The Greek Art of Death

by Frederick Turner

The plain of Marathon is famously twenty-six miles from Athens (famously because of Pheidippides, the runner who began the first marathon there). In this place between Mount Pentelikon, where pentelic marble comes from, and the Aegean Sea, the traveler may find a remarkable sequence of ancient remains. Together they constitute a sort of history of how the Greeks dealt with death. Of course, one has to use one’s imagination. Most of the things I am going to describe are not spectacular, and though the landscape they inhabit is astonishing, epic, vast, strange, it is no more so than a thousand other Greek landscapes.

On the foothills of the mountain, looking down on the plain and the sea, there is a very ancient cemetery of Helladic people, who buried their dead in little freestone tombs, like tiny houses, and left them with white ornaments of stone in the radically simple Cycladic style. They go back at least 5,000 years. These were folk who knew that the dead remain in the place they loved and worked in, and that the dead are mostly a benevolent presence if they are given proper sacrifices and their resting-places are treated with respect. It is a lovely place of cool breezes, scented with the sweet fennel that grows everywhere among the heather and wild roses. Marathon is the old Greek word for fennel. There is a sense of acceptance of death, not especially mystical, not even very emotional. They were farmers, and life goes on. Although there were surely shrieks of grief at the funeral, they knew wisely that one had to get it out of one’s system and that the land was the richer and more sacred for their bones. There are also apparently burial places nearby from 14,000 years ago that are not much different—and the local Mycenaeans, who succeeded the Helladic people, seem to have practiced the same pattern of ritual, with the same agricultural sense of the cycle of life.

In the middle of the plain, however, there is a very different sort of monument. Surrounded by a rich meadow covered, or rather choked, with flowers, knee-high, shoulder-high, head-high—mallows, daisies, queen-anne’s-lace, every kind of ranunculus and compositae and Attica’s dark blood-red little poppies—there is a great mound, a tumulus. Here the warriors who died at the battle of Marathon are buried. If you go near the mound, the butterflies will pester you, as if they were demanding respect for the place, reminding you of the Greek name for butterfly—psyche—and its symbolic meaning, of the human soul.

In 490 B.C. Darius, the Persian emperor, impatient with the free Hellenes who were stirring up his vassal Greeks in Ionia to revolt, decided to crush this tiny peninsula of Greece, no bigger than the smallest panhandle of one of his dozens of kingdoms. He sent a force of 150,000 men and 600 ships to reduce Greece to one of his provinces. The Persians unwisely divided their forces, and about 26,000 troops landed at the Bay of Marathon in September, led by Datis, an admiral of the Medes.

Facing them was a small army of Athenians, of about 10,000 men under the polemarch (Commander-in-Chief) Callimachus and commanded by the general Miltiades. Characteristically, the Greeks, after some calm, democratic and rational debate that Herodotus records, decided to attack. They had formed up between the mountains and the sea, so as to cover the coast road into central Attica and a smaller track that led through the mountains into Athens. Miltiades deliberately weakened his army’s center, marshaling the line there only four men deep, while reinforcing both wings. He had maneuvered his opponent into a place where the Persians had the sea behind them, and a marsh on either side of them. The unexpected attack—classic military doctrine has it that an attacker needs a two-to-one advantage over a defender—caught the Persians by surprise. But the elite troops of the Persian center held, and drove back the weakened Greek center; they charged forward, as the Athenians retreated before them. Meanwhile the Athenian wings had crushed the Persian right and left, and now turned inward on the Persian flanks, in a classic double envelopment maneuver. The Persian center, which still hugely outnumbered the Greeks around them, realized that they had been surrounded, and panicked. Roaring the Paian, the Greek war-song, the Greek hoplites in their terrifying polished armor charged into the invaders, who broke and fled northeastward along the coast. They ran toward their ships, which were beached on what is now a pleasant sandy bay. But in between was the great marsh; and there the invaders died in great numbers, by drowning or at the hands of their pursuers.

Around 6,400 Persians died; the tumulus, which you can still visit, contains the bones of the 192 Greeks who lost their lives, including their polemarch himself, Callimachus, who had led the Greek right wing. The Greeks buried the Persian dead with honor in another place, and erected a cyclopean commemorative column, crowned with a winged figure of Nike, goddess of victory. Pheidippides the runner, who had just run a hundred and forty miles to Sparta and back in an unsuccessful attempt to get the Spartans to send reinforcements now, according to the legend, ran the twenty-six miles to Athens to give the news of victory, where he immediately collapsed and died of exhaustion.

What they had done was to take the noble and terrible world of Homer’s heroic poetry and turn it into reality. In so doing they were reaching back four hundred years to Homer’s time—about 900 B.C.—as Homer himself was reaching back to the Trojan War, around 1100 or 1200 B.C.And that contempt for the passage of time, that sense of the undying glory of a soldier’s name, is itself part of the astonishing act of the battle of Marathon. This is still in a sense true; everything we do today, every word we speak, is affected by what happened on that shore, for if the Persians had won we might now still be part of an extended Asiatic civilization rather than one that grew up uniquely in Europe.

To get a sense of the meaning of death for these warriors, one must visit the small museum at Marathon and the splendid National Archeological Museum in Athens. The adjective that comes to mind, looking at the beautiful leaf-shaped swords, the grim but elegant battle-helmets and the inlaid shield-bosses, is shining. It was a favorite concept for the Greeks; one word for it was theo, to shine—a god was a shining one, a theos. The chief of the gods was Zeus, and the word has close cognates meaning to see clearly, to wonder, and to show—even to show forth, as in a theater.

Death, then, for these shining young men, was a moment of supreme godlike clarity, a moment of brilliance, the glitter of noonday under the blazing clarity of the blue Greek sky. It was related to the light of reason, of the Logos, for bright light is what enables us to see clearly, to know and identify correctly what we are looking at. It was a perfection, an arete or excellence, that was a great gift both by and to the warrior—his gift to his city and to the gods, the gift to him of a perfection that a mere long life would never be able to repeat.

One can actually see the evolution of that concept in the development of Greek sculpture. At first, we have the kouros, the young man, naked and perfect, muscles powerful but at rest, approaching frontally with his little v-shaped smile, one foot slightly in advance of the other like an Egyptian pharoah, remote and stereotyped in a way, the mortal image of Apollo, the shining sun-god. Later, as Greek sculpture develops, the body begins to take a little turn, the weight rests more on one foot than the other, the face becomes individuated, still idealized, but conceivably a portrait of an actual youth. Later still, the body is clearly in movement; the muscles strain and bunch under the skin, still in harmony, but some peak has been passed, some moment of union between the divine and the human has gone by. The battle of Marathon took place just at the turn from the more stylized but already dynamic sculpture, to the “frozen moment of action” of the later work.

Death for these people was the very shape of life, as the external curve of a sacrificial krater or a warrior’s funerary urn, that limits it, that indicates where it stops and the rest of the world begins, constitutes its shape and its lovely elegance. The spirit of the warrior remains, but it remains in the context of the sacred place where he died, in the communal gymnasium (or dojo, as the Japanese would have called it) where he drilled with his comrades, in the city for which he gave his life. One of the finest rooms in the National Archeological Museum is devoted just to the portrait heads of the great martial-arts instructors who taught the Athenian youth how to fight. Their faces, full of humor and intelligence and a supreme quiet self-confidence, are the faces of fully realized human beings who accept and embrace their own limits and who thus transcend them.

Along that same coast, where the dark blue sea stretches to the mighty mountain ramparts of Euboea across the Gulf of Petalion—hazed by the distance and crowned by later Frankish crusader castles—a third snapshot of Greek death-philosophy can be taken. About 600 or 700 years after the battle of Marathon, Greece was ruled by the Romans. The governor of Attica was Herodes Atticus, a wealthy scholar and patron of the arts who came from Marathon. Just on the edge of the small marsh that had prevented the escape of the Persians to the south there is a quiet place where a brook flows down to the sea from the mountains. It is still a place of swaying bullrushes, the piping of birds and the soft rush of the gentle surf. It reminded Herodes of the Nile delta, and as it was a part of his huge estate, he decided to create a sort of retreat center there—an Esalen or Asilomar for cultured seekers after purification and spiritual mystery.

Being a cosmopolitan man, he decided to dedicate the place to the Egyptian gods, while following the Roman fashion of identifying alien deities with members of the traditional Roman pantheon. He was also thinking about the Greek mysteries of the death-and-rebirth cult at Eleusis, and must also have encountered the resurrection mysteries of the early Christians. So he had his architects design a shrine, whose ground plan is a cross within a square, with four gates at the cardinal points of the compass, whose doorposts are in the style of Egyptian pylons. Each gate is flanked by two statues, slightly larger than life size but on a human scale, one male and one female. The male is Osiris-Horus, but he is also Triptolemos, the deified mortal of the Eleusinian mysteries, another of those who descends into the dark house of death but returns to life, like that strange figure Jesus of the Jews. The female, Isis, is sculpted with various different attributes so as to connect her with other goddesses, Roman and Greek—an ear of corn to suggest the Roman Ceres and the Greek corn-goddess Demeter (who was also the central divinity of Eleusis); a bouquet of roses to suggest the Roman Venus, the Greek Aphrodite, the goddess of love and beauty.

The sculptures are done in a consciously eclectic style, but with a classical overlay. By the time they were cut, the muscular, violent and anatomical technique of the later Greek and Roman sculpture had been perfected and largely discarded as old-fashioned, and a new, cartoon-like style, highly expressive of feeling and a bit grotesque, had come in.

Herodes wanted something that felt ancient and serene, though, something to put the pilgrim/tourist/seeker’s mind into a state of pleasant awe and ancient mystery. So his sculptors return to an archaic style, mixing and matching from various traditions. The statues are frontal, one foot slightly before the other like Egyptian deities, and though their bodies are beautiful, they do not show defined muscles or tension. Both male and female are slightly effeminate. They have not sweated in the gymnasium. Their faces are the faces of lovers who have fully satisfied their love, or of those who have died and been reborn so that they need never fear death again. To my eye, there is something soft and unnatural about them, reminiscent of the death-cult in the John Milius/Arnold Schwartzenegger movies about Conan the Barbarian. One of the altars is actually carved with the Egyptian double-headed snake motif of the movies’ imaginary cult (a motif also found in the ancient Indian Kundalini sexual and health practice).

Death, now, has become something both feared and desired. One of the later funerary urns, a small one for a dead child, is crafted in the form of a chrysalis—the dead child as caterpillar whose metamorphosed dust will emerge one day as a butterfly, a psyche. The suggestion is that we can live forever. Thinking perhaps about the splendid health-cure at Epidauros, Herodes includes in his sanctuary complex luxurious baths, massage facilities and a well-equipped gourmet health food dining hall. Like some present-day wealthy Californians, these wealthy and aesthetic Greeks (and Roman tourists) are looking for spiritual uplift, a syncretistic religious experience that will assure them that they can cheat death, and like Ariadne or Eurydice be revived by a living divine lover. Not entirely by coincidence, Club Med decided to build its local resort virtually on the same site, to the horror of the archeologists when they realized that much of the Sanctuary of the Egyptian Gods had probably been destroyed by the bulldozers. But then again, Herodes had himself probably disturbed the resting-places of many of the Persian dead, and their armor is lost to us 1,800 years later. Around the Mediterranean almost every ruin has been dug over and violated a dozen times.

A few steps down the same beach there is yet another take on death. In the middle of a small graveyard, surrounded by a low white-washed wall and shaded by a row of pollarded poplars, is a tiny white-and-blue Greek Orthodox church. From the blinding light of the Greek coast you go into a cool aromatic darkness. Gradually, your eyes adjust, and by the dim light of the sanctuary lamp a half-seen glory emerges—the iconostasis, the screen that divides the congregation from the inner altar of the mysteries, covered with silver-framed icons, some almost worn away from the decades of being touched or kissed by the faithful. And then you realize that you are totally surrounded by frescoes, life-size saints standing a few inches above the floor, each in the brilliant robes of his or her emblematic color, each holding the instrument of their ministry or moment of inspiration or martyrdom.  There are Saints Irene, Basil, Cosmas, Mary of Egypt, Spiridon, Theodora, Achilles, Dionysius, with their names in Cyrillic in little scrolls beside them. And there are Saints Peter and Paul, Paul with his bald head, his gaunt, ascetic features, his intense and almost crazed eyes, from which the scales have fallen.

Part of the point is that these dead are more alive than the living. They have renounced this world for another, one that blazes eternally like pure goldleaf, in which the inner light has replaced the light of the physical sun, in which the cave of physical self-denial is the place of transcendence of death. The art is gawky, the figures not in true humane proportion, because they are not imitations of physical reality, but signs or glyphs of that which the physical itself imitates. They are the light, and what is outside—on the beach, in the archeological dig, in the Club Med, even further along in the flowering meadow of the great tumulus—is the shadow.

In their art and their funerary architecture the Greeks articulated over the centuries the farmer’s, the warrior’s, the aesthete’s and the saint’s answers to the challenge of death. In so doing they traced a great circle. It passes from the impersonal, stylized, unrealistic Cycladic style, through the perfect balance—between the individual and the universal, the personal and the ideal—of the classical moment, on through the cultured quest for personal immortality and spiritual meaning, and back into the stylized, unrealistic and super-personal art of the Orthodox Byzantine icon-painters. Will we in America leave to future generations a legacy as rich? Will it make the same great cycle, or break out of it or take a different shape altogether? Is death itself the necessary ingredient for any artistic contemplation of the most important things?

American Arts Quarterly, Fall 2005, Volume 22, Number 4