Follow by Email

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Overwhelming Emotions: Examining the Role of Death in Greek Literature

           Only one thing in all of life is absolutely certain – even more so than taxes.  That certainty would be death itself, the end of this life.  This is a fact that people are aware of, yet, understanding it is not only difficult but it is an idea that few can easily get used to.  For this reason, the subject matter of death should be presented not only with the respect it is due but also with the reverence that great loss deserves.  In “Oedipus the King”, “Antigone” and “The Odyssey”, we are presented with a variety of deaths within the context of various relationships – most of which are handled either with care by those feeling the loss or with the wrath that dishonor can bring out in someone consumed with the need for justice.  In the multitude of deaths in these tales, death is not seen as something that means nothing but, rather, something that means nearly everything to the characters.  It is the passion of their emotions that drive them in each of these stories – even leading many characters to death’s door. 
            In “Oedipus the King”, the death that does not occur appears to be the one that would have meant the most in saving so many from future pains.  Yet, it is precisely because Oedipus’s death as a baby does not occur that the grief of death meets Oedipus so cruelly.  His wife’s suicide, once all comes out into the open, is not taken lightly.  “I am agony.” (Sophocles 652)  This agony he feels is for a variety of reasons but it is overwhelmingly because he sees his wife hanging from a noose – all they had has been lost.  “The joy they had so lately, the fortune of their old ancestral house was deep joy indeed”.  (Sophocles 651)  It is because they loved one another that both of them end up in a place of pain and darkness.  To see his wife’s body hanging, dead is too much for him to bare – along with the many other pains of that day.  He was going to kill her himself, in this scene, but the reality of it hits him hard and he is simply unable to take the sight.  With her pins, he makes it clear that he does not want to see the truth of it yet he cannot escape the pain.     
            In “Antigone”, the death of Antigone’s brother begins a domino effect – with several of the characters being dead before the play is complete, all of which stems from the grief of a sister who has lost her brothers.  “But if I had allowed my own mother’s son to rot, an unburied corpse – that would have been agony.” (Sophocles 670).  Antigone has been sentenced to death herself for burying her brother so he may be accepted into the underworld by the gods.  Without this burial, the belief of the time was that he could not go on in life after death.  Antigone is put to death, which leads to the death of her fiance – in his grief.  The death of Haemon by suicide causes his mother to then commit suicide also.  For all of these characters, it was the intensity of the emotional pain that drove them to want to die as well as to follow through with such actions.       
            In “The Odyssey”, it is Odysseus’s rage and need for what he perceives as justice that brings about the largest loss of life throughout the story.  Though it is the unknown status of Odysseus’s life that actively drives the story, his death is assumed by most – including the suitors - though not accepted by Penelope or Telemakhos.  When Odysseus returns home and takes his anger out on the suitors, it is a punishment for their disrespect not only of him but also of his household and his wife.  “They respected no one, good or bad, who came their way.  For this, and folly, a bad end befell them.” (Homer 505)  Had they not assumed him to be dead but waited for an answer to the question, they would not have met such an end.  Telemakhos takes out his anger on the harlots for being disrespectful of his mother.  “I would not give the clean death of a beat to trulls who made a mockery of my mother and of me too.”  (Homer 506) 
            Though there are many deaths in each of these stories, none of them are handled lightly.  Each of them is handled with an intense burst of emotion – whether in grief or in anger.  Particularly in “Oedipus the King” and “Antigone” does the reader feel a connection, an understanding and a sense of what has been lost.  Men and women both have a profound reaction to the death of their loved ones.
  In “The Odyssey”, it is a feeling of what has been found instead – a sense of justice for a family that has suffered deeply.  By today’s standards these deaths would be seen as extreme, yet, in “The Odyssey”, it seems to be what is owed to Odysseus and his family for all they have withstood.  To be so blatantly disrespectful of a king and his queen at this time in history would have meant death and death is what was given out.  Before Penelope recognizes Odysseus as her husband, she states that this type of behavior was punished by the gods.  “Some god has killed the suitors, a god, sick of their arrogance and brutal malice.” (Homer 509)  They all believe, to the core, that these deaths are justified – not only in their eyes but also in the eyes of the gods.
Each of these works present us with a dramatic look at death.  Though, at the time, death was not considered the absolute end.  There is an afterlife for those who die.  Antigone makes this clear when she defies her king and buries her brother openly.  In “The Odyssey”, there is not only mention of an afterlife but a full description as to what happens to those who have died.  “Meanwhile the suitors’ ghosts were called away by Hermes of Kyllene.” (Homer 516)  In “Oedipus the King” the afterlife does not play as large a part as in “The Odyssey” or “Antigone”.  Oedipus asks Creon to bury his wife.  “the woman inside, bury her as you see fit.  It’s the only decent thing, to give your own the last rites.”  (Homer 655).  He does not go into much more about the afterlife as he is too consumed with grief at that moment – it seems he simply cannot go that distance in his thoughts.
In all three of these stories, death is seen as something very serious – regardless of how often it happens or how it happens. The gravity of the situations that lead to death is fully explored by the characters left behind – whether the characters are in pain or grateful for the death of their enemies.  

Works Cited

Lawall, Sarah and Maynard Mack, eds. The Norton Anthology of World Literature. Second Edition. Volumes A, B and C. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2002.  Print.

No comments:

Post a Comment