Monday, June 25, 2012


Senicide, Part I

I once heard a story about a former policeman who was asked if he had long term health care insurance. He said, "Yes," while pointing two fingers at his head in imitation of a gun. John Derbyshire, "Going out With a Bang Instead of a Whimper," Taki's Magazine (May 24, 2012), has the same idea:
I have a good selection of guns and have made up my mind that if it comes to diapers, I shall see myself out with a gun. I will not wear diapers—that’s the end point for me, the milestone I am determined not to pass.
In some cultures, the decision is not the individual's, but is put into the hands of friends or relatives or committees, death panels, if you will. The age limit for extermination is quite low in some dystopian fiction, e.g. 18 (the movie Children of the Corn, based on a Stephen King story) or 30 (the movie Logan's Run).

Tim G. Parkin, Old Age in the Roman World: A Cultural and Social History (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003), pp. 259-272, has a useful collection and discussion of ancient references to the practice of senicide, defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as "The killing of the old men of a tribe, etc.". This post is the first in a series presenting some of the ancient evidence. In the following passages from Herodotus (both tr. A.D. Godley), it is noteworthy that senicide appears in connection with cannibalism. E.M. Murphy and J.P. Mallory, "Herodotus and the Cannibals", Antiquity 74 (2000) 388–394, is unavailable to me.

Herodotus 1.216.2-3 (on the Massagetae):
Though they fix no certain term to life, yet when a man is very old all his family meet together and kill him, with beasts of the flock besides, then boil the flesh and feast on it. [3] This is held to be the happiest death; when a man dies of an illness, they do not eat him, but bury him in the earth, and lament that he did not live to be killed.

οὖρος δὲ ἡλικίης σφι πρόκειται ἄλλος μὲν οὐδείς· ἐπεὰν δὲ γέρων γένηται κάρτα, οἱ προσήκοντές οἱ πάντες συνελθόντες θύουσί μιν καὶ ἄλλα πρόβατα ἅμα αὐτῷ, ἑψήσαντες δὲ τὰ κρέα κατευωχέονται. [3] ταῦτα μὲν τὰ ὀλβιώτατά σφι νενόμισται, τὸν δὲ νούσῳ τελευτήσαντα οὐ κατασιτέονται ἀλλ᾽ γῇ κρύπτουσι, συμφορὴν ποιεύμενοι ὅτι οὐκ ἵκετο ἐς τὸ τυθῆναι.
Herodotus 3.99.1-2 (on the Padeans of India):
Other Indians, to the east of these, are nomads and eat raw flesh; they are called Padaei. It is said to be their custom that when anyone of their fellows, whether man or woman, is sick, a man's closest friends kill him, saying that if wasted by disease he will be lost to them as meat; though he denies that he is sick, they will not believe him, but kill and eat him. [2] When a woman is sick, she is put to death like the men by the women who are her close acquaintances. As for one that has come to old age, they sacrifice him and feast on his flesh; but not many reach this reckoning, for before that everyone who falls ill they kill.

ἄλλοι δὲ τῶν Ἰνδῶν πρὸς ἠῶ οἰκέοντες τούτων νομάδες εἰσὶ κρεῶν ἐδεσταὶ ὠμῶν, καλέονται δὲ Παδαῖοι, νομαίοισι δὲ τοιοῖσιδε λέγονται χρᾶσθαι· ὃς ἂν κάμῃ τῶν ἀστῶν, ἤν τε γυνὴ ἤν τε ἀνήρ, τὸν μὲν ἄνδρα ἄνδρες οἱ μάλιστά οἱ ὁμιλέοντες κτείνουσι, φάμενοι αὐτὸν τηκόμενον τῇ νούσῳ τὰ κρέα σφίσι διαφθείρεσθαι· ὁ δὲ ἄπαρνος ἐστὶ μὴ μὲν νοσέειν, οἱ δὲ οὐ συγγινωσκόμενοι ἀποκτείναντες κατευωχέονται. [2] ἣ δὲ ἂν γυνὴ κάμῃ, ὡσαύτως αἱ ἐπιχρεώμεναι μάλιστα γυναῖκες ταὐτὰ τοῖσι ἀνδράσι ποιεῦσι. τὸν γὰρ δὴ ἐς γῆρας ἀπικόμενον θύσαντες κατευωχέονται· ἐς δὲ τούτου λόγον οὐ πολλοί τινες αὐτῶν ἀπικνέονται· πρὸ γὰρ τοῦ τὸν ἐς νοῦσον πίπτοντα πάντα κτείνουσι.
On the Indians, see also Pomponius Mela 3.7.64-65 (tr. Arthur Golding, spelling modernized by me):
Some kill their neighbors and parents, in manner of sacrifice, before they pine away with age and sickness, and think it not only lawful, but also godly, to eat the bowels of them when they have killed them. But if they be attacked with old age or sickness, they get them out of all company into the wilderness, and there without sorrowing for the matter, abide the end of their life. The wiser sort of them, which are trained up in the profession and study of wisdom, linger not for death, but hasten it, by throwing themselves into the fire, which is counted a glory.

quidam proximos parentes, priusquam annis aut aegritudine in maciem eant, velut hostias caedunt, caesorumque visceribus epulari fas et maxime pium est. at, ubi senectus aut morbus incessit, procul a ceteris abeunt mortemque in solitudine nihil anxii exspectant. prudentiores et quibus ars studiumque sapientiae contingit non exspectant eam, sed ingerendo semet ignibus laeti et cum gloria arcessunt. 

proximos U, proximi V
Latin text and apparatus above are from Pomponii Melae De Chorographia Libri Tres. Introduzione, edizione critica e commento a cura di Piergiorgio Parroni (Roma: Edizioni di Storia e Letteratura, 1984), p. 166, where U = Vaticanus Urbinas Latinus 1173, a. 1458, and V = Vaticanus Latinus 4929, s. IX2. Parroni in his commentary (p. 416) cites the imitation by Solinus (52,22) with variants, as follows:
sunt qui proximos parentesque [parentes qui N, parentes RCH] priusquam annis aut aegritudine in maciem eant, velut hostias caedunt, deinde peremptorum viscera epulas habent: quod ibi non scleris, sed pietatis loco numerant.
I haven't seen Gunnar Ranstrand's edition of Pomponius Mela or his Textkritische Beiträge zu Pomponius Mela (both Gothenburg: Almqvist & Wiksell, 1971) = Studia Graeca et Latina Gothoburgensia, 28-29, so I don't know if Ranstrand discusses the phrase proximos parentes. Since parentes can mean also grandparents, progenitors, and ancestors, I wondered whether proximos parentes here might mean mother and father, as opposed to more distant grandparents. But maybe Vaticanus Latinus 4929's reading proximi = friends, neighbors, as subject, deserves a closer look, in light of Herodotus' οἱ μάλιστά οἱ ὁμιλέοντες (3.99.1).

F.E. Romer's translation of proximos parentes, in Pomponius Mela's Description of the World (Lansing: University of Michigan Press, 1998), p. 119, doesn't convince me:
Some kill their parents (when they are on the verge of decline) like sacrificial animals before the parents decline from age and illness, and it is both morally right and absolutely pious to feast on the viscera of the slain parents.
Thanks to Eric Thomson for copying some pages of Parkin's book not available via Google Books.

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