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Restless Dead: Encounters between the Living and the Dead in Ancient Greece

Restless Dead: Encounters between the Living and the Dead in Ancient Greece

by Sarah Iles Johnston

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During the archaic and classical periods, Greek ideas about the dead evolved in response to changing social and cultural conditions—most notably changes associated with the development of the polis, such as funerary legislation, and changes due to increased contacts with cultures of the ancient Near East.
In Restless Dead, Sarah Iles Johnston


During the archaic and classical periods, Greek ideas about the dead evolved in response to changing social and cultural conditions—most notably changes associated with the development of the polis, such as funerary legislation, and changes due to increased contacts with cultures of the ancient Near East.
In Restless Dead, Sarah Iles Johnston presents and interprets these changes, using them to build a complex picture of the way in which the society of the dead reflected that of the living, expressing and defusing its tensions, reiterating its values and eventually becoming a source of significant power for those who knew how to control it. She draws on both well-known sources, such as Athenian tragedies, and newer texts, such as the Derveni Papyrus and a recently published lex sacra from Selinous.

Topics of focus include the origin of the goes (the ritual practitioner who made interaction with the dead his specialty), the threat to the living presented by the ghosts of those who died dishonorably or prematurely, the development of Hecate into a mistress of ghosts and its connection to female rites of transition, and the complex nature of the Erinyes. Restless Dead culminates with a new reading of Aeschylus' Oresteia that emphasizes how Athenian myth and cult manipulated ideas about the dead to serve political and social ends.

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University of California Press
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Restless Dead

Encounters Between the Living and the Dead in Ancient Greece

By Sarah Iles Johnston


Copyright © 1999 the Regents of the University of California
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-520-92231-0


Elpenor and Others

Narrative Descriptions of the Dead

No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality.

Shirley Jackson, The Haunting of Hill House (1959)

So begins one of the most effective ghost stories of the twentieth century. It is an appropriate overture for a tale that explores how human beings cope not only with incursions by the restless dead but also with the uncertainty of whether what they are experiencing is really the work of ghosts or only the creation of their own imaginations. When the main character, Eleanor, is challenged by the other members of a group investigating a haunted house as to whether she has really seen a ghost, she responds, "I could say 'all three of you are in my imagination; none of this is real'." Eleanor is half joking when she says this, but Dr. Montague, the professor of anthropology who has organized the investigation, gravely replies that if he thought she were serious, he would send her home immediately, for she would be "venturing too close to the state of mind which would welcome the perils of Hill House with a kind of sisterly embrace."

Dr. Montague—a well-trained academic—wishes to keep what he considers real and what he considers imaginary firmly separated. By the end of the story, however, we have learned that for Eleanor (and for many other people as well, Shirley Jackson implies), belief in a world beyond the immediately visible one, however unpleasant that other world may be, is absolutely necessary for the expression of otherwise inexpressible fears and desires. Retaining one's sanity, as Jackson's first sentence insists, depends upon occasional vacations from reality.

Conversely, as Jackson also knew very well, a ghost story succeeds only when the narrator has managed to persuade her audience to suspend their disbelief, at least temporarily. Of course, this is one variation on a rule that applies to all fiction: the world constructed by the narrator must make enough sense to the audience for them to be able to enter into it without being constantly distracted by internal contradictions. Even if there is little expectation that a story's occurrences could take place in the real world, therefore, a properly constructed story will provide glimpses into the real world's system of beliefs because it will adhere to rules that resemble those of the real world. For example, although the vast majority of contemporary Americans who watch a vampire film do not believe that vampires really exist, they are able to suspend their disbelief long enough to enjoy watching the story unfold, both because the screenwriter has been careful to construct a fictional universe that follows its own rules and because those rules bear some similarity to rules of the real world. Thus, if a vampire is averted by a crucifix early in the story, then the crucifix must serve as a reliable means of averting vampires throughout the rest of the story, unless some good explanation that nullifies the rule is subsequently offered. Why a crucifix, and not, for instance, a piece of coral, such as some Polynesian cultures use to avert demons? Because the crucifix is a symbol of beneficent power that can be understood by any audience member who has grown up within the predominantly Christian American culture.

Even more interesting are the existential rules of many fictional worlds. As viewers of a vampire movie, we have agreed to believe that there are some corpses that return to life, but not that all corpses do. Vampires may arise from those who die under tragic or abnormal circumstances. This includes suicides, those who are unburied or who are buried improperly, and those who die cursing God. This rule makes a certain kind of sense because the early truncation of a life or the marring of a soul's passage from life to death disrupts what we like to believe is the normal progression from birth to death. People who would laugh at the idea that vampires really exist might still believe that death under such circumstances brings unhappiness to the soul or prevents its postmortem reunion with God. Witness for example the Orthodox Jewish belief that the entire body, including any severed limbs, must be buried properly if the deceased is to enjoy the eventual resurrection promised to the faithful. Even when they cannot articulate precise reasons that proper burial is necessary, survivors usually feel compelled to provide it; the importance placed on the recovery of bodies from battlefields or accident sites—sometimes at great expense and risk to those undertaking the recovery—attests to this. At least one of the rules governing vampire stories, then, indirectly reflects the values of those who listen to them. What would be impossible to accept, even within the artificially constructed confines of a vampire story, is that a pious person who died of natural causes at an advanced age, and whose funeral was conducted properly, could become a vampire.

Effective ghost stories, like effective vampire stories, reflect the values of the culture in which they developed. There are further problems to be considered before we use them as evidence for real beliefs, however, particularly when we are studying a culture like that of ancient Greece, where few people would have understood, much less accepted, Dr. Montague's assumption that a clear line can be drawn between what we call the natural and the supernatural worlds. Although a good narrator will not incorporate into a story elements that his audience will reject as "illogical" or "anachronistic," a good narrator may incorporate elements that mislead us—his distant audience—because they provide only part of a bigger picture. Part of our interpretive task, therefore, whenever we use narrative sources as evidence for real belief, is to recreate, as best we can, the situation in which the narrative was originally presented. When we are dealing with narrative presentations of the dead and the afterlife, with ghosts, the journey to the Underworld, its geography, and the rules by which it works, this can become complicated, for the factor that constrains narrative treatments of civic rites such as the Panathenaia—realization that the audience can compare the narrative construction to what they see and hear in real life—is no longer fully operative. We can probably assume that no one who listened to the story of Odysseus's journey to the Underworld believed that they themselves had also traveled to Hades. Few people who watched the Erinyes pursue their victim in Aeschylus's Eumenides thought that they had ever seen one of these monstrous creatures themselves. The "reality" against which Homer's or Aeschylus's presentations of these phenomena were evaluated by an ancient audience, therefore, consisted of other things that they had heard—of other constructions of a world beyond the normal sensory perceptions provided over the course of their lives by their friends, their parents, by other narrators of stories, and by the visual artists who created vase paintings, wall paintings, and temple decor.

The situation is made even more difficult by the fact that beliefs existing under no official societal sanction or control, which includes most of those concerning the afterlife, tend to be fluid, changing easily from time to time, from locale to locale, from neighbor to neighbor, and even from one statement to the next during a single conversation with a given individual. This is particularly so for beliefs about the dead because they arise in response to death itself, a phenomenon that, although inevitable and ubiquitous, is unpredictable, poorly understood, and cloaked in conflicting emotions. As the feeling of grief or guilt about another's death shifts to resignation or relief, as fear concerning one's own inevitable end shifts to hope for postmortem bliss or back again, the ways in which the afterlife and the passage into death are pictured shift as well. A contemporary American man or woman may take flowers to the grave of a loved one, perhaps in the assumption that the departed soul somehow needs or appreciates the gifts of survivors and can receive them at the location where his corpse was deposited. And yet that survivor might simultaneously believe that the departed soul dwells in a Heaven cut off from the physical world, where all needs are met and neither flowers nor anything else of a material nature has any relevance.

Even if the beliefs of an individual are fluid and sometimes contradictory, however, each of them has its place within a range of culturally acceptable beliefs. The example I just gave reflects the fact that contemporary American views of the dead admit both the idea that the soul lingers near the grave and the idea that the soul completely escapes the earthly realm. The Greeks held similarly contradictory views about the disembodied soul, imagining it now in Hades and again at the tomb. Similarly, beliefs about such things as the way the dead look can shift from one extreme to another: the Greeks tended to describe ghosts as being either sooty black or transparently pale. These descriptions reflect, on the one hand, the grim and threatening nature of many ghosts and, on the other, the washed-out, lifeless appearance of a corpse. Independently, either representation works well, even if they do not work well together. Christiane Sourvinou-Inwood has discussed a similar phenomenon, namely, the way that new beliefs concerning death and the afterlife can enter into a culture without completely displacing the old ones. As the needs of a situation demand, now the new beliefs and now the old ones are called upon to serve.

These methodological problems do not imply that we should ignore narrative sources when we study ancient beliefs concerning the dead—as noted, narrative texts can in fact be excellent sources of information when handled sensitively. With due caution, let us now proceed on our survey, examining narrative sources grouped chronologically and by genre. At the end of each section, I shall pause to consider what general conclusions might be derived from the evidence. I shall not, however, offer detailed analyses of most of the material; that is the job of later chapters.


The Homeric poems are about the spectacular exploits of vigorous heroes. And yet, they leave us with no doubt that death is the inevitable end to life, except for a few extraordinary individuals such as Menelaus, who escape by virtue of their special relationship to the gods.

What came after this end? Homeric descriptions of funerary cult and mourning imply that the recently dead were able at least to hear the living and receive their offerings. The nekuia of Odyssey 11, however, suggests that in the long run, the dead were capable of very little interaction with the living. Although they looked just as they did while alive, and could be held at bay by Odysseus's sword, they were unable to converse with him in any meaningful way until they had drunk the blood that he provided. Teiresias does speak briefly to Odysseus before drinking the blood, in order to demand access to it, but he does not speak "knowledgeably" or "clearly" (nemertea) until afterwards. He later tells Odysseus that the same is true for all of the souls—Odysseus can learn nothing profitable from them until they drink. The souls of Agamemnon and Odysseus's mother, Anticleia, do not even recognize him until after consuming the blood.

It seems, therefore, that although the dead are not completely senseless in their natural state—after all, they swarm up to the blood as soon as it is poured, like instinct-driven animals—they exist in a sort of twilight state, incapable of any meaningful interaction with the living. They are, in a word, aphradeis, lacking all those qualities expressed by that complex notion phrade and its cognates that make converse between intelligent creatures possible: wit, reflection, and complexity of expression. It is only by means of the blood—a striking emblem of the vigorous life they have left behind forever—that they temporarily become capable of normal human converse. Even after they have drunk the blood, the souls of the dead remain physically insubstantial, unable to embrace, much less affect, those who are still alive, as Odysseus's futile attempt to hug his mother illustrates; his arms close upon the air. This insubstantialness is also reflected in Homeric descriptions of the dead as "flitting like shadows" and being "smokelike" or "dreamlike."

The Homeric Underworld, then, is filled with ghosts who must be specially nourished before they can interact with even those members of the living world who arrive at their own doorstep. There is no indication that these ghosts can return to the land of the living. Indeed, Anticleia expressly claims that the opposite is true: she tells her son that terrible rivers form an uncrossable barrier between the two worlds. Odysseus has traveled to the bitter edge of the upper world in order to make his sacrifice and speak with the dead. It is only at this special place, carefully designated by the goddess Circe, that any interaction between those who inhabit the upper and lower worlds is possible.

Homer knows of some members of the dead, however, who are able to interact with the living precisely because they have not yet crossed the river that Anticleia mentions. The dead Patroclus reappears to Achilles and complains that he cannot cross the river and find peace because he has not yet received burial rites. Similarly, the ghost of Odysseus's companion Elpenor, who is among the first to arrive at the pit, and who is able to recognize and speak with Odysseus even without drinking the blood, has not yet been admitted into the Underworld because his body has not yet received funerary rites. The myth of Sisyphus, to which Homer alludes, and for which Alcaeus, Theognis, and Pherecydes already offer full details, plays with this idea, for it was by instructing his wife not to give his body funeral rites that Sisyphus ensured he would not really "die." His soul, excluded from the Underworld because his body was unburied, was given permission by the gods to return to the upper world long enough to ask for funeral rites, and once there it took advantage of the situation by repossessing his body. Sisyphus, the ultimate trickster, made what most people feared work to his own advantage.

This idea, that the dead are not admitted to the Underworld until their physical remains are ceremonially honored and disposed of in the upper world, is extremely common throughout the world. Many cultures believe that until the body is properly removed from the presence of the living, the soul of a dead person must wander restlessly betwixt and between the two worlds, no longer allowed to share in the society of the living and yet not admitted amongst the dead either. This belief that the unburied dead are restless gives rise to another very common idea, which we also find expressed in the Odyssey. Elpenor tells Odysseus that if his funeral rites are not carried out as soon as the men return to Circe's island, he will become "a cause for the gods' wrath" (theon menima) upon Odysseus. Similarly, in the Iliad, the dying Hector tries to use this threat to persuade Achilles to return his body to the Trojans for burial. In ancient Greece, as in many other cultures, souls not yet admitted to the Underworld have the ability—and apparently the desire—to compel the gods to bring harm upon the living who have done them wrong. This is an idea that continues throughout Greek history.

Elpenor's is not the only soul that Odysseus encounters at the border of the Underworld: the souls of brides, unmarried men, virginal girls, men killed in battle who still wear their bloody armor, and "elders who have suffered many things" also wander up out of Erebus en masse as soon as Odysseus pours blood into the pit, "giving forth an uncanny cry." The warriors still wearing bloody armor are probably unburied, like Elpenor; no good Greek would allow the corpse of a friend to go to its grave uncleansed and without the proper shroud. It has often been noted that the brides, virgins, and unmarried men match the types of souls that later sources describe as having died "untimely"—without having married and had children. Although it is not explicitly stated, information from later sources suggests that it is their abnormal status that keeps them from entering the Underworld. This is a topic that I take up in depth in another chapter; here I would note only that, by making these dead the first to rise up to meet Odysseus and by describing him as being afraid of them (in contrast to his fearless conversation with the other, fully dead souls), the poet implies familiarity with the ideas that the abnormal dead lingered between the two worlds and that they were a source of potential trouble for the living. Another hint of this idea occurs at Odyssey 20.61–82, where the daughters of Pandareus are snatched away on the eve of their weddings to wander eternally with the Erinyes, frightful creatures of the Underworld who sometimes harm the living. In later sources, we shall hear a lot more about how these unhappy souls returned to the upper world of their own volition, like the unburied. We shall also hear about them being invoked by the living and forced, by means of curse tablets or other special techniques, to accomplish tasks. There is no trace of this latter idea here, however.


Excerpted from Restless Dead by Sarah Iles Johnston. Copyright © 1999 the Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
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Meet the Author

Sarah Iles Johnston is Arts and Humanities Distinguished Professor of Religion and Professor of Classics at the Ohio State University. Her many books include Ancient Greek Divination and, with Fritz Graf, Ritual Texts for the Afterlife: Orpheus and the Bacchic Gold Tablets.

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