Title: Homeric Thought on
Death and Existence in the
Brandy Stark, PhD
Feb. 25, 2012
Orestes with ghost of Clytemnestra
Abstract: Topics of the dead have been utilized with such
efficiency by writers of all eras who record their cultures‟
encounters with their spectral pasts. The poems of Homer were
written from an oral literature handed down over generations
and transformed into folklore and legend. From these
ideas, Homer created two major epics, the Iliad and the
Though the epics focused on the lives and actions of
heroes, they also contained strong elements of death.
Emerging ideas on death and the afterlife derived from centuries
of storytelling are found throughout the Homeric epics. Through
these writings, Homer records the first Grecian concepts of the
soul, Hades, and the spectral existence of the unhappy dead.
What happens after death?
Pre-classical society inherited many inconsistent pictures of
the soul or self.
Associated with the grave
Shadows in Hades
Breath that perished at death
What happens after death?
Why the confusion?
Disintegration of the Mycenaean civilization in the 12th
century BCE Greek Dark Ages (substantial changes)
Combination of smaller areas into larger cities
New ideas arrived with the waves of Doric and Northern
European immigrants who brought in seers, healers, and
Sacred shrines and ancestral tombs were left behind; created
the need for new understandings of death and the afterlife.
Ionia, Asia Minor
Part of trade routes
“Melting-pot communities” formed with multiple dialects and
complex legends (Porter 17)
Iliad and Odyssey
It was during this time that the Iliad and the Odyssey were
given their final forms
Derived from a rich oral tradition
Kept descriptions of objects and values from older traditions
Homer draws from:
Legends: usually derived from true events from a prior time (War)
Folktales, defined as fictional stories derived from the
surrounding culture (Hades, ghostly visitations)
Homer‟s characters are so powerful that they transcend into the
afterlife, making him the first Western author to enumerate
about the post-life existence of the dead (Felton 1 – 2).
The Iliad is an act of war with men who constantly face
immolation or who lose comrades to the ravages of battle;
struggle to stay alive in hostile circumstances
The Odyssey focuses on a man believed dead (Odysseus) who
must come back from this status and prove himself.
Often cited as falling into death-like sleeps
Exhausted and lives a half life when imprisoned by goddesses
Travels to the land of the dead
Death itself is not depicted as a
pleasant event to the Homeric Greeks.
Thanatos, hard-hearted and a bringer
of grief and mourning; duty bound
Unthinking, unstoppable, an end with
out reason or remorse
Helpers: Hypnos, god of sleep, and
Ker, the personification of doom as
found in tragic events (see: Sirens)
Artemis and Apollo: (Iliad) These twin
gods have dual aspects and represent
both life and death.
Apollo, acting as a god of
death, attacks the Grecian camp with
plague when one of his priests is
Men, mules, horses, and dogs die
Restitution to the priest ends death;
Apollo kills with cause
He is reachable, reasonable and
intelligent (Thanatos is not)
Immensely important as per
Elpenor (a sailor who died early in
Odysseus‟s voyage of a drunken
I beseech you but those you left
behind far away, by your wife and
father who took care of you as a
child, and by Telemachus, your only
son whom you left at home in your
palace, do not turn away and go
back, leaving me unwept and
unburied for future time, or I may
become the cause of wrathful
vengeance from the gods upon you.
But burn my body with all the armor
that I have and pull up a mound for
me on the shore of the gray sea, the
grave of an unfortunate man, so that
posterity, too, may know me
(Odyssey 23. 59 – 70).
Note: Revenge is from the
gods, not the ghost
If a body was lost effigies could be used as a substitute
In special cases, it was enough to erect a tomb to honor the
dead and to offer sacrifice to his spirit.
Telemachus is advised by Athena (in the disguise as Mentes)
that should he seek his father and learn that Odysseus
died, he was to build a tomb in his father‟s honor
(Faraone, 183 – 184).
The Greeks had a strong belief that the dead
continued to exist in the ground.
Corpse or cremains were buried with a feeding
tube inserted into the tomb
Allowed the living to provide liquid nourishment to the
Regardless of one‟s state as ash or corpse, the body-
spirit connection required a level of physical
maintenance from the living (Dodds 179).
Irrational action for a rational people
Some scholars believe that this custom was so old
that by the Homeric Era it was not questioned
With the circulations of legends and lore supporting
that the unhappy dead could become a problem to the
living, it was better to appease the spirits by feeding
their earthly remains than to leave anything to chance
Important items of daily use were often buried in
tombs or burned through elaborate rituals in order
to assist the living in the afterlife.
A few early ghost stories circulated of the unhappy
dead who returned to complain of a lacking
Aspects of the soul
Thumos: Not a part of the soul but is an organ of feeling and
A man could converse with his thumos
Sometimes serves as the voice of reason: When to slay an
enemy, or offers advice on a course of action
Guides the living into either rational or irrational actions
See: Odysseus and Polyphemus
And I then formed a plan within my daring heart of closing on
him, drawing my sharp sword from my thigh and stabbing him in the
breast …. Yet second thoughts restrained me, for there we too faced
utter ruin; for we could never with our hands have pushed from the
lofty door the enormous stone which he had set against it. Thus then
with sighs we awaited sacred dawn (Odyssey 9. 295 – 299).
The aspect of the soul in its more unified form as the well-
developed concept of the psyche belonging to later Greeks did
not readily appear in Homer‟s writings.
The psyche was granted at death, and its only function for the
living was to leave him
See: Odysseus‟s dead mother, Anticlea:
O, my poor child, ill-fated beyond all men;
Persephone, daughter of Zeus, does not trick you at all; but this
is the doom of mortals when they die, for no longer do sinews
hold bones and flesh together, but the mighty power leaves our
white bones and the soul, like a dream, flutters and flies away”
(Odyssey 9, 186-190).
Homeric expansion on death
Homer proposed that special souls survived death but that the human
shade was relegated to Hades, an actual land populated by ghosts.
Though a demi-god, Hercules could not fully escape the mortal‟s fate in the
“And next I marked the might of Hercules – his phantom form; for he himself
is with the immortal gods reveling at their feasts, wed to fair-ankled
Hebe, child of great Zeus and golden-sandaled Hera” [Book XI, Lines 599 -
The greatest man from the prior generation of heroes still strolled through
death‟s gloomy gates and could only recount his earthly deeds, specifically
his own journey to retrieve Cerberus from the Underworld, to Odysseus
Homeric expansion on death
Known and feared: “And thus she spoke and my very soul was
crushed within me, and sitting on the bed I fell to weeping; my heart
no longer cared to live and see the sunshine” (Odyssey 10. 499 –
Any status gained in the world of the living was lost (queens in
life, handmaidens in death)
Once deceased, the average person was merely a winsome spirit
who remembered little of his life and who maintained no true purpose
“The souls of the dead who had departed then swarmed up from Erebus:
young brides, unmarried boys, old men having suffered much, tender
maidens whose hearts were new to sorrow, and many men wounded by
bronze-tipped spears and wearing armor stained with blood. From one
side and another they gathered about the pit in a multitude with frightening
cries” (Odyssey 11. 33 – 36).
Homeric expansion on death
Outstanding individuals: Hades did offer vague notions of
The hero-hunter Orion spent his afterlife forever chasing the
animals he had killed in life.
“There I saw Minos, the splendid son
of Zeus, sitting with a gold scepter in
his hand and pronouncing judgments
for the dead, and they sitting and
standing asked the king for his
decisions within the wide gates of
Hades‟ house… (Odyssey 11. 563 –
Homeric expansion on death
Tityus, a man who assaulted Leto, the consort of Zeus and
the mother of Apollo and Artemis, had his liver perpetually
Parched Tantalus stood in a pool of water that splashed to
his chin. Cursed with terrible thirst, each time he bent to
drink the water it recessed.
And also I saw Sisyphus enduring
hard sufferings as he pushed a huge
stone…he kept shoving it up to the
top of the hill. But, just when he was
about to thrust it over the crest then
its own weight forced it back and
once again the pitiless stone rolled
down the plain… (Odyssey book
11, lines 581-596).
Homeric expansion on death
Achilles, the greatest of mortal
heroes, laments his fate in a
manner reminiscent of Enkidu
of the Gilgamesh:
“Do not speak to me
death, glorious Odysseus; I
should prefer as a slave to
serve another man, even if he
had no property and little to
live on, than to rule over all
these dead who have done
with life…” (Odyssey 11, 487-
Not only did Homer help to flesh out the underworld, he also worked
with the notion of the liminal state.
The dead could produce ghosts capable of returning to the mortal coil
(no longer tied to the grave)
Ghosts were “whining, impotent things of little use except
when, occasionally, they were called up to assist the living, usually by
giving advice or information…no right thinking Greek was afraid of
them…” (Finucane 5).
Both the Iliad and the Odyssey suggest that the poet was both fully
conscious of this innovative idea and proud of the achievement. Until
that time, the tendency of the dead was to be as part of the corpse (4).
The nature of the ancient Greek :
mindless, bodiless creature.
unimportant, forgetting themselves
Non-essential ghosts, weak
…I drew my sword from my side and took my post and did not allow the
strengthless [sic] spirits of the dead to come near the blood (Odyssey, 11.44 –
Living have power over the dead by will or material force
Sword: Metal (disrupts supernatural powers in the ancient world), personal
strength, death itself (Felton 10).
Important when the Homeric poets are using them as a device through
which to advance the story‟s plot:
Anticlea (mother): He discovers that she has died waiting for him to
return, but she also fills him in on the state of his country since his departure.
Agamemnon revealed his murder to a stunned Odysseus, who last saw the
king leaving to return home, a victor of war.
Tiresias is also unusual among shades because even post-mortem he retains
his intelligence as a gift from the gods. It is his advice that leads Odysseus to
learn of his future and the course that he is destined to take.
Big change: Not bound to underworld at all times
Able to visit the living in the form of dreams
As they retained a bodiless and boneless state, these dream-ghosts
entered the room through keyholes, particularly helpful as homes during
the Homeric times often had neither chimneys nor windows.
Settled near the head of the sleeper to deliver its message
Once done, it simply left.
Living did not question this exchange (Miller 24).
In sleep came to him the soul of unhappy Patroclus, his very image in
stature and wearing clothes like his, with his voice and those lovely
eyes. The vision stood by his head and spoke” (Iliad 23. 85).
Achilles was unafraid of the shade and even tried to embrace
him, though the result was that “the soul was gone like smoke into the
earth, twittering” (Iliad 23. 124) (Similar to the Gilgamesh)
In their quest for justification of death, the Ancient Greeks
created a variety of beliefs about death and the afterlife
Introduced through the Homeric epics.
The writings demonstrate a belief in the afterlife and in the idea
that the individual maintains an afterlife existence
These ideas later developed into core values that were utilized
by later cultures who also sought to explore the otherworld
These would be carried forth through the ideologies of the
Classical Greek cultures, the direct inheritors of the Homeric
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