Death comes to all creatures, though human beings are unique in understanding and acknowledging that they are mortal, thus, will die eventually. In ancient Greece, death was a common cause of concern partly because of the short lifespans that were a common occurrence. However, the beliefs and ideas of the ancient Greeks on death are complicated and sometimes conflicting. This essay seeks to discuss various aspects related to death in ancient Greece that struck me, particularly their beliefs regarding death, and compares it to how death is perceived in the contemporary world.
There are several striking aspects about death in ancient Greece. For example, in ancient Greece, people believed that when one died, the soul (psyche) would leave the body through exhalation of breath (Sourvinou-Inwood, 1995). They also believed that after death, the soul left the body through the mouth or even an open wound. When a young person died, the Greeks believed that elements such as thumos (from heart) and aion (vital spirit) also left the body but could not play any further role (Silk, 2004). The corpse that remained simply decomposed and had no more importance (Sourvinou-Inwood, 1995). The Greeks further believed that regardless of peoples class or status, whether a king, a warrior or a lowly peasant, everyone went to one destination after dying and burial. Ancient Greeks held the belief that after the soul escaped from the body, it simply existed as a spirit image, untouchable, but perceptible and the wall dividing the living and the dead was impassable. The soul would then travel to an underworld, referred to as Hades. It is important to note that the Greeks put coins in the mouth of the dead to pay as toll on their way to the underworld. They believed that when the deceased failed to pay toll, there was a risk that such souls would be compelled to stay on the shores of Hades indefinitely.
Upon entering Hades, the soul would cross River Styx using Charon's ferry to reach its final resting place. The soul could also use various paths to reach Hades, for example, by going through dark underground passages or sail to the Western Sea that surrounded the world. When the soul arrived in Hades, other souls within would instruct it not to cross the waters before burying its body, so the soul had to wait in a neutral territory. Appropriate burial preparations for the body played a crucial role in a souls journey into the afterlife (Kurtz & Boardman, 1971). However, if the body was not buried, the soul would not be allowed to enter Hades. If the soul was refused entry to Hades, the Greeks believed that such a soul would be left disembodied and would not be able to have peace (Garland, 1985). As a result, ancient Greeks greatly feared such repercussions, and refusal to accord the deceased proper burial was used as punishment for people who had committed serious crimes. The Greeks also feared death in sea water as it was difficult to retrieve the body and accord it a proper burial.
In normal circumstances, the soul eventually entered Hades through a gate where Cerberus, a canine monster with many heads, kept watch and would devour any beings that tried to escape (Sourvinou-Inwood, 1995). In Hades, the soul adopted a neutral life with similar shadowy existence to the body, but without any personal features or understanding. The Greek also believed that while in Hades, the soul could not be rewarded or punished for its earthly action, and it could not have any contact with the living (Garland, 1985). While souls were in Hades, they were conscious of any friendly or unfriendly rituals being performed at their graves and knew what went on in the land. Heroes were respected while punishment was meted for certain transgressions such as breaking an oath. Souls could also be able to communicate with each other, although this would require them to drink sacrificial blood. Garland (1985) describes Hades as a place that was gradually becoming more pleasant with the distance separating the dead from the living shortened.
Death and beliefs surrounding death in ancient Greece significantly differ from the perception of death in the contemporary world. In ancient Greece, death was embraced because people lived shorter lives than today. However, in contemporary culture, it seems that death has been forbidden or at least lives prolonged. Today, while it is natural that everyone will die, the advancement of medical equipment and technology aims at preventing and treating different types of diseases, including chronic ailments in order to prolong the lives of people (Boyer, 2009). Additionally, Christians in contemporary culture believe that he/she who dies goes to heaven see God. However, if the dead person had committed some grave offense while he/she was alive and did not repent before death, such a person would not be allowed to enter heaven, thus, would instead go to hell. Most Christians also believe there is life after death, and that when they die, they will receive eternal life (Boyer, 2009).
There exist similarities surrounding the aspect of death in ancient Greece and the contemporary culture. For example, in both ancient Greece and contemporary culture, death was a time when relatives and friends of the deceased came together to mourn their loved one and pay their last respects to the deceased (Boyer, 2009). Additionally, just like funerals in contemporary culture, in ancient Greece, funerals were considered a time when the family of the deceased could show off their riches and kinship ties (Burkert, 1985). Death in royal families and the wealthy was expensive with royal processions displayed just as it is today when funerals of prominent leaders are held. In ancient Greece, the corpse would be carried by pallbearers or in a chariot, depending on the wealth, status and kinship ties of the deceased (Burkert, 1985). Additionally, funerals in ancient Greece and contemporary culture were partly seen as social events, which were held to give last respect and bid farewell to the deceased. The dead were also remembered through celebrations of death anniversaries, birthdays and paying a visit to the graves.
In conclusion, this essay has discussed various striking aspects related to death in ancient Greece, particularly the beliefs concerning death. The belief that the soul would escape from the body upon death and its journey to Hade is quite peculiar. In some way, this can be likened to the contemporary Christian belief that Christians would go to heaven when they die and be with God. However, there exists extensive literature on death in ancient Greece, which is quite complicated and sometimes conflicting, which requires more research conducted.
Boyer, P. (2009). When time shall be no more: Prophecy belief in modern American culture. Harvard: Harvard University Press.
Burkert, W. (1985). Greek religion (Vol. 204). Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Garland, R. (1985). The Greek way of death. New York: Cornell University Press.
Kurtz D, C., & Boardman, J. (1971). Greek burial customs. Thames & Hudson: London.
Silk, M. S. (2004). Homer: The Iliad. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Sourvinou-Inwood, C. 1995. Reading Greek Death. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
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