The post on writing well was a fun literary get-away, but my “official” July kickstarter is on everyone’s not-so-favorite but inescapable subject: death. I’m reading Philodemus’ On Death (Book 4) and so the subject has been on my mind, especially the theme of how a person can manage grief well.

  • When we finish (our earthly lives), we will have many good people be grief-stricken (λυπησομένους τε πολλοὺς καὶ ἀγαθοὺς ἕξομεν τελευτησαντες — Philodemus, On Death IV.21.12-13) * 

   One of the most moving set of reliefs that I saw at the Athens Museum was a section devoted to ancient views of the afterlife and the sheer despair surrounding the untimely death of a loved one. The following set of photos taken from these funeral reliefs revolve around the theme of how death separates a person from family and friends. 

A baby reaching desperately for his mother Phylonoe
the latter of whom died during childbirth (ca. 4th cent. BC)
Photo taken by Max Lee © 2014 Athens Museum

In this first photo, notice how the surviving baby (center) desperately stretches out his hand for his mother who recently died (right), most likely during childbirth. The mother’s name ΦΥΛΟΝΟΗ (transliterated Phylonoe) was etched in an epigram carved above in the epistyle (unshown). Another woman (left), possibly a relative, holds back the baby. It is a vivid portrait of how final death is, and how permanent the separation between the deceased and those who live on. Hopelessness reigns.
   Here is another photo, but this time it is a young man saying goodbye to his deceased elderly father ΠΑΝΑΙΤΙΟΣ (transliterated Panaitios): 

A young man bids farewell to his deceased father Panaitios (ca. 4th cent. BC)
Photo taken by Max Lee © 2014 Athens Museum

Notice the same theme of reaching out to one’s beloved with outstretched hands is repeated here. The son, a soldier, is saying his goodbye to the father who likely died when the son went off to war. Sadly the father never experienced his son’s homecoming or heard of his exploits on the battlefield.
   Finally, in this last photo (note: there were many more at the museum but these three were the only photos I took…. should have taken more!), we get an image of the afterlife:

The god Hermes (center) leads a deceased daughter Myrrhine (right) to Hades
with her father and relatives (left) looking onward helplessly (ca. 420-10 BC)
Photo taken by Max Lee © 2014 Athens Museum

This engravement was found on a column, and features the god Hermes Psychopompos leading a deceased daughter to Hades. In this photo, you can see the name of the young woman clearly to the right above her head: ΜΥΡΡΙΝΗ (transliterated as Myrrhine). Members of the funeral entourage are to the left of the representation and feature the father and relatives trying to save their daughter. However, Hermes intervenes, grabs the young lady’s hand, and there is simply no way for the family to stop Myrrhine’s journey to the afterlife. Everyone is helpless in the face of death. Hermes’ central and dramatic presence highlights the inevitable descent of Myrrhine to Hades and the helplessness of the family to stop it.
   In the next couple of posts, I will explore ancient views of death and how those in the world of Paul managed their grief. Philosophers such as Philodemus try to lessen death’s sting or bite by reason, but we shall see that for the most part, wisdom is poor medicine for the despair and despondency of death. Paul’s gospel, however, offers deliverance and hope. 

* Greek text from taken from Philodemus, On Death (ed. by W. Benjamin Henry; SBLWGRW 29), p. 48; Eng. trans., however, is my own.