Robin Norris (

Southeastern Louisiana University

41st International Congress on Medieval Studies, May 2006

BABEL Panel: Medieval to Modern Humanisms


Birth, Death, Mourning, Literature



In her 1979 essay “Women’s Time,” Julia Kristeva discusses the association between female subjectivity and a nonlinear experience of temporality which is cyclical, repetitive, and eternal. Kristeva believes this capacity is rooted in the female body’s “cycles, gestation, the eternal recurrence of a biological rhythm which conforms to that of nature” while at the same time reminding us that “this repetition and this eternity are found to be the fundamental . . . conception of time in numerous civilizations and experiences, particularly mystical ones. The fact that certain currents of modern feminism recognize themselves here does not render them fundamentally incompatible with ‘masculine’ values.”

Nonetheless, it is this traditional association between the feminine, the body, and nature that has led scholars to exclusively associate mourning with women in ancient cultures. Take Beowulf’s funeral, for example. Ask an Anglo-Saxonist who mourns for Beowulf, and likely s/he will cite the Geatish or geo- meowle who, as Helen Bennett explains, is actually a figment of the editorial imagination. Even after the manuscript’s lacunae are reconstructed, her giomorgyd is remembered as a sorrowful song for the dead king, rather than a prophecy of doom for those who survive him. And the future she predicts, according to Roy Liuzza’s translation, is not pretty, including hard days ahead, the times of slaughter, the host’s terror, harm and captivity.

However we view her, this woman is literally surrounded by mourning men, “heroes lamenting their dead lord,” who kindle a fire “mingled with weeping . . . With heavy spirits they mourned their despair, the death of their lord.” It is at this point that the Geatish meowle appears, and after her giomorgyd is complete the Weder people begin the construction of Beowulf’s barrow. “Then round the mound rode the battle-brave men . . . twelve in all, they wished to voice their cares and mourn their king, utter sad songs and speak of that man; they praised his lordship and his proud deeds judged well his prowess.” The words, deeds, and feelings of these men have been overlooked by Anglo-Saxonists, despite the fact that the narrator himself steps in to approve of such activities, saying: “it is proper that one should praise his lord with words, should love him in his heart when the fatal hour comes, when he must from his body be led forth, so the men of the Geats lamented the fall of their prince, those hearth-companions.” If it is proper to praise the past deeds of the departed, is the meowle’s dread of the hard days ahead an improper reaction to Beowulf’s death? Can we read her not as a stereotype but staging a funeral protest?

The meowle’s reaction to Beowulf’s death resonates with Andromache’s grim view of the future once her husband Hector has died in Book 22 of The Iliad. In Fagles’ translation, Andromache is left a widow, worried for her infant son, that “pain and labor will plague him all his days to come.” This prediction recalls the couple’s conversation in Book 6, when Hector states that he would rather die than hear his wife dragged away into slavery, and looks forward to book 24, when Andromache acknowledges that she will be “carried off in the hollow ships,” and the orphaned Astyanax will be enslaved, or flung from the ramparts by an Achaean maurauder, as vengeance for his father’s deeds. With the protectors of their people dead, both Andromache and the Geatish meowle can expect retribution from human enemies, slaugher, harm, captivity, and many hard days ahead. Unlike the Geatish meowle, however, the body of Andromache’s husband is seized by his murderer, Achilles, to deprive the Trojans of the satisfaction of mourning over Hector.

In the world of The Iliad, this is the ultimate insult to one’s enemy. As he faces off with Achilles for the last time, awareness of this possibility leads Hector to swear, “I will give your body back to your loyal comrades. Swear you’ll do the same.” Yet Achilles refuses, citing the seemingly insurmountable difference between Greek and Trojan: “There are no binding oaths between men and lion – wolves and lambs can enjoy no meeting of the minds – they are all bent on hating each other to the death.” Yet here Achilles ignores death’s influence as the great leveller. Yes, he desecrates Hector’s corpse, both at the end of Book 22, and, ironically, during the funeral games for Patroclus conducted with such care in Book 23, “fl[inging] him facedown in the dust beside Patroclus’ bier.” To reclaim Hector’s body, Priam risks his own life to sneak into Achilles’ camp, where he clasps the knees of his son’s killer, and kisses his hands, saying, “Remember your own father, great godlike Achilles – as old as I am, past the threshold of deadly old age!” Reminding Achilles of the elderly man back home, hoping in vain for his son’s return, is a strategy which seems to work, for the narrator tells us that “Those words stirred within Achilles a deep desire to grieve for his own father . . . And overpowered by memory both men gave way to grief. Priam wept freely for man-killing Hector, throbbing, crouching before Achilles’ feet, as Achilles wept himself, now for his father, now for Patroclus once again, and their sobbing rose and fell throughout the house.” It is the shared experience of grief through memory of the past that brings Achilles and Priam together, and leads Achilles to not only return the body of his enemy, but to promise the Greeks will “hold our attack as long as you require.” Finally, Fagles’ translation concludes, “And so the Trojans buried Hector breaker of horses.”

How can the pyres of Beowulf and Hector illuminate our twenty-first century experience of death? During a time of war, these “classic works of literature” seem particularly poignant. Our nation watched in August 2005 as Cindy Sheehan demanded a second meeting with the man she holds responsible for the death of her son Casey. In fact, further mirroring Priam, Sheehan had trouble reclaiming her son’s body. She recalls that she held her sobbing children, sitting on a curb, waiting for the cardboard box containing Casey’s remains to be unloaded by a forklift, and later had trouble negotiating with the government to pay for the mortuary.

Yet Priam went to great lengths to give his son a full and proper burial, whereas Sheehan has made a decision not to fulfill her culture’s expectations for furnishing her son’s grave.  On April 11, 2006, Sheehan wrote a column entitled “A Markerless Grave in Vacaville” for, a liberal clearinghouse for news-related weblinks. Sheehan apparently wrote this piece to respond to pundits who have criticized her son Casey’s lack of a tombstone. In the second half of her essay, Sheehan explains that she is reluctant to place a TOMBstone on her son’s grave because she is reluctant to accept that he is dead. Instead, she spends time in “Casey’s Park” journaling and napping on the grass. Sheehan exclaims repeatedly that her critics have not shared her experience of grief and therefore have no right to judge her. Yet after charging her critics with an inability to sympathize, Sheehan asserts that what she actually wants is for no one else to share this same experience.  “Have any of these people who claim that I am pissing on my son’s grave ever visited him? Have they visited the grave of any solider . . .? Have they sobbed uncontrollably for my first born who shouldn’t even need a gravestone? No, all they want to do is attack a mother who wants to prevent other people from having to bury their own child.” Sheehan’s conclusion states her position most succinctly: “No more needless gravestones. No more wasted lives.” Yet as long as the present war continues, we read Sheehan’s conclusion with the knowledge that these hard days will in fact continue into the future.

At the opposite end of the political spectrum is the Reverend Fred Phelps of the Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kansas. Phelps’ protests at military funerals have garnered criticism from liberals and conservatives alike, and resulted in legislation against such demonstrations in about a dozen states. According to the Frequently Asked Questions section of Phelps’ website,, Phelps pickets soldiers’ funerals because “these turkeys re not heroes . . . they were raised on a steady diet of fag propaganda . . . they voluntarily joined a fag-infested army to fight for a fag-run country . . . They turned America over to fags; they’re coming home in body bags.” While it’s easy for both fag-loving liberals and patriotic conservatives to view Phelps as some kind of freak, we know from reading The Iliad that disruption of an enemy’s funeral is actually quite an established practice. Moreover, Phelps believes that the US government bombed his compound on August 20, 1995. Thus, Phelps uses his funeral protests to prophesy divine vengeance for this crime, assuring us that it is God “blowing America’s kids to smithereens in Iraq. And the carnage has barely begun,” not to mention disasters such as those which occurred on September 11, 2002, in New York, and August 29, 2005, on the Gulf Coast. While a shared experience of death was powerful enough to bring Priam and Achilles together, enabling Priam to reclaim the body of his son and mourn with his people in peace, there is little hope that Phelps will come to respect his enemies, for Phelps believes that his congregation at Westboro Baptist is comprised of the elect, a subset of humanity who will not share either death or the afterlife with the rest of us. 

Yet there is another group who feels an undeniable connection with the dead whose funerals Phelps protests. The Patriot Guard Riders “attend the funeral services of fallen American heroes as invited guests of the family” in order to both show their respect and to “shield the mourning family and friends from interruptions created by any protestor or group of protestors.” While most of these riders seem to be motorcyclists and/or veterans, the group welcomes all comers. “The only prerequisite is respect.” These male midwives of mourning drown out Phelps’ prognostications of doom and create a space in the present for the family of the fallen warrior to mourn. Thomas Greene has argued that epic performs a similar function: “to create a community of shared mourners” by inviting the reader to grieve along with the mourners in the poem. In fact, Greene holds that most European epics “conclude quite literally in tears, and those few who fail to do so tend to center on a pivotal scene of mourning.”

In these final moments, linear time stands still while the companions of the dead recall the subject’s past deeds. In contrast, it is women like Andromache, the Geatish meowle, and Cindy Sheehan who refuse to mourn, moving forward through linear time to worry about the future. These two opposite reactions to death, one oriented toward the future and one directed toward the past, certainly complicate our understanding of Tacitus’ statement that it is proper for men to remember but proper for women to mourn.

Death and birth may be the only two experiences universal to humans in all times and places, with the possible exception of Fred Phelps and the members of Westboro Baptist Church. Yet until we each achieve our own death, our experience thereof is limited to the vicarious, and unlike birth, death is an event always located in the future. For this reason, literature serves an important purpose in human society: namely, to allow us to experience vicariously both death and mourning before we must do so personally. Moreover, through its particular representation in literature, the universality of death makes possible a sense of connection between seemingly alien times and cultures, our Others, fellow humans whose differences we must respect.