Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Suicide in ancient Hellas, mythology and in current time

I got back from my city trip to Berlin late last night and I had planned on writing about some experiences from that trip, but I received my daily e-mail from a friend who informed me that his wife's cousin had taken his own life unexpectedly, and that his life was pretty hectic right now because of it. He would therefor need some time to get back to me. After that, the concept and act of suicide was set firmly in my mind and I could write about nothing else. So here is fair warning; this post is about suicide, it touches on depression, my interesting childhood and my opinion on suicide. If any of these are triggers for you, I would ask you to come back tomorrow. Also, and I will get back to this, depression lies.

I grew up in a household where the threat of suicide was prevalent. When I mentioned moving out, when I got angry, when something went wrong (especially if it was something I had caused--or for which I was blamed), I was stopped and the emotions repressed by a veiled or outright threat of suicide by my mother. I used to be angry about that, but as I got older, I understood that it was simply her only way to deal with the depression and personality disorders she was struggling with. She did try once, and it was a horrible experience for all involved. After that, though, I think she realized that no matter how miserable she was, she wasn't really going to go through with it. The threats only stopped when we agreed that she was only allowed to call me with a suicide threat if she really meant it. She never spoke of it again.

Through my experience with suicide, I have developed a very low patience threshold for people who use (the threat of) suicide as an excuse to get attention. For people in my social circle who honestly feel they might commit suicide, I am there. All I ask of them is that they ask for help if they need it. I will gladly give it. I'll get up in the middle of the night for weeks to talk them off of any ledge they might be on, but I need honesty and I will not be guilt tripped into helping them. I did that for at least ten years. I'm a very decent human being. If you need me, in any way, I will be there for you. You don't have to lie. But if you simply need attention, if you need a shoulder to cry on and someone to tell you what a miserable life you have and act shocked you have even considered the act of suicide, I am not the person to go to. I'm the person you go to for help, and to get you help.

That having been said, I understand depression. Everyone goes through rough patches but sometimes it seems impossible to get back out of them. Jenny Lawson, AKA The Bloggess, suffers from a multitude of mental disorders and for those who are struggling with anything that might lead to depression or suicide, you need to watch her talk through her fear and pain, and offer some fantastic words of wisdom I would never be able to give in her video on it. The main message, though? Depression lies, do not trust it. Ever. It lies, and when the depression lessens, you will be able to see that. So it's important to imprint upon yourself that depression lies, so that when life is so dark, the only thing you can think of is to end it, you can hold on to that.

The ancient Hellens had a different attitude towards suicide--and life--than we do today. In general, suicide was an accepted form of death and it even became an accepted form of capital punishment. Athenian philosopher Socrates was condemned to death for 'refusing to recognize the gods recognized by the state' and for 'corrupting the youth.' He died by drinking down a cup of poison hemlock.

In Hellenic myth, suicide has different causes for males than for females. Males often take their own lives out of shame, fear of disgrace, self-sacrifice, grief or the loss of honor. Women kill themselves mostly out of grief over the death of a male child or husband, out of shame or through self-sacrifice although their self-sacrifice is often for different reasons and by different means than that of males.

Shame is a prevalent motivator for suicide for both men and women in Hellenic myth. The sources of shame vary greatly, between the sexes but also within the sexes. For women, rape is the most common source of shame. For men, shame comes often from a loss of honor. This can occur when they are slighted in the distribution of bounty (like Ajax), when they commit sexual acts with their daughters (like Clymenus) or because of 'ugliness', like Broteas, who in some versions of mythology is said to have burnt himself because he was ashamed of the way he looked.

Grief is by far the most common motivator for women to take their own lives. In ancient Hellas, women were almost solely in charge of raising children. Their lives consisted of taking care of the hearth, her husband and her children. Any status a woman had, was tied in with her husband. Women in ancient Hellas were groomed to function in pairs. It was because of this that a widow was passed on to another male as soon as possible. For a lot of women in mythology, loosing their husband or male child proves too much to handle. They kill themselves our of grief, fear and/or the promise of an undesirable husband. For women, dying with their husbands was considered a virtuous thing to do. Alcyone, for example, hears of her husband's death and drowns herself. Laodamia, threw herself on her husband's funeral pyre. When Anticleia, mother of Odysseus, is sure Odysseus is dead, she kill herself to end her suffering.

There are also fathers who kill themselves when they lose a son, and husbands who commit suicide when they lose their wife, although it occurs much less frequent than for mothers and wives. Aegeus, thinking his son Theseus is dead, dives off of a cliff. Orpheus, in some versions of the myth, does not leave the Underworld when he loses his wife for a second time, but walks back to die himself.

Stepping away from mythology, suicide became a more frowned-upon practice as time went by. Pythagoras and Aristotle, for example, were against the practice. Pythagoras believed there were only a finite number of souls so suicide upset the balance. Aristotle was against suicide because he felt that the community suffered a loss. A lot later, with the arrival of the Christians, suicide became an act of the Devil.

I doubt Hellenics have reached a consensus over suicide yet. We might, in the future, but for now our societies, our personal experiences and our own (political) preferences influence our views more than our Reconstructionistic practices.

I have actually thought about suicide, and assisted suicide, a lot, both before and after transitioning to Hellenismos. Becoming a priestess has always drawn me. Assisting the sick and dying is a part of that. Unless things change dramatically over the years, I doubt I will ever be called to aid someone I do not know personally, as they decide to end their own life with the help of a physician. I am in favor of euthanasia and I would gladly help a person going through it by praying with them, offering to the Gods in their name and pleading to the psychopomps to aid them on their journey to the Underworld. I would gladly give them the funeral rites their family might be unaware of. I would also do the latter for those who committed suicide.

Some may call suicide hubris. I can see where this idea comes from and I think I agree with it. Offerings to appease the Gods would be a necessary part of Hellenic funeral rites after a suicide; after all, you have taken yourself from the Olympians. Yet, I feel Hades would welcome the soul of someone who has committed suicide, regardless. I don't think He would judge a person at all on committing suicide. That having been said, please read the part of this post about not committing suicide again. Once you're dead, you're dead and although the Underworld isn't that horrible a place, no one should wish to leave the sunlight before their time, no matter how hard life can get.

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