Friday, March 18, 2005


Death and the Gods

In the prologue to Euripides' Alcestis, the god Apollo says (lines 22-23, tr. Richard Aldington):
But I must leave this Palace's dear roof, for fear pollution soil me in the house.
The imminent pollution (miasma in Greek) comes from the approaching death of Alcestis. Likewise in Euripides' Hippolytus, Apollo's sister Artemis says (lines 1437-1439, tr. E.P. Coleridge) to her acolyte Hippolytus, who is on the verge of death:
And now farewell! 'tis not for me to gaze upon the dead, or pollute my sight with death-scenes, and e'en now I see thee nigh that evil.
Aelian (fragment 11 Hercher), quoted in the Suda, s.v. Philemon (tr. William Hutton), tells a similar tale:
"Philemon, who was living in Piraieus, had a dream in which nine girls came out of his house, and he dreamt that he asked them for what purpose they were leaving him; and he thought he heard them saying that they were going outdoors, since it was not right for them to hear. At this point the dream came to an end, and he, when he woke up, explained to his slave what he had seen and what he had heard and what he had said. But then he wrote the rest of the play which he happened to be conducting during the present crisis. When he was done with that task he lay down in peace and then began to snore lightly. Those who were in the house thought that he was sleeping; but when this went on for a long time, they pulled his covers back and saw that he was dead. Therefore, Epicurus, it was the nine Muses who visited Philemon, and when he was about to go on his fated and final journey, they departed. For it is not at all proper for gods to see people who are still corpses, even if they are extremely beloved, nor to stain their vision with mortal expirations. But you, you fool, say that they do not pay attention to us." So says Aelian in his On Providence.
Not only did gods depart from the dying, but the dying were supposed to stay away from the precincts of the gods. According to Thucydides (3.104.2, tr. Benjamin Jowett), the Athenians purified Delos (the island on which Apollo and Artemis were born) as follows:
The Athenians took away all the coffins of the dead which were in Delos, and passed a decree that henceforward no one should die or give birth to a child there, but that the inhabitants when they were near the time of either should be carried across to Rhenea.
Pausanias (2.27.1, tr. W.H.S. Jones), connects the prohibition at Delos with a similar one at Epidaurus:
The sacred grove of Asclepius is surrounded on all sides by boundary marks. No death or birth takes place within the enclosure; the same custom prevails also in the island of Delos.
Only in times of great devastation, like the plague in Athens during the Peloponnesian War, was the rule violated. Thucydides (2.52.3, tr. Jowett) wrote:
The temples in which they lodged were full of the corpses of those who died in them; for the violence of the calamity was such that men, not knowing where to turn, grew reckless of all law, human and divine.
The Man-God, Jesus Christ, did not shun contact with the dead. Last Sunday's gospel (John 11) told the story of Lazarus, whom Jesus raised from the dead. He did the same for widow of Nain's son (Luke 7.11-17) and Jairus' daughter (Matthew 19.18-19, 23-25; Mark 5:22-23, 35-43; Luke 8.41-42, 49-56).

Note: All the classical references come from W.S. Barrett's commentary on Euripides' Hippolytus (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1964).

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