Imagine you are sitting down near an old tomb among Roman ruins, perhaps at the Via Appia, to take a rest during a hot summer day. You look at the inscriptions on the graves. They start talking to you:
Shadow of dead Roman:
If you cover the way’s distance here, rest a little bit.
Why do you hurry so much? Time is not lost, listen
to the one who is living there in your language, who is speaking in your tender voice.
I beg you, gladly, gladly reread, do it without tedium, my friend.
The idea seems to have been that the dead were turning into shadows lacking an independent life of their own. Like a shadow only moves if the person or object it belongs to is moving, the shadows of the dead needed somebody to give them back, for a moment, some flesh and blood and voice, bringing alive, for a short moment, the thought of the deceased. So, perhaps, the tombs where put along streets so travelers would read the inscriptions and give the deceased a short moment of life through their mind and voice
…the one who is living there in your language, who is speaking in your tender voice… –
So sit with me here and let us listen what some of the shadows have to say. Just follow me, give a few of your moments to the following words and thoughts and follow me on a path, overgrown with hemlock and some other weeds, through the history of ideas. We are sitting among some old tombs in the shadow of a cypress tree. Specks of sun are dancing on the floor, insects are chirping… But enough of such stereotypes, dead shadows of a real landscape, and back to the line of thought I want to be following.
The dead become shadows, but these shadows can temporarily come back to life. This seems to be the idea behind that inscription. In the more archaic mindset of Homer, it is not just a traveler’s voice that gives a temporary life to the shadows, but the blood of a sacrificed animal. In the Odyssey, there is a scene where Odysseus travels to the entrance of hades. With a sacrifice of food and blood, he is conjuring up Teiresias, the blind prophet, as well as some of his comrades who have been killed. The shadows emerging from Hades also seem to lack a life of their own. Even if they are referred to as “spirits”, they seem to need the blood of a living animal:
Shadow of Homer:
I had made supplication to the tribes of the dead, I took the sheep and cut their throats over the pit, and the dark blood ran forth. Then there gathered from out of Erebus the spirits of those that are dead, brides, and unwedded youths, and toil-worn old men, and tender maidens with hearts yet new to sorrow, and many, too, that had been wounded with bronze-tipped spears, men slain in fight, wearing their blood-stained armour. These came thronging in crowds about the pit from every side, with a wondrous cry; and pale fear seized me. Then I called to my comrades and bade them flay and burn the sheep that lay there slain with the pitiless bronze, and to make prayer to the gods, to mighty Hades and dread Persephone. And I myself drew my sharp sword from beside my thigh and sat there, and would not suffer the powerless heads of the dead to draw near to the blood until I had enquired of Teiresias.
Sitting on the old tomb, we are getting out our food. Maybe the shadows need food or living voices to come alive, but living people need food as well to stay alive. Perhaps some travelers have been sitting here before you, eating a piece of chicken, throwing away the bones. Maybe those travelers shed some water for the spirits, as is custom in several cultures. The idea of sacrificing drinks and food to the spirits as well as to the immortals permeates many cultures. In the Greek tradition, the immortals receive the bones, while the humans get the meat. The mythology contains the story of Prometheus dividing the sacrifice:
Shadow of Hesiod:
…when the gods and mortal men had a dispute at Mecone, even then Prometheus was forward to cut up a great ox and set portions before them, trying to deceive the mind of Zeus. Before the rest he set flesh and inner parts thick with fat upon the hide, covering them with an ox paunch; but for Zeus he put the white bones dressed up with cunning art and covered with shining fat. Then the father of men and of gods said to him: “Son of Iapetus, most glorious of all lords, good sir, how unfairly you have divided the portions!”…
(To be continued…)
(The picture, showing a 19th century painting of the Via Apia near Rome, is from https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:John_Linton_Chapman_(1839%E2%80%931905),_Via_Appia,_1867._Oil_on_canvas,_Georgia_Museum_of_Art,_University_of_Georgia.jpg.)
 carpis si qui vias, paulum huc depone laborem,
cur tantum properas? non est mora dum legis, audi
lingua tua vivum mitique tua voce loquerem.
oro libens libens relegas, ne taedio ducas, amice.
(Carmina Epigraphica 513, 1-4.)