If the righteous are to be rewarded, and sinners are to be punished in the next world, it is convenient for them to possess a sufficient degree of corporeality: they have to have (some sort of) bodies. Dante's Hell, for instance, would be a very different place if the body were not at the epicentre of the Inferno's excruciating torments – or its exuberant obscenities, for that matter.
But to what extent, and in which form, did ancient Greek dead preserve their corporeality? Homeric psykhai, immaterial shadows that are visible and audible but not tangible, are far from being the norm. Greek drama, and especially Greek popular religion, provide us with a host of instances in which dead coming back from Hades (revenants en corps) are possessed of what seems to be a fully human body –sometimes an all too human one. Thus, Aristophanes' Orestes (in Acharnians and Birds), or the Hero of Temessa described by Pausanias and Strabo, were sufficiently palpable to attack living human beings and beat them up.
That dead people should come back to this world, un-summoned and in full possession of their body, is often a sign that they have not completed their transition into the Beyond – frequently as a result of violent or unjust death, or as penalty for wrongdoing. Interestingly, in at least one instance (in a fragment by Asius of Samos, ?6th c. BCE), such a revenant is thought to rise up 'from the mire' (borboros). It is the same mire in which sinners are condemned to float perpetually as part of their punishment in the Underworld (thus e.g. Aristophanes, Plato, and Diogenes Laertius). In Aristophanes' Frogs, in particular, but also seemingly in modern Greek folklore, the punishment of sinners in Hell seems further to take place in streams of ever-flowing dung. Retaining one's body after death is, then, associated with what is perhaps the manifestation of corporeality par excellence: namely, feculence.
What about the somatics of the righteous dead, those who are duly confined to the Underworld, never to come back? They too seem to retain a considerable degree of corporeality, for (according to Pindar, Aristophanes, and Plutarch, among others) they lead a life of unperturbed merriment, full of games, music, sports – and symposia, a concept which caused Plato to demur ('as if the finest reward for virtue were eternal drunkenness', he sneers in the Republic). However, the 'Orphic' golden tablets (as well as later accounts of mystery cults, e.g. Sallust or Apuleius) tell a different story. The blessed dead, those who had the good sense to be initiated, seem to undergo a process of regeneration, or re-birth, in which they are strikingly envisaged as new-born babies. 'Now you have died and now you have been born, o thrice happy one, on this same day', reads one of those tablets; while in another one, the defunct initiate, now re-born, imagines himself as being 'immersed into the bosom of the Lady, the Queen of the Underworld', much as a new-born baby might curl into his mother's bosom. The happy dead, then, are those ending up back in their childhood, as babes in arms.
This notion, which has also survived in Christian imagery, implies (as Burkert has succinctly put it) that physical death is conceived not as an end but rather as a new beginning, a new birth leading into a new existence. One might speculate here whether the babies often depicted on Choenvasen could represent dead initiates, now re-born as babies into a new blessed life after death. This would not be a wholly inappropriate notion, given that the Choes festival had strong chthonic associations.
© 2005: University of Thessaly - Dpt. of History, Archaeology and Social Anthropology