BMCR 2020.12.19

Harmful interaction between the living and the dead in Greek tragedy

, Harmful interaction between the living and the dead in Greek tragedy. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2020. Pp. x, 216. ISBN 9781789621501. £75.00.

[Chapters are listed below.]

The dead are always with us.  Their reminders are everywhere—in cemeteries, rituals, visions, prayers, memories, invocations, dreams, ghosts.  We seem not to be able to part with them, even though they are dead.  Or maybe it’s because they are dead, and this painful, irrevocable fact ties us to them.  We cannot let them go because we don’t want to, and we imagine that they can’t let go either.  The ancient Greeks were also attached to their dead.  And they wrestled with fundamental questions.  What becomes of the dead?  Where do they go?  What is their status in the world beyond?  What of their continuing status among the living?  How do they affect the living, and the living the dead?

Bridget Martin in Harmful Interactions between the Living and the Dead in Greek Tragedy, sets out to “examine[s] the power of the dead in fifth-century tragedy as evidenced by their ability to interact with the living, primarily in the giving or receiving of harm (harmful interaction) (p. 1).” Martin structures her book, an expansion of her Ph.D. dissertation, in five chapters: an initial context-setting framework; then chapters on the nature of the dead (Chapter Two: “The tragic dead: The witless and/or the aware”) and their interactions (Chapter Three: “The how and why of interaction: The manifest evidence”); followed by two on how the living and the dead harm each other (Chapter Four: “The living harming the dead: Exposure, mutilation, exclusion”; and Chapter Five: “The dead harming the living: Autonomy and agents”). A brief introduction and a conclusion on “The Alcestis effect” bookend these five core chapters.

Martin is well aware of the challenges in defining Greek beliefs about the dead. The evidence (literature, visual arts, history, and archaeology) reflect a variety of beliefs and practices, and we lack a comprehensive manual on what was standard.  Even within a single tradition, we find conflicting eschatological beliefs, and tragic texts are influenced not only by contemporary norms, but also by beliefs found in earlier texts and by the playwright’s own dramatic and dramaturgical strategies.  Nevertheless, Martin draws on these multiple sources and tensions and deals with them successfully in traversing this difficult terrain.

Starting with the basics from the world depicted in the Homeric poems, Martin reminds us that in this world, only the ψυχή survives death, and it or its near synonym εἴδωλον is used to describe the dead.  The corpse, on the other hand, remains something to fight over, honor, bury, desecrate or refuse burial to, depending on one’s relationship to the dead.  In the Iliad, the corpses often are a locus of conflict, with the cases of Patroclus and Hector being central to the poem’s narrative, the burial of the latter concluding the epic. Tragedy builds on these fundamental tenets but shows greater range, and several tragedies, most notably Antigone, pivot on the issue of the treatment of the corpse.

In tragedy, one finds at the poles a distinction between an afterlife that in some ways continues life on earth and one that offers nothing at all—and many states in between.  (“Witless” and “aware” dead is Martin’s shorthand for this range.)  Martin observes: “Owing primarily to the needs and contexts of particular scenes, and to the emotions of the living, the tragic dead may travel up and down an ascending scale of awareness within the context of any given tragedy” (p. 37).  Herein are two of her essential points: there is a spectrum of the dead’s awareness in tragedy; it will vary from play to play.  And what drives the differences more than anything are dramatic needs—what is the relationship of the dead to the living and what does the poet need/want to happen by means of this relationship? Chapter Two surveys these several levels of awareness, from “death as nothing” to the “manifest” dead, those who make their presence felt on stage.  While exploring this range, the author points to a “notable trend towards the dead exhibiting some manner of awareness, and this is often trained on the honourable and dishonourable acts performed by the living on their behalf” (p. 62).

Having surveyed the range of the dead’s awareness, the author turns to how they and the living communicate, with particular attention to Persians, the fragmentary Psychagogoi, Libation Bearers, Eumenides, and Hecuba.  The necromancy in Aeschylus’s earliest play was clearly impressive, even if the particulars of its staging (and, in fact, of the 472 “stage”) remain contested.  Martin focuses on the particulars of the summoning and the degree to which the attendant ceremonies are fundamentally Greek.  She also emphasizes that Darius’s actual appearance has at least as much to do with the gods’ intervention as the Persian king’s divine status.  This becomes a recurrent point: the dead do not have the power to affect the world of the living directly, but through the agency of others.  Similarly, in Psychagogoi, Teiresias appears after being called upon by “(professional) evocators.”  The prophet, owing to the influence of the Odyssey, may have had a special claim to appear in response to such an invocation, and he does.  Why, then, does Agamemnon not appear in response to the elaborate kommos in Libation Bearers, a scene which shares many features with the necromancy in the Persians?  And did the audience, especially any familiar with the play produced fourteen years earlier, expect his appearance?  The expectation may well have existed but there was certainly no requirement that the dead king appear. Martin reviews many possible answers for the king’s “no-show” and concludes, rightly in my view, that Agamemnon does have an impact, but indirectly.  (This observation is developed more fully in chapter five, 163-75.)  Martin also emphasizes that in general Greek tragedy “foregrounds the conception of the dead as the cause, but not the means, of harmful actions in the world of the living” (147).

Martin then describes ways in which the dead are thought to appear in or have an influence on dreams of the living.  Dreams play a key role in the Libation Bearers, where it is said that the dead king has sent disturbing dreams to Clytemnestra, who seeks to appease her husband through the libations offered by Electra (and the chorus).  This powerful dream—the queen giving birth to a snake that sucks blood along with milk from her breast—is described literally at the center of the play, after the great kommos at Agamemnon’s tomb, and is interpreted by Orestes as a sign that he will become the avenger of his father’s murder.  Whereas in this play the dead only send dreams, in the Eumenides, the shade (εἴδωλον) of Clytemnestra appears on stage.  The first play of the trilogy, Agamemnon, also invokes the dead, as Cassandra in her mantic and gruesome vision “sees” Thyestes’ dead children and links their murder to the murders soon to come.  Perhaps nowhere is the impact of the dead on the living described more baldly than when the servant in response to Orestes’ murder of Aegisthus in Libation Bearers cries out “I say the dead are killing the living” (886; and cf. 927).  The entire trilogy is woven together through death, and harm done to and by the dead, as the living continue their interaction with them.  This interaction is often multi-generational, for, as Martin observes, “the concept of the dead killing the living relates closely to, or works concurrently with, curses and hereditary guilt” (149).

The living could harm the dead chiefly through mistreatment of the corpse and denial of burial rituals. In a culture highly based on the value of honor/dishonor, mistreating a corpse was the chief way to continue expression of dishonor.  Such mistreatment could impact the dead’s status both in the underworld and among the living, while at the same time marginalizing those among the living denied the opportunity to perform these rituals (50-55 and 133-42). Martin also touches on the brutal practice of machalismos (“armpitting”) of a corpse, referred to in several surviving and fragmentary plays, which might have served an apotropaic function (125-28).  While burial was frequently imagined as necessary for the dead to reach Hades, often the impact of withholding burial was symbolic and psychological, a way of expressing hatred for the dead and paining the surviving kin, as, for example, in the three “Electra plays” and Antigone.  In the last of these plays, the issue of burial animates the entire drama, and shows exposure as “an effective tool for revealing character in tragedy, especially in a negative sense, and it also plays a second living-centric role, that of punishment [of Antigone]” (116).

Euripides’ Hecuba presents us with the ghost of the unburied Polydorus “on stage” (Martin, following the majority of scholars, places the actor on the skene roof) and the discovered corpse of Polyxena, and we also hear of Achilles’ appearance as a ghost asking for a victim (Polyxena) for his tomb, and, though mired in questions of textual authenticity, Hecuba’s dream may have involved images of a slaughtered Polydorus. Martin carefully teases out (98-109 and 175-83) these supernatural elements in this play, the two halves of which are united through appearances of the dead (Polydorus’s ghost and Polyxena’s corpse) at the start of each half.

Martin has produced an attractive and useful book on a topic of considerable interest.  It is well written, with the exceptions of a few jarring expressions, the most striking of which is “gilding the barbaric lily” (72).  Its arguments are adduced clearly.  The author helpfully provides “signposts,” along the way, indicating what she intends to demonstrate and summarizing what she hopes to have demonstrated.  Throughout, Martin is aware of the limits of the evidence and appropriately notes the ways in which she relies and builds on previous scholarship.  Perhaps the book’s greatest strength is that, while exploring the beliefs and customs concerning the dead, she consistently foregrounds the interests and dynamics of the dramatic works in which they appear.  As Martin writes in the concluding chapter, “the tragedians followed their own rules and parameters, working within the boundaries of their own coherent world of death and the dead” (187). The book’s structure is reasonable—first an overview of the “rules” (note quotation marks) of interactions with the dead followed by several particular cases.  But this results in more than a little repetition, as instances already treated in the first part (chapters two and three) are returned to in the later chapters. There is a three-page appendix on “Burial rites in tragedy,” a compilation of references to five phases of funereal activities, but, surprisingly, in a book that begs to be consulted, there is neither index nor index locorum.  I noted no typos beyond the misspelled parodos (-oi) on pp. 96 and 97.

Chapter list

1. A Framework:  The Homeric and contemporary dead
2. The tragic dead: The witless and/or the aware
3. The how and why of interaction: The manifest evidence
4. The living harming the dead: Exposure, mutilation, exclusion
5. The dead harming the living: Autonomy and agents
Conclusion: The Alcestis effect
Table 1: Burial rites in tragedy