Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2013.08.35
Andrzej Wypustek, Images of Eternal Beauty in Funerary Verse Inscriptions of the Hellenistic and Greco-Roman Periods. Mnemosyne Supplements. Monographs on Greek and Latin Language and Literature, 352. Leiden; Boston: Brill, 2013. Pp. xii, 245. ISBN 9789004233188. $133.00.
Reviewed by Allison Boex, Cornell University (email@example.com)
This book is an investigation of whether references to the afterlife in Greco-Roman poetic epitaphs reflect any sort of widespread eschatological or soteriological belief. Despite its title (about which Brill has exhibited some confusion1), the book is less concerned with beauty than with immortality, and specifically with the question of how much eschatological hope we can read into apparent references to the afterlife in funerary epigrams. Thus, while Wypustek does suggest that most types of such references indirectly assert the beauty of the deceased, almost none of his examples include direct descriptions of the deceased’s beauty, eternal or otherwise.
In his Introduction Wypustek explains how his approach differs from past studies of eschatological elements in epitaphs. While other scholars have focused on associating these elements with mystery cults or other religious groups, Wypustek considers examples that discuss the deceased’s posthumous state in relation to the gods, but not necessarily to a particular religious doctrine or group. He has limited himself to poetic epitaphs, on the grounds that they have more depth of content than prose examples. This decision certainly makes the corpus more manageable, but one wonders how much valuable evidence may have been omitted as a result. Most of his examples come from the Hellenistic and Roman Imperial periods; verse epitaphs from these periods, he says, are more numerous and of greater length and individuality. Moreover, the examples he has selected are mostly written in Greek, although he occasionally admits an example in Latin; a clearer explanation of his selection criteria would have been helpful.
In Chapter One Wypustek discusses the nature of his evidence and previous approaches to it: that of M. N. Tod,2 who argued that because epitaphs were public, inaccurate statements would be contradicted, so we should trust any and all assertions in them as valid evidence; and the much more restrictive view of A. Chaniotis,3 that since funerary epigrams were formulaic, they cannot be taken as a source for personal views (in this case, eschatological beliefs) unless there is specific evidence to the contrary. Wypustek agrees that we should distinguish two categories of epitaphs, formulaic and individualistic, but suggests that to admit only the individualistic ones is too restrictive, given the paucity of eschatological allusions. Arguing that the use of even formulaic themes was a choice, he recommends the value of a category he calls “consciously formulaic” epigrams – those that reflect such choices on the part of the commissioner even though the ideas are expressed in conventional ways.
In Chapter Two Wypustek discusses various ways in which the deceased is compared to or associated with divine beings. He first presents a few examples of apparent apotheosis; it is unclear, he says, precisely what sort of religious thought would lie behind such representations: since the concept of apotheosis (as opposed to heroization) is fundamentally alien to Greek thought, the limited representation of it is not surprising. Much more common are mentions of indirect apotheosis through the soul’s return to the divine Ether, or through catasterism, i.e., turning into a star. He then considers how the emergence of imperial cult might have affected the choices of ordinary people to include mentions of deification, direct or indirect, in their epitaphs. Returning then to catasterism, one form of indirect apotheosis, he associates the brightness of heavenly light attributed to stars with the radiant beauty of the gods, and suggests that therefore a reference to catasterism is a manifestation of what will be a recurring theme: assertion of the beauty of the deceased. Here Wypustek seems at pains to connect the examples in the chapter to this overall theme; he attempts it only in the last of the three categories examined in the chapter, and the attempt seems rather a stretch, if a clever one.
In his third chapter Wypustek considers the use of the word ἥρως, together with other depictions of heroization, and to what extent they reflect actual heroization (that is, the establishment of a hero-cult with offerings, etc.) and thereby perhaps a belief in an afterlife of the deceased. He concludes that the term ἥρως was subject to an “inflationary process” such that it no longer necessarily signified an attribution of supernatural qualities to the deceased or any actual ritual; instead it reflected the gratitude of the living to the dead, while perhaps also effecting a sort of epic commemoration by associating the deceased with mythological heroic figures. Given the rarity of heroization as an element overall, he suggests that it may have been limited to the young; there is a natural association, he says, between the prematurely deceased and heroes, generally depicted as youthful and beautiful (with the latter characteristic tying us in once again, more credibly this time, to Wypustek’s overall theme).
In Chapter Four Wypustek looks at the metaphor of death-as-marriage, including references to the Hades/Persephone myth. While scholars have suggested various religious associations for the theme and the myth, he believes that they are included primarily to emphasize the pathos of an untimely death; since most mentions of the myth in this context leave out any soteriological aspect, Wypustek rejects attempts to see a real hope for an afterlife. The inherent parallels between funerals and weddings in Greek culture (of which he gives an excellent survey) account in part for the frequency of this theme, but he offers two further explanations: first, that the theme and/or myth would serve as a consolation for mourners; and secondly, and more importantly, that an identification with Persephone would highlight the beauty of the deceased (in the case of women, that is; he suggests Adonis as a parallel figure for men, but can offer little textual support for the idea).
In his fifth chapter Wypustek investigates how much eschatological meaning we should understand in certain other references to divine abduction exemplified by the myth of Ganymede. References to Ganymede appear in only a few epitaphs, but far more frequently in funerary art; such images emphasize the youth and beauty of the deceased, and do not necessarily assert a happy afterlife, contra F. Cumont’s strongly eschatological reading.4 Wypustek suggests that in the funerary epigram we should consider the story as a variation of a broader theme: he offers several other examples in which the figure of Zeus conducts the deceased to the afterlife. He concludes that although the Ganymede myth primarily emphasizes the premature death of someone young and beautiful, and serves as rhetorical consolation, there do seem to be some eschatological aspects as well: the basic paradigm, he says, is one in which the beauty of the deceased causes affection in a deity, who abducts the deceased to a destination of eternal happiness. According to Wypustek, the theme is most fully developed in cases that include references to “the myth of abduction (including that of Ganymede) by (the thunderbolt of) Zeus.” But none of the examples he has cited contains all or even most of the elements Wypustek conflates.
In Chapter Six, Wypustek explores another explanation for premature death: being taken by nymphs, as in the myth of Hylas. Scholars disagree as to how much eschatological or soteriological meaning to understand: some consider the theme just a literary flourish, while others believe that being “taken by nymphs” is a form of heroization, and thus an assertion of the deceased’s immortality. Wypustek points out, however, that there is no clear association between this idea and any one set of religious beliefs. He then introduces a further piece of evidence: the Hylas-sarcophagus, on which the deceased is depicted as Hylas, deceased family members as nymphs, and surviving family members as those searching for him; here the myth functions in the funerary context as a depiction of the loss felt by the survivors, and a vague hope that they would be reunited after death, without any real reference to a specific afterlife. Wypustek concludes that references to the theme do not attest to a belief in heroization or an afterlife; like references to the abduction of Persephone in the case of young women, the Hylas-theme is a consolatory device, used for children with an emphasis on the care-giving aspects of nymphs in mythology.
In the seventh chapter Wypustek discusses two common threads that run through most of his examples: the use of mythology, and the theme of the beauty of the deceased. He notes that since there was no cohesive system of eschatological symbolism in the Greco-Roman world, hope for an afterlife was not necessarily connected with a particular religious group. The case of eschatological references in epitaphs is thus parallel to that of funerary art on sarcophagi, which he understands as both symbolic (as in the Romanticist view) and decorative (the Positivist view), rather than insisting on a dichotomy: just as the images could indicate eschatological optimism, but did not need to be part of a philosophical system, so funerary epigram may show a hope for a better life after death, without implying a detailed system of belief – the mythological exempla would be chosen on the basis of specific circumstances. Wypustek then turns to the second element common to many of his examples, reference to the beauty of the deceased: after a history of direct references to beauty, he returns to the various ways in which beauty could be indirectly asserted, and concludes that his sample should not lead us to assume any sort of unified eschatological optimism in ancient Greek thought, even when the content seems to refer to an afterlife.
Wypustek’s argument, then, is clear: there seems to be little evidence, at least in the examples he presents, for any organized or unified optimistic view of the afterlife. This is a valuable conclusion. One is left to wonder, however, how representative his examples are of the overall picture: he says little about how he went about finding and choosing his examples from so vast a corpus with such differences in chronology and geography. He does not tell us whether he has presented all the examples with eschatological references from the 4,500+ extant verse epitaphs in Greek (never mind the Latin examples he occasionally cites), or only those that fit in with his common thread of ‘eternal beauty.’ (In fact, the examples in the second chapter do not fit in especially well.)
But we should be glad to have this work, even if it leaves room for further exploration. One conclusion in particular seems especially insightful: in considering epitaphs, especially for those who died young, we should keep in mind the need of the survivors to explain their loss, with whatever mythological or religious tools were available to them – to turn a devastatingly negative circumstance into at least an ambivalently positive one. Such a need does not necessarily indicate a system of eschatological belief, but a simple need for consolation.
1. At one point this book was listed on Brill’s website under the title “The Privileges of Death: Images of Immortality in Verse Inscriptions of the Hellenistic and Greco-Roman Periods”.
2. Tod, M. N. “Laudatory Epithets in Greek Epitaphs,” ABSA 46 (1951): 184.
3. Chaniotis, A. “Das Jenseits – eine Gegenwelt?” in Gegenwelten zu den Kulturen der Griechen und der Römer in der Antike, ed. T. Hölscher (Munich, Leipzig: Saur, 2000), 162-3.
4. Cumont, F. Études Syriennes (Paris, 1917), 85-90.