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Suicide in Classical Mythology: An Essay

Dr. Elise P. Garrison
e-garrison@tamu.edu
Texas A&M University
College Station, TX
October 2004

Part II: Suicidal Males

Though suicidologists today often look to the past to uncover what events may have been instrumental in shaping our attitudes toward suicide,<1> ancient suicidologists face the opposite problem. That is, we must remove ourselves from contemporary attitudes in order to evaluate more clearly the ancient situation regarding suicide. Obviously, contemporary attitudes toward suicide are complex ranging from the very conservative view that all life is sacred and not to be shortened under any circumstances to the most liberal view that an individual's life is one's own and can be ended whenever the burden of continuing is too great. The moderate view maintains that passive means to ending one's life may be acceptable under carefully controlled circumstances.<2> E. Shneidman, a pioneer of sorts in changing the attitude of our nation toward suicide and suicidal behavior, gives a broad definition of suicide: "Currently in the Western world, suicide is a conscious act of self-induced annihilation, best understood as a multidimensional malaise in a needful individual who defines an issue for which the suicide is perceived as the best solution."<3> Because this non-judgmental definition clearly recognizes the temporal and geographical dimensions of suicide I shall take it as my starting point in an attempt to shed light on suicidal males in classical mythology. Unlike modern suicidologists who can rely on statistics and who often can focus on suicide from a developmental perspective, my task is further complicated by the nature of the genre, mythology, and the sources from which we learn of the suicides. Nevertheless, certain patterns do present themselves and modest conclusions can be drawn.<4> I refer the reader to the catalogue for details of the individual's stories.<5>

Schemata

Some of the possible motivations that modern suicidologists observe for males to commit suicide include retribution against enemies, atonement for behavior that violates deep religious belief, sacrifice for principle, loyalty, shame or fear of disgrace, fear of reprisal for an action, sense of duty, commitment to a philosophy of life, torment, ambivalence, anger, madness and grief. In the mythological world, motivations to suicide for males include shame or fear of disgrace, grief, rejection and despair, madness, self-sacrifice/ prophecy fulfillment, loss of political power, rage, and being forced to kill oneself in a sort of institutionalized suicide. Of course, one's motivations to suicide are always complex, and though I have tried to categorize the mythological male suicides into coherent patterns according to what the majority of ancient sources suggest, we must keep in mind the complexity, and realize that there may be more than one motivation at work in the decision.

Shame or Fear of Disgrace

The most common motivation to suicide for mythological males is shame or disgrace, and the most eloquent depiction of suicide motivated by disgrace and shame because of a commitment to a philosophy of life is that of Ajax's.<6> Convinced that he has lived under the heroic code, and further convinced that that code has been ignored by his peers and he stands therefore disgraced before them, Ajax slays himself with the sword of his enemy, Hector. His suicide can be seen as an attempt to maintain the standards of heroic society, while at the same time showing what can happen to an individual when the standards of society are in the process of change. When Ajax's peers award the arms of Achilles not to himself, who is considered second only to Achilles in martial prowess, but to Odysseus because of his eloquence, Ajax feels isolated and becomes filled with hatred. His peers accept a new society in which eloquence can be as worthy of reward as martial prowess, but Ajax cannot and will not accept such a change. In his state of anger, Ajax attempts to kill his now perceived enemies, Agamemnon and Menelaus. Because of Athena's intervention, he instead falls into a madness and slaughters animals. Unfortunately, on the recovery of his senses, he maintains his anger and hatred, and regrets only that he was unable to kill his enemies. His only response now that will both uphold the heroic code and restore him to honor is suicide.

This is the version of Ajax's life and death according to the most comprehensive treatment of his story, which we know from Sophocles's play The Ajax. In another version that we know of from later sources (see catalogue), Ajax was invulnerable except in one [or two] places. In describing the suicide of the hero, Aeschylus apparently told how, when Ajax tried to run himself through the body, the sword doubled back in the shape of a bow, until some spirit showed him the vulnerable place under his armpit. We assume, though cannot say with certainty, that the motivations for Ajax in Aeschylus's version were similar to those in Sophocles's.

Four fathers commit suicide because of shame at some action involving their daughters. Three of them, Cinyras, Clymenus and Valerius, unknowingly commit incest with their daughters and upon discovery of the deed kill themselves. Nycteus, furious at his daughter for becoming pregnant by Zeus, causes her to flee, whereupon he kills himself. In the two cases of the incest, the fathers unwittingly committed the crime, and of course were horrified by it.

The typical connotation of incest is that it is an act of sexual abuse, usually perpetrated against a young person by an adult, male or female. In the cases under discussion here, we can see the typical Greek patriarchal and misogynistic tendencies to remove the blame from the father by depicting the daughter as the initiator. Though the girls are still victims in these stories, they are victims of their own psychological and sexual drives, not of an exploitative male.<7> In the story of Nycteus, the daughter assumes a most frightening aspect as she serves up the offspring as dinner to her father. Almost as if to highlight the fathers' innocence, the stories conclude with their suicides.

Equally interesting is that in three of the cases important children were born—Adonis, a favorites of Aphrodite, son of Cinyras; Silvanus, the Roman god of fields, son of Valerius; and Amphion and Zethus, sons of Zeus, important figures in the foundation of Thebes. Though we might expect incestuous offspring to be somehow excluded from and shunned by society, instead in these stories they assume special status. I would suggest that inasmuch as the father is blameless in the siring of the incestuous offspring, the offspring (all males) are equally free from blame and can assume a position of some importance in mythology. In the Nycteus story where the offspring are not the result of incest, the issue is more one of the grief that a parent feels upon punishing a daughter of whom he is ashamed. His punishment results in her banishment, and his separation from her, and consequently his loss of self.<8> Nycteus feels this separation so acutely that his only answer is to kill himself.

Another instance of shame felt after learning of incest is stimulated by the relationships between mother and son, Jocasta and Oedipus. In most versions Oedipus blinds himself and does not commit suicide, but according to Hyginus, he kills himself after blinding himself. Likewise, incest between brother and sister, leads to opprobrium and suicide, as we see in the case of Macareus.

A more mundane cause of shame occurs in the story of Broteas, who is said to have burnt himself because he was ashamed of his physical ugliness. Caeneus is an interesting case. Having begun life as the female, Caenis, she begged Poseidon to change her into a male after he had raped her so that she would never feel the disgrace of shame again. According to Hyginus, even the sex change didn't alleviate the shame, and Caeneus killed himself.

Grief/Despair or Rejection

When fathers lose their offspring, the grief is often too much to bear, and they commit suicide. Aegeus, thinking Theseus dead, flung himself into the sea; Amphion, married to Niobe and proud father of 14, stabs himself at their deaths; and Jason, after Medea kills their sons, in one version kills himself.<9>

Thucydides in Pericles's Funeral Oration remarks on the fact that children dying before their parents is against the order of nature. The order of the universe is upset, and along with that disorder may come a shattered sense of self. The unnaturalness of the loss may produce greater grief, and with less time left in the parent's life to reintegrate, the result may be the parent's suicide. In the examples presented here from Classical Mythology, it is the fathers who suffer most severely to the point of taking their own lives, though, as is often the case, this may be the result of ancient sources being more attuned to the plights of males than of females. And unlike the fathers who committed suicide because of being ashamed of their daughters' behaviors (see above), these fathers do so out of grief for their lost sons.

Another powerful source of grief is the loss of one's lover, as we can see in the stories of Orpheus and Pyramus. In my previous essay on Suicidal Females in Greek and Roman Mythology<10> I demonstrated that loss of a beloved male is a common reason for females to kill themselves, who naturally define themselves in relationship to men in their lives, be they fathers, brothers, sons or lovers. For men to do so, that is, to define themselves in respect to the women in their lives, is unusual in the ancient world. Attitudes toward love, be it heterosexual, homosexual or homoerotic, in the ancient world were complex and any one person, for example, the Roman lawyer Cicero, could hold contradictory views of it.<11> But it is clear that the prevailing view of erotic love was that it was a kind of mania, sent by Aphrodite and impossible to resist. It is the opposite of the important concept of sophrosyne,<12> which may be fairly translated as temperance though it means much more, and when a man succumbs to eros and loses his sophrosyne, he may fall into self-loathing if he is rejected by his lover and commit suicide. In both instances under discussion here, the men somehow misinterpreted the events that ultimately caused the loss of their beloved, and they each commit suicide out of self-loathing.

A complicated homosexual love-story that leads to a double suicide is the story of Narcissus and Ameinias. Narcissus, the paradigm of self-love, rejected the advances of Ameinias who in despair killed himself and cursed Narcissus. Narcissus in turn, feeling badly because of the humiliation he caused Ameinias becomes instead the paradigmatic self-loather, and kills himself.<13>

Althaemenes though trying to avoid an oracle that had foretold that one of four sons would kill their father, fulfilled the oracle unknowingly. Upon the discovery that he had accidentally killed his father, he prayed successfully to be swallowed by the earth. Though patricide is a common theme in Classical Mythology, as is the attempt by mortals to somehow avoid the prediction of oracles, the combination of the two motifs leads to poignant, if emotive, suicide.

Madness

In the ancient world, the prevailing view of insanity or madness was that it was a "sacred disease," and often befell victims because of some interaction with the gods or their representatives.<14> Dionysus above all gods typically sends insanity to those who fail to accept him and his followers. Such is the case with Butes and Lycurgus, both of whom were driven mad by Dionysus and who then committed suicide. Likewise Broteas failed to honor Artemis and she caused him to believe that he was immune to fire, but ironically he died when he threw himself into the fire. In the case of Attis, the son of Agdistis, the gods became frightened by Agdistis's self-castration and caused the son to perform the same self-mutilation and death. Acamas's insanity was caused by his lover, who was determined to prevent losing him by giving him a box to open should he decide never to return to her. He accidentally opened it, went mad when he saw the contents, and in his state of mental derangement galloped wildly away on his horse until he was thrown and died by falling on his own sword. The implication in all of these stories is that since the victims are mentally incompetent, they are not responsible for their self-destructive acts, though they are responsible for the actions that caused the madness to happen to them.

Self-sacrifice

Martyrdom is a phenomenon well known to all societies throughout the ages, and occurs when individuals or groups of individuals put their religious and/or patriotic duties above their duty to their own persons. Rather than betray their individual and communal beliefs, these individuals choose death, whether by their own hand or by acceptance of it at the hand of another. It is an unparalleled act of altruism, and is often undertaken for the preservation or advancement of the martyr's beliefs, religious or political. In cultures like ancient Greece where the sharp division between religion and state did not exist, two of the instances of suicidal self-sacrifice, Codrus and Menoeceus, involve the death of an individual to ensure the continuation of their city and her political sway. In both instances, the gods through the oracle have in essence demanded these deaths. In the third and fourth cases, Menestratos and Coresus, the desire to protect their lovers motivates them to sacrifice themselves; in both cases, the act has the added benefit of removing a menace from society at large. In the story of two other men who killed themselves in response to an oracle, King Adrastus and his son Hipponous, we do not know certainly why the oracle demanded their deaths, but perhaps are safe to assume a relationship between their death and the continuity of their state, Argos.

Codrus was a king of Athens. It was foretold that Athens would prevail against her enemy only if the king were killed. So in disguise he entered the enemy camp, created a disturbance, and was killed in the process. Menoeceus was a descendant of the Spartoi in Thebes and when it was predicted that Thebes would survive only if one of the Spartoi be sacrificed, he unhesitatingly killed himself.

We often associate the conception of martyrdom with the belief that something better lies beyond human existence. This is certainly the case with the Christian martyrs, who like the Japanese samurai warrior committing seppuku (a ritual suicide under the warrior code known as Bushido),<15> or the Native American dog soldiers who were renowned for their ferocious fighting ability in offense or defense, relied on the promise of a reward to carry them through their grim ordeal. From Patrick Henry to recent suicide-bombing terrorists, people continue to view some causes as greater than themselves, misdirected though they may be. The ancient Greek scenarios are somewhat different in that there is little attention paid to what happens to the individual after the self-sacrificial act. Though of course both Codrus and Menoeceus gain honor, the emphasis instead is on the continuity of the state.

The altruism of Menestratos is more personally motivated, though the story is set in motion by the necessity of sacrificing a human to a dragon. When the lot falls to Menestratos's lover, he devises a way to save her and kill the dragon. He loses his life in the process, but his act, like the two previous ones discussed, provides protection and continuity for his city.

Coresus's story is similar. Because his love was not returned, he prayed to Dionysus for help. Dionysus sent a madness upon his people that according to an oracle could only be removed by the sacrifice of Coresus's lover, Callirrhoe. At the point of sacrificing her, he faltered and instead turned the knife upon himself, freeing himself from the pain of rejection and freeing his city from the madness.

Loss of Political Power

Perhaps we can view this motivation to suicide as the flipside of the altruistic self-sacrifices. In two cases, kings kill themselves because they have lost power. Nisus, king of the Megarians, was fated to rule so long as he maintained his purple lock of hair. When he was betrayed by his daughter who cut it off, he killed himself. Agrius, king of the Calydonians, was deposed and exiled and subsequently killed himself. In both cases, the Durkheimian category of egoistic suicide would apply, wherein the individual's needs outweigh any other considerations.

Rage

Anger is an emotional or cognitive internal state and can provide a response to hurt pride, frustration or personal injury.<16> It is a way one can blame others for one's shortcomings or situation, or it can be a way to hide other feelings or to handle other emotions. Frustration can occur when something interferes with gaining a desired and expected goal. It can be physical (a car that won't start), our own physical limitations (blindness from Diabetes), our choices (skipping classes and therefore failing the exam), others' actions (teachers' expectations or parental rules), others' motives (deception for a self-serving purpose), or society's injustice (born into poverty and finding no way out). If the anger is severe enough, it can lead to an aggressive lashing out, either at the perceived external source of the anger or at oneself.

There are three recorded cases of mythological males who kill themselves in anger. Haemon provides an example of someone whose severe anger against his father because of his treatment of Antigone, Haemon's betrothed, leads to an aggressive attempt to kill him, and when that act fails, he turns the weapon on himself.

Evenus supplies an example of an anger/grief-motivated suicide. When his daughter is carried off by Idas, in an attempt to return her to him, he pursues the couple, but unsuccessfully. In anger and grief he slaughters his horses and drowns himself.

In most versions Heracles commands a pyre to be built, steps upon it, and someone else lights it. In Hyginus, however, we are told that he leaps into the already flaming tower. He is, of course, furious at Deianeira, his wife, for sending him the poisoned garment that precipitated his suicide.<17>

Forced Suicide

In what really amounts to an execution, Pelias, the uncle of Jason, forces Aeson, Jason's father to kill himself. Aeson accomplishes his death by drinking bull's blood. As Van Hooff points out, in myth only Aeson uses this "enigmatic" type of poison,<18> and that despite the fact that Pliny the Elder believed it to be a poison,<19> it is in fact not poisonous.

Methods

For the 34 cases of suicides of mythological males, the methods are limited. In 11 of the cases, the actual way to death is unspecified, and to speculate would be not useful. It is interesting to note, also, that there are no instances of men committing suicide by hanging, a manner of death chosen by a large number of mythological female suicides.<20> In cases where the way to death is specified, a common means for males is the edge, either a knife or a sword. These instruments would have been readily available to men, and inasmuch as using a sword or knife is part of a man's normal activities, it is no surprise that 9 disgraced or grieving men should opt for that manner of self-destruction. Perhaps more surprising is the fact that 10 males kill themselves by a leap, into fire in 5 cases, into water in 4 cases, and onto land from a high perch in 1 case. There is recorded one case each of being swallowed by the earth, of castration, of drinking bull's blood, and being devoured by a dragon. Consistent with the overall character of suicide in antiquity, the most popular means are chosen because they provide the best way to success in the act.<21>

Conclusions

In both genders, it is interesting to note that in the majority of cases of suicide, the means to commit it are unspecified. In my opinion this fact seems to indicate that the ancient writers were not so much interested in that aspect of it, nor did they use that aspect of it to delineate proclivities of certain age groups or gender, as much as in the motivations that led to the crucial decisions. Of equal interest is that many of the same motivations to suicide obtain for both males and females, and for the aged and the young, particularly in family dynamics—father/son, father/daughter, mother/son, etc. Though a pattern does emerge of females who commit suicide because of a relationship with a man having turned bad in some way, the same problem of relationships—hetero- or homosexual or intrafamilial—can be found among the male suicides. There does not seem to be a preponderant issue for males, though certainly the way a man's milieu perceives him plays an important part in motivation to self-sought death.

It is clear from the evidence adduced from classical mythology that at least in the traditional stories of mythology more females killed themselves than did males. As always, however, one must take into account the shortcomings of the evidence and the variety of the sources. Given this, it would be very unsafe to extrapolate from this evidence to make a statement about ancient society in general.

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Notes

  1. So for example in Suicide Across the Life Span—Premature Exits, edd. J.M. Stillion, E.E. McDowell and J.H. May (New York 1989) chapter 1.
  2. Ibid., 16.
  3. Definition of Suicide. (New York 1985) 203. Much of my own thinking on suicide derives from E. Durkheim, Suicide: A Study in Sociology, translated J.A. Spaulding and G. Simpson (London 1966). For a sustained discussion of the work and its relevance to the study of suicide in classical mythology, please see E.P. Garrison, Groaning Tears. Ethical and Dramatic Aspects of Suicide in Greek Tragedy (Brill 1995) 34-44 with notes.
  4. On suicide in general in the ancient world, see A.J.L. van Hooff, From Autothanasia to Suicide. Self-Killing in Classical Antiquity (Routledge 1990). For full bibliographical references to other important works on ancient suicide, see Garrison (above, note 3) p. 1, n. 1.
  5. http://www.stoa.org/diotima/essays/garrison.shtml
  6. For a longer discussion of Sophocles's version of Ajax's suicide, see Garrison (above note 3) 46-53.
  7. For a comparative study, please see "Incest in Indo-European Folktales, an essay" by D.L. Ashliman, http://www.pitt.edu/~dash/incest.html
  8. In Loss and Change (1986), Peter Marris writes: "The fundamental crisis of bereavement arises not from the loss of other but from the loss of self."
  9. Diodorus of Sicily 4.55.
  10. See above note 5.
  11. See http://www.glbtq.com/literature/roman_lit.html for a discussion of different attitudes toward love.
  12. See Jack Crabtree, "The Miracle of Sophrosyne," http://www.mckenziestudycenter.org/theology/articles/sophro.html#back3 for an interesting discussion of sophrosyne and self-loathing.
  13. For a discussion of homosexuality in the ancient world, see Thomas K. Hubbard, Homosexuality in Greece and Rome: A Sourcebook of Basic Documents (first two chapters are on-line with many images) and his bibliography. For an interesting essay on Greek homosexuality, please see http://www.stanford.edu/~hnie/papers/homoeroticism.doc
  14. See http://www.geneseo.edu/~harrison/humn1_html/hippocrates.html for a translation of Hippocrates's treatise on the subject.
  15. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Seppuku
  16. Please see Dr. Clay Tucker-Ladd, "Psychological Self-Help," http://mentalhelp.net/psyhelp/chap7/chap7b.htm for a discussion of the many aspects of anger and its manifestations.
  17. For a full treatment of this story, see Sophocles's Women of Trachis, and Garrison (above note 3) 53-65 and 87-9.
  18. Van Hooff (above, note 4) 61-2.
  19. Natural History 28, 147.
  20. For discussion see Garrison at http://www.stoa.org/diotima/essays/garrison.shtml
  21. See Van Hooff (above, note 4) chapter 2.

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