What Ancient Greek Tragedies Can Teach Us About Grief

Sometimes, art precedes life. The word “landscape,” for instance, originally meant a painting, and only later also the land itself. In a similar way, “tragedy” originated onstage, as a dramatic form, before acquiring the more general meaning of a devastating or unfortunate situation. What we now think of as Greek tragedy is a relatively small corpus from the fifth century B.C., fewer than three dozen plays from the hundreds that were produced over the course of that century. Among the tragedians, there are extant works from only three: Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides. Their plays premiered at the annual City Dionysia, a festival that was held on the slopes of the Acropolis each spring, drawing large audiences. Some of the features of those premieres might seem strange to us now: Each dramatist presented four plays at a time, in competition; the performances took place outdoors in daylight; the actors wore masks of fixed expression; and, with the exception of the chorus, the roles in any given play were performed by no more than three actors, all male. Theatrical conventions have changed since then. But the plays still reach us with their clarity, nobility and wisdom. When I flew to Athens last summer, it was to fulfill a dream of seeing Greek tragedy performed in Greece. I hoped to come closer to the strange power of these works.

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It was my first time in Greece. I bought tickets for two performances: “Antigone,” by Sophocles, and “Agamemnon,” by Aeschylus. The plays were part of the annual Athens Epidaurus Festival, a summer program of musical and theatrical performances. “Antigone” was to be performed in Athens, while “Agamemnon” was to be performed at the Ancient Theatre of Epidaurus, in the Peloponnese. Greek tragedies are often about eminent families, the better to explore the combustible mix of familial conflict and political struggle. These two plays, among the best known ancient dramas, have radically simple plots. In “Antigone,” a pair of Theban princes kill each other in a civil war. Their sister, Antigone, in defiance of the new king’s edict, attempts to bury Polynices, the brother on the vanquished side, who has been declared an enemy of the state. The king, who happens to be her uncle Creon, condemns Antigone to death, thus bringing calamity on himself and his entire household. “Agamemnon” is about another king. On his return home from the Trojan War, Agamemnon is ostentatiously welcomed by his queen, Clytemnestra. Then, in complicity with her lover, Aegisthus, she stabs him to death. Cassandra, the woman Agamemnon brought home with him as a war captive, is murdered, too.

The Ancient Theatre of Epidaurus. Credit…Enri Canaj/Magnum, for The New York Times

“Tragedy,” in drama, is concerned with shock, suffering and sorrow, but there is more to it than that. The suffering is not random. Individuals inherit fallout from events in the remote past, through no fault of their own. The next move is the test: What do you do with the bad hand you’ve been dealt? Are you hostile to prophesy? The tragic hero or heroine tends to choose badly, responding with anger, hubris or heedlessness. The outcome is a suffering that is sometimes so extreme and disproportionate that it can seem nonsensical. And even more mystifying is the way the blameless are dragged into the vortex. As the scholar George Steiner writes, one of the bitter lessons of Greek tragedy is that “the forces which shape or destroy our lives lie outside the governance of reason or justice.”

The “Antigone” I saw in Athens was performed in modern Greek. The director, Alexander Raptotasios, made clever use of video projections and screens, with most of the action taking place in a set designed to look like a television studio. King Creon was styled as a modern-day authoritarian leader; Antigone was a petulant Zoomer; the Chorus of Elders were political talking heads; and the famous choral interlude, the “Ode to Man,” was delivered as a rap over a trap beat. It all made for a performance that was fascinating without being profound, a production that didn’t quite achieve the required intensity. In the plaza afterward, the audience enjoyed a nice summer’s night with food vendors and a jazz band.

A couple of weeks later, I went to the Peloponnese. The westward train from Athens to Corinth, a journey of a little more than an hour, crosses beautiful dry terrain interspersed with humble, sometimes impoverished-looking, settlements. I spent the night near Corinth and the next day met up with a Greek friend for the journey south to Epidaurus. Our drive took us down the eastern side of the peninsula along mountain roads. We saw little roadside shrines in the shape of orthodox churches, and there were occasional, enchanting glimpses of the bright blue gulf.

Two distinct towns in the region of Argolis bear the name Epidaurus now: Nea Epidavros (New Epidaurus) and, about five miles south of it, Palaia Epidavros (Old Epidaurus). It was 15 minutes from there to the vast complex of the Sanctuary of Asclepius, also known as the Asclepieion. There were numerous Asclepieia, temple complexes for the healing of body and mind, in the ancient Greek world; the one in Epidaurus was the most important. This place of succor is an extensive archaeological site now, and there is an ancient theater set right in the middle of it. Walking through the groves of the sanctuary in the late afternoon, I could feel the somber atmosphere that must have drawn so many people there thousands of years ago in search of divine help.

One version of the myth says that Epidaurus was the birthplace of Asclepius, who was the son of Apollo and a human woman. Asclepius was a gifted healer, too gifted perhaps, and he was killed by Zeus for the impiety of raising the dead. Posthumously, by the intervention of his father, he was deified and placed among the stars. There are numerous inscriptions at the on-site museum of the Asclepieion telling the stories of those who received miraculous cures: Alcetas of Halieis, who was blind; Hermodicus of Lampsacus, who was paralyzed; Agameda of Ceos, who had difficulty conceiving. There are also carvings brought as requests for healing or deposited as tokens of gratitude: a little sculpture of an ear brought by someone with hearing loss, a large marble relief of a leg brought by someone with trouble walking.

The place had a mesmerizing effect on me. The names and distant lives of ordinary people had survived the centuries. Outdoors, among the ruins, guards watch visitors closely to make sure no one takes or moves anything. On a small sheet of paper, I drew a heart, for a family member who was undergoing a bypass surgery. On another sheet, I drew a kidney, for a friend who was having a transplant. I folded up these sheets and, when no one was looking, slipped them under a stone on the path to the theater.

The Piraeus Archaeological Museum in Athens. Credit…Enri Canaj/Magnum, for The New York Times

Heat in Greece in summer was expected, but its intensity startled me. Wherever I went — Athens, Aegina, Delphi, the Peloponnese — the grass was parched, brittle and hay-colored, and seemed ready to catch fire. The air was hot and dry. At the sanctuary, evening brought relief. We were seated under the open sky on concentric stone benches in the acoustically ideal theater. The sun had just gone down as “Agamemnon” began. The performance was by a Munich-based ensemble, the Residenztheater, under the direction of Ulrich Rasche. This “Agamemnon” was in modern German, delivered in a declamatory, shouting style, and I can’t have been the only person present who had initial doubts. There were surtitles in English and Greek, and a musical score, heavy on percussion, somewhere between techno, heavy metal and classical minimalism, which was performed by four musicians who never left the stage. The stage itself was a circle, rotating on a hidden mechanism. If a given actor wanted to remain in our view, she or he had to walk against the rotation. The stage sometimes changed speed or direction, but it never stopped. The effect of these constraints — the shouted speech, the propulsive music, the perpetual motion — was visceral and hypnotic. The actors yelled their lines out, angry, pleading, arrogant, frantic, in a rhythm that was locked with or syncopated against the movements of their stalking legs. My doubts evaporated.

When Cassandra, who had already endured war, bereavement, captivity and sexual violation, screamed out her prophecy of the imminent murder of Agamemnon and herself, a prophecy doomed to be disbelieved as all her prophecies were, I looked away from the stage. It was almost as though, if I didn’t see the action, the inevitable would not unfold. So, briefly, I turned my eyes to the sky, to the glittering constellations that were now visible above Argolis.

Everyone has their reasons. Near the end of the play, Clytemnestra hauls into view a black sheet with the bloodied bodies of Agamemnon and Cassandra. She is naked, grotesque and dazzling under the stage lights. She exults in her revenge on Agamemnon for his sacrifice of their daughter Iphigenia before the war. Then her lover and co-conspirator, Aegisthus, appears, also naked. He recounts the grudge he held on behalf of his father, Thyestes, whom Agamemnon’s father, Atreus, had tricked into eating his own children. But Clytemnestra and Aegisthus had also murdered Agamemnon for reasons of lust and power. These are not nice people. In Ted Hughes’s powerful translation of the play, the chorus says:

Where is right and wrong
In this nightmare?
Each becomes the ghost of the other.
Each is driven mad
By the ghost of the other.
Who can reason it out?

Tragedy finds us where reasons end. When we witness this comfortless spiral onstage, we are in a sudden flood of light — not the benevolent light that guides our path or aids our vision, but the light of a conflagration, a phantasmagoric illumination that says: However bad you think it is, it can be worse, and it will be worse.

Walking back through the Asclepieion that night, I wondered if this was the wisdom I was after. I had gained no specific insight into why there was so much suffering in the world. I did not know why, in the past two years, millions of people had died in loneliness and fear, their breath taken from them before their time. But I knew there had been a shift in my understanding, somehow. Poor Cassandra! I felt myself changed by the hard beauty of the play and by an awareness of the vast and indifferent night sky under which it had unfolded. I could feel now what before I had known only in theory: that suffering is sometimes too much, that there is no limit to pain.

I returned to Greece a few months later, near the end of winter. On the first trip, I had come in search of answers, but this time my inclination was for more questions. I was glad to be there in the off-season, glad for the cold and misty mornings of Athens in March, and for the correspondingly quieter mood of the city. As soon as I arrived, I went to the National Archaeological Museum to revisit some favorite artifacts: the archaic kouroi and korai, the Artemision Bronze, the dozens of delicate white funeral lethykoi in the ceramics section upstairs.

I particularly noticed the large number of stelae in the collection, marble grave monuments that often feature mourners bidding farewell to their dead. One stele, the work of an unrecorded sculptor, shows a group of four carved in high relief, presumably a family. The focal figure is a woman seated in profile on a straight-backed chair who, with her right hand, clasps the right hand of a bearded man in a handshake. It is a handshake of farewell, a common motif in such stelae. Between them stands a woman in a pensive pose, and on the left side of the trio is a smaller standing figure. The inscription identifies the seated woman as Damasistrate, daughter of Polykleides. Damasistrate is long dead, but the mourning for her survives, her family’s grief tangible even after two millenniums.

Damasistrate (seated), daughter of Polykleides, memorialized in one of the many marble stelae held at the National Archaeological Museum in Athens.Credit…Enri Canaj/Magnum, for The New York Times

There is abundant evidence of lamentation in ancient Greek art and literature. Death was not a final stop but rather part of a process by which the soul went to Hades. For the soul not to lose its way, proper death rites were essential. These entailed the preparation of the body, the interment or cremation, the care of graves and the undertaking of subsequent ritual libations, tasks that fell to family members generally, and to female relatives in particular. This is why disrespect toward the dead — whether it was the active desecration of the body, as happened to Hector in the “Iliad,” or the denial of burial, as happened to Polynices in “Antigone” — occasioned such turbulence. King Priam (Hector’s father) and Antigone are bereft for similar reasons.

People everywhere are wounded by the premature death of their loved ones and are concerned with how to memorialize them. Many stelae honor the young: athletes, young mothers, unmarried girls. There was Dexileos, a youth who died in battle; there was Olympias, who was just a little girl and was described as “kind”; there was Proxenos’s daughter Hegeso. These families share a feeling of having been cheated of what might have been — the love, life and longevity denied their loved ones — and this feeling is in each case registered in the subtle language of carved marble. And as happens with the testimonies of the suppliants at the Asclepieion, the stelae ferry the feelings and names of these distant others across the ages to us.

But, of course, there is much more to Greece than its ancient past. Sorrow was in the present tense too, and as a traveler I could not close my eyes to that. On islands like Lesbos and Chios, where there had been an outcry about the conditions of refugee camps and the treatment of their inhabitants, new constructions of highly secure detention centers had gone up or were going up. Access to them by humanitarians and journalists was restricted, and there was little information about what was being done to the people behind those walls. In the Aegean, meanwhile, the Greek government was pushing back vulnerable boats, sometimes with catastrophic results. But people, having little choice, kept migrating and kept being met with injustice in a Greece where, as elsewhere, “tough” border policies were politically popular.

I remembered a young man I encountered on my earlier visit. He came up to us at a cafe in the Monastiraki neighborhood of Athens, selling red roses for one euro each. My friends waved him away, but he was persistent, and so I engaged him in conversation. He was from Bangladesh and had studied chemistry in Dhaka. When a future became impossible there, he said, he had found his way to Turkey. With others, he had crossed the Evros River, which forms much of the terrestrial Greece-Turkey border, and they had walked to Thessaloniki and then made their way south to Athens. “But I cannot stay here,” he said. “I studied chemistry, and I want to be a pharmacist.” He was in his mid-20s. He couldn’t get papers under the current Greek government, the government of Kyriakos Mitsotakis, which had taken a harder position on immigration than the previous administration. “I have to go to Germany, and then I will become a pharmacist.” He said that last bit with a noticeable brightness in his otherwise despondent voice. The dream of beginning a career was a beacon of hope in the distance, but for now he was in despair.

A young boy from Bangladesh sells flowers in Athens.Credit…Enri Canaj/Magnum, for The New York Times

Later I read accounts of others who had failed in the attempt to enter Greece by a similar route. The Evros River is often deadly for those who try to cross there. Some cannot swim or find themselves caught in sudden currents. Some are shot at by the Greek border police; others make it across the river only to die of injuries or hypothermia. The bodies are sometimes retrieved only weeks later, in advanced stages of decomposition. Those who die in the Evros region are taken to Alexandroupolis, the Greek city closest to the border. There, at the University Hospital of Alexandroupolis, Dr. Pavlos Pavlidis assumes responsibility for them. Pavlidis has been involved in this work for over 20 years and has carried out more than 500 autopsies. He and his team try to determine the cause of death and identify the bodies. In coordination with human rights organizations, they notify the bereaved families, when that is possible. Often, it is not possible, in part because many of those who undertake these journeys, to avoid complications if they’re caught, do not carry identifying documents. When all attempts to match the dead with their names have been exhausted, Pavlidis sends the bodies to a small village called Sidiro, about an hour’s drive north of Alexandroupolis, in a part of Greece that is home to the once substantial but now small Ottoman Greek Muslim population.

The unidentified bodies are washed by the women of the village. Under the reasonable assumption that these dead are from a Muslim background — many of those crossing the Evros River originate from Afghanistan, Syria, Pakistan and Bangladesh — the village imam conducts burial rites for them. They are interred in a cemetery near the village. It is a burial of those whom, as in the “Antigone” of Sophocles, the state has deemed illegal. There is a particularly potent exchange between Antigone and Creon after she is arrested for conducting funeral rites over the body of her brother. Here it is in the coruscating version of the play by Anne Carson (for Greek names, Carson often uses a more accurate “k” where translation conventions in English have tended to use a “c”):

Kreon [to Antigone]: you knew it was
against the law
Antigone: well if you call that law
Kreon: I do
Antigone: Zeus does not
Justice does not
the dead do not
what they call law did not begin
today or yesterday
when they say law they do not
mean a statute of
today or yesterday
they mean the unwritten unfailing
eternal ordinances
of the gods
that no human being can
ever outrun

Moved by what I heard about the cemetery near Sidiro, I had a strong wish to see it for myself, and in mid-March I flew north from Athens to Alexandroupolis. I stayed at a small hotel a couple of blocks from the city’s waterfront. On my first night there, at 3 a.m., the fire alarm sounded, sending all the guests out into the streets in their pajamas. My eyes were bleary the next morning when the driver I had hired showed up. It was a Sunday. I found a florist whose shop was open and bought a dozen red roses. We drove first to the sleepy border town of Soufli, where we saw hardly a soul. From there we made our way on rising roads, past fields of hardy-looking mulberry trees, in search of the village of Sidiro.

Pavlos Pavlidis, professor of forensic medicine at the University Hospital of Alexandroupolis, must often try to identify those who have died trying to reach Greece.Credit…Enri Canaj/Magnum, for The New York Times

The village was nestled among green hills. Though neat, with buildings of stone, it did not appear well-off. Mechanical farm equipment was scattered here and there, but there was no one to be seen. The driver idled near a modest building with minarets, which I took to be the village mosque. Two men walked by, and we asked them where the imam’s house was. With appropriate skepticism, but also a willingness to be helpful, they pointed it out. It was a short distance behind the mosque. But when we got there, again no one was around. Two other men eventually walked by, and we asked if they knew where the imam was. They had no idea. What about the cemetery where foreigners were buried? They, like the first pair of villagers, were cagey. Then one of them pointed to a particular hill in the distance.

We found it. We had driven down from the village and come to a crossing with unmarked roads, but after going up a dirt track, we came to a wire-fenced patch of land with a metal gate. The gate seemed locked, but all it needed was a firm push. I slid the gate open and stepped into the cemetery and was confronted with repeated rows of blank white stones, of which there must have been 200, set into mounds of dark earth. Amid the graves, lime green grasses grew and young trees were in bloom, the florets white, burgundy, pale yellow, backlit by the sun. The hills in the distance were a profusion of greens. I walked farther in and saw that a few of the gravestones had inscriptions in Arabic script. But a vast majority were blank, mute. I placed six of the roses on one grave and the remaining six on another. What we call “law” often denies the deeper truths.

I had a sense that I was there in the cemetery on behalf of others, those who would have wished to be there, if only they knew that this was where their loved ones had ended up. I am not religious. I have no prayers to recite. But in that cemetery of persons once-known, I performed a ceremony of farewell: I breathed in the spring air, I listened to the rustle of vegetation, I felt the grass underfoot, I looked across the landscape in the bright but tender afternoon light, and at the farms, the village and the forested slopes. It was a vision of peace and even of consolation.

But you don’t go to a tragedy for closure. There comes another episode, and another, and another, more than anyone can bear. A few months after my journey, enormous swaths of the Evros region were consumed by wildfires, the largest such outbreak in recent European history. In August, 18 people, adults as well as children, were found burned to death in a forest near the village of Avantas, just a few miles north of Alexandroupolis. Blackened beyond recognition, some of them were discovered hugging each other. They were presumed to have recently crossed the border and to have sought protection under the trees.

The Evros River, seen here in 2020, an often-fatal barrier on the Greece-Turkey border.Credit…Enri Canaj/Magnum, for The New York Times

Teju Cole wrote the magazine’s National Magazine Award-nominated “On Photography” column from 2015 to 2019. His new novel, “Tremor,” is forthcoming in October. Enri Canaj is an Albanian photographer based in Athens and a member of Magnum Photos. His book, “Say Goodbye Before You Leave,” includes eight years of work on migrants’ journeys and lives after they have left their homeland.

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