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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….”

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. 1

    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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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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