State appropriation of the death-ritual

M. Silberman 1 Objective I examine funeral rites in the Iliad and in Euripides' Suppliants, and use these

examples to argue that control over and participation in the death-ritual changed drastically between the archaic (Homeric) era and the classical era in Greece. Specifically, I claim that the archaic funeral was an affair whose control rested primarily in the hands of the family of the deceased, and that with the ascendancy of the classical (and generally non-autocratic) city-state, the funeral became a much more overtly political event. The very intimate funeral of Hektor in the Iliad can be contrasted with the cremation of five of the seven against Thebes ("Capaneus et al."), the latter of which are eulogized by their surviving commander, who seems able to attribute to them only civic virtues—that is, virtues of citizens rather than the mixed virtues of actual human beings. Perikles' funeral oration in the History of the Peloponnesian War sheds some

light on the social and political necessities of the classical city-state, and in particular the paradoxical condition of the Athenian imperial democracy. I use his speech as a lens through which to attempt to examine coherently the reasons for the state appropriation of control over the death-ritual; I claim, ultimately, that a non-autocratic state is a qualitatively different social-political construction than an autocratic one, and that as such the continued survival of the state—especially in a time of stress—depended critically on the frequent and ardent reaffirmation of the social and political norms that

defined and differentiated the society in question. The funerals of military heroes served this purpose admirably, and were opportunistically seized upon by master politicians and rhetors (like Perikles) and used to reinforce these defining elements of political identity. I conclude, perhaps unfittingly for an academic paper, with a few short remarks on the relevance of this inquiry for the times in which we, as citizens of an ostensibly democratic society, find ourselves. 2 Hektor's funeral Hektor's funeral occupies only about 100 lines of Homer's epic—but they are

the last hundred lines. Kassandra, a sister of Hektor, begins the sequence of short eulogies, calling the Trojans to 'look upon' him, 'for he was a great joy to his city, and all his people' (704-06). Indeed, there is neither man nor woman left in Troy who is not 'held in sorrow passing endurance' at seeing their beloved Hektor dead (707-08). The ceremony is public, but it is personal: it is about the sorrow of losing a loved one who before brought joy. Priam brings the body of his son into the palace, and Hektor's widowed wife

Andromache begins the actual process of the public lamentation (725-45). Her laments are strongly personal: she weeps for the only son they had together, and the son's uncertain future given the imminent fall of the city. She weeps for things not done, for intimacies lost to Hektor's duties in war: 'for me passing all others is left the bitterness and the pain,' she says, 'for you did not die in bed, and stretch your arms to me, nor tell me some last intimate word that I could remember always.' Hektor's mother Hekabe offers similarly intimate sentiments (748-59). 'Of all my

sons the dearest by far to my spirit'—she makes no pretentious avoidance of favorites:

Hektor is the the favorite par excellence—'now you lie in the palace, handsome and fresh with dew, in the likeness of one whom...Apollo has...killed with his gentle arrows.' She recounts his death, and her loss to Achilleus of other sons, sold into slavery in faraway lands, but most of all she recounts how Hektor is not merely a favorite to her, but also to the gods: 'even in the stage of death,' she marvels, 'they cared about you still.' The last to offer a eulogy to the fallen Hektor is Helen, and hers—owing perhaps

to her strange situation as a meddling foreigner who has caused so much grief—indeed, as the one ultimately responsible for Hektor's death—is arguably the most moving of all. Her lamentation is intensely personal. It involves no rhetoric: only history. She voices regret for her decision to follow Paris to Troy, but she says to Hektor, lying there in front of her: 'Here now is the twentieth year...since I came from...where I was, forsaking the land of my fathers. In this time I have never heard a harsh saying from you, nor an insult...There was no other in the wide Troad who was kind to me, and my friend: all others shrank when they saw me.' It is so moving because it is so simple: I have done wrong; she admits: I have done foolish things, and they have caused much harm. But you treated me like a human being, when others did not. Finally, Priam tells his men to bring timber, and he burns the body of his son.

3 The vanquished seven After some cajolery, Theseus leads his squadron into a victorious battle against

the Thebans, and reclaims the bodies of the five fallen chieftains whose mothers weep at Eleusis (the other two are Adrastus, who survives, and Polynices, whose corpse goes on to haunt Antigone et al.). After some continued lamentation by the mothers

and by their commander Adrastus, Theseus asks Adrastus for the stories of the slain youths whose bodies he has recovered. The latter then offers a brief civic-military eulogy for each. Of Capaneus, Adrastus praises his humility and lack of boastfulness despite his

'ample wealth.' 'His was a guileless character,' he recounts, 'that left no promise unperformed either toward his own household or his fellow citizens.' Next is Eteoclus: a young man, not wealthy, although he could have been had he opted to accept his friends' 'oft offered gifts of gold.' Adrastus praises his refusal to 'make his character its slave by taking wealth's yoke upon him.' Moving briskly along, he comes to Hippomedon, whose chief virtue appears to be his renunciation of the Muses and a 'life of ease' in favor of a life 'in the fields' and of 'hardships,' all in the name—of course—of making himself 'of use unto his state.' Parthenopaeus, son of the famous huntress Atalanta, appears praiseworthy chiefly owing to his physical beauty, his political adoption of his new home state as if it were his own, and his avoidance of 'offence' in spite of his many lovers. The final fallen, Tydeus, is noteworthy for being a bad orator ('no brilliant spokesman he') and dumber than ('inferior in judgment to') his brother Meleager, but a decent fighter. These are empty encomia for cardboard characters. They are military and civic

archetypes: the unpretentious aristocrat; the young man who rejects wealth in favor of service; the warrior-ascetic; the foreigner who comes to love his new homeland; the beautiful warrior-youth; the man who is all weapon and little mind. In some cases, Adrastus leaves off discussion of the man in question entirely and offers his ruminations on civic life: while eulogizing Eteoclus, he interjects that 'a city is no wise to be

blamed if it get an evil name by reason of an evil governor.' Again, while discussing Parthenopaeus, he argues that 'the duty of strangers settled in another land' is to 'show no pique or jealousy against the state' but to 'take [their] stand amid the host, and fight for [the new homeland] as if [they] were her own son[s].' This political philosophizing seems unlikely to offer much comfort to the mothers

or children of the fallen slain. The irony of Adrastus' non-eulogy is heightened by Athena's cruel injunction that the children must revive the cycle of pointless warfare and avenge, at some point far in the future, the deaths of their 'valiant sires.' Theseus adds the seemingly ridiculous admonition: 'honor this city, to children's children ever handing on the kindness ye received from us.' 4 Feeding the imperial democracy The contrast between the two funereal ceremonies is marked: although in the

second, the suppliant women of the play's title begin the plot action, and Theseus' mother Aethra convinces him of the worthiness of their cause, after the recovery of the bodies the women are essentially excluded from meaningful social action. (The important and unhappy exception to this is Evadne's grisly suicide, the very extremity of which highlights the extent to which women's traditional roles and freedom to participate in the funereal rites has been circumscribed.) The right to speak the eulogies is given to Adrastus by Theseus, and the former accepts willingly. Further, Theseus appropriates for himself (as representative of the state) the role of designating a special sepulcher for Capaneus, the most illustrious of the fallen, and prevents the mothers from seeing or touching their dead sons prior to their cremation. His argument: 'It would kill them [the mothers] to see how they [the sons] are altered.' Of course, the ar-

gument should not stand—women historically dealt with the mutilated bodies of their loved ones, took part in the ritual sacrifice of animals, and generally speaking were party to much disfigurement and gore—but Adrastus lets it slide. The death-ritual, then, is snatched out of the hands of the female relatives and placed firmly by the powersthat-be under the regulation and control of the governing machinery of the state. But why? From Euripides' text alone it is not immediately obvious, but Perikles'

funeral oration and its surrounding texts in Thucydides' History offer some insight. The first item of some interest is that by the time of Perikles' power, no actual corpses were interred or made visible: the only remnants of the dead 'laid out' are the bones. Because the funeral is operated 'at public cost,' one imagines that a civil servant (a phrase semantically equal in mature societies, as Heinlein has observed, to 'civil master') held jurisdictional control over the cremation, and that the procedure was not public. In either case, the female relatives are welcome to appear at the public sepulcher and 'wail at the burial.' They are most certainly not, however, welcome to make any speeches; that privilege is reserved for 'a man chosen by the state, of approved wisdom and eminent reputation,' who can be relied on to pronounce over all the bones at once 'an appropriate panegyric' (II:34). The most famous of these, of course, is Perikles' funeral oration itself. But this

most famous of eulogia is not at all a eulogy for the fallen; it is simply an enumeration of the characteristics of the city-state they have given their lives to defend. Says Perikles, these are the traits of our society, and they make us better than our foes—or at least sufficiently unique to be worth defending and dying for. Therefore, goes the logic, these men have died worthy deaths; their sacrifices are not in vain; these deaths are

services to a higher and more worthwhile cause than the life or suffering of a single individual. Indeed, he goes so far as to say, a man's 'demerits as an individual'—and these, Perikles seems to imply, may be substantial—are 'more than outweighed' by 'steadfastness in his country's battles.' The latter is 'as a cloak to cover [his] other imperfections' (II:42). The logical conclusion is again inevitable: 'These men died as became Athenians' (that is, us). 'You, their survivors, must determine to have as unfaltering a resolution in the field [as they did]' (II:43). You must, in short, be good human shields for our "democracy." Of course, any coherent or actual eulogizing by relatives (female or male) of the

deceased seems likely to undermine any such message of encouragement. In this context, we find that any speech by parties interested in the individual fallen slain is a speech directly or at least indirectly disparaging of war, and painfully aware of its follies. One such is Adrastus' lament: 'O Zeus, why do men assert the wisdom of the wretched human race?,' etc.; another is the dialogue between the chorus and the children at the end of Euripides' Suppliants ('Woe, woe! Behold your dead sons' bones are brough hither...' 'Poor mother mine, behold I bring my father's bones...' etc.). Euripides, of course, is sufficiently cynical to end the articulation of woe with the promise of vengeance and renewed suffering. The continued survival of the state, then, depends on the suppression of dis-

sent. The most vocal sources of dissent, as we see in the case of Evadne, are likely to be the female relatives of the slain. The solution is to appropriate control over the burial rites.

5 Further remarks Perikles may have been the first and most refined of his breed, but an under-

standing of the self- and state-serving purposes of his oration is useful and applicable to, it seems, almost any time, including our own. The following comments, which I will appropriate as a fittingly cynical conclusion, are written by a moden poet, but with appropriate (techno-)cultural and historical details adjusted one might imagine it sprouting from the mouth of a disillusioned veteran of Perikles' foreign incursions:
To fuel yet another war—this time against Iraq—by cynically manipulating people's grief, by packaging it for TV specials sponsored by corporations selling detergent and running shoes, is to cheapen and devalue grief, to drain it of meaning. What we are seeing now is a vulgar display of the business of grief, the commerce of grief, the pillaging of even the most private human feelings for political purpose. It is a terrible, violent thing for a state to do to its people.

References Homer, trans. Lattimore: Iliad. Euripides, trans. Coleridge: The Suppliants. Thucydides, trans. Crawley: History of the Peloponnesian War. Roy, A., 2002: Come September. Speech to the Lannan Foundation.