Thursday, 10 October 2019

Achilles on death

If you read up on Greek attitudes to death and the afterlife, you’ll very often see the following sound bite quoted as typical. When Odysseus summons up the souls of the dead, in the Odyssey, one of the ghosts he meets is Achilles. And Achilles says:
‘Don’t give me consolation about death, glorious Odysseus.
I’d rather be above earth and labour for someone else,
a man with no land of his own and little livelihood,
than be king over all the lifeless dead.’
-- Homer, Odyssey 11.488-491
Odysseus’ consultation of the ghosts, depicted as a psychagogia or soul-summoning. Left, Elpenor’s ghost; centre, Odysseus; right, the god Hermes as soul guide. Hermes doesn’t appear in this bit of the Odyssey: the vase obviously isn’t an illustration of Homer. The artist may have taken some inspiration from a lost drama, Aeschylus’ Psychagogoi, where Hermes is named in two fragments (Aesch. frags. 273, 273a Radt). (Attic, Lykaon Painter, ca. 440 BCE; Boston Museum of Fine Arts 34.79)
Now, it’s true enough that the picture of the afterlife that we see in Odyssey 11 is ‘grey and dreary’. But these lines aren’t all that gets said about death in the Odyssey. They aren’t even all that gets said in this scene.

Odysseus’ conversation with Achilles carries on for another 39 lines. And by the end of the scene, Achilles’ sentiment is completely turned on its head.

This post is a reprise of a journal article I wrote over a decade ago (Gainsford 2008). When I published that piece, the journal format meant that I had to put my point in the context of lots of modern interpretations -- of very uneven quality. The main point got crowded. Today I’m giving the more direct version.

And the direct version is this: if you ever hear someone citing Achilles’ words as though they’re any kind of summing up of anything, or as though they’re typical, then you are listening to a fool.
Note in this passage the typical early Greeks’ attitude to existence after death. Its shadowy impotence appalled them, for they loved vigour, action, personality, and the sunshine. Contrast Milton’s Satan -- ‘Better to reign in hell than serve in heaven’. The recurrent melancholy of all Greek literature is mainly due to this abhorrence of losing one’s vital physical powers after death. The Mystery Religions and some philosophies tried to dispel it. But it met no decisive challenge till St. Paul on the Areopagus proclaimed the Resurrection of the Body.
-- Stanford 1959: 398

Achilles’ famous reply nicely sums up Greek pessimism about the afterlife.
-- Powell 2009: 394
Codswallop. If, by some mischance, you are inclined to stop at the words ‘king over all the lifeless dead’, then I have to ask: how is it that you’re reading this sentence? How on earth are you energetic enough to have read 400 words of a blog post -- so far -- but too lazy to read the 39 lines that make up the rest of Achilles’ scene?

Achilles’ famous words aren’t some kind of pronouncement from on high about the nature of death. They’re bitter words, full of grief and anger. They express resentment at the loss that death brings. That’s just the set-up. The pay-off comes later.


Achilles goes on to ask Odysseus for news of his surviving family.
‘But come, tell me news of my noble son (Neoptolemus).
Did he follow the army to war, to be a front-line hero, or not?
And tell me if you’ve heard anything of (my father) blameless Peleus.
Does he still hold honour among the Myrmidons ...?’
-- Odyssey 11.492-495
This scene isn’t about the dead, it’s about the living. It’s about family. Achilles couldn’t care less about illustrating the nature of the afterlife: he just doesn’t want Odysseus to offer false comfort (‘Don’t give me consolation’). The scene with Achilles is about showing us that family relationships carry on being important when a family member dies. A relationship doesn’t just vanish when life stops.
Jan Styka, Ulisses pragnie uscisnać zjawę swojej Matki (‘Odysseus wants to embrace his mother’s ghost’; Paris, 1901)
Odysseus obliges. He doesn’t have any news about Achilles’ father, but he can report on the son’s heroism at Troy. The boy was an outstanding policy-maker, a superb warrior, and one of the bravest soldiers to hide in the wooden horse. He survived the war uninjured, with glory, and with a pile of wealth.
So I (Odysseus) spoke. And the ghost of swift Achilles
marched off, taking long strides across the asphodel meadow,
joyful because I told him of his outstanding son.
-- Odyssey 11.538-540
That’s the pay-off to this scene.

Now, of course, there’s more to Neoptolemus’ story too. Earlier on in the Odyssey we saw celebrations for the wedding between Neoptolemus and Menelaus’ daughter Hermione (Od. 4.1-9). But in other ancient sources, he’s a very unpleasant character. Later writers paint Neoptolemus as the most brutal and bloodthirsty of all the Greeks in the destruction of Troy. He got home from the war safely, but later he was murdered at Delphi for one reason or another -- the details vary.

The Odyssey keeps quiet about all of that. The emphasis is on reasons to be proud at the son’s achievements, and the continuity of the family line into another generation, complete with a marriage to a noble wife.

Exactly the same things are at stake in Odysseus’ family, with his son Telemachus.

Not a scene about Achilles

It just doesn’t work to stick to Achilles’ words -- ‘better to labour for someone else than to be king over the dead’ -- as though that was the punchline, the moral to a fable. This scene isn’t about Achilles. The Odyssey isn’t his epic. The scene is about what his story means to Odysseus.

That’s the main problem with some alternate interpretations I’ve heard. Like the idea that Odysseus’ news about Achilles’ son is a way of cheering up Achilles, distracting him from his own woes. Never mind that Achilles expressly tells Odysseus not to do that back in line 488 (‘Don’t give me consolation about death’). Or the idea that the Achilles of Odyssey 11 is meant to be a counterpart to the Achilles of the Iliad -- either as a parallel (Achilles has learnt nothing, he’s incapable of change) or as a reversal (the Achilles of the Iliad preferred glory to death, this one is an imperfect imitation).

All that kind of reading tells me is that the reader would rather be reading the Iliad. But this isn’t the Iliad. And it isn’t trying to be.

The point is that Achilles’ viewpoint isn’t the point. We’re not looking at death as something to be experienced. No one experiences death -- death is what happens after you’ve finished your experiencing. We’re looking at what Achilles’ story means for Odysseus.

That’s the argument made by Jean-Pierre Vernant, in probably the most influential essay ever written about this scene:
The episode of the Nekuia [i.e. Odysseus’ visit to the dead] does not contradict the ideal of the heroic death, the fine death. It strengthens it and completes it. ... The only values that exist are the values of life, the only reality that of the living.
-- Vernant 1981: 291
Even Vernant doesn’t bother to read past line 491. But he’s clearly latched on to the right way of reading the lines, because that’s what the main bulk of the scene is about: the values of life, and Achilles’ surviving family.

That’s what Odysseus is looking for too. He isn’t visiting ghosts to get insight into the meaning of death: he’s there because his own family’s survival is in doubt. He’s been gone for years, he already knows his mother is dead and his family are in trouble, and he’s trying to get home. Achilles’ family is a success story -- for now, at least -- and succession is assured. But if Odysseus fails, he will leave no survivors.

That’s the point of another ghost conversation that Odysseus had earlier: his chat with the ghost of the prophet Teiresias, who foretold Odysseus’ death.
                ‘And your own death: away from the sea,
without violence, that’s just how it will come. It will slay you
when you’re worn down by comfy old age. Around you your people
will be blessed. These are sure things I’m telling you.’
-- Odyssey 11.134-137
‘Around you your people will be blessed.’ The Greek word, laoi, doesn’t mean ‘family’ as such, but the implication is still one of community. The promise is that Odysseus’ community will survive and thrive, even after he’s no longer there to watch over them.
Odysseus, with two companions, consults the ghost of the seer Teiresias, whose head is poking out of the underworld in a hole in the ground (circled). (Metapontum, Dolon Painter, ca. 390 BCE; Bib. nat. France De Ridder 422)
This is quite different from some heroes. In the Old English epic Beowulf, the sense is quite the opposite, that Beowulf dies to protect and help his people, but it’s made clear within the poem that after his death the community is going to wither and blow away. (I’ve written an article on that too: Gainsford 2012.)

The Odyssey is far more optimistic. Not just about Odysseus’ fate, but Achilles’ too.


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