Words Crush Wednesday – Embracing the Dead

Published October 21, 2015 by Iphis of Scyros

So this week’s Words Crush Wednesday is continuing last week’s trend of Halloween-appropriate epic quotes.  Last week we saw the dead, but this week we embrace them…

Once again, we’re starting with the epic of Gilgamesh, translated by Stephanie Dalley, from the book Myths from Mesopotamia:  Creation, The Flood, Gilgamesh and Others, and our quote is again from Tablet XII:

And the spirit of Enkidu came out of the Earth like a gust of wind.
They hugged and kissed (?),
They discussed, they agonized.

And from there it goes right into the quote from last week.  The other half of the “they,” of course, is Gilgamesh himself.  This is one of several passages in the epic of Gilgamesh that are routinely compared to passages in the Iliad

Specifically, it’s compared to this passage:

In sleep came to him the soul of unhappy Patroclos, his very image in stature and wearing clothes like his, with his voice and those lovely eyes.  The vision stood by his head and spoke:

“You sleep, Achilles, and you have forgotten me!  When I lived you were not careless of me, but now that I am dead!

[Skipping Patroclos’ speech, in which, among other thing, he gives extensive instructions about how he wants to be buried.]

Achilles said in answer:

“Why have you come here, beloved one, with all these charges of this and that?  Of course I will do as you tell me every bit.  But come nearer; for one short moment let us lay our arms about each other and console ourselves with lamentation!”

He stretched out his arms as he spoke, but he could not touch, for the soul was gone like smoke into the earth, twittering.

That was from Book XXIII of the Iliad, W.H.D. Rouse translation.  (And I’ve actually quoted that passage before, so if you want to read Patroclos’ speech, you can do that here.)

And moving on, now, to the Odyssey, Book XI, also W.H.D. Rouse translation:

“Then came the soul of my dead mother, Anticlea daughter of the brave Autolycos; she was alive when I left Ithaca on my voyage to sacred Ilion.  My tears fell when I saw her, and I was moved with pity; but all the same, I would not let her come near the blood before I had asked my questions of Teiresias.

[Skipping the dialog with Teiresias]

“I stayed where I was until my mother came near and drank the red blood.  At once she knew me, and made her meaning clear with lamentable words:

” ‘My love, how did you come down to the cloudy gloom, and you alive?

[Skipping most of the conversation here.  Odysseus is very long-winded, and apparently he gets that from his mother…or he’s making all this up on the fly to trick the Phaiacians…]

” ‘And this is how I sickened and died.  The Archeress did not shoot me in my own house with those gentle shafts that never miss; it was no disease that made me pine away:  but I missed you so much, and your clever wit and your gay merry ways, and life was sweet no longer, so I died.’

“When I heard this, I longed to throw my arms round her neck.  Three times I tried to embrace the ghost, three times it slipt through my hands like a shadow or a dream.  A sharp pang pierced my heart, and I cried out straight from my heart to hers:

” ‘Mother dear!  Why don’t you stay with me when I long to embrace you?  Let us relieve our hearts, and have a good cry in each other’s arms.  Are you only a phantom which awful Persephoneia has sent to make me more unhappy than ever?’

My dear mother answered:

” ‘Alas, alas, my child, most luckless creature on the face of the earth!  Persephoneia is not deceiving you, she is the daughter of Zeus; but this is only what happens to mortals when one of us dies.  As soon as the spirit leaves the white bones, the sinews no longer hold flesh and bones together — the blazing fire consumes them all; but the soul flits away fluttering like a dream.

So we can add one more innocent person’s death to Odysseus’ tally, his own mother. (And yet I doubt there were any ancient Greeks who believed he’d been sent to Tartaros or anything.  In fact, I’m sure they all believed he ended up in the Elysian Fields/Island of the Blessed/White Island.  (Though you’d think he’d be unwelcome on the White Island, given his feud with Aias, and the fact that Aias is cousin and one of the best buddies of the dead demi-god running the place…))  BTW, as I was checking which (of the ten zillion) post-it notes I could remove from my copy of the Odyssey to re-use for this semester’s reading, I noticed something interesting:  in the Odyssey, Autolycos is merely favored by Hermes, not his son.  I wonder if his twin brother is still the son of Apollo in the Odyssey‘s version?

And, of course, since Odysseus has such an encounter, you know Aeneas does, too!  (Actually, he doubly has to have encounters with the dead, since Achilles has one also.  Must be hard work for poor Aeneas, trying to be two Greeks, one after the other!)  Anyway, this is from Book VI of the Aeneid, Robert Fitzgerald translation:

                                   Aeneas said:
“Your ghost,
Your sad ghost, father, often before my mind,
Impelled me to the threshold of this place.
My ships ride anchored in the Tuscan sea.
But let me have your hand, let me embrace you,
Do not draw back.”
At this his tears brimmed over
And down his cheeks.  And there he tried three times
To throw his arms around his father’s neck,
Three times the shade untouched slipped through his hands,
Weightless as wind and fugitive as dream.

[Apologies, but for some reason it won’t let me do the indentation on the quote above.  The second line should line up roughly with the end of the first line, and”At this his tears brimmed over” should line up with the end of the line before.  But for some reason it’s ignoring all the spaces I added in front of them to position them.]

Actually, I’m surprised I don’t have two Aeneid passages for you; I guess because of the compressed time (or because he hadn’t finished the poem when he died) Virgil didn’t have time for Pallas’ ghost to show up before Aeneas.  Or maybe Dido’s shade in the Underworld section is supposed to take the place of Patroclos’, but it’s more like Aias’ shade, considering how she treats him.  (There’s certainly no attempted embrace there.)

[EDIT — I so totally fail.  There are two Aeneid passages, it’s just that the one with Anchises was actually the second, not the first.  The first was way back in Book II:

Time after time I groaned and called Creusa,
Frantic, in endless quest from door to door.
Then to my vision her sad wraith appeared —
Creusa’s ghost, larger than life, before me.
Chilled to the marrow, I could feel the hair
On my head rise, the voice clot in my throat;
But she spoke out to ease me of my fear:

‘What’s to be gained by giving way to grief
So madly, my sweet husband?  Nothing here
Has come to pass except as heaven willed.
You may not take Creusa with you now;
It was not so ordained, nor does the lord
Of high Olympus give you leave.

[skipping a fair chunk of her speech here]

No: the great mother of the gods detains me
Here on these shores.  Farewell now; cherish still
Your son and mine.’

With this she left me weeping,
And faded on the tenuous air.  Three times
I tried to put my arms around her neck,
Three times enfolded nothing, as the wraith
Slipped through my fingers, bodiless as wind,
Or like a flitting dream.

Obviously, that, too, was the Robert Fitzgerald translation.  I’m able to add this in now because I’m researching a paper on the Aeneid, and one of the pieces I read happened to mention that Aeneas’ attempts to embrace both the ghost of his wife and of his father used exactly the same lines.  Funny thing, though:  the scholar in question did not mention that said lines were essentially ripped wholesale out of the Odyssey.  (Virgilian scholars always seem to overlook the places where Virgil basically just translated Homer into Latin and ran with it…)  You’ll notice the quotes are not identical, though; presumably that means Fitzgerald changed things up a bit to make it more interesting to the reader.  (Sadly, as the semester has grown more intense, I’ve fallen behind in re-learning Latin, so I can’t go to the original to look for myself at how similar they are.  Though obviously they have a certain amount of difference:  the one in Book II is in the first person, and the one in Book VI is in the third person.)

So, Aeneas does get to have two failed attempts at embracing a ghost, one for each of his Greek antecedents.  It’s telling of how Virgil interpreted the Iliad that the one to parallel Achilles is not with the innocent young boy Pallas that Aeneas is briefly enamored of, but rather with his wife.  (I guess Virgil agreed with Aischylos on that score…)  Okay, end edit.]

Anyway, next week is going to be the most Halloweeny of all!  (Technically, this week and last week have been more Day of the Dead than Halloween, really…)


One comment on “Words Crush Wednesday – Embracing the Dead

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