BMCR 2021.11.14

Aspects of death and the afterlife in Greek literature

, , Aspects of death and the afterlife in Greek literature. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2021. Pp. 216. ISBN 9781789621495 £90.00.

[Contents and individual titles and authors appear at the end of review.]

Explaining why there is no reason to fear death, Socrates in Plato’s Apology (40c5-41c7) declares that death is either a state of no sensation or the wonderful continuation of life in conversation and examination of others. If only it were that simple! The Greeks had no monolithic—or even duolithic— view of the afterlife. Reflecting many centuries, genres, and purposes, our records present a mixed set of ideas, beliefs, and thoughts about it. This should not surprise: the afterlife has a very high entry barrier and information about it will always be (re-)shaped by each generation and community.

The collection of essays under review, Aspects of Death and the Afterlife in Greek Literature, explores the variety of afterworlds created and revised by the ancient Greeks (and, in a concluding essay, Romans). The editors sought to bring together scholars from several fields, in the hopes of breaking down disciplinary boundaries and creating a “genuine conversation between its contributions” (5). The essays are arranged, more or less, chronologically. I will survey them briefly individually and return at the end of this review to how well the larger aim is achieved.

Radcliffe G. Edmonds III starts things off with “A Path Neither Simple Nor Single: The Afterlife as Good to Think With,” an overview of the complexity of ancient Greek thinking on the afterlife, providing a taxonomy with three categories: continuation, compensation, and cosmology (12). While life in Hades lacked vigor, the qualities and appetites of those consigned to it were often very similar to what they were in life. Compensation played a smaller role in the afterlife, where those punished are notorious evildoers and a highly select few enjoy the rewards of Elysium or the Isles of the Blessed. The cosmological afterlife, reserved for those who “have managed to dissociate their intellects from their material perceptions” is found more in philosophical works, notably in Plato and Orphic and Pythagorean texts. Edmonds concludes by emphasizing that this variety of conceptions made the afterlife “an inexhaustible cultural resource for cooking up solutions to the myriad issues of life and death” (32).

In “The Somatics of the Greek Dead,” Vayos Liapis begins with an analogy—the ambiguity of Dracula as the “Un-Dead”—and explores the seemingly contradictory image of the dead as continued bodies (νέκυες) and wraiths (εἴδωλα and ψυχαί). Looking at key passages in Homer, he concludes that “[t]he ambiguity, the apparent contradictoriness, between the incorporeal insubstantiality of the Homeric dead and the fact that they do retain some traces of physicality seems irreducible” (37). Acknowledging the weight of existing scholarship on the term ψυχή, he offers only a sketch of this term’s range and rightly emphasizes that “the psyche is not an essential component of personhood; it is, however, a component of the living person” (38). He then moves on to a discussion of revenants, including the unusual tale (found in Phlegon of Tralles) of Philinnion’s return from the dead to enjoy sex, and then looks at the pleasures that the initiated might enjoy in the afterlife. His (unsurprising) conclusion is the lack of a unified conception of corporeality after death.

The next essay, “Life and Death of the Greek Heroine in Odyssey 11 and the Hesiodic Catalogue of Women,” has a narrower and sharper focus. Ioannis Ziogas examines the “thanatographies” in these two works, that is, how the dead report their deaths and the differences between men’s and women’s reports. He observes that these Homeric women generally do not relate the circumstances of their deaths, as do, for example, the shades of Elpenor and Agamemnon, but refer to their good looks and roles as mothers. “The heroines gain kleos (glory) by giving birth and by simply not dying within the narrative frame of their stories. From that perspective, their epic renown is a matter of survival, a matter of nostos (return), and thus it is closer to the world of the Odyssey than that of the Iliad.” (57) The author also contrasts the lot of women and their sons in the Catalogue, where the mothers often survive them; Orestes’s murder of Clytemnestra is a very notable exception to this pattern. Ziogas also examines the contrasts between the Homeric and Hesiodic versions of heroines Tyro and Maestra and briefly engages the Vergilian treatment of some of this material.

In his second Olympian, in praise of Theron of Acragas, Pindar offers a powerful picture of the afterlife (52-80), and this is the topic of George Alexander Gazis’s “What is your Lot? Lyric Pessimism in Pindar’s Afterlife.” He starts with a brief look at how lyric poetry in general, including most of Pindar, inherits epic’s bleak conception of the afterlife, which makes the picture in the second Olympian even more remarkable—and the source of much scholarly debate. The afterlife here includes three groups, those immediately judged and punished for their misdeeds on earth; the good (ἐσλοί), who live a care-free life, without toil; and then those who, by virtue of having lived three times on either side of the divide, spend their time on the Isles of the Blessed. The essay tries to map out how to understand this passage, especially its relationship to Pythagorean beliefs. Gazis correctly notes that this passage offers no proof of the poet’s own participation in mystery cult and rather focuses on the nature of the ode as an example of occasional poetry. After providing a schematic for the similarities between Pindar’s picture and that of the Pythagoreans (85), he concludes that Olympian 2 is an “attempt by Pindar to conflate those earlier beliefs about the afterlife that were familiar to him and most of his audience with the peculiar new doctrines that Theron and his company are practicing, of which he is not in full possession” (85-6). Or as he puts it more succinctly in concluding his essay, “Consistency is sacrificed on the altar of poetic impact, impression, and aim” (87).

Nicoló Benzi’s interest in katabasis narratives in “Quest for Authority: Parmenides and the Tradition of Katabasis Narratives” is less in the beliefs regarding the underworld than in “the issues concerning their reliability and truth value” (89). He reads the proem of Parmenides’s poem as a katabasis, but only after he has argued that the traditional katabasisnarrative suggests not the authority of what is learned therein but its unreliability. His follow-on argument is that Parmenides’s katabatic journey is not what guarantees the truth of what he learned from the divinity; rather it is guaranteed by the logical argument that produced it. “Parmenides’ adoption of his predecessors’ strategies should be seen not as a means to enter and claim a place in the wisdom/poetic game, but only, it is important to notice, to eventually subvert it from the inside and replace traditional wisdom with a truth based on logical deduction that does not need the sanction of external authority” (102-3).

Unlike the other papers in this volume, Chiara Blanco’s “Death as Dehumanisation in Sophocles’ Philoctetes” offers a literary analysis of a single work. She begins by emphasizing the degree to which his disease makes the play’s eponymous hero less than human, arguing in part that the properties of the snake (that caused his illness) are transferred to him. She goes on to suggest that this bestialization advances to a “ghostification,” by which she means that he is depicted as already dead. While one may be persuaded by some of Blanco’s arguments, this paper sits oddly among the others, as it is fundamentally a close reading of the text’s imagery with no deep connection to the overarching topic of views on the afterlife.

Rick Benitez in “Socrates’ Conception of the Underworld” unpacks the passage from Plato’s Apology that I referred to at the opening of this review. His aim is to argue against taking this conception literally since it is filled with “internal inconsistencies, irony, hyperbole and sarcasm” (125) and in its place to offer an allegorical reading of the Socratic underworld. He points to the divergent elements in Socrates’ underworld, concluding that he presents a “jumble of different, incompatible [conceptions]” (131). Considering the fluidity in Greek views of the afterlife, a point made at many points in this collection, it is unsurprising to find such an amalgamation here. Socrates/Plato is arguing not for a particular eschatology but for his way of life on earth. Benitez concludes that this underworld is “an allegory of life here and now, of its death-like condition . . . and holds out hope, through the imagery of Socratic examination among the dead, for a better, more philosophical life” (134).

Alberto Bernabé describes the development of infernal judges in “Judges in Hades from Homer to Plato.” He surveys this development and the use of and modifications to traditional material in Homer, Hesiod, Pindar (Olympian 2, again), Aeschylus, Orphic texts, and even vase painting (where, one learns, there is no surviving image of an infernal judge on any Attic ceramic vase). Bernabé then turns his focus to Plato. Judges are a standard feature in his depictions of the underworld, and “[a]lthough everything seems to suggest that underworld judges and trials were not a widespread Greek tradition, Plato always represents it as a traditional belief” (149). This, of course, allowed him to grant greater authority to his depictions. Orphic beliefs lay behind some of Plato’s presentations, and, again, the individual author manipulates traditions for his own purposes. “[U]nlike the Orphics, Plato transforms religious beliefs into deeper philosophical constructs.” (151).

Anthony Hooper opens his essay “Renovating the House of Hades: Cult Extensions and Socratic Reconstruction” with a homey but wonderfully apt analogy, that of the “extension,” the Australian term for a one-room addition to an existing structure, “a place in which the builder is free to enjoy himself in peace, apart from the hubbub of the more drearily functional spaces that make up the main house and separated from its residents” (153). As he shows, the foundations of Homeric/traditional Hades (the main house) remained, as newer conceptions, such as those embodied in the mysteries, were added (the extension). After giving an overview of the characteristics of the Homeric main house, Hooper shows how the extension is added in the Hymn to Demeter and Aristophanes’ Frogs. In the case of the Republic’s Myth of Er, however, Hooper, continuing his analogy, sees not an extension but a full renovation. In all of these cases combining the familiar and the alien gives authority to the novel conception and allows the audience to feel more comfortable with it.

The concluding essay, “Stoic Agnosticisms about Death,” moves centuries forward, into the Roman world. The Stoics’ concern is not the nature of Hades and judgment in the afterlife but the soul and its continuation (or not) after death. Alex Long takes up these issues in Seneca and Marcus Aurelius and relates their differing agnosticisms. He discusses Seneca’s use of “Symmetry arguments,” those based on similarities between pre-natal and post-mortem existence, and ultimately concludes that “Seneca’s commitment is best expressed as a condition: if our souls are everlasting, then we are immortal,” (182) and if so, we retain our identity. Long then contrasts this view with that of Marcus Aurelius, who, in addition to expressing uncertainty about the continuation of the soul, was agnostic about its relationship to its own identity. “Marcus’ cosmology thus gives him reason to see the soul’s future in terms of change and replacement rather than personal continuity” (185).

While there is a helpful introduction to this volume, there is no concluding essay. This makes sense, I think, since the pieces seem to work better as discrete essays: individual performances rather than an ensemble. Despite the editors’ hope that the volume will serve as a conversation between contributors, there are, in fact, very few connections made between them, and these seem more like footnotes than conversation. The overarching theme of the volume is the great variety, malleability, conflation, and manipulation of the traditional views of the afterlife. This is an important point, and the essays collectively make it. They are, to echo the title of Edmonds’ opening essay, “good to think with.”

I found a very few (trifling) typographical errors and note that the reference to Griffith 2009 (70 n.5) is not reflected in the Bibliography. On a very small point, I would have preferred standardization on the matter of how to display poetic texts; three methods are two too many.

Authors and titles

1. A Path Neither Simple Nor Single: The Afterlife as Good to Think With, Radcliffe G. Edmonds III
2.  The Somatics of the Greek Dead, Vayos Liapis
3. Life and Death of the Greek Heroine in Odyssey 11 and the Hesiodic Catalogue of Women, Ioannis Liapis
4.  What is your Lot? Lyric Pessimism and Pindar’s Afterlife, George Alexander Gazis
5.  In Quest for Authority: Parmenides and the Tradition of the Katabasis Narratives, Nicoló Benzi
6. Death as Dehumanisation in Sophocles’ Philoctetes, Chiara Blanco
7. Socrates’ Conception of the Underworld, Rick Benitez
8.  Judges in Hades from Homer to Plato, Alberto Bernabé
9. Renovating the House of Hades: Cult Extensions and Socratic Reconstruction, Anthony Hooper
10. Stoic Agnosticisms about Death, Alex Long
Index Locorum
General Index