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On the Thanatos Trail

Seagoing by necessity, disputatious by nature (whether with sword or, later, syllogism), the Greeks, Professor Vermeule tells us, evolved a mythology of death that stressed—as we might expect—the splendors and miseries of warfare, the cognate joys of hunting, the cruel sea’s chill vicissitudes and ingurgitant monsters. Her acute, wide-ranging, and eruditely witty analysis of these phenomena is the most welcome contribution I have seen in years to a subject that has hitherto (for whatever murky reason) remained largely the monopoly of dull or tendentious Germans, prosing on at inordinate length about Totenkultus and Unsterblichkeitsglauben.2 Bronze Age heroes ate meat, drank wine, split skulls, and skewered livers with abandon, glorying in life like those circling lions to whose presence Gilgamesh awoke from a clouded dream of death. Hades for them was no more than a gray shadow-house, and one thing most people remember about Achilles from Homer is his ghostly admission that he would rather be a day laborer in this world than a king in the next. Professor Vermeule sums up this complex attitude with a Heracleitan aphorism that forms one of her chapter titles: “Immortals are mortal, mortals immortal.” Immortality as such the heroic mind found tedious, ill-defined, lacking (another paradox) in essential humanity. Polly Garter in Under Milk Wood sums up the Greek attitude: “Isn’t life a terrible thing, thank God?”

Professor Vermeule sees this relish for the here-and-now, I think rightly, as “part of the Greek legacy to the West, and almost a definition of humanism.” As is the generation of leaves, mused Glaucus in the Iliad, so is that of mankind: the transience (as the Elizabethans knew so well) sharpens wit, heightens pleasure, casts a sundial’s shadow. Sunt lacrimae rerum: brightness falls from the air, after the first death there is no other. It is the monument of words that survives, made all the more precious by the frailty of the wordmaker: ephemeroi, the Greeks called humans, “creatures of a day.”

Thus it is with justice that violent rather than natural death dominates Professor Vermeule’s lectures, not least when we reflect on the precarious social conditions of Homeric or archaic Greece. In such a society, she says, “war is a habit, the natural way of life for an adult, a pastime and the only path to honor,” and she goes on to emphasize how much this attitude conditioned Greek literature: “Is there another epic tradition so well informed about the human anatomy, or so eager to break it apart for our amusement and edification?” Battle is predicated on the archetypal patterns of hunting: lion and boar merge, respectively, into the triumphant and defeated warrior. Patroclus, the lion in victory, becomes a boar as he dies. Metaphor confers status. Leonine predators thirst for blood, feed on raw flesh, a Dionysian banquet minus the palliating religious ecstasy.

Professor Vermeule links this aspect of battle with the uneasy memories of head-hunting and cannibalism that surface here and there in Homer. Such practices, she notes, are still reported today—stark fact, not fantasy—from the combat areas of Vietnam or Cambodia. She even refers, breezily, to “the kind of snack or pacifier heroes so longed for at Troy, an enemy liver to eat or a head to play with.” The influence of W.S. Gilbert is detectable here and inappropriate. This is battle-ax grinding, pursuant to the author’s vision of the Happy Warrior, which I find overdone. To accept war’s inevitability, as Homer and the early lyric poets do, is not to treat it (something Professor Vermeule strongly suggests) as unalloyed fun. Her prize example of a battle-glutton is Odysseus; but in fact he made vigorous attempts to dodge the draft by feigning insanity; and that gift of war from Zeus to which he alludes (Iliad 14.83ff., taken at face value by Professor Vermeule) in fact carries overtones of savage irony.

Both Hesiod and Archilochus similarly allude to a god’s gifts—poverty and drowning respectively—in terms that leave no doubt whatsoever about the bleak emotions they arouse in the recipient. Even as early as the Iliad the old heroic battle ideal is beginning to come under fire: openly from Thersites, indirectly through Achilles’ own introspective doubts. Archilochus, the seventh-century colonist, will fight because he must, but sees no shame, and much common sense, in throwing away his shield, taking to his heels, and living to fight another day. Hesiod is about as antiwar as an archaic poet could get, though he too, in his grimly pragmatic fable of the Hawk and the Nightingale, recognizes the compulsion of superior force. From this writing a thematic trail leads unbroken to the might-is-right ethic of Thucydides’ Melian Dialogue.

If Professor Vermeule’s approach has a weakness it derives from, I think, her bright (and perhaps apotropaic) unwillingness to take death seriously. Here her fondness for New Yorker cartoons, especially of the comic-grisly sort, is symptomatic. There is more than a touch of the Victorian nursery, of Harry Graham’s Ruthless Rhymes, about her bouncy attitude to dismemberment: when a Homeric head flies off one almost expects her to cry “Touché!,” like Thurber’s famous cartoon duelist. This, combined with her gift for witty aphorisms, doubtless enlivened her lectures no end; but to the extent that it leaves us feeling that death in antiquity must have been a gas for everyone concerned, it presents a false picture. What one misses is the agony and the terror, the formulaic violence of lamentation, the desperate battle against that awful sense of total eclipse. Greek death poetry, she claims, “often deceives us with its ornamental wit, a kind of formal black humor,” which of course is true; but this side of it can very easily be overstressed by the unwary.

Similarly, Professor Vermeule is irritated by classicists who blame the Bronze Age for the savagery, actual or latent, in Homer, and treat the Iliad as a mere traditional backdrop for the evolution of the “new spiritual Greek.” The trouble is, they happen to be right, and Professor Vermeule’s reminder that the Periclean Age was no less brutal (to the examples she cites we might add the habit of genocide and that disgusting form of execution known as apotympanismós) doesn’t alter the fact. Homer does, demonstrably, control and civilize these raw urges, a process further developed by succeeding generations. We have another paradox here, one arising from Professor Vermeule’s own work, since elsewhere she herself demonstrates the civilizing element in Homer with considerable subtlety and perception.

But then logic, as she remarks at one point, is not fruitful in the sphere of death: a valid point, as we have seen, and one with which her audience at Berkeley doubtless sympathized. If the Greeks could legitimately contradict themselves on a topic that lay beyond both thought and experience, then why not a Sather Lecturer? And contradiction, as she tells it, was built into the evidence she investigated from the ground up. She found baffling discrepancies between her three main sources of material: the contents of graves, visual representations of death-related topics by artists, and what poets wrote—mythologically or otherwise—about the hereafter. She admits, too, that “it is not easy, professionally or temperamentally, for an archaeologist to make confident connections between tombs and thoughts.” Her material proved recalcitrant, she tells us, resisting attempts to impose order on it: evidence of that long struggle is still apparent. Worse, photographs of tombstones refused to come out, references were lost, things went mysteriously wrong, until one begins to wonder whether Professor Vermeule may not have been hexed, somewhere along the way, by an angry Greek ghost who resented her reminder that the dead in antiquity were thought of as somewhat weak in the head.

Greek poets, she notes, with perhaps excessive pessimism, were not much interested in bones or funerals, but preferred to coin aphorisms about the brevity of life. (Some of those aphorisms would have been worth quoting, I feel.) Serious archaic Greek artists—with the exception of certain late black-figure vase-painters—took more interest in mythological themes than in the actualities of bereavement. The practical tradition of burial in the archaic period was different again: it primarily concerned itself with personal factual details—family and background, virtues, achievements—of the deceased, and thus generated a type of painting (especially on lekythoi, unguent-jars, placed in the grave) with little of the mythological or fantastic about it, together with funereal epigrams largely lacking in supernatural imagery.

All this changed in the fifth century, which sees a remarkable elaboration of general concepts regarding the afterlife, and the sophisticated spread of mythological themes, both literary and visual, into every area of human awareness, from the theological to the erotic. Though Professor Vermeule does not say so, it seems clear that this evolutionary process must have been directly linked to the rapid spread and increase of literacy that took place during this period, the growing habit of using mythological paradigms as a yardstick or touchstone for diurnal conduct and, in the widest sense, for human comfort. During the earlier archaic period, however, as she rightly observes, the evidence lacks uniformity and cohesion.

This bothers her more than is necessary. There was no real need to underplay the post-Homeric literary evidence to the extent that she does: in the process we lose a lot of Hesiod and Archilochus and Mimnermus (to name only three of the more important witnesses) that could have been highly enlightening. Professor Vermeule concentrates more, first, on mythological iconography (legendary heroes, figures of the underworld, winged daemons, marginal allegories, all aptly and idiosyncratically illustrated), and, secondly, on the physical detritus surviving from burials. The latter in particular pose endless baffling questions. What was the purpose of the gifts people put in graves? Did these weapons, jewelry, and vases complete the dead person’s identity underground, or give him a start in his new life beyond?

Professor Vermeule leans toward the first explanation, frequently implies the second. What about libations? The Greek dead had a paradoxical reputation for thirstiness: if embracing was taboo in the grave, toping seems to have been endemic. Most important of all, how was the grave itself viewed by its occupants? Much evidence—roofs, doors, painted façades—suggests a house or bedroom: a new home, a setting for the Big Sleep. Yet did bodily functions call for support once the flesh had failed? Professor Vermeule is inclined to think not—but slips into treating the grave as a home despite herself.3

The lectures on which this book is based have become legendary in Berkeley, and it is not hard to see why. Besides being an immensely distinguished archaeologist and prehistorian, Professor Vermeule is the kind of widely read humanist who, to our loss, has become virtually extinct in overspecialized academic life. To students fed for too long on windy bureaucratic trash or emotive but inarticulate slang, her sparkling prose must have come as a revelation. Nor is elegance of style achieved at the expense of intellectual strength. Her extensive (and often very funny) notes show her equally at home in an extraordinarily wide range of topics; the wit and poetic insight have a solid underpinning of scholarship.

Even where she cannot find answers, where she admits, as she often does, to bafflement or muddle, she illuminates by the keenness of her vision the unlooked-for parallels she adduces. Her sense of the interplay between Eros and Thanatos results, inter alia, in some deadpan sexual one-liners, e.g., on Ixion and Tityos “trying to rape the great goddesses, unaware that immortality cannot be achieved by friction.” The biggest compliment I can pay her is that, having read her book with fascination, I now want to rethink the entire subject for myself. She gives a fresh angle to everything she touches: Hades will never look quite the same again.

  1. 2

    One exception, as fresh and stimulating now as when it was first written, is Erwin Rohde’s Psyche (4th ed., Tübingen, 1907; English tr. London 1920), to which Professor Vermeule owes, and enthusiastically acknowledges, a major debt.

  2. 3

    She claims that “in the Bronze Age the most ambitious tombs, the tholoi, were not replicas of normal houses.” In fact, their inner structure bears a most striking resemblance to those circular huts known as tourlotá, built to this day by the nomadic pastoral herdsmen of Epirus, the Saracatsani. See J.K. Campbell, Honour, Family and Patronage (Oxford University Press, 1964), pl. 4 opp. p. 208, and Patrick Leigh-Fermor, Roumeli (London: John Murray, 1966), pl. opp. p. 24 for tholos-like huts; also Leigh-Fermor pp. 27-32 for the immutable conservatism of Saracatsani patterns in building and dress. Some of the designs on Saracatsani wedding dresses show unmistakable Geometric influence, dating back to at least the eighth century BC.

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