Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2012.09.05
Maria Serena Mirto, Death in the Greek World: from Homer to the Classical Age. (First published in Italian 2007; translated by A. M. Osborne). Oklahoma series in classical culture, 44. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2012. Pp. x, 197. ISBN 9780806141879. $19.95 (pb).
Reviewed by Ellie Mackin, King’s College London (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Table of Contents
Maria Serena Mirto’s Death in the Greek World achieves exactly what the author claims she has set out to accomplish. ‘This book,’ she says in the preface, ‘offers a synthesis of people’s relationships with death in the Greek world.’ (p. ix) Very few scholarly works have attempted a complete reading of Greek death-related practice and belief, with the last such work probably Robert Garland’s 1985 book The Greek Way of Death. Most studies of death focus on one aspect of such practices, or offer up case studies on various aspects of death-related ritual practice or belief. Mirto makes a worthy attempt to cover the full gamut of death experience from Homer’s epics and into classical-era practices. Because of the broad scale of such a project (and, because of her aims, discussed below) those who already have more than a passing familiarity with archaic and classical death-related cultic practice, mythology and literature will more likely want to turn to a more in-depth study. However, anyone unfamiliar with the ways that the Greeks dealt with and viewed death will find this ‘general guide’ an extremely useful and thorough introduction – even in cases where such a person may already have a good grasp on Greek religious practices more generally.
The book is divided into five chapters, each of which discusses an aspect of death-related practice, belief, mythology or literature through division into sub-headings. The structure is clear and concise; each section follows logically on from the last. There are no footnotes throughout the book; Mirto rather uses in-text referencing for quotations and provides, at the end of the book, a guide to further reading for each chapter which highlights sources for the most important concepts dealt with in each chapter. This is followed by a larger, more complete bibliography. A short glossary of the most common useful terms is also provided (although words transliterated from Greek are also translated in the body of the text) making this a highly accessible study for those who have little knowledge of more technical religious terms, or of Greek in general. Quotations from original texts are provided only in translation, and all Greek terms are transliterated. The short introduction serves to ‘set the scene’ of Greek death by way of juxtaposition to modern views of death and mourning.
Chapter one is concerned primarily with beliefs about what happened following death. Mirto first examines the psyche, presenting a brief discussion on the (mostly Homeric) conceptualisation of what happens to the soul after death and the ability of the living to interact with the psyche. Mirto raises the important issue of the condition and treatment of the body for the soul’s transition to the underworld, and briefly addresses the inherent contradiction found in ‘popular belief’ of the soul’s permanent departure from the upperworld while still being available for the living to interact with. The next section deals with Hades – the place rather than the god – and again most of Mirto’s primary evidence is taken from the Homeric epics. Her main point of emphasis is the division between the upper- and underworlds, briefly discussing underworld geography, katabasis stories, and – again – placing an emphasis on the importance of proper burial practices. This is followed by a brief section on Elysium, in which Mirto highlights that this was not a place for the dead, rather a place where ‘some exceptional individuals escape death’ (p. 20.) The final section in chapter one deals with underworld gods and guides into the underworld. The discussion here begins with Hades, his role in the kidnapping of Persephone and his duty as the lord of the dead (i.e. ‘Hades is not considered a god who judges the dead for their actions while alive.’ p. 22). She then chronicles the major psychopompic gods, Hermes and Charon, though briefly also mentions the role that Thanatos and Hypnos could play as ‘journey facilitators.’ This section relies less on Homeric evidence than previous sections in this chapter, using classical tragedy to highlight a possible shift in emphasis from the necessity of proper burial customs for the conveyance of the psyche into the underworld.
Chapter two, ‘A Revolution of Hope’, is concerned with more practical, cultic responses to death. Mirto begins by looking at major eschatological cults and beliefs: The Eleusinian Mysteries, Dionysian initiations, the Bacchic Gold Tablets and Orphic mysteries and Pythagorean eschatology. These discussion are framed by a brief introduction on the importance of memory to the deceased (particularly, as Mirto points out, in ‘Orphic’ eschatology), and the way in which mystery cults attempted to make death a familiar and domesticated thing. While none of these discussions present anything particularly new, they do give a coherent and accurate summation of where scholarship currently is, and point out some of the more critical scholarly disagreements. However, her discussion on the Orphic Gold Tablets could have been enhanced by engaging with R. G. Edmonds’ 2011 book The “Orphic” Gold Tablets and Greek Religion: Further Along the Path: she mentions the book in her guide to further reading, but it was presumably published too late to have been more thoroughly utilised. The chapter concludes with a brief discussion of the body/soul opposition, again highlighting current scholarly opinions. This section, with ‘From Pindar to Plato’ included in the title, deals mainly with the latter and, somewhat confusingly given this timeline, Plutarch.
In chapter three we reach the discussion of funerary rites themselves. Mirto points out that death rituals remain incredibly stable and unchanged over time, whereas beliefs about the afterlife are inconsistent and change over time (Mirto here is following a long established, if slightly misguided, scholarly tradition) . Death rituals represent a long, slow transition from one status into the next, and Mirto’s chapter adequately reflects each stage of the rites, starting with an overview of the pollution surrounding death and the deceased. Her discussion of mourning ceremonies (including the different phases, the place of lamentation and the role of women in funerary ritual) again relies most heavily on primary evidence from Homer, and this is balanced by some scholarship and evidence from classical tragedy. At times this section reads more like a collection of small case-studies rather than an overarching description of the ritual practices, but mostly this does not deter from the aim of the section. The final section of this chapter deals with cremation, inhumation and burial rites, and again she offers a number of examples of different literary burials.
Chapter four is primarily concerned with the physical place of burial, with the majority of the chapter dedicated to stelae, monuments and epitaphs. What Mirto produces here is something of a catalogue describing different types of burial monument, how they are used in both funerary and ancestor-worship rituals, what they show and what they can tell us about the way the deceased were presented. Mirto presents a number of different examples of grave monuments, using these to discuss various iconographic and epigraphic details that pertain to the burial, funerary ritual, and the deceased. This is followed by a more thorough look at tomb and hero cults – starting with a well- thought-out definition of what the Greek ‘hero’ is. Mirto thoughtfully engages with some of the scholarly contention surrounding hero cults – presenting a multi-faceted argument that conveys the slippery nature of hero cults and hero myths without overwhelming the ‘introductory’ feel of her book.
The final chapter, ‘Making Good Use of Death’ begins with a section on heroic death in (Iliadic) battle. What Mirto emphasises is that even though heroic death glorifies the warrior there ‘is no paradoxical case of not loving life, of fascination with death’ (p. 127); this is a point which is well worth accentuating to newcomers to this study of death- practices. This section leads to discussions of the ‘beautiful death’ of the young warrior and the glorification which awaits the warrior after death, but only in the upperworld. Finally, Mirto comes back around to highlighting the treatment of the corpse and pointing out that proper burial is an integral part of the transition into the underworld, and that the disfigurement of the body caused either by war itself, or by dogs and birds, or by victors withholding bodies and funerary honours of their defeated enemy, flouts the expected social norms. The chapter then leads on to a discussion on funerary ideology in the (Athenian) polis – this and the final section on funerary legislation are the discussions most grounded in ‘fact’ (rather than relying mainly on literary evidence). Together, these two final sections provide a spirited and thorough (though, as is the often the case with general studies, at times oversimplified) discussion of burial practices, including the funerary rites themselves and the shifting fashion of funerary monuments. The final section elucidates the evidence for funerary legislation, including a short examination of laws found in various parts of the Greek world and the evidence we have for those laws (i.e. epigraphical or literary) while still emphasising that, overall, issues of legislation are complex and are not imposed on a wholesale basis across Greece.
By way of concluding the book, Mirto’s appendix on ‘Studies of Death in Anthropology, Social History and Psychology’ presents a brief but fairly thorough introduction to death-related theoretical concerns and, more broadly, ways in which death has been studied previously. While it is certainly not necessary to Mirto’s main work the appendix gives a methodological context to the work and a base from which readers may investigate for their own studies. Sadly, while the works discussed in the appendix appear in the general index, the section is not given a further reading guide as are the other chapters.
None of Mirto’s arguments in Death in the Greek World are particularly new, but her aim was not to write a piece of ground-breaking research. True to her aim, Mirto’s book is an excellent introductory guide to death and death-related beliefs and practices in the archaic and classical Greek world. What she has managed to accomplish is a concise, practical, easy to understand compendium which both deals expertly with the primary evidence and appropriately utilises the secondary evidence. She perhaps has an over-dependence on the presentation of death in the Iliad, and carries this into discussions of classical-era practices as well. This may prove misleading, but in a field and time-frame where there is little other evidence, and when one doesn’t want to get too entrenched in minute details, it is understandable. At times, Mirto is refreshingly honest about the literary evidence: she describes, for example, Achilles’ ‘inconsolable disappointment’ at what he finds in the underworld (p. 138). This simplicity often shows an oversimplification of what are very complex issues in Greek death-related beliefs; forgivable given the brevity, and a trap that Garland’s The Greek Way of Death mostly avoids. Mirto’s book is almost directly comparable to Garland’s in scope and time-frame – covering a similar range of material, with appeal to similar audiences. Death in the Greek World provides something of an updated version of the type of study that Garland’s book is – bringing in (mainly scholarly) material that has appeared since the 1985 book was published. The overriding success of this book is the way that Mirto brings each aspect back to burial practice, highlighting how and why literary examples of, for instance, interaction with the dead relates to real-world burial practices. This in itself achieves something many studies on death do not – by demonstrating why looking at mythological or literary examples is pertinent to studies of cultic practice. Overall, Mirto’s book provides a timely update to the exciting field of Greek religious practices.