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 …

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