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On the Thanatos Trail

Aspects of Death in Early Greek Art and Poetry (The Sather Classical Lectures, Vol. 46)

by Emily Vermeule
University of California Press, 270 pp., $22.50

Death, the one immutable element in every life, is at the same time the one transition that no one can claim as a conscious experience. We do not live through it—a paradox all ages have been disinclined to accept—and putative exceptions to the rule, from Lazarus to mediums’ contacts or Ouija-board monologuists, all require a suspension (whether miraculous or not) of the normal laws of nature. Anxiety about death dictates many of our fundamental beliefs and behavior patterns, and all death imagery, in any age, is manifestly borrowed from the world men inhabit, since it is the only one they know. The disposal of corpses is a universal problem, with limited solutions. An archaic Greek and a modern urban American share a wide range of assumptions about death, funerals, burial, and the hereafter: where they differ sharply is in the spiritual luggage they carry with them. To study any group’s attitudes to death becomes, in a very real sense, a refraction of their ideas about life, their social conventions and priorities, their more persistent sustaining myths.

In her remarkable Sather Lectures, Aspects of Death in Early Greek Art and Poetry, Professor Emily Vermeule shows an acute sensibility both to the universal and to the unique features of archaic Greek dealings with death, as manifested, variously, in literature, vase painting, myth, and the heterogeneous clutter of artifacts dug up from graves. She ranges in time from the Mycenaean Bronze Age to the mid-fifth century BC, a period which she sees (justifiably, I think) as maintaining a more or less consistent system of values and beliefs. For her the great watershed of change comes about 450 BC, with the development of Protagorean classicism.

Her approach is peripatetic rather than chronological: each of her six chapters takes a central theme or peg—the relation of soul (psyche) to body, the implications of burial customs, death in battle, the nature of immortality, Eros and Thanatos, the poetic magic inherent in sea monsters—and on this thread strings a brilliant digressive essay, full of asides and illustrations, somewhat in the manner of Sir Thomas Browne, and often with the same poetic concision, paradoxical insights, and glinting elegance of phrase.

This makes her work a delight to read, but at the same time puts a severe strain on any reader who prefers his arguments to start at the beginning and then proceed in an orderly manner to their conclusion. Since Professor Vermeule’s earlier work, that brilliant synthesis Greece in the Bronze Age (1964), was as tightly argued as a legal brief, her present approach is clearly a matter of policy rather than ineptness. The counterpoint of text and illustration, the cumulative pointilliste use of images to circle a central concept or object—these suggest poetic rather than scholarly techniques. To understand death, she implies, requires creative insight, and an analysis which, while using the tools of philological and archaeological expertise, abandons the constricting tramlines of conventional academic judgment.

Such a program calls for rare skills; but then Professor Vermeule is altogether a rare scholar, a poet herself, an exotic cemetery-fancier (outré tombstones enliven her pages), the author of a Homeric-style paean to the Red Sox in the Boston Globe, and a splendidly omnivorous reader, not only of ancient Greek poets and their modern commentators but also of authors less often fancied by classicists: Ernest Bramah, Jane Goodall (on carnivorous chimpanzees), even E. Howard Hunt. Of her earlier magnum opus on the Bronze Age it was remarked that such a work normally formed the climax to a scholar’s career before retirement: Professor Vermeule published it in her thirties, filling her spare time (as is clear from her present study) with New Yorker cartoons, Ann Landers’s advice column, and Snoopy, not to mention Macaulay’s essays, “Maud,” Ruddigore, Woody Allen, Measure for Measure, and Sarah Orne Jewett’s “The Gloucester Mother.” She is on familiar terms with the contents of Boston Irish coffins and the souls of California seals. She has run down a doctor in Düsseldorf who put expiring patients on the scales and proved to his own satisfaction that the soul weighs 21 grams precisely. It has been shown with finality, she says, that the Sirens were not oysters. In short, Professor Vermeule’s center is not quite in the middle, which strikes me as advantageous for a book of this sort.

So is her refreshing lack of dogmatism about a topic which is, at best, both subjective and elusive. “After four years of reading,” she admits, “I still do not know what the Greeks thought about death, or what Americans think either, or what I think myself.” Seldom can any assertion of ignorance have been so consistently enlightening, so illustrative of the old dictum that what matters is not so much finding the answers as asking the right questions. One of her most acute insights is the awareness that “poets, critics, historians, archaeologists, artists spend their working lives as necromancers, raising the dead in order to enter into their imagination and experience,” and her rarest achievement in these Sather Lectures is the ability to move at ease between the modes of vision which the five categories listed represent.

This, I think, is why she shows herself so sensible on those endless apparent inconsistencies and self-contradictions about death to which the early Greeks were no more immune than any other group. They are, as she says, necessary ambiguities, in an area where both reason and experience are at a discount: “It is the artist who reintegrates the elements of the dead when he has need to.” Pedants who worry about dead Tityos having a liver for the vulture to nibble at will get cold comfort from this book.

The early Greeks, as Professor Vermeule says, took death extremely seriously: but their efforts, nevertheless, were for the most part aimed at circumventing it. Nor was it thought of as final. Thanatos seems to have been strictly a negative concept. The Greeks, as Professor Vermeule remarks, “had no word for irreversible death: one does not die, one darkens.” What darkened could, with luck and intelligence (nous, that much prized and much abused Greek trait), be relit. Thus immortality tended to wear human, and at times disconcertingly physical, lineaments. However much lip-service might be paid, by Homeric hero or Hesiodic peasant, by pre-Socratic thinker or black-figure vase-painter, to the separation of immortal spirit and perishable corpse, the two in practice preserved an obstinate, wholly understandable alliance. Ghosts (eidola) were—and indeed remain—hard to visualize except in human form; and as Professor Vermeule reminds us, “the grave has always been the easiest place to try speaking with the dead,” who from Homer’s day to that of Aeschylus were viewed as quite horrendously active. If the situation called for it, they were endowed, not with substance perhaps, but at least with anthropomorphic features.

What becomes abundantly clear from the evidence assembled in Aspects of Death in Early Greek Art and Poetry is that the instinct for immortality, the denial of death, survival in essentially human form have been present ever since the dawn of mankind, long before the Greeks gave the concept their own idiosyncratic stamp. A corpse would be left beside a fire, given a tool, a weapon, a piece of meat. Its face or head would be clumsily daubed with the colors of life. Despite the psyche, Greek emphasis was always on proper treatment of the physical cadaver: the elaborate ritual of mourning and burial—as much a comfort for the living as a service to the dead, and virtually unchanged, except for minor Christian modifications, from the Bronze Age to the present day. The soul, by contrast, was never consistently visualized. Sometimes it seems to have been thought of as minuscule, at best bird-sized, a notion Homer had perforce to jettison when circumstances demanded it: as Professor Vermeule demurely concedes, “It would be poetically awkward for Odysseus, when speaking with the psychai of his dead friends, to go down on all fours outside the mouth of Hades with a magnifying glass.”

Problems abounded: the somatic, like cheerfulness, would keep breaking in. Where were the dead united? In Hades? In the grave? Both? Could they eat? Have sex? One reason for Oedipus blinding himself was to avoid the shame of meeting his parents in Hades. Did that mean that the body’s condition could affect that of the psyche? And what about the social etiquette of first and second husbands and wives or husbands running into one another in the hereafter, a surprisingly persistent worry? Again, rational exegesis is, clearly, not only inappropriate but irrelevant in such a context. Professor Vermeule stresses, rather, the emotional needs that generate poetic paradox of this sort, so that in scrutinizing archaic Greek eschatology we wind up (as doubtless she intended that we should) also examining ourselves.

The topography of the early Greek underworld was as elusive as the true appearance of its denizens. No one, as Odysseus complained to Circe, ever went to Hades in a black ship, and a cartographer would have considerable trouble if required to map Persephone’s domain or the route thither.1 Was it subterranean, or far in the West by the shores of Ocean? Below, rather than Beyond, in most versions, with access by way of woods, lakes, and, particularly, caves. Literary descriptions of Hades bear an odd resemblance, Professor Vermeule suggests, to the underground caverns and streams of Greece’s limestone landscape, with their stalactites and exotic prehistoric fauna. The Dirou Caves of the Peloponnese—at least until they were floodlit for tourism—yawned dank and grim at the visitor, a serrated and more than metaphysical gullet (stomion) to the nether regions. Could Cerberus have originated in dim memories of cave-hyenas, or that grossly female monster Lamia as a pigmy cave-hippo? Professor Vermeule tosses out the speculation only to reject it, but the idea remains attractive. In any case, we once again have an aspect of the afterlife, its landscape this time, rendered in familiar terms. In the midst of death, the Greek might have said, we are in life. That is true for all of us; what, if anything, made the Greek approach unique?

Perhaps its most characteristic feature (though one that often recurs elsewhere) was the thirst for posthumous fame, from Achilles’ obsession with “undying renown” (kleos aphthiton) to Horace’s literary monument, aere perennius, outlasting bronze, the basis for his proud claim non omnis moriar, “not all of me will die,” a phrase which, with its builtin ambiguity (which bit lives?), could serve as Professor Vermeule’s epigraph. An early Greek was certainly more concerned with his kleos among future generations than with that “intact survival of both body and mind,” complete with food, sex, and work, which drove the Egyptians—those obsessional industrialists of the hereafter—not only to mummify their corpses but to credit them in their future existence with the grossest of physical functions. “I eat with my mouth,” one such is made to proclaim, proudly, “I have motion in my behind.” Caco, ergo sum. The Greek dead do not eat, much less shit: rather, says Professor Vermeule, with her characteristic wry amusement, “they wander loose in an ill-defined countryside…and…discuss…the brilliance of their funerals…like patients in a hospital solarium telling each other about details of [their] operations….”

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    Christians had comparable problems in the Age of Reason: witness the ingenious Tobias Swinden’s monograph, An Enquiry into the Nature and Place of Hell (London 1714), which must have found a ready market, since it appeared in a second edition, revised and augmented, in 1727.

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