“These things will happen: for the favor needs
No long speeches. I will assail the salted Aigaian sea.
The cliffs of Mykonos and the Delian reefs,
The reefs of Skyros and Lemnos and the Kaphêrian peaks
Will bear the bodies of many dying corpses.
So go to Olympos and grab your father’s
Lightning bolts from his hand and keep a careful watch
For the time when the Greek army leaves in ease.
It is fool who tries to sack mortals’ cities,
Their shrines and tombs, the sacred places of the dead.
Eventually he gives himself to a desert when he dies.”
Of late, the number of events that send us reeling and looking for comfort, solace, and, too often, just distraction seem to be increasing and intensifying. I will leave it for future generations to debate whether or not this is objectively true-the feeling of being under siege is enough to require some type of response.
I was in my first semester of graduate school in lower Manhattan on September 11th, 2001. I am uncomfortable claiming any sort of trauma as my own since many others lost loved ones and many more saw their worlds overturned. Nevertheless, the first weeks after were surreal. I can say without a doubt that when I decided to stop reading for my classes and just read-the Iliad from opening to close in Greek—I found some solace and comfort in a ragged world.
I still turn to Classical texts for context and understanding. The comfort they bring, however, is not a warm one. A twitter friend today asked for some classical topoi on solace in a time of suffering and I am embarrassed at the poverty of my offerings when I can rattle off words for excrement and flatulence with no effort. Here are some meager words for a mean world. I will happily post better ones when they are offered.
From the Suda
“Pharmakon [medicine]: conversation, consoling, it comes from pherein [bringing] akos [relief/cure]. But it is also said to come from flowers.”
“If you want a private passage at hand to soothe your heart, the knowledge of the world around you will give you some solace at death, the world you leave and the kind of people your soul will no longer be associated with…..”
“Hope is indeed a comfort in danger: it may harm people who use it from abundance it does not destroy them. But for those who risk everything on one chance—since hope is expensive by nature—they will only know her nature when they suffer…”
This last bit reminds me of Thetis’ words to Achilles (24.128-132)
“My child, how long will you consume your heart
Grieving and mourning, thinking little of food
Or of sleep? It is good too to join a woman in love—
For you will not live with me long, but already
Death and strong fate loom around you.”
Whether we accomplish a little or a lot–as Achilles complains in book 9–we still will die. The modern horror of mass killings is especially disorienting and terrifying because it seems to strip us of agency over what happens between birth and death. And though it may be hard to remember it, the words Athenaeus attributes to the epitaph of Ashurbanipal are still not untrue:
“Know well that you are mortal: fill your heart
By delighting in the feasts: nothing is useful to you when you’re dead.
I am ash, though I ruled great Ninevah as king.
I keep whatever I ate, the insults I made, and the joy
I took from sex. My wealth and many blessings are gone.
[This is wise advice for life: I will never forget it.
Let anyone who wants to accumulate limitless gold.]
“Conversation [ or ‘reason’] is the doctor for suffering in the soul”
Λόγος ἰατρὸς τοῦ κατὰ ψυχὴν πάθους.
Euripides, fr. 1079
“Mortals have no other medicine for pain
Like the advice of a good man, a friend
Who has experience with this sickness.
A man who troubles then calms his thoughts with drinking,
Finds immediate pleasure, but laments twice as much later on.”