Buried Above Ground

souls_tomb

Chaim Koppelmann: The Soul’s Tomb (1959). – Image source: http://www.chaimkoppelman.net/images/criticism_big/souls_tomb.jpg.

The idea that the body is a prison-house or, more drastically still, a tomb of the soul – often shortened to the phrase soma sema – is an ancient one.

Rooted in Orphic (rather than Pythagorean) thought, it finds its first (surviving) pithy expression in a famous passage of Plato‘s dialogue Gorgias (at Plato, Gorgias 492e493a, transl. W. R. M. Lamb):

Σωκράτης
οὐκ ἄρα ὀρθῶς λέγονται οἱ μηδενὸς δεόμενοι εὐδαίμονες εἶναι.

Καλλίκλης
οἱ λίθοι γὰρ ἂν οὕτω γε καὶ οἱ νεκροὶ εὐδαιμονέστατοι εἶεν.

Σωκράτης
ἀλλὰ μὲν δὴ καὶ ὥς γε σὺ λέγεις δεινὸς ὁ βίος. οὐ γάρ τοι θαυμάζοιμ᾽ ἂν εἰ Εὐριπίδης ἀληθῆ ἐν τοῖσδε λέγει, λέγων – ‘τίς δ᾽ οἶδεν, εἰ τὸ ζῆν μέν ἐστι κατθανεῖν, τὸ κατθανεῖν δὲ ζῆν; καὶ ἡμεῖς τῷ ὄντι ἴσως τέθναμεν:’ ἤδη γάρ του ἔγωγε καὶ ἤκουσα τῶν σοφῶν ὡς νῦν ἡμεῖς τέθναμεν καὶ τὸ μὲν σῶμά ἐστιν ἡμῖν σῆμα, …

Socrates
Then it is not correct to say, as people do, that those who want nothing are happy.

Callicles
No, for at that rate stones and corpses would be extremely happy.

Socrates
Well, well, as you say, life is strange. For I tell you I should not wonder if Euripides’ words were true, when he says: ‘Who knows if to live is to be dead, and to be dead, to live?’ and we really, it may be, are dead; in fact I once heard sages say that we are now dead, and the body is our tomb

There is something deeply unsettling about these thoughts – for the obvious question has to be: if we accept this image for a moment – what is the logical consequence?

Should we attempt a prison break?

Should we try and allow the soul to rise from its grave?

How can this be achieved…?

What is this Latin inscription from Palestrina/Praeneste hinting at (EE IX 776 = ILS 8376; translation by U. Gehn, from the Eagle Eurpeana webpages)?

[Ar]lenii. | P(ublius) Aelius Apollinaris Arlenius natus die | IIII Kal(endas) Nob(embres) honeste vita moribus adque (!) | litteris educatus cum die VIII Kal(endas) Iulias | agens annum octavum decimum caelo | desideratus corporeo carcere libera|retur petit adque impetravit a Publio | [A]elio Apollinare v(igilum) p(raefecto) patre suo actore cau|sarum pr(a)eside provinciae Corsicae prae|fecto vigilibus uti fundum q(ui) a(ppellatur) (a)d duas casas | con[f]inium territorio Praenestinorum | daret ac traderet collegiis Praenesti|[nae] civitatis ea condicione ut isdem vel | [cu]ique in eorum iura corpusque successerit | [a]balienandi quocumque pacto potestas | non esset sed ex ipsius fundi fructibus con|[v]ivia bis annua diebus suprascriptis exhi|berentur et quo auctior esset eiusdem | voluntas petit a supra dicto patre suo | ut quinque milibus follium horti sibe | possessio conpararetur quae eorum | iuri adque (!) corpori cum supra dicta | condicione traderetur adque (!) ita ob {c} | causa s(upra) s(cripta) in fundum s(upra) s(criptum) et hortos conparatos | supra dicto modo pecuniae | omnes collegiati inducti sunt prop|ter quod veneficium collegiati omnes | statuam eidem togatam | in foro conlocaverunt.

[Statue of] Arlenius. Publius Aelius Apollinaris Arlenius, born on the fourth day before the Kalends of November [and] well brought up in life, behaviour and letters; since on the eighth day before the Kalends of July, in his eighteenth year, sought for in heaven that he might be freed from bodily prison, he asked and got from Publius Aelius Apollinaris, of perfectissimus rank, his father, the advocate, governor of Corsica [and] prefect of the watch, that he would give and transfer the estate called Two Houses (in the territory of Praeneste) to the guilds of the city of Praeneste, on condition that they, and whoever succeeds them in their legal body and corporation, should not have the right to alienate it by any kind of agreement, but that from the profits of that estate banquets should be given twice a year on the days written above. And so that his wish should be stronger, he sought from his above mentioned father that orchards or a property should be bought with 5,000 folles, which should be given to the legal body and corporation of them (= the guildsmen) on the [same] above mentioned condition. And thus, through the reason recorded above, in the estate mentioned above and the orchards bought in the way mentioned above, all the guildsmen have received money. Because of this benefit, all the guildsmen place a statue to him, dressed in a toga, in the forum.

Soma sema. – Image source: http://i30.photobucket.com/albums/c342/fletchertech/New%20WPs/1EyePrisonC.jpg.

The body as the prison-house of the human soul. – Image source here.

Corporeus carcer – a bodily prison, a prison that is the body.

A philosophical thought in a really awkward place? A poeticism? A religious statement, plausible evidence for the Christian faith of the deceased? One of those few, usually rather obscure, hints at suicide, recording the precise date and the deceased’s (alleged) final requests to his father?

A combination of the above?

Dark, disturbing thoughts, potentially.

The imagery that was driven to poetic extremes – in its beauty, immediacy, and gruesomeness – in a poem by William Cowper (b. 1731, d. 1800), written in Sapphic stanzas, after one of Cowper’s suicide attempts –

Lines Written During a Period of Insanity

Hatred and vengeance, my eternal portion,
Scarce can endure delay of execution,
Wait with impatient readiness to seize my
Soul in a moment.

Damned below Judas; more abhorred than he was,
Who for a few pence sold his holy Master.
Twice-betrayed Jesus me, the last delinquent,
Deems the profanest.

Man disavows, and Deity disowns me;
Hell might afford my miseries a shelter;
Therefore Hell keeps her ever-hungry mouths all
Bolted against me.

Hard lot! encompassed with a thousand dangers,
Weary, faint, trembling with a thousand terrors,
I’m called, if vanquished, to receive a sentence
Worse than Abiram’s.

Him the vindictive rod of angry Justice
Sent quick and howling to the centre headlong;
I, fed with judgement, in a fleshy tomb, am
Buried above ground.

Impotent fury, the desire to seek vengeance for what cannot – must not – be said, terrified, yet blasphemously daring heaven and hell alike.

The poem exudes an astonishing level of inward-facing, depressive anger which no longer can be contained, describing the poet’s ultimate impotence  – locked into a fleshy tomb, buried above ground.

Suppressed anger – the anger of those left behind, if not that of the deceased herself – is noticeable in an inscribed Latin poem from Pagno in the Piedmont region of north-west Italy (CIL V 7640 = CLE 783; images of surviving fragments can be found here) as well, where a variant of the soma sema motive occurs:

Caelestes animae, damnant quae crimina vitae, | terrenas metuunt labes sub iudice Crist[o], | corporeo laetae gaudent se carcere solvi. | Sic Regina potens meritis [post] vincula saecli | aeternam repetit se[dem] nil noxia morti. | Haec talamis Albine tuis ser[v]i[t]que fedelis, | virgineas casto servavit pecture tae[das], | coniugii nom[en quae de]dicnata secundi. | Haec damnum, natura, tuum, quod invida natos | non tribuis votis matris, sub mente benigna | adfectu superare volens nos iamque vocavit | Albini claro generatam sanguine prolem. | Exosum nomen, nil magnis moribus [au]f[ers]; | Nam veras be[– – –]o[– – –] pectore matri[s].

Heavenly souls, that condemn the sins of life, that fear earthly downfall under Christ the judge, that rejoice happily to be loosened from their bodily prison: thus mighty Regina through her merits, after having spent time chained up in that earthly dungeon, seeks an eternal dwelling, not owing death anything. She serves your marital chamber faithfully, Albinus, she served the virginal torches with a chaste heart, she, who despised the very idea of a second marriage. That blemish inflicted by you, Nature, that you enviously denied the mother’s prayers her children, she desired to overcome with affection supported by a benign frame of mind, and already she had called us the offspring of Albinus’ noble blood. Hateful thing, you do not take away a thing from a great character; for true … in the mothers chest.

One senses the tension that arises in this 4th/5th century poem between the Regina potens (‘mighty Regina’, literally: ‘mighty queen’) and the description of her impotence against fate: the loss of a husband (apparently) as well as her barrenness, described as a blemish, a damage (damnum) – trauma inflicted by nature itself.

For Regina, according to this poem, her sole hope while carrying the vincula saeculi, the worldly chains, was to seek consolation in a parade of affection (a frame of mind she appears to have adopted in lieu of children). This gentle, benign parade (sub mente benigna adfectus) is represented here as the deceased’s advocate, as speaker to tell of (what is characterised as) her unhappy, depressing state – a state that ultimately made her happily join the heavenly souls that rejoice … to be loosened from their bodily prison (corporeo laetae gaudent se carcere solvi).

So does this powerful image – an image that has inspired many and helped them to conceptualise and to express their feeling locked in, locked away, in powerless fury and anger – advocate one’s taking that next, final step as a logical consequence?

Should we attempt a prison break?

Should we try and allow the soul to rise from its grave?

A much discussed epigraphic poem from Spoleto/Spoletium may offer an insightful alternative – an alternative to live for, while life lasts (CIL XI 4980 cf. p. 1376 = CLE 1858 = ILCV 4813 = ICI VI 62, cf. ICUR II 4220):

ICI62

ICI VI 62 (where this image has been published).

Quid fatis liceat, quid saecula cuncta reposcant, | hoc mors sola docet quae sua lege venit. | ni(hi)l sub vita diu breve fit quod morte tenetur, | sed qui viget meritis non habet ille finem. | carceris humani sors est quae claustra resolvit | nec retinet animam dum sua luce vivit. | moribus hic constans, magis pietate severus | iustitiae cultor, nobilitate probus. | felix posteritas servat quod vita paravit, | his semper votis vincitur exitium. | hic ni(hi)l mors adimes, corpus servate sepulcra, | non tegitur quicquid posteritate viget. | qui vix(it) an(nos) | XLIIII m(enses) X.

What the Fates may do, to reclaim everything in this world – this is what death alone teaches us, which comes on its own terms. Nothing that is short in life gets to last longer, if it is subject to death, but he who thrives in merit, will not meet such an end. It is the destiny that pull back the bolts of the human prison, and it cannot retain the soul for as long as it lives in its light. Stalwart in character, stern in his dutifulness in particular, a promoter of justice, upright in his nobility. Gladly posterity preserves what life has created, death will always be overcome by such prayers. Death, you will take nothing away from here. Tombs, watch over the body. Whatever will flourish in posterity, remains in the open. He lived 44 years and 10 months.

Destiny – sors (literally: ‘lot’) – is the gate-keeper, operating the sliding bolts of that door.

While the body may be the soul’s prison-house and while death puts an end to everything that is short-lived anyway, there are things worth living for – things that are not buried above ground, but that get to enjoy safety while lying in the open: non tegitur quicquid posteritate viget (‘whatever will flourish in posterity, remains in the open’).

What remains, are one’s merita, one’s meritorious achievements – the ideals one stands for, ideals and practical deeds that help to balance out whatever may have given reason for anger, hatred, and hopelessness.

These merita are, or so the poem suggests, exempt from the terms and conditions imposed even by death, allowing us to wait for destiny to do its work and not skip forward, straight to an untimely end.

It may require a lot of strength, will-power, determination, and unquestioning support.

The reward, however, according to this poem, could be a joyous legacy of a kind that only a death-defying, lived life may achieve.

About Peter Kruschwitz

Berliner. Classicist. Scatterbrain.
This entry was posted in Carmina Epigraphica, Epigraphy, Poetry and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Buried Above Ground

  1. Pingback: The Faint Voices of the Poor of Ancient Rome | The Petrified Muse

Comments are closed.