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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 dras-

tically 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 gen-

erally 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 crema-

tion 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 be-


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 appro-

priation 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 poli-

ticians and rhetors (like Perikles) and used to reinforce these defining elements of po-

litical 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 os-

tensibly 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 un-

certain future given the imminent fall of the city. She weeps for things not done, for in-

timacies 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




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


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—in-

deed, as the one ultimately responsible for Hektor's death—is arguably the most mov-

ing 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


I came from


I was, forsak-

ing the land of my fathers. In this time I have never heard a harsh saying from you, nor

an insult


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 un-

performed 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 Hippome-

don, 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 rumina-

tions 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 impor-

tant 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 partici-

pate 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 ap-

propriates 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 powers-

that-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. Be-

cause 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 mas-

ter') held jurisdictional control over the cremation, and that the procedure was not pub-

lic. 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 wis-

dom 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 Perik-

les, 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 in-

dividual. 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 im-

perfections' (II:42). The logical conclusion is again inevitable: 'These men died as be-

came Athenians' (that is, us). 'You, their survivors, must determine to have as unfalter-

ing 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 con-

text, 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 fol-

lies. 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 chil-

dren 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



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 ap-

propriate (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.


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.

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