Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2000.04.21

Sarah Iles Johnston, Restless Dead: Encounters between the Living and the Dead in Ancient Greece.   Berkeley:  University of California Press, 1999.  Pp. 329.  ISBN 0-520-21707-1.  $40.00.  

Reviewed by Diana Burton, Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand (
Word count: 1738 words

In spite of the increasing interest in death and the afterlife in antiquity, there are a number of areas still undeservedly neglected. This is a study of one such area, the nature and activities of Greek ghosts -- the 'restless dead' of the title -- and the ways in which the living interacted with them, respecting, fearing and controlling them. Such a book is long overdue, as Ms. Johnston (hereafter J.) points out (pp. x-xi). Recently, scholars have tended to avoid the subject, and the last book that dealt with it in detail was E. Rohde's Psyche (1898), since which both evidence and methods have changed considerably.1 This book is a worthy successor to Rohde's magnum opus.

J.'s book centres on the archaic and classical periods. She takes into account recent material from various areas of the discipline, and her methodology adapts models used by cultural anthropology (p.xii, though she does not go into these in detail). She uses a common-sense approach to the evidence, following the principle of Occam's Razor and 'seeking explanations that require the fewest or least complex suppositions' (p. 30). This leads her to assume that, if phenomena are not attested in a text, this reflects 'the absence of those phenomena in the societies in which the poems developed, unless other cogent explanations for their absence can be found within the thematic concerns of the poet' (p. 7 n. 3). The citation refers to the Homeric poems, but J. applies this principle to other texts also; see pp. 30-35. She is also refreshingly ready to assert that at least some of the Greeks did actually believe in the power of their dead to interact with them (p. 37).

In general this somewhat positivist method (I do not use the word in a pejorative sense) works very well, although the reader may not always agree with the way in which she applies it to the evidence. For example, J. disagrees (rightly, I think) with the view that Homeric heroes do not call upon the dead because to do so is unheroic (pp. 32-35). Nonetheless, it seems to me that one could still make a different case for a 'thematic concern' at work in the Iliad, where the almost complete impermeability of the boundary between the living and the dead greatly heightens the impact of death on those who survive -- and on the audience; J. does not address this possibility. This need not contradict her overall hypothesis, that the barrier between living and dead was commonly held to be absolute at the time of the Homeric epics and that this belief weakened over time; one might simply argue that the poet made an eschatological convention into a thematic asset.

Part 1, 'A Short History of the Dead in Ancient Greece' (Chapters 1-3) deals with the changing perceptions of the interaction between the living and the dead in the archaic and classical periods. J. examines narrative descriptions of the dead (Chapter 1) and discusses 'what the Greeks did about the dead' (Chapter 2) through ritual, including apotropaic rites; there is an interesting discussion here of the lex sacra from Selinus (pp. 47-58). She argues that the dead develop from a position of weakness, in which they must work through agents to make their presence felt amongst the living, to a stronger and more threatening position, in which they can act for themselves and can also be called upon by the living for both help and harm. By the classical period, as the dead come to be seen as more threatening and problematic, the goes, a practitioner to manipulate the dead, emerges. Chapter 3 centres on the emergence, function and status of the art of goeteia and those who practise it; clearly the dead can be a source of significant power to those who know how to control them.

In Part II, 'Restless Dead' (Chapters 4-5), the results of the tension between living and dead are explored: the unhappy dead, J. argues, have a normative role, acting as an inverted mirror to social values, and are also a threat to those same values, as is made clear by the actions and beliefs of the living. Both individual and polis can and do react to neutralise this threat and protect the vulnerable -- such as the particular objects of J.'s interest, girls on the brink of marriage. Part III, 'Divinities and the Dead', looks first at Hekate, who protects girls' transitions in cult, but in myth is affiliated to the victims of a series of narratives based on a 'dying maiden' paradigm (Chapter 6). Finally J. concludes with a discussion of the nature and functions of the Erinyes (Chapter 7). The book ends with a useful list of Frequently Used Terms (xvii-xix), bibliography, index locorum, and a good general index (though I miss any entry for 'maidens', 'marriage', or 'reproduction' or their cognates - perhaps because they appear passim). The book is also well edited, with few typographical errors (but note 'prytanneum', p. 204).

This very brief and bare summary hardly does justice to the rich variety of material covered in this book. Its sum is greater than its parts. The arguments are wide-ranging, cumulative and complex, and the author's knowledge remarkably varied, but she retains a good grip on her material, and takes care that the reader never lose the thread of her argument, however involved it may become. She practices economy in her writing: there is little here that is not directly relevant to the topic in hand, even if it does not seem so at first.

In some places, in fact, this economy seems almost too stringent. The book is not always as fully referenced as one would like (eg., p. 212, examples of the friendly dogs depicted as Hekate's companions; p. 218, 'It has been suggested by some scholars...' -- who, exactly?). Occasionally, too, rather than give detailed reasons for taking one side in a particular debate, J. simply announces that she has been persuaded by the arguments of one or another of a number of dissenting scholars. It is entirely reasonable that J. would not wish to go into detailed arguments that have been covered elsewhere (p. xiii), but a brief summary of the reasoning that convinced her would not have been misplaced, especially since her choice sometimes has important implications for her own discussion. For example, on p. 268, J. mentions the debate over equating the Erinyes with the Semnai Theai and/or the Eumenides. She chooses to follow Albert Henrichs' analysis -- in part, that the name Erinyes could be used as a negative term for the similar (but not identical) Semnai Theai and Eumenides.2 Since this partial identification between the goddesses is crucial to J.'s analysis in the rest of the chapter, her reasons for backing this particular horse in place of another would seem to be relevant, and it would be helpful to have some indication of what they were, even if only in a footnote. As it is, J. risks making the foundations of her argument appear to be weaker than they are.

This is, however, a very minor quibble. More serious is the speculative nature of areas of J.'s analysis. Given the diverse and fragmentary nature of her material, this is inevitable. However, pursuit of her argument does occasionally lead her to tie in evidence that does not form as strong a support as it may seem to do. In the course of Chapter 6, J. presents a series of myths in which a girl (a) angers a goddess and is killed or kills herself; or (b) is threatened by someone else and dies by hanging or is saved by the goddess at a price (pp. 218-249). She begins with a discussion of Erigone, arguing that the Aiora was instituted both to protect Athenian parthenoi from Erigone's fate, and as a rite of appeasement for Erigone as a vengeful ghost (pp. 219-224). She then goes on to trace similar structures and functions in a range of other myths. One of these (pp. 226-228) is the story of Carya, a Laconian girl seduced by Dionysos, who turned her into a nut tree (karua) when her sisters prevented her from continuing the liaison. J. links the story to the rites of Artemis Caryatis at Caryai in Laconia, arguing that Dionysos 'seems remarkably dispensable... It is probable that in the original myth, it was Artemis, not Dionysos, who turned Carya into the nut-tree, either to punish the girl for having been seduced or, perhaps, to rescue her from threatened rape. Either would bring the story into alignment with the paradigm discussed at the beginning of this section' (p. 227). Now, the link between names and places makes this plausible, and indeed persuasive. However, there are also plenty of myths in which a god seduces a girl who then refuses to continue the relationship or is prevented from doing so and comes to grief as a result (Apollo and Cassandra, for example). To posit a hypothetical earlier myth of a different form, as J. does a number of times in this chapter, looks ominously like putting the cart before the horse. In the same strain, one would like to know a little more about the link between the karua-tree and the name of the place Caryai, in order to support the derivation of Artemis' epiclesis from the tree rather than the place. Having said this, however, I would like to point out, in support of J., another myth presenting a similar connection between Dionysos and Artemis: in one version of Ariadne's myth, she is seduced by Dionysos, and is killed by Artemis for unchastity (scholion on Odyssey 11.322). This fits well into the 'dying maiden' paradigm and may perhaps have been confused with the Carya myth. J.'s speculation appears to be infectious. Furthermore, she always clearly 'signposts' hypotheses of this kind and never presents them as fact.

None of this, however, should deter anyone from reading this book. This review, in the nature of such things, has given more space to criticism than praise; but in fact this is an interesting and highly readable account, full of insight, imagination and learning. J. handles her diverse evidence competently and persuasively, and her reading of the role of the Erinyes at the end of the book is masterly. This book is a significant study, and should certainly bring the subject the attention it deserves.


1.   E. Rohde, Psyche: Seelencult und Unsterblichkeitsglaube der Griechen, 1898 (tr. W. B. Hillis as Psyche: The Cult of Souls and Belief in Immortality among the Ancient Greeks, London 1920).
2.   A. Henrichs, 'Anonymity and Polarity: Unknown Gods and Nameless Altars at the Areopagus', ICS 19 (1994) 27-58.

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