Words Crush Wednesday: Seeing the Dead

Published October 14, 2015 by Iphis of Scyros

In honor of Halloween, I’m going all out with Words Crush Wednesday for the rest of the month.  You’re getting three quotes for the price(?) of one!  And all of them on the suitably Halloweeny theme of “the dead.”  But — true to my own obsessions — they are, naturally, all from ancient epic poetry.  Though we’ll be going a bit further back than just ancient Greece…

…because we’re starting with the Epic of Gilgamesh!  This Akkadian poem is of unknown date, though “Mesopotamian tradition ascribed authorship of the seventh-century version found at Ninevah to one Sin-leqe-unnini, a master scribe and lamentation-priest of the Kassite period,” however parts of the epic date back to around 2150 BC.  This translation is by Stephanie Dalley, from the book Myths from Mesopotamia:  Creation, The Flood, Gilgamesh and Others, and the quote above is from the introduction to the Gilgamesh epic.  The main quote is from Tablet XII, which is apparently pretty badly damaged.  The situation is that Enkidu’s spirit has risen from the Underworld to speak to Gilgamesh (on which subject you’ll hear more next week!) and he’s describing the Underworld to Gilgamesh.  (Or that seems to be what’s going on.  There are a lot of gaps and question marks in the translation, as you’ll see.)

‘I can’t tell you, my friend, I can’t tell you!
If I tell you Earth’s conditions that I found,
You must sit (and) weep!
I would sit and weep!
[Your wife (?),] whom you touched, and your heart was glad,
Vermin eat [like (?)] an old [garment].
[Your son (?) whom] you touched, and your heart was glad,
[Sits in a crevice (?)] full of dust.
“Woe” she said, and grovelled in the dust.
“Woe” he said, and grovelled in the dust.
I saw [the father of one (?) whom you (once) saw (?)]
Covered [                                                            ]
He weeps bitterly over it (?).
He eats bread [sitting on two bricks (?)]
I saw [the father of three (?) qhom you (once) saw (?)]
He drinks water [from a waterskin]
I saw [the father of four (?) whom] you (once) saw
[       ] his heart is glad with a team of four!
I saw [the father of five (?) whom] you (once) saw:
Like a first-rate scribe he is open-handed,
Enters the palace [as a matter of course].
I saw [the father of six (?) whom] you (once) saw

(gap of about 6 lines)

Like a fine emblem [                            ]
Like [                                                       ]

(gap of about 25 lines)

I saw him, whom you saw at the poles [of         ]
Now he cries for his mother as he tears out the pegs.
I saw him, whom you saw [die] a sudden death:
He lies in bed and drinks pure water.
I saw him, whom you saw killed in battle:
His father and mother honour him and his wife weeps over him.
I saw him, whose corpse you saw abandoned in the open country.
His ghost does not sleep in the Earth.
I saw him whom you saw, whose ghost has nobody to supply it:
He feeds on dregs from dishes, and bits of bread that lie abandoned in the streets.’

And that’s pretty much the end of the extant text.  (There’s literally only one more line after that.)  This tablet, it seems to me, comes from a very different version of the epic than the earlier tablets.  Especially in that Enkidu is alive when the tablet starts (and seems to be Gilgamesh’s servant instead of his comrade) and dies promptly, despite that he already died much earlier in the epic.

But moving on, let’s hear about when Odysseus saw the dead in the Underworld.  (Hey, you knew I was going to go there, right?)  This part of the Odyssey is often viewed as having been added much later, which…honestly, I have so many questions about who wrote the Odyssey and when it was written that I’m not sure what to think of that, and it’s hardly relevant right now, anyway.  The main thing to tell you is that this is from Book XI, W.H.D. Rouse translation, and that I’m going to be skipping over large chunks of it, because it’s very lengthy, and I only want the parts where Odysseus is describing the parade of the dead.

“First came the soul of my comrade Elpenor, for he had not yet been buried in the earth.  We had left his body at Circe’s house, unmourned and unburied, since other tasks were pressing.

(Skipping over his dialog with Elpenor, as well as the dialog with Tiresias, and with his mother.)

“As we were talking together, a crowd of women came up sent by awful Persephoneia, wives and daughters of great men.  They gathered about the red blood, and I wondered how I should question them.  This seemed to be the best plan.  I drew my sword and kept off the crowd of ghosts; and then I let them form in a long line and come up one by one.  Each one declared her lineage, then I questioned them all.

“Tyro came first, that noble dame.  She said she was daughter of Salmoneus, and wife of Cretheus Aiolides; but she was in love with Enipeus the river-god, most beautiful of all the rivers that flow on the earth, and she used to frequent the banks of this river.

(Skipping over the description of how Poseidon slept with her while disguised as Enipeus, and how that led her to give birth to Pelias and Neleus, father of Nestor.)

“Next to her I saw Antiope, the daughter of Asopos, who could boast that she had slept in the arms of Zeus; and she bore two boys, Amphion and Zethos.  These two first founded the stronghold of Thebes with its seven gates and fortified it; since without walls and towers they could not live in spacious Thebes, mighty though they were.

“After her I saw Alcmene the wife of Amphitryon, who brought forth Heracles the indomitable lion-heart, when she had lain in the arms of mighty Zeus; and the daughter of proud Creion, Megara, who became the wife of Amphitryon’s son, the hero whom no labour could weary.

“I saw the mother of Oidipus, fair Epicaste, who did a monstrous thing in the innocence of her heart; for she married her own son, and he had slain his own father first.

(Skipping elaboration of the Oedipus myth.  We all know it.)

“And I saw beautiful Chloris, whom Neleus married.

(Skipping a long paragraph about Nestor’s mother now.  He’s not even here, and he’s still making everything longer!)

“I saw Leda also, the wife of Tyndareos, who brought him two stout-hearted sons, Castor the horse-master and Polydeuces the great boxer.  These two are both buried in mother earth, and both alive; even deep in the earth they have a special privelege from Zeus, one day living, and the next day dead, so they have the gods’ own privelege.

“After her I saw Iphimedeia, the wife of Aloeus, who could say she had lain with Poseidon.

(Skipping a paragraph about the giant sons she bore to Poseidon.  Man, he got the weirdest kids…)

“I saw Phaidra, and Procris, and fair Ariadne, the daughter of grim-hearted Minos, whom Theseus carried off from Crete; he was taking her to Athenian soil, but he had no joy of her, for Artemis slew her first in the island of Dia because Dionysos told tales.

“Maira too I saw, and Clymene, and accursed Eriphyle, who accepted gold as the price of her own husband.  I will not stay to name all I saw, wives or daughters of heroes, or night would end before I had done.

(Eriphyle, btw, is wife of Amphiaraos, who was reluctant to join Polynices in his quest for vengeance on his brother Eteocles.  Skipping the end of his speech, and some dialog with the Phaiacians, which ends with them requesting to hear about the other ghosts he saw.  As if they hadn’t heard enough of Odysseus yammering already…)

“Very well, then.  As soon as dread Persephoneia had dispersed the ghosts of the women, the ghost of Agamemnon Atreides came near full of sorrow; there was a crowd of others round him, those who had died with him in the house of Aigisthos.

(Skipping his dialog with Agamemnon, except I do want to share one bit of Agamemnon’s tale of his own demise:)

” ‘Most frightful of all was the shriek of Cassandra, and she a king’s daughter!  I heard it when the traitress Clytemnestra killed her over my body.  I tried to life my hands, but dropt them again on the ground, as I lay dying with a sword through my body…’

(That’s why I don’t like Clytemnestra:  she butchered the innocent Cassandra.  However, I like this version’s claim that Agamemnon would have defended Cassandra if he’d had the strength.  Skipping on to the next arrival of the dead spirits now.)

“As we two stood talking together of our sorrows in this mournful way, other ghosts came up:  Achilles and Patroclos, and Antilochos, the man without stain and without reproach, and Aias, who was most handsome and noble of all next to the admirable Achilles.

(And skipping his dialog with Achilles, too.  If one believes Odysseus is telling the truth to the Phaiacians, then he’s got a heck of a memory to remember all these conversations he had seven (?) years earlier.  I’m also skipping his attempt to talk to Aias, who still resents him for winning Achilles’ armor (and thus causing Aias’ own death, in most known versions), because it takes too long, and this is already hugely long.)

“There I saw Minos the glorious son of Zeus, holding a golden rod and giving sentence upon the dead.  He was seated, and the dead were around him in the house of Hades with its wide portals, some seated and some standing, as each asked the judge for his decision.

“After him I noticed the huge figure of Orion driving the beasts in a mass over the meadow of asphodel, the game which he had killed himself when he was alive on the lonely hills; his hands held a cudgel of solid bronze, unbroken for ever.

“And I saw Tityos the son of Gaia most majestic, lying upon the ground:  nine roods he covered, and two vultures sat, one on each side, and tore his liver, plunging under the skin:  he could not defend himself with his hands.  This was his punishment because he had laid violent hands on Leto, the famous consort of Zeus, when she was passing through the beautiful grounds of Panopeus on her way to Pytho.

(And skipping his description of Tantalos and Sisyphos, too.  Their punishments are well known…though also very immobile, like Tityos, so one wonders how they could have come to the pool of blood to let Odysseus see them! Unless, of course, the habitual liar is at his usual tricks…)

“After him I saw mighty Heracles, his phantom that is:  but Heracles himself is with the immortal gods, as happy as the day is long, with graceful Youth for his bride.  Around this phantom the ghosts were gibbering and twitering like a flock of birds, and scattering hither and thither; he stood holding his naked bow and arrow on string, looking as black as night, and casting dreadful glances round, for ever as if just about to shoot.

(More skipping.  There’s more description of Heracles, and he somehow knows who Odysseus is, and gives him a speech before leaving.  BTW, usually one does not translate the name of Heracles’ divine bride:  normally, she’s just called Hebe.  And the bit about Heracles being only a phantom and his real self being in Olympos is often regarded as having been added after the rest of this section was written.)

“With these words he strode back into the house of Hades; but I remained where I was, in case any other of the heroes of past times should appear.  And indeed, I should have seen others of those ancient men whom I wished especially to see, as Theseus and Peirithoos, those famous sons of gods; but before I could see them, the innumerable hosts of the dead gathered together with deafening cries, and I grew pale with fear that awful Persephoneia might send out of Hades upon me a Gorgon-head of some deadful monster.

Phew!  That was longer than I intended!  You know, I think that when he says “as Theseus and Peirithoos” he doesn’t mean he wants to see them (they’re hardly “ancient” to him, considering Theseus’ sons fought at Troy, too!) but rather he’s referencing their trip to the house of Hades, in which they saw many shades of ancient heroes.  I wouldn’t be surprised if there was at one time an epic about that.

And for my final quote, we’ll see what Virgil came up with to follow”Homer” as he sent Aeneas to visit the realm of the dead.  (I will, however, stop before we get to the lengthy parade of Romans-yet-to-be-born.  Because that’s a totally different animal called “imperial propaganda” and doesn’t quite fit in here.)  So, quoting the Aeneid, Book VI, Robert Fitzgerald translation:

Before the entrance, in the jaws of Orcus
Grief and avenging Cares have made their beds,
And pale Diseases and sad Age are there,
And Dread, and Hunger that sways men to crime,
And sordid Want — in shapes to affright the eyes —
And Death and Toil and Death’s own brother, Sleep,
And the mind’s evil joys; on the door sill
Death-bringing War, and iron cubicles
Of the Eumenides, and raving Discord,
Viperish hair bound up in gory bands.
In the courtyard a shadowy giant elm
Spreads ancient boughs, her ancient arms where dreams,
False dreams, the old tale goes, beneath each leaf
Cling and are numberless.  There, too,
About the doorway forms of monsters crowd —
Centaurs, twiformed Scyllas, hundred-armed
Briareus, and the Lernaean hydra
Hissing horribly, and the Chimaera
Breathing dangerous flames, and Gorgons, Harpies,
Huge Geryon, triple-bodied ghost.
Here, swept by sudden fear, drawing his sword,
Aeneas stood on guard with naked edge
Against them as they came.  If his companion,
Knowing the truth, had not admonished him
How faint these lives were — empty images
Hovering bodies — he had attacked
And cut his way through phantoms, empty air.

(Skipping a bit that’s nicely atmospheric, but contains no dead.)

Here a whole crowd came streaming to the banks,
Mothers and men, the forms with all life spent
Of heroes great in valor, boys and girls
Unmarried, and young sons laid on the pyre
Before their parents’ eyes — as many souls
As leaves that yield their hold on boughs and fall
Through forests in the early frost of autumn,
Or as migrating birds from the open sea
That darken heaven when the cold season comes
And drives them overseas to sunlit lands.
There all stood begging to be first across
And reached out longing hands to the far shore.

(Skipping some more.  The comparison to leaves is referencing part of Glaucos’ speech to Diomedes in the Iliad, btw.)

Achises’ son
Had halted, pondering on so much, and stood
In pity for the souls’ hard lot.  Among them
He saw two sad ones of unhonored death,
Leucaspis and the Lycian fleet’s commander,
Orontes, who had sailed the windy sea
From Troy together, till the Southern gale
Had swamped and whirled them down, both ship and men.
Of a sudden he saw his helmsman, Palinurus,
Going by, who but a few nights before
On course from Libya, as he watched the stars,
Had been pitched overboard astern.

(The death of Palinurus, btw, took place at the end of the previous book, so Virgil hardly needed to explain how he had died, unless he assumed his readers had a very short memory.  Anyway, of course Aeneas has to talk to him, so skipping that, as well as a conversation with Charon.)

Now voices crying loud were heard at once —
The souls of infants wailing.  At the door
Of the sweet life they were to have no part in,
Torn from the breast, a black day took them off
And drowned them all in bitter death.  Near these
Were souls falsely accused, condemned to die.
But not without a judge, or jurymen,
Had these souls got their places:  Minos reigned
As the presiding judge, moving the urn,
And called a jury of the silent ones
To learn of lives and accusations.  Next
Were those sad souls, benighted, who contrived
Their own destruction, and as they hated daylight,
Cast their lives away.  How they would wish
In the upper air now to endure the pain
Of poverty and toil!  But iron law
Stands in the way, since the drear hateful swamp
Has pinned them down here, and the Styx that winds
Nine times around exerts imprisoning power.
Not far away, spreading on every side,
The Fields of Mourning came in view, so called
Since here are those whom pitiless love consumed
With cruel wasting, hidden on paths apart
By myrtle woodland growing overhead.
In death itself, pain will not let them be.
He saw here Phaedra, Procris, Eriphyle
Sadly showing the wounds her hard son gave;
Evadne and Pasiphae, at whose side
Laodamia walked, and Caeneus,
A young man once, a woman now, and turned
Again by fate into the older form.
Among them, with her fatal wound still fresh,
Phoenician Dido wandered the deep wood.

(And skipping Aeneas’ painful reunion with the lover the gods forced him to jilt.  He’s often been criticized for being cruel to women because of his treatment of Dido, but it really wasn’t his will, and he’s genuinely crushed by her shades’ hatred of him.  (Though part of that is because of Odysseus’ pain at the way Aias still hates him, of course.)  Compared to Achilles and Odysseus (especially the latter!), Aeneas is actually quite a considerate lover.)

At length she flung away from him and fled,
His enemy still, into the shadowy grove
Where he whose bride she once had been, Sychaeus,
Joined in her sorrows and returned her love.
Aeneas still gazed after her in tears,
Shaken by her ill fate and pitying her.

With effort then he took the given way,
And they went on, reaching the farthest lands
Where men famous in war gather apart.
Here Tydeus came to meet him, and then came
Parthenopaeus, glorious in arms,
Adrastus then, a pallid shade.  Here too
Were Dardans long bewept in the upper air,
Men who had died in the great war.  And he groaned
To pick these figures out, in a long file,
Glaucus, Medon, Thersilochus, besides
Antenor’s three sons, then the priest of Ceres
Polyboetes, then Idaeus, holding
Still to his warcar, holding his old gear.
To right and left they crowd the path and stay
And will not have enough of seeing him,
But love to hold him back, to walk beside him,
And hear the story of why he came.
Not so
Agamemnon’s phalanx, chiefs of the Danaans:
Seeing the living man in bronze that glowed
Through the dark air, they shrank in fear.  Some turned
And ran, as once, when routed, to the ships,
While others raised a battle shout, or tried to,
Mouths agape, mocked by the whispering cry.
Here next he saw Deiphobus, Priam’s son,
Mutilated from head to foot, his face
And both hands cruelly torn, ears shorn away,
Nose to the noseholes lopped by a shameful stroke.

(And skipping Aeneas’ conversation with Deiphobos.  In my opinion, Deiphobos deserved everything he got.  He forced Helen into his bed, when she hated him; he’s little more than a rapist, and a coward to boot; he was scared of Idomeneus (one of the oldest of the Greeks) and had to go running to Aineias for help…at which time, if I recall correctly, Aineias lambasted him for his cowardice.  Virgil seems to have forgotten that.  As he seems (later in the epic) to have forgotten that Diomedes completely kicked Aineias’ butt, and would have less than no reason to fear him.)

A massive gate
With adamantine pillars faced the stream,
So strong no force of men or gods in war
May ever avail to crack and bring it down,
And high in air an iron tower stands
On which Tisiphone, her bloody robe
Pulled up about her, has her seat and keeps
Unsleeping watch over the entrance way
By day and night.  From the interior, groans
Are heard, and thud of lashes, clanking iron,
Dragging chains.  Arrested in his tracks,
Appalled by what he heard, Aeneas stood.

“What are the forms of evil here?  O Sister,
Tell me.  And the punishments dealt out:
Why such a lamentation?”

Said the Sibyl:
“Light of the Teucrians, it is decreed
That no pure soul may cross the sill of evil.
When, however, Hecate appointed me
Caretaker of Avernus wood, she led me
Through heaven’s punishments and taught me all.
This realm is under Cretan Rhadamanthus’
Iron rule.  He sentences.  He listens
And makes the souls confess their crooked ways,
How they put off atonements in the world
With foolish satisfaction, thieves of time,
Until too late, until the hour of death.
At once the avenger girdled with her whip,
Tisiphone, leaps down to lash the guilty,
Vile writhing snakes held out on her left hand,
And calls her savage sisterhood.  The awaited
Time has come, hell gates will shudder wide
On shrieking hinges.  Can you see her now,
Her shape, as doorkeeper, upon the sill?
More bestial, just inside, the giant Hydra
Lurks with fifty black and yawning throats.
Then Tartarus itself goes plunging down
In darkness twice as deep as heaven is high
For eyes fixed on etherial Olympus.
Here is Earth’s ancient race, the brood of Titans,
Hurled by lightning down to roll forever
In the abyss.”

(And the Sibyl goes on to describe the punishments of Salmoneus, Tityos, Ixion, Pirithous, and even Theseus!  Apparently, in Virgil’s version, Heracles never freed Theseus from that chair.  Anyway, if I wasn’t gonna quote the Odyssey’s version of Tartaros, then I shouldn’t quote the Aeneid’s either.  Oh, btw, in some Greek traditions, Rhadamanthos is the one in charge of the Elysian Fields/Islands of the Blessed; I’ve never heard any Greek tradition putting him in charge of Tartaros.  (Doesn’t mean there weren’t any; I just don’t know them if there were.)  Moving on to the last group of dead souls (as opposed to not yet born souls) I should point out that the following section is, essentially, in the Elysian Fields, except a version that contains only Trojans.)

Souls here
Possess their own familiar sun and stars.
Some train on grassy rings, others compete
In field games, others grapple on the sand.
Feet moving to a rhythmic beat, the dancers
Group in a choral pattern as they sing.
Orpheus, the priest of Thrace, in his long robe
Accompanies, plucking his seven notes
Now with his fingers, now with his ivory quill.
Here is the ancient dynasty of Teucer,
Heroes high of heart, beautiful scions,
Born in greater days:  Ilus, Assaracus,
And Dardanus, who founded Troy.

And that’s as good a stopping place as any, so I’ll stop there.  After a little more description of the paradisaical afterlife for good Trojans, Aeneas goes in search of his father, and then the parade of future Romans begins.  (Which you’ll probably hear about later, since I’ll be writing a 25 page paper on it in December.)  This one turned out quite lengthy, too, though perhaps somewhat deceptively so, since it’s not in prose, so it looks longer than it is.  I’d forgotten how good Virgil’s description of the Underworld was, though.  I’m not a fan of the Aeneid in terms of its story, altered mythology, or propagandistc purpose, but some of the poetry is excellent, and I have to admit that it’s got a more atmospheric Underworld than the Odyssey, all the more so since Aeneas actually enters the Underworld, instead of just visiting the edge and drawing out the shades with a sacrifice.  (Also, the Aeneid is much easier to read in Latin than the works of “Homer” are to read in Greek.  I did really well in that class on the Aeneid (about 20 years ago) but terribly in my class on Homer.)

And now, having wasted the entire morning (almost) in typing this out, I’ll finally go and start the reading I’ve been putting off.


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