Death, Dying, Grief and Mourning

            "Death is always the same,
                               but each man dies in his own way."

Carson McCullers, Clock Without Hands, 1960


   Search Site


in Western Literature

An Anthology by  Adrienne Nater

 • Home •  • Preface • • Introduction •  • Chronology •  • Index •  • About the Author •


Death, Dying, Grief, and Mourning

in Western Literature


Printable Page


Euripides, Alcestis, 430 BCE

Translated by Richard Aldington

 Death of Alcestis

Euripides, Medea, 428 BCE

Translation: Gilbert Murray

Death of Medea’s Children

Euripides, The Trojan Women, 417 BCE

Translation: Gilbert Murray

Death of Astyanax

Euripides, Alcestis, 430 BCE
Translated by Richard Aldington

  Death of Alcestis

From the women's quarters in the left wing of the Palace comes a woman in tears. She is not a slave, but one of the personal attendants on the Queen.)

But now from the house comes one of her women servants, all in tears. What now shall I learn? (To the weeping Servant) It is well to weep when our lords are in sorrow-but tell us, we would know, is she alive, is she dead?

You may say she is both alive and dead.

How can the same man be dead and yet behold the light?

She gasps, she is on the verge of death.

Ah, unhappy man! For such a husband what loss is such a wife!

The King will not know his loss until he suffers it.

Then there is no hope that her life may be saved?

The fated day constrains her.

Are all things befitting prepared for her?

The robes in which her lord will bury her are ready.

Then let her know that she dies gloriously, the best of women beneath the sun by far!

How should she not be the best! Who shall deny it? What should the best among women be? How better might a woman hold faith to her lord than gladly to die for him? This the whole city knows, but you will marvel when you hear what she has done within the house. When she knew that the last of her days was come she bathed her white body in river water, she took garments and gems from her rooms of cedar wood, and clad herself nobly; then, standing before the hearth-shrine, she uttered this prayer:

'O Goddess, since now I must descend beneath the earth, for the last time I make supplication to you: and entreat you to protect my motherless children. Wed my son to a fair bride, and my daughter to a noble husband. Let not my children die untimely, as I their mother am destroyed, but grant that they live out happy lives with good fortune in their own land!'

To every altar in Admetus's house she went, hung them with garlands. offered prayer, cut myrtle boughs unweeping, unlamenting; nor did the coming doom change the bright colour of her face.

Then to her marriage-room she went, flung herself down upon her bed, and wept, and said:

'O my marriage-bed, wherein I loosed my virgin girdle to him for whom I die! Farewell! I have no hatred for you. Only me you lose. Because I held my faith to you and to my lord-I must die. Another woman shall possess you, not more chaste indeed than I, more fortunate perhaps.'

She fell upon her knees and kissed it, and all the bed was damp with the, tide of tears which flooded to her eyes. And when she was fulfilled of many tears, drooping she rose from her bed and made as if to go, and many times she turned to go and many times turned back, and flung herself once more upon the bed.

Her children clung to their mother's dress, and wept; and she clasped them in her arms and kissed them turn by turn, as a dying woman.

All the servants in the house wept with compassion for their Queen, But she held out her hand to each, and there was none so base to whom she did not speak, and who did not reply again.

Such is the misery in Admetus's house. If he had died, he would be nothing now; and, having escaped, he suffers an agony he will never forget.

And does Admetus lament this woe-since he must be robbed of so noble a woman?

He weeps, and clasps in his arms his dear bedfellow, and cries to her not to abandon him, asking impossible things. For she pines, and is wasted by sickness. She falls away, a frail burden on his arm; and yet, though faintly, she still breathes, still strives to look upon the sunlight, which she shall never see hereafter-since now for the last time she looks upon the orb and splendour of the sun!

I go, and shall announce that you are here; for all men are not so well-minded to their lords as loyally to stand near them in misfortunes, but you for long have been a friend to both my lords.

(She goes back into the women's quarters of the Palace. The CHORUS now begins to sing.)


What end to these woes?
What escape from the Fate
Which oppresses our lords?


Will none come forth?
Must I shear my hair?
Must we wrap ourselves
In black mourning folds?


It is certain, O friends, it is certain?
But still let us cry to the Gods;
Very great is the power of the Gods.


O King, O Healer,
Seek out appeasement
To Admetus's agony!
Grant this, Oh, grant it!
Once before did you find it;
Now once more
Be the Releaser from death.
The Restrainer of blood-drenched Hades!


O son of Pheres.
What ills shall you suffer
Being robbed of your spouse!


At sight of such woes
Shall we cut our throats?
Shall we slip
A dangling noose round our necks?


See! See!
She comes
From the house with her lord!
Cry out, Oh, lament.
O land of Pherae,


For the best of women
Fades away in her doom
Under the earth,
To dark Hades!

(From the central door of the Palace comes a splendid but tragical procession. Preceded by the royal guards, ADMETUS enters, supporting ALCESTIS. The two children, a boy and a girl, cling to their mother's dress. There is a train of attendants and waiting women, who bring a low throne for the fainting ALCESTIS.)



Never shall I say that we ought to rejoice in marriage, but rather weep; this have I seen from of old and now I look upon the fate of the King, who loses the best of wives, and henceforth until the end his life shall be intolerable.

ALCESTIS (chanting)
Sun, and you, light of day,
Vast whirlings of swift cloud!

The sun looks upon you and me, both of us miserable, who have wrought nothing against the Gods to deserve death.

ALCESTIS (chanting)
O Earth, O roof-tree of my home,
Bridal-bed of my country, Iolcus!

Rouse up, O unhappy one, and, do not leave me! Call upon the mighty Gods to pity!

ALCESTIS (starting up and gazing wildly in terror, chanting)
I see the two-oared boat,
I see the boat on the lake!
And Charon,
Ferryman of the Dead,
Calls to me, his hand on the oar:
'Why linger? Hasten! You delay me!'
Angrily he urges me.

Alas! How bitter to me is that ferrying of which you speak! O my unhappy one, how we suffer!

ALCESTIS (chanting)
He drags me, he drags me away-
Do you not see?-
To the House of the Dead,
The Winged One
Glaring under dark brows,
What is it you do?
Set me free!-
What a path must I travel,
O most hapless of women!

O piteous to those that love you, above all to me and to these children who sorrow in this common grief!

ALCESTIS (chanting)
Loose me, Oh, loose me now;
Lay me down;
All strength is gone from my feet.

(She falls back in the throne.)

Hades draws near!
Dark night falls on my eyes,
My children, my children,
Never more, Oh, never more
Shall your mother be yours!
O children, farewell,
Live happy in the light of day!

ADMETUS (chanting)
Alas! I hear this unhappy speech, and for me it is worse than all death. Ah! By the Gods, do not abandon me! Ah! By our children, whom you leave motherless, take heart! If you die, I become as nothing; in you we have our life and death; we revere your love.

ALCESTIS (recovering herself)
Admetus, you see the things I suffer; and now before I die I mean to tell you what I wish.

To show you honour and-at the cost of my life-that you  may still behold the light, I die; and yet I might have lived and wedded any in Thessaly I chose, and dwelt with happiness in a royal home. But, torn from you, I would not live with fatherless children, nor have I hoarded up those gifts of youth  in which I found delight. Yet he who begot you, she who brought you forth, abandoned you when it had been beautiful in them to die, beautiful to die with dignity to save their son!

They had no child but you, no hope if you were dead that other children might be born to them. Thus I should have lived my life out, and you too, and you would not lament as now, made solitary from your wife, that you must rear our children motherless!

But these things are a God's doing and are thus.

Well! Do not forget this gift, for I shall ask-not a recompense, since nothing is more precious than life, but-only what is just, as you yourself will say, since if you have not lost your senses you must love these children no less than I.

Let them be masters in my house; marry not again, and set a stepmother over them, a woman harsher than I, who in her jealousy will lift her hand against my children and yours. Ah! not this, let not this be, I entreat you! The new stepmother hates the first wife's children, the viper itself is not more cruel. The son indeed finds a strong rampart in his father-but you, my daughter, how shall you live your virgin life out in happiness? How will you fare with your father's new wife?

Ah! Let her not cast evil report upon you and thus wreck your marriage in the height of your youth! You will have no mother, O my child, to give you in marriage, to comfort you in childbed when none is tenderer than a mother!

And I must die. Not to-morrow. nor to-morrow's morrow comes this misfortune on me, but even now I shall be named with those that are no more. Farewell! Live happy! You, my husband, may boast you had the best of wives; and you, my children, that you lost the best of mothers!

(She falls back.)

Take heart! I do not hesitate to speak for him. This he will do, unless he has lost his senses.

It shall be so, it shall be! Have no fear! And since I held you living as my wife, so, when dead, you only shall be called my wife, and in your place no bride of Thessaly shall salute me hers; no other woman is noble enough for that, no other indeed so beautiful of face. My children shall suffice me; I pray the Gods I may enjoy them, since you we have not enjoyed.

I shall wear mourning for you, O my wife, not for one year but all my days, abhorring the woman who bore me, hating my father-for they loved me in words, not deeds. But you-to save my life you give the dearest thing you have! Should I not weep then, losing such a wife as you?

I shall make an end of merry drinking parties, and of flower-crowned feasts and of the music which possessed my house. Never again shall I touch the lyre, never again shall I raise my spirits to sing to the Libyan flute-for you have taken from me all my joy.

Your image, carven by the skilled hands of artists, shall be laid in our marriage-bed; I shall clasp it, and my hands shall cling to it and I shall speak your name and so, not having you, shall think I have my dear wife in my arms-a cold delight, I know, but it will lighten the burden of my days. Often you will gladden me, appearing in my dreams; for sweet it is to look on those we love in dreams, however brief the night.

Ah! If I had the tongue and song of Orpheus so that I might charm Demeter's Daughter or her Lord, and snatch you back from Hades, would go down to hell; and neither Pluto's dog nor Charon, Leader of the Dead, should hinder me until I had brought your life back to the light!

At least await me there whenever I shall die, and prepare the house where you will dwell with me. I shall lay a solemn charge upon these children to stretch me in the same cedar shroud with you, and lay my side against your side; for even in death let me not be separate from you, you who alone were faithful to me!

And I also will keep this sad mourning with you, as a friend with a friend; for she is worthy of it.

O my children, you have heard your father say that never will he set another wife over you and never thus insult me.

Again I say it, and will perform it too!

ALCESTIS (placing the children's hands in his)
Then take these children from my hand.

I take them-dear gifts from a dear hand.

Now you must be the mother for me to my children.

It must be so, since they are robbed of you.

O children, I should have lived my life out-and I go to the Underworld.

Alas! What shall I do, left alone by you?

Time will console you. The dead are nothing.

Take me with you, by the Gods! Take me to the Underworld!

It is enough that I should die-for you.

O Fate, what a wife you steal from me!

ALCESTIS (growing faint)
My dimmed eyes are heavily oppressed.

O woman, I am lost if you leave me!

You may say of me that I am nothing.

Lift up your head! Do not abandon your children!

Ah! Indeed it is unwillingly-but, farewell, my children!

Look at them, look....

I am nothing.

What are you doing? Are you leaving me?

ALCESTIS (falling back dead) Farewell. She is gone! The wife of Admetus is no more.


Euripides, Medea, 428 BCE
Translation: Gilbert Murray

 Death of Medea’s Children:


Women, my mind is clear. I go to slay
My children with all speed, and then, away
From hence; not wait yet longer till they stand
Beneath another and an angrier hand
To die. Yea, howsoe’er I shield them. Die
They must. And. Seeing that they must, ‘tis I
Shall slay them, I their mother, touched of none
Beside. Oh, up and get thine armour on,
My heart! Why longer tarry we to win
Our crown of dire inevitable sin?
Take up thy sword, O poor right hand of mine,
Thy sword: then onward to the thin-drawn line
Where life turns agony. Let there be naught
Of softness: now keep thee from that thought,
‘Born of thy flesh,’ ‘thine own beloved.’ Now,
For one brief day, forget thy children: thou
Shalt weep hereafter. Though thou slay them, yet
Sweet were they…. I am sore unfortunate.

         [She goes into the house]



                                          Some Women

O Earth, our mother; and thou
   All-seer, arrowy crown
Of Sunlight, manward now
   Look down, Oh, look down!
Look upon one accurst,
    Ere yet in blood she twine
    Red hands — blood that is thine!
O Sun, save her first!
She is thy daughter still,
    Of thine own golden line;
Save her! Or shall man spill


The life divine?
Give peace, O fire that diest not! Send thy spell
To stay her yet, to lift her afar, afar —
A torture-changed spirit, a voice of Hell
Wrought of old wrong and war!



Alas for the mother’s pain

   Wasted! Alas the dear

Life that was born in vain!

   Woman, what mak’st thou here,

Thou beyond the Gate

   Where dim Symplegades

   Clash in the dark blue seas,

The shores where death doth wait?

Why hast thou taken on thee,

   To make us desolate

This anger of misery

      And guilt of hate?


For fierce are the smitings back of blood once shed

   Where love hath been: God’s wrath upon them that kill,

And an anguishing earth, and the wonder of the dead

      Haunting as music still….              
                                               [A cry is heard within]


A Woman

Hark! Did ye hear? Heard ye the children’s cry?



O miserable woman!  O abhorred!


A Child within

What shall I do? What is it? Keep me fast

From Mother!


The Other Child

I know nothing, Brother! Oh,

I think she means to kill us.


A Woman

Let me go!

I will — help! Help! — and save them at the last.


A Child

Yes, in God’s name! Help quickly ere we die!


The Other Child

She has almost caught me now. She has a sword.


[Many of the Women are now beating at the

barred door to get in, Others are standing apart.]


Women at the door

Thou stone, thou thing of iron! Wilt verily

Spill with thine hand that life, the vintage stored

Of thine own agony?


The Other Women

A mother slew her babes in day of yore.

One, only one, from dawn to eventide,

Ino, god-maddened, whom the Queen of Heaven

Set frenzied, flying to the dark: and she

Cast her for sorrow to the wide salt sea,

Forth from those rooms of murder unforgiven,

Wild-footed from a white crag of the shore,

And clasping still her children twain she died.


O Love of Women, charged with sorrow sore,

What hast thou wrought upon us? What beside

Resteth to tremble for?



 Euripides, The Trojan Women, 417 BCE
Translation: Gilbert Murray

Death of Astyanax

          [Enter Talthybius with a band of soldiers. He comes forward slowly and with evident disquiet]


Spouse of the noblest heart that beat in Troy,

          Andromache, hate me not!  ‘Tis not in joy

          I tell thee. But the people and the Kings

          Have with one voice . . .



What is it? Evil things are on thy lips!



         ‘Tis ordered, this child . . . Oh,

          How can I tell her of it?



Doth he not go With me, to the same master?



 There is none

In Greece, shall e’re be master of thy son.



          How? Will they leave him here to build again The wreck? . .



I know not how to tell thee plain!



Thou hast a gentle heart . . . if it be ill,

And not good, news thou hidest!



 ‘Tis their will thy son shall die. . . . The whole vile thing is said Now!


          Oh, I could have borne mine enemy’s bed!



And speaking in the council of the host Odysseus hath prevailed —



O lost! Lost! Lost! . . .

Forgive me! It is not easy  . . .


… That the son of one so perilous be not fostered on to manhood —



God; may his own counsel fall on his own sons!



…But from this crested wall

Of Troy be dashed, and die…. Nay, let the thing

Be done. Thou shalt be wiser so. Not cling

So fiercely to him. Suffer as a brave

Woman in bitter pain; nor think to have

Strength which thou hast not. Look about thee here!

Canst thou see help, or refuge anywhere?

Thy land is fallen and thy lord, and thou

A prisoner and alone, one woman; how

Canst battle against us? For thine own good

I would not have thee strive, nor make ill blood

And shame about thee…. Ah nor move thy lips

In silence there, to cast upon the ships

Thy curse! One word of evil to the host,

This babe shall have no burial, but be tossed

Naked….Ah, peace! And bear as best thou may,

War’s fortune. So thou shalt not go thy way

Leaving this child unburied; nor the Greek

Be stern against thee, if thy heart be meek!


                       Andromache (to the child)

Go, die, my best beloved, my cherished one,

In fierce men’s hands, leaving me here alone.

Thy father was too valiant; that is why

They slay thee! Other children, like to die,

Might have been spared for that. But on thy head

His good is turned to evil       

O thou bed

And bridal; O the joining of the hand,

That led me long ago to Hector’s land

          To bear, O not a lamb for Grecian swords

To slaughter, but a Prince o’er all the hordes

Enthroned of wide-flung Asia ….Weepest thou?

Nay, why, my little one? Thou canst not know.

And Father will not come; he will not come;

Not once, the great spear flashing, and the tomb

Riven to set thee free! Not one of all

His brethren, nor the might of Ilion’s wall.

How shall it be? One horrible spring … deep, Deep

Down. And thy neck … Ah God, so cometh Sleep! …

And none to pity thee! … Thou little thing

That curlest in my arms, what sweet scents cling

All round thy neck! Beloved; can it be                

All nothing, that this bosom cradled thee

And fostered; all the weary nights, wherethrough

I watched upon thy sickness, till I grew

Wasted with watching? Kiss me. This one time;

Not ever again. Put up thine arms, and climb

About my neck: now, kiss me, lips to lips….

O, ye have found an anguish that outstrips

All tortures of the East, ye Gentle Greeks!

Why will ye slay this innocent, that seeks

No wrong? … O Helen, Helen, thou ill tree

That Tyndareus planted, who shall deem of thee

As child of Zeus? O, thou hast drawn thy breath

From many fathers, Madness, Hate, red Death,

And every rotting poison of the sky!


Zeus knows thee not, thou vampire, draining dry

          Greece and the world! God hate thee and destroy,

          That with those beautiful eyes hast blasted Troy,

          And made the far-famed plains a waste withal.


Quick! Take him; drag him: cast him from the wall,

          If cast ye will! Tear him, ye beasts, be swift!

          God hath undone me, and I cannot lift

          One hand, one hand, to save my child from death …

          I, hide my head for shame: fling me beneath

          Your galley’s benches!…

                                                [She swoons: then half-rising.]

Quick: I must begone

To the bridal … I have lost my child, my own!

                                                [The Soldiers close around her]



O Troy ill-starred; for one strange women, one

Abhorred kiss, how are thine hosts undone!


          Talthybius (Bending over Andromache and gradually

                             Taking the Child  from her)


Come, Child: let be that clasp of love

Outwearied! Walk thy way with me,

Up to the crested tower, above

Thy father’s wall … where they decree

Thy soul shall perish. — Hold him: hold! —

Would God some other man might ply

These charges, one of duller mould,

And nearer to the iron than I!



O Child, they rob us of our own.

Child of my Mighty One outworn:

Ours, ours thou art! — Can aught be done

Of deeds, can aught of pain be borne,

To aid thee? — Lo, this beaten head,

This bleeding bosom! These I spread

As gifts to thee. I can thus much.

Woe, woe for Troy, and woe for thee!

What fall yet lacketh, ere we touch

The last dead deep of misery?


[The Child, who has started back from Talthybius is

                    taken up by one of the Soldiers and borne back

                   towards the city, while Andromache is set again

                   on the Chariot and driven off towards the ships.

                   Talthybius goes with the Child.



Adrienne Nater, 2008

©© 2008 Adrienne Nater. All rights reserved.