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.

Desire, Pleasure, and Sophocles

Athenaeus, Deipnosophists 12 510d-c

“Enjoying something, certainly, requires a desire first and then comes the pleasure. The poet Sophocles, as a matter of fact, was one of those people who enjoy life, in order that he might not criticize old age, blamed his inability to get pleasure from sex on wisdom, pretending that he had happily been freed from those desires as if from some cruel master.

But I insist that the “Judgment of Paris was depicted by the more ancient poets as a contest between virtue and pleasure. When Aphrodite was selected—and she represented pleasure—everything went to shit. It also seems likely to me that Xenophon made up his story about Herakles and virtue for the same reason.”

Ἡ γὰρ ἀπόλαυσις δήπου μετ᾿ ἐπιθυμίας πρῶτον, ἔπειτα μεθ᾿ ἡδονῆς. καίτοι Σοφοκλῆς γ᾿ ὁ ποιητής, τῶν ἀπολαυστικῶν γε εἷς ὤν, ἵνα μὴ κατηγορῇ τοῦ γήρως, εἰς σωφροσύνην ἔθετο τὴν ἀσθένειαν αὐτοῦ τὴν περὶ τὰς τῶν ἀφροδισίων ἀπολαύσεις, φήσας ἀσμένως ἀπηλλάχθαι αὐτῶν ὥσπερ τινὸς δεσπότου. ἐγὼ δέ φημι καὶ τὴν τοῦ Πάριδος κρίσιν ὑπὸ τῶν παλαιοτέρων πεποιῆσθαι ἡδονῆς πρὸς ἀρετὴν οὖσαν σύγκρισιν· προκριθείσης γοῦν τῆς Ἀφροδίτης, αὕτη δ᾿ ἐστὶν ἡ ἡδονή, πάντα συνεταράχθη. καί μοι δοκεῖ καὶ ὁ καλὸς ἡμῶν Ξενοφῶν τὸν περὶ τὸν Ἡρακλέα καὶ τὴν Ἀρετὴν μῦθον ἐντεῦθεν πεπλακέναι.

Image result for sophocles

A Happy Side of Madness

I love this story. It fills me with hope and envy.

Aristotle, On Amazing Things Heard 832b

“The story goes that in Abydos there was a man who was afflicted with madness. He went into the theater and watched for many days as if there were actually people acting and applauded. When he had a respite from his affliction, he said that this was the most enjoyable time of his life.”

Λέγεται δέ τινα ἐν Ἀβύδῳ παρακόψαντα τῇ διανοίᾳ καὶ εἰς τὸ θέατρον ἐρχόμενον ἐπὶ πολλὰς ἡμέρας θεωρεῖν, ὡς ὑποκρινομένων τινῶν, καὶ ἐπισημαίνεσθαι· καὶ ὡς κατέστη τῆς παρακοπῆς, ἔφησεν ἐκεῖνον αὑτῷ τὸν χρόνον ἥδιστα βεβιῶσθαι.

This made me think of Thrasyllos again.

Aelian, 4.25

“Thrasyllos from the deme Aiksône endured an incredible and novel madness. For he left the city and went to the Peiraia and stayed there. He believed that all the ships that sailed in were his and he wrote down their names, checked the list when they left and rejoiced when they returned safely to the harbor again. He spent many years living with this sickness.

When his brother returned from Sicily, he took him to a doctor for treatment and he freed him from that sickness. But he often remembered the avocation of his sickness and used to say that he was never as happy as when he took pleasure at the sight of ships that weren’t his returning safely.”

Θράσυλλος ὁ Αἰξωνεὺς παράδοξον καὶ καινὴν ἐνόσησε μανίαν. ἀπολιπὼν γὰρ τὸ ἄστυ καὶ κατελθὼν ἐς τὸν Πειραιᾶ καὶ ἐνταῦθα οἰκῶν τὰ πλοῖα τὰ καταίροντα ἐν αὐτῷ πάντα ἑαυτοῦ ἐνόμιζεν εἶναι, καὶ ἀπεγράφετο αὐτὰ καὶ αὖ πάλιν ἐξέπεμπε καὶ τοῖς περισωζομένοις καὶ ἐσιοῦσιν ἐς τὸν λιμένα ὑπερέχαιρε· χρόνους δὲ διετέλεσε πολλοὺς συνοικῶν τῷ ἀρρωστήματι τούτῳ. ἐκ Σικελίας δὲ ἀναχθεὶς ὁ ἀδελφὸς αὐτοῦ παρέδωκεν αὐτὸν ἰατρῷ ἰάσασθαι, καὶ ἔπαυσεν αὐτὸν τῆς νόσου οὗτος. ἐμέμνητο δὲ πολλάκις τῆς ἐν μανίᾳ διατριβῆς, καὶ ἔλεγε μηδέποτε ἡσθῆναι τοσοῦτον, ὅσον τότε ἥδετο ἐπὶ ταῖς μηδὲν αὐτῷ προσηκούσαις ναυσὶν

Related image
Bodleian 264

A Line between Careless and Pensive: More Ancient Words on Drinking

Athenaeus, Deipnosophists, 2.10-11

“This is why Bacchylides says (fr. 27):

A sweet force overcomes
The heart in the dances of the cups.
And hope for Aphrodite courses through the thoughts
All mixed up with the gifts of Dionysus.
It raises people’s thoughts to the highest points:
And suddenly: a man seems to sack city walls
And to rule over all men as king.
His homes shine with gold and ivory,
And grain-bearing ships lead home the greatest wealth
From Egypt over the shining sea—
That’s how the mind of a drinker leaps…”

Sophokles says that “drinking is a pain-reliever” and other poems add “pleasant wine, fruit of the earth’ (Il. 3.246). And the king of the poets even has his Odysseus say “whoever fills himself with wine and food may fight all day long with a full heart…” etc.

This is why Simonides says that the origin of wine and music is the same. From drinking, as well, came the discovery of comedy and tragedy in Ikarion in Attica in the season of the grape-harvest [trugês], which is why comedy was first called trug-oidia.

“He gave mortals the pain-relieving vine.
But when there is no more wine, there is no Aphrodite
Nor any other pleasure left for human beings.”

That’s what Euripides says in the Bacchae (771). Astyadamas also says

“He also showed to mortals
The vine, wine-mother, and cure for pain.
If someone fills with wine endlessly, he becomes careless.
If he drinks only a bit, he becomes deeply reflective”.

And then Antiphanes says:

“I am not too drunk to think, but just enough that
I can’t pronounce letters clearly with my mouth.”

διὸ Βακχυλίδης φησί (fr. 27)·

γλυκεῖ’ ἀνάγκα
σευομένα κυλίκων θάλπησι θυμόν·
Κύπριδος δ’ ἐλπὶς διαιθύσσει φρένας
ἀμμιγνυμένα Διονυσίοισι δώροις.
ἀνδράσι δ’ ὑψοτάτω πέμπει μερίμνας·
αὐτίκα μὲν πόλεων κρήδεμνα λύει,
πᾶσι δ’ ἀνθρώποις μοναρχήσειν δοκεῖ.
χρυσῷ δ’ ἐλέφαντί τε μαρμαίρουσιν οἶκοι·
πυροφόροι δὲ κατ’ αἰγλήεντα . . .
νῆες ἄγουσιν ἀπ’ Αἰγύπτου μέγιστον
πλοῦτον· ὣς πίνοντος ὁρμαίνει κέαρ.

Σοφοκλῆς δέ φησι (fr. 687 N)· … τὸ μεθύειν πημονῆς λυτήριον. οἱ δ’ ἄλλοι ποιηταί φασι τὸν ‘οἶνον ἐύφρονα καρπὸν ἀρούρης (Γ 246).’ καὶ ὁ τῶν ποιητῶν δὲ βασιλεὺς
τὸν ᾿Οδυσσέα παράγει λέγοντα (Τ 167)· ‘ὃς δέ κ’ ἀνὴρ / οἴνοιο κορεσσάμενος καὶ/ ἐδωδῆς πανημέριος πολεμίζῃ, /θαρσαλέον νύ οἱ ἦτορ’ καὶ τὰ ἑξῆς. ὅτι Σιμωνίδης (fr. 221) τὴν αὐτὴν ἀρχὴν τίθησιν οἴνου καὶ μουσικῆς. ἀπὸ μέθης καὶ ἡ τῆς κω-
μῳδίας καὶ ἡ τῆς τραγῳδίας εὕρεσις ἐν ᾿Ικαρίῳ τῆς ᾿Αττικῆς εὑρέθη, καὶ κατ’ αὐτὸν τὸν τῆς τρύγης καιρόν· ἀφ’ οὗ δὴ καὶ τρυγῳδία τὸ πρῶτον ἐκλήθη ἡ κωμῳδία.

τὴν παυσίλυπον ἄμπελον δοῦναι βροτοῖς.
οἴνου δὲ μηκέτ’ ὄντος οὐκ ἔστιν Κύπρις
οὐδ’ ἄλλο τερπνὸν οὐδὲν ἀνθρώποις ἔτι,

Εὐριπίδης ἐν Βάκχαις φησί (771). καὶ ᾿Αστυδάμας δέ φησι (p. 605 N)·

θνητοῖσι τὴν ἀκεσφόρον
λύπης ἔφηνεν οἰνομήτορ’ ἄμπελον. —
συνεχῶς μὲν γὰρ ἐμπιπλάμενος ἀμελὴς γίνεται
ἄνθρωπος, ὑποπίνων δὲ πάνυ φροντιστικός,

᾿Αντιφάνης φησίν (II 123 K).

οὐ μεθύω τὴν φρόνησιν, ἀλλὰ τὸ τοιοῦτον μόνον,
τὸ διορίζεσθαι βεβαίως τῷ στόματι τὰ γράμματα,

Drinking Philosophy

Animal and Human Virtue

Aelian, History of Animals, Prologue 1

“There is likely no paradox in the fact that humans are wise and just and most solicitous of their own children, shows proper concern for those who raised them, secures food for themselves, and guards against attacks and all of those other gifts endowed by nature. For the human has been allotted speech, the most precious gift of all, and has been thought worthy of reason, a thing which is the greatest advantage and surpassingly useful. And humans also know how to revere and worship the gods.

What is a magnificent wonder, however, is that the unthinking animals should have some virtue too by nature and should even have many of the human possessions assigned to them.”

Ἄνθρωπον μὲν εἶναι σοφὸν καὶ δίκαιον καὶ τῶν οἰκείων παίδων προμηθέστατον, καὶ τῶν γειναμένων ποιεῖσθαι τὴν προσήκουσαν φροντίδα, καὶ τροφὴν ἑαυτῷ μαστεύειν καὶ ἐπιβουλὰς φυλάττεσθαι καὶ τὰ λοιπὰ ὅσα αὐτῷ σύνεστι δῶρα φύσεως, παράδοξον ἴσως οὐδέν· καὶ γὰρ λόγου μετείληχεν ἄνθρωπος τοῦ πάντων τιμιωτάτου, καὶ λογισμοῦ ἠξίωται, ὅσπερ οὖν ἐστι πολυαρκέστατός τε καὶ πολυωφελέστατος· ἀλλὰ καὶ θεοὺς αἰδεῖσθαι οἶδε καὶ σέβειν. τὸ δὲ καὶ τοῖς ἀλόγοις μετεῖναί τινος ἀρετῆς κατὰ φύσιν, καὶ πολλὰ τῶν ἀνθρωπίνων πλεονεκτημάτων καὶ θαυμαστὰ ἔχειν συγκεκληρωμένα, τοῦτο ἤδη μέγα.

British Library, Sloane MS 278, Folio 47r

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.

Some Roman Poets Sing the Spring

Horace, Ars Poetica 299-304

…”O, what a savage I am,
Who cleanse myself of bile for the coming of the season of spring!
No one else would make better poems. It is truly
Worth nothing. Therefore, I act in place of a whetstone,
Which can return to steel its edge, but is powerless to cut itself.”

…o ego laevus,
qui purgor bilem sub verni temporis horam!
non alius faceret meliora poemata: verum
nil tanti est. ergo fungar vice cotis, acutum
reddere quae ferrum valet, exsors ipsa secandi;

Vergil, Georgics 2.149-154

“Here, spring is endless and summer overtakes other months:
The flocks give birth twice a year; twice a year the trees have fruit.

hic ver adsiduum atque alienis mensibus aestas:
bis gravidae pecudes, bis pomis utilis arbos.

Ovid, Fasti 4.125-132

“And no time of the year was better fit for Venus than spring
In spring the lands shine, the fields are tender in spring,
The grains raises its heads through the broken earth
And the shoot drives its buds in swollen bark.

Gorgeous Venus is worthy of a gorgeous time,
As always, and goes hand in hand with Mars.
In spring she tells the curved ships to go
Over maternal seas because she no longer fears the winter.”

nec Veneri tempus quam ver erat aptius ullum:
vere nitent terrae, vere remissus ager,
nunc herbae rupta tellure cacumina tollunt,
nunc tumido gemmas cortice palmes agit.
et formosa Venus formoso tempore digna est,
utque solet, Marti continuata suo est:
vere monet curvas materna per aequora puppes
ire nec hibernas iam timuisse minas.

Propertius, 4.5.59-60

“While spring is in your blood, while your age is free of wrinkle,
Use it—just in case tomorrow takes the youth from your face.”

dum vernat sanguis, dum rugis integer annus,
60utere, ne quid cras libet ab ore dies

Image result for ancient roman seasons spring
Villa Dar Buc Ammera, Libya, Roman era mosaic of the four seasons