Tuesday, June 21, 2005


The Thirsty Dead Again

Edward Cook traces a line from a Bob Dylan song back to Dante, and thence even further back to Vergil.

In Vergil, the tree that bleeds when cut grows out of the body of Trojan King Priam's son Polydorus, murdered by his host Polymestor upon news that Troy had fallen.

Aeneas and his men perform funeral rites for Polydorus (Vergil, Aeneid 3.62-68, tr. Theodore C. Williams):
But fit and solemn funeral rites were paid
to Polydorus. A high mound we reared
of heaped-up earth, and to his honored shade
built a perpetual altar, sadly dressed
in cypress dark and purple pall of woe.
Our Ilian women wailed with loosened hair;
new milk was sprinkled from a foaming cup,
and from the shallow bowl fresh blood out-poured
upon the sacred ground. So in its tomb
we laid his ghost to rest, and loudly sang,
with prayer for peace, the long, the last farewell.

ergo instauramus Polydoro funus, et ingens
aggeritur tumulo tellus; stant Manibus arae
caeruleis maestae vittis atraque cupresso,
et circum Iliades crinem de more solutae;
inferimus tepido spumantia cymbia lacte
sanguinis et sacri pateras, animamque sepulcro
condimus et magna supremum voce ciemus.
See also Vergil, Aeneid 5.75-78 (tr. Williams):
Then in th' attendant throng conspicuous,
with thousands at his side, the hero moved
from place of council to his father's tomb.
There on the ground he poured libation due,
two beakers of good wine, of sweet milk two,
two of the victim's blood.

ille e concilio multis cum milibus ibat
ad tumulum magna medius comitante caterva.
hic duo rite mero libans carchesia Baccho
fundit humi, duo lacte novo, duo sanguine sacro.
Vergil thus traces back to mythological times the custom of offering liquids to the dead. J.M.C. Toynbee, Death and Burial in the Roman World (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1971), pp. 51-52, gives archaeological evidence of the custom:
Graves, whether for inhumation or cremation, with holes or pipes through which food and drink could be poured down directly on to the burial (profusio), so as to reach the remains, are a not uncommon feature of cemeteries in very diverse areas of the Roman world. For example, in the necropolis excavated under St Peter's in Rome, several instances have come to light. In Tomb F, inset into the border of a mosaic pavement, is a series of small, square marble slabs each pierced with a hole for pouring sustenance down to the dead beneath .... Another child's inhumation burial, this time at Syracuse and with the bones laid directly in the earth under tiles set gable-wise, was connected with the surface by a vertical terracotta pipe, closed at the top by a movable stone stopper.
In The Thirsty Dead, I discussed a similar Greek custom.

If you don't placate the dead in this way, they're apt to become restless. George Romero's movie Land of the Dead opens Friday. I hope it's as funny as Night of the Living Dead and Dawn of the Dead. The scene with zombies riding the escalator at the mall in Dawn of the Dead is hilarious. I think of it whenever I'm unlucky enough to find myself among the zombie-like shoppers at Minnesota's own Mall of America.

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