As we have learned throughout reading the Iliad and Odyssey, suicide isn’t just a problem found in our modern society. Ajax is perhaps the most prevalent example in ancient Greece. However, the idea of death and suicide also plagued Achilles as he contemplated whether to stay and fight in the battle of Troy or to go home and live a quiet life. Modernly, Utah ranks higher than the national average in age-adjusted suicides per capita. Unfortunately, suicides have recently frequented the news with examples such as the young woman who committed suicide on BYU campus last fall and celebrities such as Chester Bennington (singer for Linkin Park). In this paper, we are going to look at what motivates suicide and how it differs in ancient Greece vs today and finally what those motives tell us about society in which they live.
First, we will look at the death of Achilles and how his death shows us one of the motives for suicide in ancient Greece. In the Iliad, Achilles is faced with the question of whether he should stay and defend the ships or return home to a life of safety. After having his trophy woman taken by Agamemnon he chooses to return with his men back to his estate. Hector, the champion of Troy, kills his dearest friend Patroclus, upon hearing the news and burning the body Achilles learns that returning to battle and killing Hector means he will also die. “From under a great weight, Achilles answered: Then let me die now. I was no help To him when he was killed out there.”(Homer,178) From this, we see that Achilles, a man that values life over honor, chooses to return to battle because of the grief he feels for his closest friend Patroclus. Thus the first motive for Greek suicide was grief for those that they love or in simpler terms, love.
Another important character we must consider when talking about suicide is Ajax. Ajax was the most physically powerful man of the Greek army after Achilles(Homer, 485). AfterAchilles dies many expected Ajax to get his armor and fill the void that had been left. Odysseus also seeks the armor so they have a contest to determine who will get it. With Athena’s help, Odysseus prevails over Ajax and thus obtains the armor. In response, Ajax kills a heard of cattle thinking they are Greeks, Sophocles writes that Ajax “Hacked the horned animals to pieces…he thought he was attacking and killing them [the Greeks] all with his bare hands.”(55) Once Ajax finds out what he has done, he commits suicide. The vase, The Suicide of Ajax by Exekias depicts the scene of Ajax’s suicide right before he commits the act. Notice the lines of the spear and his eyes focusing the attention to the sword. Also, look at how he is hunched over as if he is full of shame. The motive for Ajax’s suicide his inability to meet the expectations of his countrymen. Once he fails to meet those expectations he spirals into madness, grief, and shame which is shown on the vase by narrowing the focus on the means of suicide.
In contrast to the ancient Greeks, studies of modern-day suicide have been done in an attempt to find the motives of the victims so that we can better understand why suicide is committed. A study was conducted that analyzed the themes of notes left behind by people who have committed suicide in the United States. This study found that “Love themes were significantly more common than achievement themes … relationship concerns may be a dominant component of the motivation for suicide” (Canetto, 573). This study identifies love and relationships as being the most common factor in people committing suicide based on suicide notes left behind.
Initially, when thinking about this topic I expected ancient Greece suicide to be motivated primarily by honor with more recent suicides to be motivated by love or inability to fit into the culture. Achilles’ suicide was motivated primarily due to his love for the dead Patroclus. Ajax’s suicide, in contrast, was motivated by his relationship with the community and his feeling of inadequacy to meet their expectations. In modern times, suicide is primarily motivated by love and problems in our relationships with others. Ancient Greek suicide and modern-day suicide seem to be motivated by fundamentally similar reasons this to me makes a lot of sense as we are both human and even with huge differences in our culture we are still motivated by similar things.
Using the motives identified from modern-day suicide notes as well as those found in the Iliad of Ancient Greece we can identify similarities and differences between our cultures. First, both cultures value the relationships of our friends and family above everything else. This value for relationships is shown in ancient Greece during Odysseus’ visit to the world of the dead in the Odyssey. After the ghost of Ajax refuses to forgive or even talk to him he laments that “I wish I had never won. That contest buried Ajax, that brave heart.”(Homer, 348) meaning that even though he won the armor losing a friend was not worth it. The Greeks highly valued their community. This is similar to our culture here in Utah with the prevalence of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. We value our families and church communities in such a way that we are willing to drop everything to go serve one another. We meet regularly and plan activities together for our edification and enjoyment. When an individual has an issue that keeps them from feeling that love of the community than that can lead to suicide(Canetto). Thus ancient Greece and modern-day reflect each other in that we all value the love of those around us.
In conclusion, suicide has existed throughout human history and many of the motives that drive it have stayed the same. In Ancient Greece, the powerful communities and sense of Honor left people feeling hopeless when they no longer fit or lost their honor. Similarly, in modern day we have a sense of community because of the prevalence of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints here in Utah. However, in contrast to honor, we have a stronger need to feel like we belong. Also, studies have shown that the feeling of love or having relationships is the largest motive in modern suicide. Ancient Greece and the modern day are similar in that we both value community and the feeling of belonging and love that comes from it. It is important for our society to make sure to value and seek to increase those bonds of love so that we can reduce the calamity of suicide.
Canetto, S. S., & Lester, D. Love and achievement motives in women’s and men’s suicide notes. The Journal of Psychology, 136(5), 573-6. 2002 doi:http://dx.doi.org.libproxy.chapman.edu/10.1080/00223980209605552
Exekias. “Suicide of Ajax Vase.” Wikimedia, 2013, commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Exekias_Suicide_d_Ajax_01.jpg.
Homer, and Stanley Lombardo. The Essential Homer: Selections from the Iliad and Odyssey. Hackett Pub., 2000.
Sophocles. Ajax. Translated by George Theodoridis, 2009.