Aspects of Death and the Afterlife in Greek Literature

George Alexander Gazis and Anthony Hooper, eds., Aspects of Death and the Afterlife in Greek Literature (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2021). 9781789621495.

Reviewed by Amy K. Vandervelde, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, amykv2@illinois.edu

In their edited volume, Gazis and Hooper bring together a variety of scholars from across disciplines to examine questions pertaining to death and the afterlife in Greek thought in new ways. As the editors themselves point out, “Greek thinking on death and the afterlife was neither uniform, simple, nor static, and by offering an examination of these matters in a properly interdisciplinary context we aim to demonstrate the full richness, complexity, and flexibility of these ideas in the ancient Greek world and to illuminate how freely writers from various genres drew inspiration from each other’s thinking concerning eschatological matters” (pp. 4–5).

Classics as a field tends to separate out works by discipline—philosophy, philology, archaeology, art history, literary analysis—but this volume instead chooses to bring disciplines together. Because the chapters are largely organized chronologically (p. 5), the topics presented from chapter to chapter vary widely. For example, if you read the chapters in order, you would complete chapter five on philosophical authority via katabasis narratives and move forward into chapter six’s close-reading analysis of Philoctetes’ personhood as a living corpse. The changes in how the various authors approach their topics in the volume might feel drastic, but the book gains from this shift outside of the fields’ structural norms where each chapter would utilize the same methodology. Something within this volume will speak to any individual looking to further diversify their own readings of Greek eschatological thought, whether they want something purely Homeric in theme, as in chapter three, or something that surveys afterlife judgment across genres and time, as in chapter eight.

Since this volume moves broadly between individual topics all related under the umbrella of death and the afterlife in Greek literature, I will now turn to providing a short explanation of each chapter individually.

In the first chapter, Edmonds III provides a framework that structures Greek thought pertaining to the afterlife into three main categories: “continuation, compensation, and cosmology” (p. 12). Continuation means that the dead exist as they did in life. Compensation encapsulates the systems of judgment such that the dead are justly rewarded or punished for their living deeds. And cosmology takes a leap to a bigger picture narrative positioning the dead within the larger cosmos. This outline establishes that there was no singular way for thinking about death for the Greeks. Indeed, Edmonds III even shows that there are differences within each of these categories, and the chapter sets up the expectation for a variety of chapters to follow.

In chapter two, Liapis examines corporeality and the lack thereof for the dead within the Greek literary tradition. As a wonderful hook, Liapis introduces Bram Stoker’s literary figure Count Dracula, who is “neither dead nor alive” (p. 33). This chapter also explores multiple ways that the Greeks envisioned the dead. When were they physically corporeal, and when were they only spectral images? These questions notably do not ask whether the dead are either completely corporeal or not, and Liapis concludes the chapter by noting that “it would be futile to search for a unified and consistent Greek conception of the corporeality of the dead” (p. 46).

Chapter three examines Odysseus’s well-known trip to Hades by comparing Hesiod’s Catalogue of Women with Odysseus’s tale of the heroines he encounters in Odyssey 11. Ziogas’s argument centers on the idea that while the dead “can recount a thanatography” (p. 49), the women Odysseus meets do not (for the most part) talk about their deaths. The chapter discusses the differences between the Homeric and Hesiodic catalogues, and Ziogas emphasizes that “the Odyssean narrative presents only the positive and female-oriented motifs of the Catalogue” (p. 60). The comparative structure of this chapter produces an intriguing conversation between the catalogues of women in Homer and Hesiod and leaves readers thinking about why these women’s voices are framed these ways.

In chapter four, Gazis explores Pindar’s recreation of the mythic afterlife. Significantly, Olympian 2 “contain[s] elements that find no exact parallel in any other Greek source” (p. 77). The chapter displays a noteworthy chart of parallels between Pindar and the Pythagoreans on page 85, showcasing how Pindar molds together different beliefs about the afterlife to create his own uniquely authoritative version. Gazis works to map out how Pindar’s afterlife design relates to cultic knowledge and the perspective of his intended audience. The chapter ends recognizing that in variations of the afterlife, “consistency is sacrificed on the altar of poetic impact, impression, and aim” (p. 87).

In the fifth chapter, Benzi investigates philosophers’ approach of utilizing katabasis narratives for the sake of establishing authority in their ideas, specifically as used by Parmenides. After a discussion of Odysseus’s nekyia in Odyssey 11, this chapter details how philosophers co-opted this tradition of a katabasis as a means of acquiring specific knowledge; however, it also points out that Odysseus’s tale might not actually be truly reliable. Benzi further expresses that “Parmenides narrates an otherworldly experience involving an interaction with divine beings, through which he gains access to a truth unknown to others” (p. 100). The chapter clearly articulates how Parmenides uses an Odysseus-like katabasis in his proem as the means for cementing philosophical authority.

Chapter six cleverly examines parallels between death and dehumanization within Sophocles’ Philoctetes. Blanco splits the chapter into three distinct sections moving from Philoctetes’ beastialization to his serpentification and ghostification. Readers see how Philoctetes’ well-known snake bite delivers him into a state of solitude by forcing him into the state of being a non-human. He becomes a beast in living his solitary life away from human civilization. Blanco provides a close reading to show how the language directly likens Philoctetes to a serpent, and finally how Philoctetes takes on the role as a living corpse. Blanco concludes the chapter explaining that “what we witness with the progression of the tragedy is a radical twist of events: the dehumanisation of Philoctetes uncovers his true humanity and exposes the inhuman attitude of the other two heroic figures” (p. 119). This chapter is closely linked in concept with Liapis’s discussion of the corporeality of the dead in the Greek tradition.

In chapter seven, Benitez documents how to place Socrates’ Underworld within the larger Greek afterlife tradition. The chapter introduces the topic by explaining that what Benitez calls “Socrates’ conception of the Underworld” has “no parallel in Plato or any other Greek text” (p. 123). This chapter explains that his description can be read as a part of the normalized mythic tradition. Benitez argues that Socrates’ description is not meant to be taken literally: “It has become respectable in recent years to interpret Plato’s eschatological myths as allegories. For some reason, Socrates’ conception of the Underworld has resisted similar treatment” (p. 133). Recalling a notion similar to the continuation method that Edmonds III described in chapter one, Benitez acknowledges Socrates’ afterlife as one that is “an allegory of life here and now” (p. 134)

In the eighth chapter, Bernabé offers a survey of the Underworld judges throughout the Greek literary tradition to showcase how Plato combines and changes their role in his different works. Bernabé’s goal is to display the multiple constructs of the infernal judges and Plato’s “motives behind the different versions with which he presents his audience” (p. 135). Starting with the noncanonical judges and their roles in Hesiod and Homer, this chapter follows the trend of afterlife judgment from epic and lyric to drama and further to the Orphic texts and artwork before examining the various constructions that Plato includes in his corpus. Bernabé explains that “the divine judges have different functions in different dialogues” (p. 149). This notion of cohesive differences within afterworld narratives relates well with Benzi’s conversation about philosophical authority as derived from katabasis narratives in chapter five.

Chapter nine constructs a narrative about the House of Hades from Homer to Socrates, because, as Hooper notes, “The abode of the dead is, after all, an imaginative space” (p. 154). Building upon the chapter’s “Renovating the House of Hades” metaphor, Hooper moves through the Homeric foundations, Eleusinian extensions, and Socratic reconstructions of how the Greek tradition describes the realm of the dead. To Homer’s description, the Hymn to Demeter adds “an extension, constructing a space for its own initiates to enjoy a blessed afterlife” (p. 161). Hooper then concludes that Socrates takes these Homeric and cultic visions of Hades and moves them “into the serious play of philosophical reflection” (p. 170). This chapter encapsulates the goal of this volume very well by establishing the narrative of death and the afterlife as varied and adapted throughout the Greek tradition.

In chapter ten, Long comparatively examines how Seneca and Marcus Aurelius approach two questions pertaining to the separation of the body and soul at death: “(1) For how long does the soul survive separation from the body? [and] (2) Should the separated soul be identified with the person who has undergone death?” (p. 171). The chapter moves through Seneca’s “Symmetry argument…that uses the similarity between prenatal and post mortem non-existence to promote or challenge an attitude to death” (p. 177). Then Long provides a comparison of Seneca’s ideology with that of Marcus Aurelius, which focuses more on the placement of the soul’s existence: “His approach is to show that his [one’s own] death contributes to the renewal of the world and then to ask whether that is achieved at his own expense” (p. 187). This chapter thoughtfully concludes the volume by once again invoking the cosmology notion that Edmonds III introduced in the first chapter.

Gazis and Hooper edited together an interdisciplinary volume that explores the many inconsistent nuances of Greek perceptions of death and the afterlife. While more philosophically based than one might expect, the book includes a few chapters that are primarily literary analyses. The multiple methodologies included offer readers the chance to fruitfully create a dialogue between avenues that are normally separated in scholarship. After all, the Greek conception of the Underworld was multi-faceted, so why shouldn’t our scholarship be that way, too?

Table of Contents

Introduction / George Alexander Gazis and Anthony Hooper (1–10)
1. A Path Neither Simple Nor Single: The Afterlife as Good to Think With / Radcliffe G. Edmonds III (11–32)
2. The Somatics of the Greek Dead / Vayos Liapis (33–48)
3. Life and Death of the Greek Heroine in Odyssey 11 and the Hesiodic Catalogue of Women / Ioannis Ziogas (49–68)
4. What is your Lot? Lyric Pessimism and Pindar’s Afterlife / George Alexander Gazis (69–88)
5. In Quest for Authority: Parmenides and the Tradition of Katabasis Narratives / Nicolò Benzi (89–104)
6. Death as Dehumanisation in Sophocles’ Philoctetes / Chiara Blanco (105–22)
7. Socrates’ Conception of the Underworld / Rick Benitez (123–34)
8. Judges in Hades from Homer to Plato / Alberto Bernabé (135–52)
9. Renovating the House of Hades: Cult Extensions and Socratic Reconstructions / Anthony Hooper (153–70)
10. Stoic Agnosticisms about Death / Alex Long (171–88)

Discussion

1. Could you expand more on your reasoning for organizing the chapters chronologically, rather than by topic or methodology? Readers will notice that some chapters seem to converse more with each other than others, so what factors led to the choice to arrange the volume’s chapter chronologically?

We were particularly interested in this volume to demonstrate that the path of development of Greek conceptions of death and the afterlife were (to borrow a phrase from the Phaedo) neither simple nor single. Issues of pressing interest – e.g. regarding the nature of post-mortem existence and the topography of Hades – ebbed and flowed in importance over time, and evolution in one element often occurred in response to the development in other areas. So the question of where the dead are housed in Hades shifted depending on how robust the Greeks envisaged the existence of the dead to be. And these developments, we hope to show, occurred across contemporary disciplinary boundaries, such that a Greek philosopher would as readily draw on poetic depictions of Hades as an authority, a source of inspiration, or as an object of critique, as they were other philosophers, regardless of the resonances or dissonances in their approach. The subject most fitting to communicate the complex quilt of interweaving ideas that constituted Greek eschatological thought was, then, a chronological one, rather than one in which chapters were organised by topic or methodology.

2. Your goals in this volume revolve around creating a refreshing and new interdisciplinary approach for examining material pertaining to Greek literary tradition on death and the afterlife. Could you share with readers a bit more as to why you chose the approach and the benefits that you hope it has upon readers?

Our interdisciplinary approach was motivated by our frustration that scholarly discussions regarding Greek eschatology so often occurred within rigid disciplinary boundaries. Our frustration did not stem so much from the fact that individual studies followed the substantive interests, methodological procedures, and ultimate aims of various disciplines; the sheer amount of high-quality research is testament to the value of such studies. Instead, our concern was that the consequent conversation regarding such studies was similarly limited to the different disciplines. That is, an article or monograph could constitute an indispensable, landmark study in Classics, but be all but unheard of in philosophy. In our volume we wanted to demonstrate that a far richer understanding of Greek conceptions of death and the afterlife can only be achieved when drawing on the resources of all contemporary disciplines, each of which lend tremendous value to each other.

Thank you very much for your answers to my questions! I really appreciate that the goal of this volume is to bridge the normative gap between disciplines, and I think that it does so excellently. Your point that ancient eschatological thought merged across “contemporary disciplinary boundarie” resonates clearly throughout the volume. Reading a well-rounded and multidisciplinary book about ancient Greek eschatology gave me a much clearer picture of the “neither simple nor single” concept. It’s notable too that there are certainly books on this topic that I have missed based on its primary discipline being outside of my own usual scope. I’m hopeful that there will be future studies like yours that seek to combine a variety of methodologies together.

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