Near the western shores of Greece, just south of Corfu’s southern tip and the lovely mainland seaside town of Parga, the modern village of Ephyra sprawls on a low hill above well-watered farmland. Sheep’s bells clack hypnotically; crows caw from nearby trees, and far off to the east the jagged mountains of Thesprotia shimmer like a mirage in the morning haze. It is a place of such beguiling peace and beauty that even the most well-informed, imaginative visitor must struggle to envisage how it looked 3,000 years ago. For then, instead of fertile ploughland, marshes stretched towards the seashore; a shallow lake, reedy and loud with frogs, lapped against the cliffs that fall sheer from the hillock’s farther flank; and the sluggish streams that fed it bore foreboding names – Acheron, Cocytus, Pyriphlegethon – names they shared with darker, more sepulchral rivers, the rivers of the Underworld, of Hades. Then, too, the atmosphere was foetid with the stench of stagnant water and the still air thick with screaming clouds of myriad mosquitoes. Can there be any wonder that Bronze Age Greeks associated Ephyra with the dank lands of the dead, or that it was here (some say) that the bewitching Circe sent Odysseus on a mission to commune with hungry ghosts?
Here, as instructed, the Greek hero dug a pit, and, summoning the dead, poured out libations of milk and honey, wine and water, sprinkled white barley meal, and slit the throats of sacrificial sheep, allowing the black blood to drench the earth. At once, thirsty spectres coiled out of the ground, craving blood and mutton; but Odysseus, crouching with his sword outstretched, would not let even his own mother’s spirit feast until he heard all he had come to learn from the ghost of Teiresias the prophet, still proudly clutching the golden sceptre that had been his in life.
This encounter – envisaged in Homer’s Odyssey, one of the earliest works of Western literature – already reveals much about Greek attitudes towards the dead. Insubstantial their spirits might be, but they could still be cowed by the sharp edge of a bronze sword; removed beneath the earth, they nonetheless retained an interest in what was happening on it; and, though wraith-like, they were still recognisable from when they lived. Among the spirits Odysseus met Achilles, the bravest Greek at Troy, still powerful even in death, though this was little consolation. ‘I would rather be alive and hired out to a landless pauper as a labourer’, he famously declared, ‘than rule over all the dead.’
This did not mean that the dead were unconcerned about their status in the afterlife, for even now there was a social and moral hierarchy. In the Underworld, those guilty while alive of heinous crimes might be condemned to suffer fitting punishments – Sisyphus, who tried to cheat death, was compelled to push a boulder up towards the upper world, only for it to roll repeatedly back down to Hades; Tantalus, who tried to trick gods into eating human flesh, endured torments of thirst and hunger; and the daughters of Danaus, who killed their husbands, performed forever the wifely chore of fetching water, but with no hope of success, since their amphoras had been deliberately holed.
Meanwhile, the brave or virtuous could enjoy a privileged eternity. Homer’s contemporary, Hesiod, imagined carefree heroes living inthe Islands of the Blessed, while the 5th century BC poet Pindar described them riding, wrestling, playing draughts, or strumming lyres. By the time that he was writing, the prospect of a blissful afterlife was available to to lesser mortals, too, at so-called ‘mystery cults’, such as those held at Eleusis near Athens, where by undergoing physical ordeals initiates were promised spiritual contentment in the Underworld.
Yet, for the dead to be truly content, it mattered how they were treated by the living. To be remembered well was paramount. Faced with the choice, Achilles preferred an early death and ‘undecaying’ fame to unsung old age (notwithstanding this was a choice he lived – or died – to regret), while in the early 6th century BC Sappho took pleasure in taunting an acquaintance:
When you are dead, you will lie forgotten.
No one will mourn you, no one bring roses for you from Pieria.
In death as in life
you will be quite anonymous,
with the aimless, nameless dead.
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