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The Historical Culture of Death
By Christopher John Williams
Vase of Death

This is an article that explores the various human responses
to death and belief in the afterlife.
 
 

Ancient Greece

 I have good hopes that something remains for the dead, as has been the belief from time immemorial, and something much better for the good than for the bad. Socrates spoke these words before taking the poison that dispatched him from the world of the living to that of the dead.  This phrase captures humankind's timeless endeavor to rationalize death. It touches upon basic tenants that are universal, death is not an end but a new beginning, that we have inherited our beliefs and attitudes about death from our ancestors and our behavior while living has a relationship to how our spirits will be received on the other side.  Socrates lived at a time when Athens reached its height of historical and cultural influence; Historians define this era as the Classical period (479b.c. to 323b.c.).  The total time frame defined by Ancient Greece spans from 900 b.c. to 31b.c. This article will attempt to highlight the diverse behavior of the Greek dead and their interaction with the living.
Some of the earliest Greek perceptions of the dead can be summarized as being impotent. The soul or psyche immediately after death simply flew away from the body to the underworld or House of Hades (Hades was the God of the underworld and the Underworld referred to as his house, this was latter shortened to Hades to mean not only the God but also the place). The House of Hades was far removed and was not easily traversable by the living wanting to enter or the dead wanting to get out. Here the soul existed in a state that was a pitiful reflection of their earthly appearance. They retained a recognizable resemblance to their living forms but lacked any sensibility. Best described as shades or shadows they wandered aimlessly about the underworld squeaking like bats and unaware of activities amongst the living. Interaction with the dead was occasionally sought out by the living in order to obtain information or prediction of some future event. This is an interesting contrast that the dead was witless but processed powers of insight. The living had to travel to the Underworld and in order to revive the spirit from its Zombie state it had to be revived with blood. They were incapable of communicating until they drank blood. Once refreshed with this symbolic ingredient of life they were able to provide the needed information. The only indication of the spirit remaining amongst the living was when the recently dead were not given a proper burial. Funerary rites were considered a prerequisite for admission to the underworld and once there it was forever. However over time this attitude would change and the dead would take a more active and interactive role.
Great people as well as the commoner could expect the same treatment in the underworld, however this concept began to change in the 8th century BC.  Greeks began to deal with the fact that certain people during their lifetime displayed greater vitality and likewise achieved notoriety, i.e. self-sacrifice, leadership or bravery.  This philosophy also espoused that attributes of the spirit while living were carried to the other side. This lead to the formation of hero cults.   Shrines were erected for the worship of heroes and their tombs often contain votive material that could be used on the other side or was an attempt to win favor and assistance from the hero. This indicated an important change in the Greek concept. The House of Hades became ethically stratified and its boundaries permeable. The very good received a place of honor and could continue doing good deeds for the living. Eventually the idea that the malevolent retained their mortal character and could harass or harm the mortal world became prevalent and varied.
Now the creative cat was out of the bag and this belief system opened the door to a plethora of attitudes that explained natural, psychological and spiritual occurrences that were beyond the understanding of the ancient mind. Ghosts became an intricate component of everyday life.  They were everywhere and willing to interfere on behalf or against the living based on homage paid to them, their personality and their experiences in life and death.  Earlier belief, as stated above, implied that those who were not given proper burial lingered between the two worlds. This was expanded to include that the burial rites alone was not enough. The living had an obligation to respect and honor the deceased. It was assumed that the dead could linger in and around their tombs. Descendants who wanted to guarantee the happiness and to avert the ire of these spirits placed a mixture of milk, honey, wine, or oil on the grave, analogous to our tradition of placing flowers. Occasionally this was supplied by inserting a feeding tube into the grave and pouring the mixture into it.
Paying respect and averting dead became ritualized by society. The assumption was that the dead was envious of the living and was more likely to attack when there was a celebration or festival. The Anthesteria was a three-day festival celebrating renewal and abundance and it was believed that at this time the dead wandered freely. As a precaution against ghosts attacks doorways were covered in pitch and buckthorn was chewed. On the last day of the Anthesteria a sacrifice was made to Hermes (commonly known as the messenger of the gods, he also held the distinction of being the guide of the dead) to secure his cooperation in returning the dead back to the underworld. Genesia, was a ritual performed for deceased parents by their children to please and honor them. This was similar to our Memorial Day.  The graves of ancestors were visited, libations and sacrifices were made in an attempt to appease or control dangerous spirits. There was also a belief that to honor ancestors allowed one to ask them to bless marriages and ensure the conception of children.
Another way in which the dead was asked to assist was in the form of cursing others. The god Hades ruled the underworld. Hecate, Hermes and Perseophone were also underworld deities that had special control over the dead. These were the Gods the living appealed to in order to carry out a specific curse. The process of delivering a curse was to write instructions on a tablet and insert it in a recently occupied grave. The curses ranged from striking an orator dumb to an endless harassment of a family or an act of vengeance on a love interest that rejected the cursor.  The role the dead played was two fold.  First they were the messengers that carried the curse to the specific deity as indicated on the curse tablet. This deity was then expected to ensure that the dead performed their second role as agents to execute the curse. It was believed that those who died violently, by suicide or unexpectedly would carry out their duties with more verve due to the unhappy circumstances of their departure from this world.
Special categories of dead were developed. A common image that each variety shared was; they departed before their time and they were especially vindictive and angry. Murder victims had the notable feature of being very angry and haunted those who did not avenge their deaths and/or their murderers. The murderers themselves could be counted amongst the unquiet dead, denied access to a peaceful rest due to their shameful act. Those convicted of murder and executed by the state had their corpses dumped naked outside the city. This not being a proper burial the spirit was trapped between the two worlds and condemned to endless wandering. The rural roads became particularly frightening places for ancient travelers.
Suicides were treated according to the reasons for the act.  The act of suicide could be perceived as an act of valor or an act one was compelled to do by the state. These spirits would be rewarded or at least treated as equal to the regular dead in the afterlife.  It could also be a shameful, selfish or cowardly act. These unfortunate spirits had to wander between worlds or were punished in the underworld.  One story that reflects the Greek attitude is that of Erigone. She is a maiden whose father and brother die. The are the only ones who could arrange her marriage. Driven by her sad state of being unmarried and with no hope of ever being married she commits suicide.  She becomes a wandering and vindictive spirit who is able to inflict unmarried girls with the mad desire to kill themselves thus perpetuating her anguish onto others. This may have also served as a tale to encourage women to marry before its to late.
One recurrent theme, that seems to guarantee that the spirit would be malevolent and condemned to wandering amongst the living, is that of the untimely death. The idea is that a person has to fulfill what nature or fate has designed for them. This attitude is gender neutral in regards to murder and suicide, however, there was the added assumption that women were intended to marry, have children and raise them. If this process were interrupted by death it would undoubtedly result in an unhappy ghost. These ghosts were especially intent on attacking women before marriage, during pregnancy or postpartum. This was a particularly vengeful act to deny women their societal obligation as wives and mothers.  Another way in which these spirits took revenge was attacking the children; this was a round about way to deprive women of achieving their purpose in life. Considering the dangers of pregnancy and infant mortality at this time it is understandable that this was blamed on the supernatural.
Humankind inevitably has to deal with death. It is obviously inescapable.  The way in which the survivors rationalize this natural process is varied and complex. The purpose of this article is to point out one cultural response to death and the attempts to control it. From our point in time we can view these as superstitious, cruel, creative or insightful. It provides us an intriguing comparison to our own prolific attitude towards death and life. Ultimately it is a portrait of society's hopes and fears in regards to what awaits us on our final journey.


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