Hidden Futures: Death and Immortality in Ancient Egypt, Anatolia, the Classical, Biblical and Arabic-Islamic World

By J. M. Bremer; Theo P.J. Van Den Hout et al. | Go to book overview

Death and Immortality in Some Greek Poems*

Jan Maarten Bremer

There are poets in The Netherlands, a fact which is not widely known outside our country. Among the best and wisest of them is a grand old lady, Elizabeth Eybers. In an interview in a Dutch newspaper1, she said: "I am surprised at the blackbirds, how every spring they can sing so carelessly and exuberantly. As if they never pay attention to life being so short. But of course they don't. Yeats once said: 'It is man who has invented death.' Man is the only animal who knows he will die. That is miserable -- but if we did not know it, life would be much less interesting, and we would not write any poetry, I think."

Readers will understand why I have taken this as an introduction to my theme. "Man has invented death". I take that to mean that man has created all the 'pomp and circumstance' of death; that he has invented countless methods (tricks, spells) to deal with the baffling reality of death. If one looks at what the Greeks did "invent", one finds a broad spectrum from myths which explain why man must die, to rituals which point to life after death; from burial rites and epitaphs which accompany the dead and seal them off in their definitive place in earth, to texts in prose, for example funeral speeches, and in poems which suggest immortality. Poetry plays a fairly central part in all this, and I limit my contribution in this paper to discussing a selection of Greek poems. Taken as a whole, they reflect the above-mentioned polarity between, on the one hand, resignation and endorsement of death, even downright denial of immortality: and, on the other, intimations or even certitude of immortality. This gives a 'natural' division to my paper.


DEATH

The Iliad of Homer is from start to finish concerned with death: the gruesome brutality of killing, the heart-rending reality of dying and the sombre futility of bestowing the last honours upon the dead. Many are the passages in which either the poet himself2 or his characters reflect upon death; I have selected two for this

____________________
*
I thank David Konstan of Brown University, Providence RI, USA for reading a first draft of this paper and kindly reminding me of some inadequacies in the argument and in the English.
1
NRC-Handelsblad of 25 June 1993.
2
Griffin ( 1980) 103-113 observes that the poet of the Iliad in his numerous 'obituaries' brings out the pathos of death. His conclusion (p. 143): "The Iliad is a poem of death; actual duels in it are short because fate not fighting technique is what interests the poet (...) The lesser heroes, too, are

-109-

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