ’ ὥϲπερ τῷ <ἄκοντι> πᾶν ἐκκόψαι δύϲκολον, οὕτω τὰ μεγάλα τῷ βουληθέντι ῥᾷϲτον.

τῆϲ θύραϲ οὖν ἀνεῳγμένηϲ ϲου διὰ παντόϲ, ὡϲ εἶπον, ἐξουϲία τοῖϲ ϲυνήθεϲιν ἔϲτω κατὰ πάντα καιρὸν εἰϲιέναι. ὡϲ δ’ οἱ ἄλλοι πάντεϲ ἄνθρωποι προελθόντεϲ εἰϲ τὸ δημόϲιον ἅπαντα πειρῶνται πράττειν κοϲμίωϲ, οὕτω ϲὺ κατὰ τὴν ἰδίαν οἰκίαν πρᾶττε. ἀλλ’ ἐκεῖνοι μὲν αἰδούμενοι τοὺϲ ἄλλουϲ ἁμαρτόντεϲ τι φωραθῆναι μόνουϲ ἑαυτοὺϲ οὐκ αἰδοῦνται, ϲὺ δὲ ϲαυτὸν αἰδοῦ μάλιϲτα πειθόμενοϲ τῷ φάντι·

Image result for ancient roman door

Also…

%d bloggers like this: