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Messing with the Dead

October 19, 2009

My students are currently reading Sophocles’ tragedy Antigone (one of his Theban Plays). In this play Creon brings doom upon his own house by not providing proper burial for his traitorous nephew, Polynices. In other traditions Creon leaves not only Polynices but also the Argive host that accompanied him unburied, causing further problems for Creon when Athens shows up with a peacekeeping taskforce. From these stories it would appear that messing with the dead was always bad, but a recent article by Saul M. Olyan provides a needed balance. Not all accounts of disturbing the dead are negative in character.

In the most recent Journal of Biblical Literature Saul M. Olyan has an article entitled “Unnoticed Resonances of Tomb Openings and Transportation of Remains of the Dead in Ezekiel 37:12-14” (pp. 491-501). Olyan explicates two differing ways of dealing with buried remains.

The more well known view can be found in numerous inscriptions throughout the ancient world that speak of letting the dead rest in peace. The fear here, of course, is that the dead would not be allowed to find this desired respite, would have their remains disturbed and would spend all eternity as restless spirits. In one example Olyan quotes Ashurbanipal’s desecration of Elamite tombs:

I took their bones to the land of Assyria, imposing restlessness upon their ghosts. I deprived them of ancestral offerings (and) libation water. (pp.496-7)

However, messing with dead need not always be negative. In Ezekiel 37:12-14 Olyan sees a secondary burial of the exiled dead in post-exilic Judea. A similar motif of moving the dead can be found in an earlier Hittite text not mentioned by Olyan.

In the “Apology of Hattusili III” the regent speaks of his older brother, Muwatalli II, who moved the capitol of the Hittite Empire from the northeastern Anatolian city of Hattusa to Tarhuntassa, further south. In the process of the move, Muwatalli II moved the dead as well as the living to his new capital (though some scholars hold it was just the image of the dead).

Conceptually, it is hard to tell where to put Sophocles in relation to the material addressed here. He is writing a century after the prophet Ezekiel (and is probably contemporary with Ezekiel’s redactors). Creon is closer in date to the Hattusili, but to what extent have these traditions been handed down to classical Greece intact? At very least we can see in these texts a larger view of the importance of proper attendance to the dead. If only Creon had been more attentive.

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