Vanity of Vanity

The words of the Preacher, the son of David, king in Jerusalem.
Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher, vanity of vanities; all is vanity.
(Ecclesiastes 2:1-2)

Thus begins Ecclesiastes, the most unusual book in the Judeo-Christian Bible. Unlike the rest of the Bible, this book claims that the nature of the world is neither revealed to us nor accessible to reason. The universe and its Creator pay us no particular regard. Man is not special. Heretical though these thoughts might be, Ecclesiastes contains some of the world’s most widely quoted verses of scripture. The words of the Preacher resonate through the seasons of our lives. This post comments on several selections from the book.


The author of the book is called Qohelet (קהלת in Hebrew). This word derives from a root meaning to “assemble” or “bring people together.” The name suggests a sage who teaches a group of disciples. The translators have taken it to mean someone who preaches in a church (Latin, ecclesia). Yet Qohelet was clearly neither priest nor preacher. He was a rich man, a master of estates and an owner of palaces. The title Ecclesiastes is inappropriate. As pointed out by Lessing (1998),

thus do the living springs of knowledge, of wisdom, become captured by institutions, and by churches of various kinds.

According to the first line of the book, its author was Solomon, the son of David and Bathsheba. However, although Qohelet may have been a descendant of David, linguistic evidence (reviewed in Bundvad, 2015, pp 5-9) indicates that he wrote in the 3rd century BCE during the Hellenistic period (323-63 BCE), some seven hundred years after Solomon. Other scholars have suggested that the author may have written several centuries earlier during the Persian period (539-323 BCE), but this would still be long after Solomon (10th Century BCE).

The first line of the book may have been added by a later editor who wished this scripture to partake of Solomon’s fame. More likely, it is original, indicating that Ecclesiastes is a fictional testament: an imagined description of what Solomon might have thought (see discussion in Batholomew, 2009, pp 43-54). However, the book is ambiguous in terms of its narration. As the book progresses Qohelet becomes clearly distinguished from Solomon. And even Qohelet vacillates between two minds: that of a Jewish believer and that of a Greek philosopher (Bartholomew, 2009, p. 78).



Ben Shahn (1971) imagines Qohelet as a simple teacher. Though once rich and powerful, his thoughts have led him to withdraw from high society. Although dismayed that he has not been able to understand its meaning, he still enjoys the life he has been granted.





Qohelet’s summary of his philosophy is that “All is vanity.” Shahn (1971) presents the beginning of the second verse in calligraphy:


The full verse and its transliteration follows. Note that the Hebrew goes from right to left whereas the transliteration goes from left to right (As Qohelet later says, “The wind goeth toward the south and turneth about unto the north”):

הבל הבלים אמר קהלת הבל הבלים הכל הבל׃

havel havalim amar kohelet, havel havalim hakkol havel.

The sound of the Hebrew follows (just in case you wish to denounce the world’s latest frivolity out loud):

The key Hebrew word is havel (הבל). This

indicates the flimsy vapor that is exhaled in breathing, invisible except on a cold winter day and in any case immediately dissipating in the air (Alter, 2010, p 340)

The word can be directly translated as “vapor” or “breath.” Alter translates havel havelim as “mere breath.” It denotes something without material substance or temporal persistence. Many translators have characterized it in abstract terms: meaningless, transient, empty, useless, absurd, futile, enigmatic, illusory.

The word havel has the same letters as the name of Abel, the second son of Adam, slain by his brother Cain. Qohelet was likely aware of this association (Bundvad, 2015, pp 79-80). Abel was the first man to die. His life was fleeting and uncertain, his death unjust, his person only faintly remembered.

The King James Version of the Bible (1611) translates havel as “vanity.” This word comes from the Latin vanus meaning empty. The translators used “vanity” to denote a lack of meaning, value or purpose. The secondary, now more common, meaning for the word – self-admiration, excessive pride (the opposite of humility) – may have come about as a particular example of worthless activity.

At the time of the King James Version, the term vanitas was also used to denote a type of painting became popular in Flanders and the Netherlands in the 16th and 17th centuries. The example below is by Pieter Claesz (1628). These paintings arrange objects to show the transience of life, the limits of understanding and the inevitability of death. Despite their meaning, the paintings are imbued with sensual beauty:

The appeal of the vanitas painting tradition lies in its successful capture of the subtle balance between transient and joyful modes of living, so vociferously endorsed by Qoheleth. (Christianson, 2007, p 122).


After introducing himself and summarizing his message, Qohelet poses the main question of the book:

What profit hath a man of all his labour which he taketh under the sun? (Ecclesiastes, 1:3)

The word translated as “profit” is yitron (יתרון). This word is only found in the Bible in Ecclesiastes. Perhaps “benefit” might be a better translation (Bartholomew, 2009, pp 107-108). The “labour” involves both physical and mental work. The idea is how best we should lead our lives.

The answer begins with the glorious poem

One generation passeth away,
and another generation cometh:
but the earth abideth for ever.

The sun also ariseth, and the sun goeth down,
and hasteth to his place where he arose.

The wind goeth toward the south,
and turneth about unto the north;
it whirleth about continually,
and the wind returneth again
according to his circuits.

All the rivers run into the sea; yet the sea is not full;
unto the place from whence the rivers come,
thither they return again.

All things are full of labour; man cannot utter it:
the eye is not satisfied with seeing,
nor the ear filled with hearing.

The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be;
and that which is done is that which shall be done:
and there is no new thing under the sun.

(Ecclesiastes 1: 3-9).

The poetry is beautiful but there is no profit in it. Human beings come and go. The human mind cannot gain sufficient knowledge of the world to understand its workings or to change it in any significant way. The world is as frustrating as it is beautiful. The more one knows, the more one is convinced of one’s transience:

For in much wisdom is much grief: and he that increaseth knowledge increaseth sorrow. (Ecclesiastes 1: 18)

Qohelet realizes that life can nevertheless be enjoyable.

There is nothing better for a man, than that he should eat and drink, and that he should make his soul enjoy good in his labour. This also I saw, that it was from the hand of God. (Ecclesiastes 2: 24)

This is the old man’s version of the Andrew Marvel’s “Gather ye rosebuds while ye may.” The sentiment is perhaps as old as poetry. The Roman poet Catullus in the 1st Century BCE also wrote how the sun arises after it goes down but man does not:

soles occidere et redire possunt;
nobis, cum semel occidit brevis lux
nox est perpetua una dormienda.
da mi basia mille, deinde centum

Walter Raleigh in his History of the World (1614) translated this as

The Sunne may set and rise
But we contrariwise
Sleepe after our short light
One everlasting night.

Raleigh does not translate the continuation of the poem wherein Catullus goes on to request a compensatory thousand kisses from his lover Lesbia.


Qohelet has been considering the passage of time. The word used for time in Ecclesiastes – eth (עת) – generally refers to a moment of time. The other Hebrew word for time is olam (עולם) which takes all of time into account and is usually translated as “for ever” (as in Ecclesiastes 1:4). In the first chapter Qohelet contrasted world time with human time.

In Chapter 3, he considers a different aspect of time. God has ensured that events occur at their appropriate time. Eternity has been arranged in its proper sequence.

To every thing there is a season,
and a time to every purpose under the heaven:

A time to be born, and a time to die;
a time to plant, and a time to pluck up
that which is planted;

A time to kill, and a time to heal;
a time to break down, and a time to build up;

A time to weep, and a time to laugh;
a time to mourn, and a time to dance;

A time to cast away stones,
and a time to gather stones together;
a time to embrace,
and a time to refrain from embracing;

A time to get, and a time to lose;
a time to keep, and a time to cast away;

A time to rend, and a time to sew;
a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;

A time to love, and a time to hate;
a time of war, and a time of peace.

(Ecclesiastes 3:1-8)




Ben Shahn (1971) portrays the essence of these lines with a wheat field at harvest time:




These verses can be interpreted in two main ways. The first proposes that time has been pre-ordained to work out the purposes of God, that we cannot change these things, and that we should be resigned to what happens. Everything is for the best. The other interpretation uses these words to justify one’s actions. Martin Luther quoted these verses when the time had come to speak out against the Catholic Church (Christianson, 2007, p 166). Thus are human actions divinely justified. Luther believed in predestination. He spoke out not by choice but because he had no choice: he could not do otherwise.

These verses were set to music by the folksinger Pete Seeger in the late 1950s. His lyrics directly quote the King James Version using the first verse with the addition of “Turn! Turn! Turn!” as the refrain. After “a time of peace” Seeger added “I swear it’s not too late.” The song became an anthem of the peace movement. The following is an excerpt:

Qohelet recognizes the beauty of God’s time. Yet he is frustrated that he can never understand it:

I know that, whatsoever God doeth, it shall be for ever: nothing can be put to it, nor any thing taken from it: and God doeth it, that men should fear before him.
That which hath been is now; and that which is to be hath already been; and God requireth that which is past.
(Ecclesiastes 3: 14-15)

This idea of time as divinely ordered but incomprehensible to the human mind pervades T. S. Eliots’ Burnt Norton (1935) which begins:

Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future,
And time future contained in time past.
If all time is eternally present
All time is unredeemable.
What might have been is an abstraction
Remaining a perpetual possibility
Only in a world of speculation.
What might have been and what has been
Point to one end, which is always present.

Qohelet goes on to state that since we cannot understand we are no different from other animals. We live, we die.

For that which befalleth the sons of men befalleth beasts; even one thing befalleth them: as the one dieth, so dieth the other; yea, they have all one breath; so that a man hath no preeminence above a beast: for all is vanity.
All go unto one place; all are of the dust, and all turn to dust again.
(Ecclesiastes 3:19-20)

These statements go against all previous Jewish teachings. Qohelet’s book

amounts to a denial of divine revelation, and of the belief that man was created as an almost divine being, to care for and exercise dominion over the other creatures and all the works of God’s hands. … In the final analysis man is like the animals rather than superior to them (Scott, 1965, p. 205)

Johannes Brahms was devastated when his friend Clara Schumann suffered a stroke in 1895 and was close to death. During this time, he composed his Four Serious Songs Opus 121. The first song is uses Luther’s translation of Ecclesiastes 3: 19-22. The following is the beginning (up to wird wieder zu Staub “turn to dust again”) as sung by Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau:

Denn es gehet dem Menschen wie dem Vieh; wie dies stirbt, so stirbt er auch; und haben alle einerlei Odem;und der Mensch hat nichts mehr denn das Vieh: denn es ist alles eitel.
Es fährt alles an einen Ort; es ist alles von Staub gemacht, und wird wieder zu Staub.

This first song is desolate – we die like beasts, our life is empty, we are made of dust. The later songs in the series progress from deep sadness to quiet resignation. The final song sets verses from the New Testament, among them

For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known. (I Corinthians 13:12)

Brahms called his songs “serious” (ernst) rather than “sacred.” This is a fitting description of the book Ecclesiastes.


After considering the inevitability of death, Qohelet turns to evaluate the course of human life. He finds that success does not necessarily reward those who most deserve it:

I returned, and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.
(Ecclesiastes 9:11)

A brief adaptation of this verse was included in the posthumously published Last Poems of D. H. Lawrence (1932). The poem Race and Battle is notable for its image of the “streaked pansy of the heart” which recalls the title of his earlier book Pansies, itself a pun on Pascal’s Pensées. Lawrence attempts to explain how to accept that life may be unfair and preserve a personal sense of justice.

The race is not to the swift
but to those that can sit still
and let the waves go over them.

The battle is not to the strong
but to the frail, who know best
how to efface themselves
to save the streaked pansy of the heart from
being trampled to mud.

Lawrence’s poem adds to Qohelet’s resignation some of the later teachings of Jesus – Blessed are the meek: for they shall inherit the earth… Blessed are the pure in heart: for they shall see God (Matthew 5: 5,8).


Qohelet’s search for wisdom has led him to dismay. Death is inevitable and unpredictable. Life is without justice. Nevertheless, Qohelet urges us to enjoy our life:

Go thy way, eat thy bread with joy, and drink thy wine with a merry heart; for God now accepteth thy works.
Let thy garments be always white; and let thy head lack no ointment.
Live joyfully with the wife whom thou lovest all the days of the life of thy vanity, which he hath given thee under the sun, all the days of thy vanity: for that is thy portion in this life, and in thy labour which thou takest under the sun.
Whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, do it with thy might; for there is no work, nor device, nor knowledge, nor wisdom, in the grave, whither thou goest.
(Ecclesiastes 9:7-10)

White clothes are worn for festive occasions. Their whiteness contrasts with the black of mourning. Anointing one’s hair with oil is another sign of gladness. Yet the most important of Qohelet’s injunctions is to work at whatever needs to be done.

Qohelet’s advice is related to the philosophies of Epicurus (341-270 BCE) in its enjoyment of life and of the stoic Zeno (334-262 BCE) in its promotion of right action. If, as most scholars now believe, Qohelet wrote in the 3rd Century BCE, he could have been influenced by such Greek philosophies. He certainly based his search for truth on reason rather than on revelation. Yet his philosophy is his own. It is religious rather than materialist.

Scott (1965, p 206) summarizes Qohelet’s reasoning:

Thus the good of life is in the living of it. The profit of work is in the doing of it, not in any profit or residue which a man can exhibit as his achievement or pass on to his descendants. The fruit of wisdom is not the accumulation of all knowledge and the understanding of all mysteries. It lies rather in recognizing the limitations of human knowledge and power. Man is not the measure of all things. He is the master neither of life nor of death. He can find serenity only in coming to terms with the unalterable conditions of his existence, and in enjoying its real but limited satisfactions.



Ben Shahn presents the thoughts of Qohelet as balanced between his inability to understand and his realization that life can nevertheless be enjoyed:




Qohelet has much in common with the existentialism of the 20th Century. Albert Camus remarks in Le Mythe de Sisyphe (1942):

Je ne sais pas si ce monde a un sens qui le dépasse. Mais je sais que je ne connais pas ce sens et qu’il m’est impossible pour le moment de le connaître. [I don’t know whether this world has a meaning that transcends it. But I know that I cannot grasp that meaning and that it is impossible now for me to grasp it.]

Camus is much more tentative than Qohelet in his conclusion that we should nevertheless enjoy our life. He retells the myth of Sisyphus who was condemned by the Gods because he had tried to cheat death. He was made to roll an immense boulder up to the summit of a mountain, but every time he reached the top, the rock would roll back down and Sisyphus would have to begin his task again.

La lutte elle-même vers les sommets suffit à remplir un cœur d’homme; il faut imaginer Sisyphe heureux. [The very struggle toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy. ]

Bread upon the Waters

Qohelet presents us with multiple proverbial injunctions about how one should live one’s life. Perhaps the most quoted of these is:

Cast thy bread upon the waters: for thou shalt find it after many days.
Give a portion to seven, and also to eight; for thou knowest not what evil shall be upon the earth.
(Ecclesiastes 11: 1-2)

The verses have been interpreted in many ways. Merchants have considered them in terms of overseas trade. Christians have proposed that it means to spread the teachings of Christ throughout the world. This idea derives from Christ’s statement that he was the “bread of life” (John 6:35). Qohelet had neither of these ideas in mind. He was encouraging us to be generous, to provide for our fellows. He was suggesting that such human charity could compensate for life’s injustice.

In his own old age, the wise Richard Wilbur (2010) wrote a poem about these verses

We must cast our bread
Upon the waters,
as the
Ancient preacher said,

Trusting that it may
Amply be restored to us
After many a day.

That old metaphor,
Drawn from rice farming on the
River’s flooded shore,

Helps us to believe
That it’s no great sin to give,
Hoping to receive.

Therefore I shall throw
Broken bread, this sullen day,
Out across the snow,

Betting crust and crumb
That birds will gather, and that
One more spring will come.


Light and Dark

Qohelet reminds us that life brings both enjoyment and dismay. The verses are illustrated by Ben Shahn on the left.

Truly the light is sweet, and a pleasant thing it is for the eyes to behold the sun:
But if a man live many years, and rejoice in them all; yet let him remember the days of darkness; for they shall be many.
(Ecclesiastes 11: 7-8)



Remember Now

The last chapter of Ecclesiastes contains its most famous poetry. Qohelet, who has become old and wise, advises his youthful followers. He tells them to rejoice in their youth for life is beautiful. Yet they must always bear in mind that they must grow old and die:

Remember now thy Creator in the days of thy youth,
while the evil days come not,
nor the years draw nigh, when thou shalt say,
I have no pleasure in them;

While the sun, or the light, or the moon,
or the stars, be not darkened,
nor the clouds return after the rain:

In the day when the keepers of the house shall tremble,
and the strong men shall bow themselves,
and the grinders cease because they are few,
and those that look out of the windows be darkened,

And the doors shall be shut in the streets,
when the sound of the grinding is low,
and he shall rise up at the voice of the bird,
and all the daughters of musick shall be brought low;

Also when they shall be afraid of that which is high,
and fears shall be in the way,
and the almond tree shall flourish,
and the grasshopper shall be a burden,
and desire shall fail:
because man goeth to his long home,
and the mourners go about the streets:

Or ever the silver cord be loosed,
or the golden bowl be broken,
or the pitcher be broken at the fountain,
or the wheel broken at the cistern.

Then shall the dust return to the earth as it was:
and the spirit shall return unto God who gave it.

Vanity of vanities, saith the preacher; all is vanity.

(Ecclesiastes 12: 1-8)

Qohelet refers to God as the Creator (borador, בוראיך). This is the only time he uses this term; elsewhere he uses Elohim (אלהים). Qohelet is here invoking Genesis: we must view the end of an individual life in relation to the beginning of all life. Some commentators (Rashi; Scott, 1965, p. 255) have remarked on the relations of this word to bor (בור) which occurs in the 7th verse.  This means “pit,” in the sense of either a “grave” or a “cistern.” This verbal association also brings the end of life back to its source.

The poem is as enigmatic as it is beautiful. The initial verse of the poem clearly states that it is concerned with human mortality. Yet how the images relate to old age and death is as uncertain as the breath that ceases. And the poem ends on the words that began the book – all is vanity, merest breath.

A literal interpretation is that the poem describes a village or estate in mourning for a once-great person lately fallen on hard times. Perhaps Qohelet is foreseeing his own death. The windows of the house are darkened, the mill is quiet as the workers remember their late master, the mourners go about the streets, and finally dust is scattered over the body as it is buried.

A long tradition has provided allegorical interpretations of the images, relating them to the physical and mental decline that attends old age. The underlying idea is that the aging body is like a house in decay. For example, the commentary of the 11th-century Jewish rabbi Rashi suggests

the keepers of the house: These are the ribs and the flanks, which protect                                    the entire body cavity
the mighty men: These are the legs, upon which the body supports itself
and the grinders cease: These are the teeth
since they have become few: In old age, most of his teeth fall out
and those who look out of the windows: These are the eyes.
And the doors shall be shut: These are his orifices.
when the sound of the mill is low: the sound of the mill grinding the food in                                   his intestines, and that is the stomach

The problem with such specific allegories is that different commentators provide different meanings. Do the doors that shut denote the eyelids or the lips?

Other interpretations are more abstract. Does the pitcher broken at the fountain represent the bladder or the loss of the life force? Is the silver cord the spinal column or the genealogical tree that ends at the death of a person with no heirs?

Some Hebrew interpretations consider these verses as representing the desolation of Israel following the destruction of the First Temple by the Babylonians in 587 BCE. The image of the golden bowl might then represent the broken lamp that no longer lit the sanctuary.

Some Christian interpretations see the imagery as a vision of the end times that will precede the final judgment. This fits with the epilogue that follows the poem.

No single interpretation conveys the sense of the poem. All meanings overlap. The poem is better listened to than imagined. The following is by the YouTube reader who goes by the name of Tom O’Bedlam


The book concludes with an epilogue that many take to be the words of a later editor. However, it rings true to Qohelet:

Let us hear the conclusion of the whole matter: Fear God, and keep his commandments: for this is the whole duty of man.
For God shall bring every work into judgment, with every secret thing, whether it be good, or whether it be evil.
(Ecclesiastes 12: 13-14)

Why else should one remember one’s Creator? Why else should one bear in mind one’s ultimate old age and death? The sentiment is similar to Marcus Aurelius (167 CE):

Do not act as if thou wert going to live ten thousand years. Death hangs over thee. While thou livest, while it is in thy power, be good.
(Meditations IV:17)

Qohelet is also proposing that to be good is to be truly human – “the whole duty of man.” Any judgment of us as human beings must rest on whether we have done good or ill. Qohelet’s instruction derives from man as much as from God.

The following presents the Hebrew (in Ben Shahn’s calligraphy) together with its transliteration and an audio version of Ecclesiastes 12:13

Let us hear the conclusion of the whole matter: Fear God, and keep his commandments: for this is the whole duty of man.

sovf dabar hakkol nishma eth ha’elohim yera eth mitzvotav shemovr ki zeh kol ha’adam.


Alter, R. (2010). The wisdom books: Job, Proverbs, and Ecclesiastes : a translation with commentary. New York: W.W. Norton & Co.

Bartholomew, C. G. (2009). Ecclesiastes. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic.

Bundvad, M. (2015). Time in the book of Ecclesiastes. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Christianson, E. S. (2007). Ecclesiastes through the centuries. Malden, MA: Blackwell.

Lawrence, D. H. (Edited by Aldington, R., & Orioli, G., 1932). Last poems. Florence: Orioli.

Lessing, D. (1998). Introduction. In Ecclesiastes or, the preacher: Authorised King James version. Edinburgh: Canongate.

Scott, R. B. Y. (1965). Proverbs, Ecclesiastes. (Anchor Bible Volume 18). Garden City, NY: Doubleday.

Shahn, B. (1971). Ecclesiastes: Or, the preacher. New York: Grossman.

Wilbur, R. (2010). Anterooms: New poems and translations. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.


The Mysteries

For over a millennium the Mysteries were celebrated at Eleusis, about 18 km northwest of Athens. The main buildings in the temple precinct were built in the 5th Century BCE, but earlier buildings were present in the 6th Century, and evidence of cult-activity at the site goes back to the Mycenaean period before 1100 BCE (Mylonas, 1961, Chapter II). The Mysteries continued through the Hellenistic and Roman ages until their demise in the 4th Century CE when Christianity became the dominant religion of the Roman Empire.

What happened during the Mysteries is unknown. Those who were initiated into the Mysteries were instructed not to reveal their secrets. All we know is that they provided their initiates with a vision of the divine and a way to cope with death.



The Mysteries at Eleusis were based upon Demeter and Persephone (also known as Kore, the maiden). The earliest recorded version of their story is in the Homeric Hymn to Demeter from the 7th Century BCE (Lawton, 1898, pp. 154-179). Persephone was the daughter of Demeter and Zeus. She was carried off by Hades to rule with him as Queen of the Underworld. While in the realm of the dead, Persephone sometimes assumed the name of Thea, and the Underworld later became known by the name of its king. Bernini’s 1622 sculpture of the Rape of Persephone is the most famous representation of the myth.





On the left is shown a 5th-Century BCE votive tablet found in Southern Italy. The King and Queen of the Underworld sit together: Persephone holds a hen and a spray of wheat stems, and Hades displays a libation dish and a fully leaved tree-branch. Despite the fact that they rule over the dead, they are concerned with life.

Back on Earth, Demeter was grief-stricken. She wandered far and wide in search of her daughter. Ultimately she arrived at Eleusis and accepted the hospitality of its king, Celeus, and his family.

Demeter was the God of fruitfulness, and in her grief the Earth had become infertile:

                                      The Earth did not send up any seed.
Demeter, she with the beautiful garlands in her hair, kept the seeds covered underground.
Many a curved plough was dragged along the fields by many an ox—all in vain.
Many a bright grain of wheat fell into the earth—all for naught.
(Homeric Hymn to Demeter, Nagy 1914 translation, ll 306-309)

Zeus decided that this barrenness should not persist. After much negotiation with Demeter and with Hades, he arranged that Persephone could return periodically to her mother:

Zeus assented that her daughter, every time the season came round,
would spend a third portion of the year in the realms of dark mist underneath,
and the other two thirds in the company of her mother and the other immortals. (ll 464-465)

Thus the land returned to cyclic fruitfulness. The thankful Demeter taught Triptolemus, Celeus’ son, all the secrets of agriculture. One interpretation of the Eleusinian relief at the National Archeological Museum in Athens shows Demeter (on the left) presenting wheat stems (no longer visible) to the young Triptolemus. Persephone lays her hand upon his head in blessing.

In celebration of the return of Persephone, Demeter also proposed that the Mysteries be conducted annually at Eleusis. These rites occurred each autumn just before the wheat was planted. The climate of Greece is such that nothing grows in the summer, ploughing and seeding occur in the fall, and the grain is harvested in spring (Cartwright, 2016).


After a large procession from Athens to Eleusis, a group of several hundred people were initiated each year into the Mysteries. Much more is known about the procession than the actual rites which occurred within the sanctuary, though these are far more important. The rites at Eleusis lasted for two days. What happened during this time is not known since the initiates (mystai or telestai) were sworn to secrecy. We can only speculate based on scattered references and representations from the time. The following narrative combines elements from Mylonas (1961, pp 224-285) Kerenyi (1967, pp 67-102), Clinton (1992, 1993) and Bremmer (2014). A reconstruction of the temple buildings is illustrated below:

The first day was spent in fasting and purification. Outside of the main gate was a well which provided water for cleansing the body. The illustration on the Roman Lovatelli Urn (from 1st Century BCE) shows an attendant holding a winnowing fan (lyknon) over the head of a veiled initiate. A winnowing fan is used to separate the chaff from the wheat. It therefore symbolizes both harvesting and purification. In this particular representation, the initiate is Heracles (as seen from the lion skin of the Nemean Lion on which he sits).

At the end of the day the initiates were given a special non-alcoholic drink called kykeon. This was likely made from grain, honey, and herbs. Wasson et al. (1978) have suggested that it may have contained hallucinogens (also called “entheogens” – drugs that promote the experience of the divine), although it is doubtful that the dose could have been adjusted properly for such a large number of people.

As the night came on, the initiates were ushered by Iacchus into the Sanctuary through the main gate (Propylaia) and then through the narrower lesser gate. In the area now called the Ploutonion they could look into cave in the hillside. Clinton suggests that here they might have seen a representation of Demeter in her grief, seated upon the agelastos petra (mirthless rock).

Then the initiates spent the night in inner regions of the sanctuary. There was likely music and prayers. Perhaps the initiates wandered around, trying to help Demeter find Persephone. There was much confusion due to the darkness, the veils, the fasting, and the kykeon.

Later that night the initiates entered the central Telesterion. Again this was likely dark.  After a while a large gong was sounded and the central platform Anaktorion became suddenly lit up with blazing torches. The initiates then saw Persephone brought back from the Underworld by the herald Euboulos to be re-united with Demeter.

Following this, and perhaps only to those in their second year of initiation, various sacred objects were revealed by the special attendant known as the hierophant (from hieros, sacred and phainein, show). Most experts think that these may have been representations of the wheat and the harvest. Others (e.g. Kerenyi) have suggested that Persephone was shown giving birth to a son.

The dawn brought the second day, which was enjoyed in feasting and music.


Ninnion Tablet

The only definite contemporary representation of the Eleusinian Mysteries is the Ninnion Tablet found at the Eleusis, dated to the 4th Century BCE and now in the National Archaeological Museum of Athens (Mylonas, 1961, pp 213-221; Clinton, 1992, pp 73-75). The tablet has been interpreted in several ways. The writing suggests that the initiate’s name was Niinnion, but most now accept that that the double-i is a mistake.

The lower and upper sections of the tablet can be interpreted as showing two stages of the Mysteries. In the lower half Iacchus, holding torches, ushers the female initiate (one assumes this is Ninnion) and her bearded male companion toward the Goddess Demeter on the right. Ninnion is bearing a vessel on her head, the contents of which will likely be used as a libation to sanctify the Telesterion. Her right hand is raised in greeting and in wonder. Demeter is seated beside an open seat for her lost daughter.

The upper half of the tablet shows the second stage of the rites. The bearded man, a young boy and Ninnion are now approaching another vison. On the right Persephone holding two torches becomes reunited with her mother. Demeter’s pale complexion in the lower representation has become suffused in the upper with the red of happiness.

Most consider the Mysteries to involve two stages: myesis and epopteia. These may related to the two different visions seen during the rites at Eleusis. Others have interpreted the stages differently. Myesis was one of the words used to denote the mysteries. It may have derived from a simpler word meaning “to close.” This itself may have alluded to the secrecy of the proceedings, the closed eyes of the initiates before the revelations or the mental closure that happened after the revelations. In the last sense, it was similar to another word for the mysteries – teletai, which came from the root telos (goal) and meant something accomplished or finished. The second stage was epopteia, which meant “revelation” or “vision,” deriving from ops, eye. Though many agree that there were two stages to the Mysteries, exactly how they occurred remains unknown. Some have suggested that the myesis may have involved “lesser mysteries” that occurred in Athens prior to the initiates going to Eleusis for the “greater mysteries.” The two stages may also have required attendance at the Eleusinian Mysteries on two successive years.

Regina Vasorum

The story of Demeter and Kore was intertwined with several other Greek myths. The Hermitage museum has a beautifully crafted hydria (water carrier) adorned around its shoulder with relief representations of the various divinities associated with Eleusis. This Regina Vasorum (Queen of the Vases) was found in Southern Italy and dates to the 4th Century BCE. The following illustration shows the hydria and that section of the decoration representing the reunited Demeter and Kore.

The following diagram identifies the various divinities. Both Heracles and Dionysus, though heroes of their own myths, also participated in the Mysteries and became initiates. Athena is present since the Mysteries were conducted under the auspices of the city of Athens. Triptolemus is there to represent Eleusis, and perhaps also to be a symbol of normal human beings. Demeter and Kore are portrayed twice – apart and then reunited.

Other Mysteries

The Eleusinian Mysteries were but one of many different mystery-cults in the Ancient World (Burkert, 1987; Bowden, 2010; Bremmer, 2014). Each of the cults provided initiation ceremonies. Each was based on its own set of myths.

The cult of Dionysus/Bacchus centered on the life and actions of the God of Wine. Celebrations of this cult – bacchanalia – involved intoxication with wine and frenzied dancing. Most of the celebrants were female; in their ecstasy these were called maenads. The Orphic rites derived from the story of Orpheus who tried to reclaim his wife from Hades. The myths and cults of Orpheus and Dionysus were closely related. Some stories tell of the death of Orpheus from being torn apart by maenads celebrating the rites of Dionysus.

The cult of Isis came from Egypt but was widely celebrated in the Roman Empire. Isis was a Goddess of fertility similar in nature to Demeter. Her life was a search for the dismembered body of her brother/husband Osiris. The rites of Magna Mater (“great mother”, also called Cybele) originated in Anatolia (where the Romans believed they might have originated – as the descendants of Aeneas). Priestesses in her cult, called Sibyls, provided advice and prophecy in early Rome. In later Roman times, the Persian God Mithra was widely celebrated in secret temples.

The foundational myths of the different mysteries have many similarities. Many involve a journey to Hades and/or the return of someone from the Underworld. Dionysus journeyed to Hades to rescue his mother Semele, who had died when her lover Zeus revealed himself in all his glory. Orpheus sought to rescue his wife from the Underworld.  Osiris was finally brought back to life and became the god of regeneration on the earth and the judge of all who enter the Underworld. The world has known many cults that revolve around the death and resurrection of a God (Frazer, 1923)

Some of the mysteries (particularly those related to Dionysus, and Orpheus) may have provided the initiates with small gold tablets (Bowden 2010, Chapter 7). These were buried along with the deceased in various areas of Greece. The tablets were inscribed with what are apparently instructions about what to do when the initiate dies. The most important instruction was to drink the water from the Pool of Memory (Mnemosyne) rather than from the River of Forgetting (Lethe). Several tablets indicate that Mnemosyne is to the right near a white cypress tree. Once refreshed, the newly dead could “go on the great Sacred Way along which the other famed mystai and bakkhoi make their way” (Bowden, 2010, p 149). The following is a 4th-Century BCE tablet (approximately 2 by 4 inches) from Thessaly (now in the J. P. Getty Museum in California)

The cryptic inscription requests a drink from the Spring of Memory and identifies the bearer according to some prescribed format likely learned from the Mysteries:

I am parched with thirst and am dying; but grant me to drink
from the ever-flowing spring. On the right is a white cypress.
‘Who are you? Where are you from?’ I am a son of Earth and starry sky.
But my race is heavenly.

The Mysteries were thus one way that the Ancients came to grips with the idea of death. Burkert describes the mysteries as “a form of personal religion, depending on a private decision, and aiming at some form of salvation through closeness to the divine.” (1987, p 12). He quotes Cicero who said that those who underwent the initiations at Eleusis learned “how to live in joy, and how to die with better hopes.”(Laws, II, 36).

Literary Allusions to the Mysteries

Two striking allusions to the Mysteries occur in the ancient literature. The first from Plato’s Phaedrus highlights the revelations that came from participating in the Mysteries. For Plato supreme understanding came from recognizing the eternal forms upon which transient individual things were based. In Phaedrus Socrates likens the mind of man to a charioteer which has to control two winged horses, one striving toward the good and one falling away toward evil.  If the mind can control the horses and get the chariot to rise up it might reach the outside of heaven and behold

justice, and temperance, and knowledge absolute, not in the form of generation or of relation, which men call existence, but knowledge absolute in existence absolute (Jowett translation, Section 247)

Before it assumed mortal form the soul understood truth and beauty for which it now has only a faint memory. Sometimes through love or through philosophy this knowledge can be regained. Socrates likens the understanding of the absolute to what happens when one is initiated into the Mysteries:

For there is no light of justice or temperance or any of the higher ideas which are precious to souls in the earthly copies of them: they are seen through a glass dimly; and there are few who, going to the images, behold in them the realities, and these only with difficulty. There was a time when with the rest of the happy band they saw beauty shining in brightness,—we philosophers following in the train of Zeus, others in company with other gods; and then we beheld the beatific vision and were initiated into a mystery which may be truly called most blessed, celebrated by us in our state of innocence, before we had any experience of evils to come, when we were admitted to the sight of apparitions innocent and simple and calm and happy, which we beheld shining in pure light, pure ourselves and not yet enshrined in that living tomb which we carry about, now that we are imprisoned in the body, like an oyster in his shell. (Section 250).*

The second allusion to the Mysteries is by Plutarch, who in his essay On the Soul likens the experience of the soul at death to what happens during the initiation into the Mysteries:

Thus we say that the soul that has passed thither is dead, having regard to its complete change and conversion. In this world it is without knowledge, except when it is already at the point of death; but when that time comes, it has an experience like that of men who are undergoing initiation into great mysteries; and so the verbs teleutan (die) and teleisthai (be initiated), and the actions they denote, have a similarity. In the beginning there is straying and wandering, the weariness of running this way and that, and nervous journeys through darkness that reach no goal, and then immediately before the consummation every possible terror, shivering and trembling and sweating and amazement. But after this a marvellous light meets the wanderer, and open country and meadow lands welcome him; and in that place there are voices and dancing and the solemn majesty of sacred music and holy visions. And amidst these, he walks at large in new freedom, now perfect and fully initiated, celebrating the sacred rites, a garland upon his head, and converses with pure and holy men; he surveys the uninitiated, unpurified mob here on earth, the mob of living men who, herded together in mirk and deep mire, trample one another down and in their fear of death cling to their ills, since they disbelieve in the blessings of the other world. For the soul’s entanglement with the body and confinement in it are against nature, as you may discern from this. (Plutarch from the fragment On the Soul, Sandbach translation, 1969, pp 317-319).

These two mentions of the Mysteries in the ancient literature bring out the two main aspects of the rites: the attainment of understanding through a vision of the divine, and the provision of some way of coping with death.

Relations to Christianity

In the 4th Century CE during the reign of the Emperor Constantine, Christianity became the religion of the Roman Empire, taking over from the various mystery cults. How much Christianity assimilated from these earlier belief systems is difficult to assess.

Christianity differed significantly from the Mysteries. A primary difference was the lack of secrecy. Christianity was based on set doctrines that were promulgated by the faithful and delineated in scriptural texts. The teachings of the Mysteries were far less dogmatic and heresy was unknown. In addition, Christianity was communal. Believers did not just attend the mysteries once or twice in their lives – they worshipped together weekly and acted on their beliefs daily. A third main difference was the lack of any clear moral teaching in the Mysteries.


The early Church Fathers such as Clement of Alexander (2nd Century CE, icon on the right) both decried the Mysteries as superstition and promoted Christian beliefs as the greatest of the mysteries:

O truly sacred mysteries! O stainless light! My way is lighted with torches, and I survey the heavens and God; I become holy while I am initiated. The Lord is the hierophant, and seals while illuminating him who is initiated, and presents to the Father him who believes, to be kept safe for ever. Such are the reveries of my mysteries. (Protrepticus Chapter 12).

Clement proposed that Christianity was the “mystery of the Word (logos),” the divine truth that was manifest in the story of Christ’s death and resurrection. Clement was using logos in its meaning as “truth.” However, Christianity also differed from the Mysteries in virtue of the other meaning of logos as “word.” Christianity followed scripture; the Mysteries were based on secrets.

The sacraments of Christianity (Baptism, Eucharist, etc.) are often referred to as the Mysteries of Faith. These transcendent rites cannot be understood by reason. The Catholic existentialist philosopher Maritain (1962, First Lecture) differentiated two modes of human thinking. One uses reason to solve problems. The other uses intuition to understand mysteries. Knowledge involves both.

The main story underlying the Christian mysteries is that of Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection. The climax of the story comes with Christ’s statement on the cross as he nears death: tetelestai – “It is finished” (John 19:30). The word is similar to those used in the Mysteries.

The Mysteries dealt with coming face to face with divinity and coping with death.  Christianity was more certain of its ability to provide salvation:

Behold, I shew you a mystery; We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed,
In a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trump: for the trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed.
For this corruptible must put on incorruption, and this mortal must put on immortality.
So when this corruptible shall have put on incorruption, and this mortal shall have put on immortality, then shall be brought to pass the saying that is written, Death is swallowed up in victory.
O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory? (I Corinthians 15 51-55)

What happens to consciousness after death is the great mystery of human life. In the Ancient World this question was addressed by the various Mysteries. As Christianity became the dominant religion in the Roman Empire, the story of Christ provided the most widely believed answer. “I have met the gods and am prepared for death” changed to “I believe in Christ and have been granted salvation.”


Human experience is not random. Because of memory we recognize when events repeat and discover the laws whereby they recur. Most importantly we find a self or soul at the point where events become experience.

Every morning when we awaken we quickly reassemble this soul and the world in which it lives. Surely we tell ourselves that death will be no different. Just as the world proceeds from winter into spring, the soul will return to life.

We tell stories of what will happen then, when the body dies and the soul survives. The stories are intricate and beautiful. They provide us with hope for ourselves and comfort for those we leave behind.

Yet we all die. Though the stories and the stones of Eleusis survive, the initiates all vanished long ago. There is no golden ticket to heaven. We are born. We tell stories. Some are true and some fanciful. In the end it is finished, and we are buried in the earth beneath the starry sky.


* The words “through a glass dimly” immediately recall “through a glass darkly” in I Corinthians 13:11 (“For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.”) The idea is similar to that expressed in Phaedrus, and Paul was undoubtedly aware of Plato’s work. However, it is not a direct quotation – though the translations are similar, the original Greek words are different.


Bowden, H. (2010). Mystery cults of the ancient world. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Bremmer, J. N. (2014). Initiation into the mysteries of the ancient world. Berlin: De Gruyter. Available at

Burkert, W. (1987). Ancient mystery cults. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press.

Cartwright, M. (2016). Food and agriculture in Ancient Greece. Ancient History Encyclopedia

Clement of Alexandria (2nd Century CE, translated by W. Watson, 1885). Protrepticus Exhortation to the Heathens.  Available at New Advent

Clinton, K. (1992). Myth and cult: The iconography of the Eleusinian mysteries. Stockholm: Svenska Institutet i Athen.

Clinton, K. (1993). The sanctuary of Demeter and Kore at Eleusis. In Marinatos, N., & Hägg, R. Greek sanctuaries: New approaches. (pp. 88-98). London: Routledge.

Frazer, J. G. (1923). The Golden Bough: A study in magic and religion. Abridged ed. London: Macmillan. Available at

Kerényi, K. (translated Ralph Manheim, 1967). Eleusis: Archetypal image of mother and daughter. New York: Bollingen Foundation (Pantheon Books).

Lawton, W. C. (1898). The successors of Homer. New York: Macmillan. Available at

Maritain, J. (1939, reprinted 1962). A preface to metaphysics: Seven lectures on being. New York: New American Library.

Mylonas, G. E. (1961). Eleusis and the Eleusinian mysteries. Princeton, N.J: Princeton University Press. Available at

Plato (4th Century BCE, translated B. Jowett, 1892). The dialogues of Plato translated into English with analyses and introductions. Volume I. 3rd Edition. London: MacMillan. Available at

Plutarch (1st Century CE, translated by F. H. Sandbach, 1969). Moralia. Volume XV Fragments. London: Heinemann. Available at

Wasson, R. G., Hofmann, A., & Ruck, C. A. P. (1978). The road to Eleusis: Unveiling the secret of the mysteries. New York: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich.

Death Speaks

bernard perlin 1946 maugham

W. Somerset Maugham, silverpoint by Bernard Perlin, 1946

Somerset Maugham’s last play Sheppey (1933/1997) tells the story of a barber Joseph Miller, who was nicknamed Sheppey after his birthplace in Kent. Sheppey wins one of the Irish Sweepstakes prizes and decides to use the money to help the poor. He is quickly considered crazy. His doctor states:

It’s quite obvious that a sane man is not going to give all his money away to the poor. A sane man takes money away from the poor … The normal man is selfish, grasping, destructive, vain and sensual. What is generally termed morality is forced upon him by the herd, and the obligation that he is under to repress his natural instincts is undoubtedly the cause of many of the disorders of the mind.

The idea of the play hearkens back to one of Maugham’s early short stories, A Bad Example, published in 1899. Neither the story nor the play were very successful. However, one brief speech from the play has become one of the most renowned texts of 20th Century literature.

At the end of the play, Sheppey is visited by Death in female form. She will take him away before he is certified insane. Sheppey wonders whether he should have fulfilled one of his dreams and gone to a cottage on the Isle of Sheppey in Kent. Perhaps Death would not have thought of looking for him there. Death tells him it would not have mattered.

There was a merchant in Baghdad who sent his servant to market to buy provisions and in a little while the servant came back, white and trembling, and said, Master, just now when I was in the marketplace I was jostled by a woman in the crowd and when I turned I saw it was Death that jostled me. She looked at me and made a threatening gesture; now, lend me your horse, and I will ride away from this city and avoid my fate. I will go to Samarra and there Death will not find me. The merchant lent him his horse, and the servant mounted it, and he dug his spurs in its flanks and as fast as the horse could gallop he went. Then the merchant went down to the market-place and he saw me standing in the crowd and he came to me and said, Why did you make a threatening gesture to my servant when you saw him this morning? That was not a threatening gesture, I said, it was only a start of surprise. I was astonished to see him in Baghdad, for I had an appointment with him tonight in Samarra.

This is an old Arabian story. Maugham’s source was probably the Sufi parable When Death Came to Baghdad from the Hikayat-I-Naqshia (“Tales formed according to a design”) by Fudail ibn Ayad who lived in the 9th Century CE (Shah, 1967, p 191; Ross, 2010). Samarra is a city about 125 km north of Baghdad, and home of the Al ‘Askarī Shrine, one of the holiest sites of Shīa Islam.

The Mishnah of the Babylonian Talmud from around 200 CE has an even older version of the story in Sukkah 53a. One day King Solomon asked the Angel of Death why he was sad. The angel replied that he soon had to take two of Solomon’s favorite Ethiopian attendants. In order to forestall this, Solomon sent his attendants to the city of Luz, where the Angel of Death had no power. However, they died just before arriving at the gates of Luz. The next day Solomon asked why the angel was so cheerful. Death replied that Solomon had sent his attendants to the exact place where it was decreed that they should die.

The Maugham story has been retold many times. John O’Hara used it as the epigraph for his 1934 novel Appointment in Samarra (1934), which described the rapid, alcohol-fuelled decline of Julian English beginning on Christmas Eve in 1930 and ending with his suicide two days later. Jeffrey Archer quoted Maugham’s tale as the first story (Death Speaks) in his collection To Cut a Long Story Short (2000).

karloff in targets

Boris Karloff told the story in the 1968 movie Targets, directed by Peter Bogdanovich. Karloff played an elderly horror-film actor who suggested to an interviewer that he tell the story rather than answer foolish questions. The audio is below. A movie clip of the entire scene is available at Turner Classic Movies.


The Maugham story was converted into rhyming verse by F. L. Lucas in The Destined Hour (1953). The poem ends with Abou Seyd meeting Death in the market.

Loud swarmed the buyers round each booth and stall;
But there by Omar’s Mosque, at the market’s end,
Watched one shape like a shadow, gaunt and tall.
Then drawing near, said Abou Seyd, “My friend,
Why threaten my poor slave – so wantonly –
That harmed thee not at all?
In my hot youth I might have threatened thee,
Forgetting Allah, Lord of all men’s days.”

Then that dark face upon him bent such eyes,
The scar upon Seyd’s cheek grew grey with fear.
“I threatened not thy servant, Abou Seyd.
But in surprise
I raised my hand, to see him standing near.
For this same night God bids my hand be laid
Upon him at Samarra, far from here.
Yet Allah is the Lord of all men’s ways.”

Donald Justice, photograph by Thomas Victor  (Howard, 1974)

Donald Justice, photograph by Thomas Victor (Howard, 1974)

The American poet Robert Justice used the story as the basis for his 1967 poem Incident in a Rose Garden:

The gardener came running,
An old man, out of breath.
Fear had given him legs.
Sir, I encountered Death
Just now among the roses.
Thin as a scythe he stood there.
I knew him by his pictures.
He had his black coat on,
Black gloves, and a broad black hat.
I think he would have spoken,
Seeing his mouth stood open.
Big it was, with white teeth.
As soon as he beckoned, I ran.
I ran until I found you.
Sir, I am quitting my job.
I want to see my sons
Once more before I die.
I want to see California.
We shook hands; he was off.


And there stood Death in the garden,
Dressed like a Spanish waiter.
He had the air of someone
Who because he likes arriving
At all appointments early
Learns to think himself patient.
I watched him pinch one bloom off
And hold it to his nose –
A connoisseur of roses –
One bloom and then another.
They strewed the earth around him.
Sir, you must be that stranger
Who threatened my gardener.
This is my property, sir.
I welcome only friends here.

Death grinned, and his eyes lit up
With the pale glow of those lanterns
That workmen carry sometimes
To light their way through the dusk.
Now with great care he slid
The glove from his right hand
And held that out in greeting,
A little cage of bone.
Sir, I knew your father,
And we were friends at the end.
As for your gardener,
I did not threaten him.
Old men mistake my gestures.
I only meant to ask him
To show me to his master.
I take it you are he?

(Author’s reading of the poem 1982).

We have personified death in many ways. Our most common image is the Grim Reaper, an emaciated or skeletal man dressed in black and carrying a scythe. This likely derives from Christ’s parable of the harvest: after the reaping the wheat is gathered into the barn but the tares are separated out and burnt (Matthew 13:24-30). This was one of the few parables that Christ explained to his disciples:

 …the harvest is the end of the world; and the reapers are the angels.
As therefore the tares are gathered and burned in the fire; so shall it be in the end of this world.
The Son of man shall send forth his angels, and they shall gather out of his kingdom all things that offend, and them which do iniquity;
And shall cast them into a furnace of fire: there shall be wailing and gnashing of teeth. (Matthew 13:39-42).

The skeletal nature of the Grim Reaper probably comes from the representations of the Dance of Death in many medieval churches. Skeletons conduct the sinners, be they rich or poor, young or old, powerful or weak, to their assigned places in Hell. As well as the scythe, the skeltons also carried hour-glasses to signify the running out of time, or musical instruments to maintain the rhythm of damnation.

Another image of Death has him riding a pale horse. This comes from the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse in Revelations. At the opening of each of the first four seals, one of the horsemen appears. The last rider is the only one directly named: “And I looked, and behold a pale horse: and his name that sat on him was Death, and Hell followed with him” (Revelations 6:8). The other three riders are variously identified, most commonly as war, pestilence and famine.  Sometimes, as in the Tarot pack, the rider of the pale horse is portrayed as a knight.

In some cultures, Death can be a woman rather than a man (Guthke, 1999). This may in part be related to grammatical gender – in French la Mort is feminine and in German der Tod is masculine – though this effect is slight. In the Maugham story Death is female, whereas in the Justice poem he has become male.

Death can evoke longing as well as fear. Sometimes death releases the dying from their suffering. Sometimes death can have erotic overtones. Many are the tales of lovers who come together through a shared death. In the stories of Death and the Maiden, Death is considered as a lover either kind or lecherous. And for the young man, Death can be the Dark Lady.

In many stories, Death may be questioned. However, this can only delay the end, not change it. In Ingmar Bergman’s 1957 film The Seventh Seal, a knight (Max von Sydow), just returned to Sweden from the Crusade, meets Death (Bengt Ekerot) upon a cold northern beach and challenges him to a game of chess before he dies. The outcome of the game is not in doubt. Yet perhaps others might escape.

seventh seal 2 scenes

The film is an essay about the distance between man and God (Bragg, 1998). The knight asks why it is “so cruelly inconceivable to grasp God with the senses? Why should He hide himself in a mist of half-spoken promises and unseen miracles?” The title of the film comes from Revelations 8:1 “And when he had opened the seventh seal, there was silence in heaven about the space of half an hour.” God answers our questions with silence.

Death is both unpredictable and inevitable. We can neither foretell the time nor alter it. This is the main point of the Maugham story. And the reason for Marcus Aurelius’ teaching in Meditations VII:69.

To live each day as though one’s last, never flustered, never apathetic, never attitudinising – here is perfection of character (Staniforth translation). (Alternate: Perfection is to live each day as if it were the last, without agitation, without apathy and without pretence)



Archer, J. (2000). To cut a long story short. London: Harper Collins. Death Speaks.

Bergman, I. (1957, translated by L. Malmstrom & D. Kushner, 1960). The Seventh Seal. New York: Simon and Schuster (Touchstone).

Bragg, M. (1998). The Seventh Seal (Det Sjunde Inseglet). London: British Film Institute.

Guthke, K. S. (1999). The gender of death: A cultural history in art and literature. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Idries, S. (1967). Tales of the dervishes: Teaching-stories of the Sufi masters over the past thousand years. London: Cape.

Justice, D. (1967). Night light. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press. The poem Incident in a Rose-Garden was reprinted in 1995 in two versions in New and Selected Poems, New York: Knopf). The poem quoted is the second version, which is only in the New and Selected Poems.

Lucas, F. L. (1953). From Many Times and Lands: Poems of Legend and History London: Bodley Head. (‘The Destined Hour’ was reprinted in Every Poem Tells a Story: A Collection of Stories in Verse, ed. R. Wilson, London: Puffin Books). Full poem is available on web (scroll down).

Marcus Aurelius (2nd Century CE, translated by Staniforth, M., 1964). Meditations. Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin Books Penguin Books. An older translation together with the original Greek is available on the Internet Archive.

Maugham, W. S. (1899). Orientations. London: T.F. Unwin. (Available on Internet Archive).

Maugham, W. S. (1933). Sheppey: A play in three acts. London: William Heinemann Ltd. (reprinted in Maugham, W. S. (1997). Plays: one. London: Methuen Drama).

O’Hara, J. (1934). Appointment in Samarra. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company.

Ross, S. M. (2010). Death speaks. H-Net Online.