MEMPHIS, EGYPT — Our field correspondent Herodotus, always looking to save us some money by inviting himself to parties instead of racking up receipts at the agora, recently attended a gathering at the home of a certain Egyptian man named Garai. The meal being concluded and the guests fully sated, the time came for the after dinner entertainment. Yet rather than an oration by a rhetorician or a song accompanied by the sweet music of the lyre, a man brought around what appeared to be a corpse, and began speaking solemnly to the guests.
Herodotus was not at first within earshot, and began asking those around him what this meant. While Apollodorus (our skiagraphos) painted a picture of the scene, Herodotus compiled the following account about the dinner customs of the Egyptians:
And at the gatherings among their wealthy, whenever they have finished supper a man brings around in a coffin a corpse made of wood, represented in greatest detail both by painting and carving, about a cubit or two in length. And as he shows it to each of the guests he says, “Look at this, and drink and enjoy yourself, for you will be such when you die.” These things they do at their parties.
When the man bearing the coffin came around to Herodotus and had spoken the usual words, our stalwart reporter looked death in the face and said, “Funny, I always thought it would be larger”; after which he drained his chalice and, grabbing Apollodorus by the cloak, quickly headed out to find a late showing of one of Aristophanes’ plays.
Herodotus writes about this Egyptian dinner custom in Book 2, §78 of his Histories (the entire second book is about Egypt). While the practice may seem a good way to cast a pall on an otherwise enjoyable evening, contemplation of death has its place. For the pagans, reflecting on death was supposed to heighten present enjoyment, not diminish it.
Contemplation of death has its place for Christians as well, though not in the same way as the pagans. The resurrection of Jesus has changed death for us. Thus Paul writes, “If after the manner of men I have fought with beasts at Ephesus, what advantageth it me, if the dead rise not? let us eat and drink; for tomorrow we die” (1 Cor. 15:32). If the dead don’t rise, then sure, let’s get in our kicks now.
But the dead do rise, either to eternal life or eternal death. And we consider this — indeed, we think on hell itself — but this contemplation spurs us to a more temperate life, not a more dissolute one. John Chrysostom puts this well:
For if merely looking at a corpse wraps up our mind in this way, how much more will hell and the unquenchable fire? How much more the undying worm? If we always consider hell, we will not quickly fall into it. For this reason God has threatened punishment. If thinking about it did not have some great advantage, God would not have now threatened it. But since remembrance of it is able to effect great things, therefore, like a saving medicine, he designed the threat of it for our souls.
Let us certainly not overlook such an advantage that is produced from this; rather let us turn to it continually, at our dinners, at our suppers. For conversation about pleasant things does not benefit the soul at all, but makes it more relaxed; whereas conversation about distressing and gloomy things cuts away everything runny and loose that the soul has, and turns it back, and tightens it up when it becomes slack.
He who converses about theaters and actors has not profited the soul at all, but has the more inflamed it and made it more reckless. He who is anxious about things belonging to others, and who meddles, many times has even inflicted dangers on his soul from this futility. However, he who converses about hell will not have any danger, and makes his soul more temperate.
(Homilies on 2 Thessalonians, Homily II)
Apollodorus was a Greek painter in the 5th century BC, and a contemporary of Herodotus (though I have no idea whether they ever met). Apollodorus was dubbed a “skiagraphos” (Greek for “shadow-painter”) because of a style of hatching/shading which he introduced.
- Why do you suppose our culture avoids serious or frequent talk of death?
- What profit does a Christian enjoy from contemplating death and hell?
- How does a proper understanding of death, resurrection, hell, and paradise influence what students need to learn?
Painting: An Egyptian Feast (detail) by Edwin Long, 1829-1891
Scripture quotation is from the King James Version.
Other translations are my own.