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While We Are Yet Decaying: Death in Ancient Greece--World Poetry Project

Updated on January 25, 2012

Death is our constant companion. Many attitudes towards the inevitable end are possible. At this time in this country, we flee from it as from a grand injustice, an act of unmistakable malice. Even death in old age seems to us to arrive too soon, and we speak of death in war with the same indignation as we speak of murder, at least we do when the combat casualty is one of our own. This will change. Our attitude towards death, as that towards life and our valuation of it, fluctuates, framed by an ongoing debate upon what in ourselves and in our communal existence as humans has significance.

Today we will look at the way some Greek poets wrote of death, and thus at how they memorialized life. This discussion will embrace poems on the death of a culture as well as the deaths of individuals. Cultures, too, have died and had witnesses to their passing.

As I have mentioned before, women were often treated badly in Greek verse, but the exceptions can be illuminating and exceptionally touching, as in Heraclitus's "The soil is freshly dug", translated by Edwin Morgan. The setting is a new grave and its tombstone read by a traveler:

Stranger I am Artemias of Cnidua. I was the wife of Euphro. Labour pains were not withheld

from me. I left one twin to guide my husband's old age, and took the other to remind me of him.

Artemias' offering to her husband is a living child, a means of support for his future, when he will be old and require aid. It is the bond between husband and wife, not mother and child or father and child, that is privileged in this poem. She takes one child with her not for desire of the child itself, but in order to retain the memory of her husband through the presence of the child. Love is celebrated in this poem, the man between a specific man and a specific woman. Life is not lived, and grief is not suffered, by generic types, but by real men and real women in relationship to one another. The importance of naming on a gravestone, and the address of the dead to the stranger-reader suggest to us the importance Greeks, and also Romans, placed on memory, on the act of being remembered. Once forgotten, the individual was truly dead and without place in life. This is a partial explanation for the Graeco-Roman hunger for fame as found in these memorials of their individual deaths. The famous lived longer in historical time than their brief lives above ground, as they were long-remembered and by many more people than the obscure and the typical.

Artemias was memorialized by her husband, not so Theris of whom Leonidas of Tarentum writes. Theris the fisherman died old, never having gone to war or earned fame. He "lived by his fish traps/And nets, more at home on the sea than a gull". He died alone at home, and yet he has a grave and a stone, established by the fisherman's union. Again it is the man in relationship to a community that guarantees memory. Men are not remembered, as they do not exist, as isolates, but are remembered by those they belonged with in a relationship. So long as there was community, so long as one was not truly solitary and abandoned, as was Philoctetes, there would be at least this--your name on a tomb.

Previously I discussed Callimachus's attack on critics. Let us now listen to him on the subject of death. The first, "Epigram", speaks of a sudden death, perhaps the death of a child.

…Yesterday, Kharmis

You were in our eyes. Today

We buried you.

The death is unexpected, the thing of a day. Yet this does not have to mean it was completely unexpected. Even with a long-expected death, there is a great difference between the soon and the now. So it was with my grandmother's death last year. She was old, frail, and ill, but it was still a shock and a resistance to the reality of her death occurred when it happened. There was still that great chasm of absence created between her living presence the day before and the first day without her.

Callimachus speaks of death again in "News of your death". The subject here is his friend and fellow poet, Herakleitos of Halikarnassos. Again it is the shock of man and shell that forcefully strike Callimachos, of what was and can never be again--"all the times we talked the sun down the sky". What remains of Herakleitos? His art:

whose poems are nightingales

beyond the clutch of the unseen god.

It is not only beloved wives, children, and friends who are saved from anonymity upon their death. There is this from Asclepiades celebrating a courtesan named Archeanassa, her "old and wrinkled body/was still Love's proud domain". But those who only knew her old missed the height of her gift:

You lovers who knew her youth

in its sweet piercing splendor

and plucked those early blooms--

through what a flame you passed.

I imagine, but this is only me and you will have to find your own parallel, that Archeanassa might have been an ancient Katherine Hepburn, who aged but remained true to the fire and the passion of her youth, inimitable and truly beautiful.

Death was not always an occasion for solemnity, but could partake of a satiric, festive mood as in Lucilius' "Lean Gaius", translated by Peter Porter. Gaius dies, and

…we his friends are twice bereft

In losing him and finding nothing left

To put into the coffin…

Nevertheless, Gaius's friends will give him a good parade and mourn the nothing that has fled from them. The death of nothing, funeral of Gaius. We are not given any indication that Gaius is worth mourning, and, indeed, suspect that he is not, but the formalities must be fulfilled anyway. And the formalities, the rites of mourning, are themselves the joke, wasted on the nothing that was Gaius.

We now encounter the long death of a culture with the poems of Palladas (360-430 CE). No longer are we confined to the deaths of individual men, but also the passing away of gods. First, there is the death of men in "Whose baggage from land to land is despair", translated by Frank Kuenstler.

Whose baggage from land to land is despair,

Life's voyagers sail a treacherous sea.

All efforts are wasted, though still we make them, for our course, whatsoever it might be, is "from here to nowhere. And back again". The final anchorage for all life's pilgrims is the same: a tomb.

And then there are the falling/fallen gods represented by "Where the 3 roads meet", translated by Anselm Hollo. The poet encounters a bronze statue of Hermes at a crossroads, no longer standing nor worshipped, but "knocked over, flat on the ground". Not only is the bronze fallen, the god 'killed', but he has been knocked over: we are dealing with a murder. Later, the poet is visited by Hermes himself, who says:

'you have to go with the times…

That much I learned

when I was a god.

The gods are not gods when neglected by man, and they can only be neglected now: their time of power, like that of Greece, is over.

We end with the last recorded oracle from Delphi, recorded in 396 CE. This is the last word of ancient Greek culture:

Say this to the king: Men wrought this shrine

Now fallen to ruin. A God kept this place.

His laurels are dead. Prophecy's spring

Ran dry. Parched stone, speechless stream.

Ancient Greece, its gods, its prophetesses, and its men are exhausted. They have no more wisdom to impart. What they have said, other men will revisit and rework into new patterns, new themes, with their own intentions and their own passions. In the twentieth century, they will be mourned again fervently and with delicate passion by Cavafy, but they will never live again.


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    • Ed Michaels profile image

      Ed Michaels 6 years ago from Texas, USA

      Wow. I am very appreciative of all the wonderful comments and happy to bring Greek literature back to some of you. This is, however, a farewell to the Greeks for the moment, as next week I move on to Rome.

    • dksuttle profile image

      Donna Suttle 6 years ago from Ecuador, New Mexico, South Carolina

      Very nice, I will be reading more of your work.

    • azahorik profile image

      azahorik 6 years ago from Philadelphia, PA

      I'd forgotten about the joys of Greek poetry until you reminded me of it here. Granted, my only experience is with epic poetry, but there's still a wonderful cadence and unique perspective to it that can't be confused with anything else.

      Interesting hub! Voted up.

    • profile image

      Michael Achilles 6 years ago

      I think this is great. It reminds me of another poets words: A ghost precedes us a shadow follows us and each time we stop we fall!.....

    • Ed Michaels profile image

      Ed Michaels 6 years ago from Texas, USA

      One reason I think it is easier to approach other cultures through poets and artists, rather than scholars and religious texts, is the fact that artists often focus on themes that touch on the human experience, so that we are able to form connections on that basis rather than focusing only on what separates them from us.

    • Deborah Brooks profile image

      Deborah Brooks Langford 6 years ago from Brownsville,TX

      Awesome hub....I love to read and study about other cuturals especially the poets


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