I'm looking for mythological examples of loss leading to intense emotional and symbolic displays of grief, whether spontaneous, performative, ritual or some combination of the above. That is, grief so intense that it inspires madness, self-destruction, revenge, or deep penance, any kind of charged and meaningful display, of the sort that within which the participants act as if to say 'look at us now, just look at how terrible our sorrow is'.

As clarifying examples: Isis gathering the body parts of Osiris would not count for this, because while the story both touching and symbolic, I've never read a version where the emotional display of grief itself was brought to the forefront. Conversely, Gilgamesh's grief for Enkidu, the ending of Beowulf, or almost anything in the Iliad, are all excellent examples of what I'm looking for. Loss in this question mostly refers to the loss of a person, but that can be bent to refer to a nation, reputation, treasure, or a hoped-for-future, etc. if the example of grief is strong enough.

  • 1
    – Spencer
    Commented Feb 28, 2019 at 0:01
  • 2
    Oedipus story seems to be a good answer but you should really explain how you would chose an answer on top of another (If they both speak about a big grief, how do you chose the best one). This make me think that this question is a bit too broad
    – Calaom
    Commented Feb 28, 2019 at 14:17

3 Answers 3

  • Big Ajax (Telemon) kills himself over grief for his diminished honor after Odysseus cheats him out of Achilles' armor and Athena drives him mad to keep him from murdering everyone.

Sophocles wrote a play about it.

The idea here is that one's honor is more important than one's life, which is reflected in Achilles' choice to die at Troy rather than not go and live to old age. (Pursuit of glory is commonly attributed as the motivator, but there would also be the shame of not participating alongside his fellow Greeks.)

  • Sophocles' Antigone, out of grief and love for her brother, Polyneices, whose body is left to rot, buries him against king Creon's order, knowing she will die for it.

Her death sentence is to be buried alive in a cave, Cask of Amontillado style, but she hangs herself instead. Out of grief, her betrothed, Haemon, tries to stab Creon, and, failing, stabs himself.

Antigone is important because of the themes that arise, which include civil disobedience. Antigone knowingly breaks an unjust law, but accepts the penalty, which leads to: "Anyone who breaks a law that conscience tells him is unjust and willingly accepts the penalty ... is expressing the very highest respect for law."

Comparison: Ajax's act, although honorable, is solipsistic; Antigone's is selfless. Ajax acts out of shame; Antigone out of familial love and respect for the rituals.

  • Could you elaborate why Ajax is being solipsistic? More a personal curiosity :)
    – Tom Sol
    Commented Mar 2, 2019 at 1:31
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    @Tom Not in the formal sense of the world, which refers to a philosophical position, but in the common sense, as being self-centered. (Definition 1.1 in the OED)
    – DukeZhou
    Commented Mar 2, 2019 at 2:00
  • and immediately i get it! Still hoping that there was a philosophical position that i was not familiar with.
    – Tom Sol
    Commented Mar 2, 2019 at 2:04
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    @Tom added a note on Ajax, explaining briefly the shame/honor paradigm of the heroic age.
    – DukeZhou
    Commented Mar 2, 2019 at 2:10
  • Well written and true! @DukeZhou
    – Tom Sol
    Commented Mar 2, 2019 at 2:13

There are many answers, but here I'll focus on one of the most famous, the Pietà. This concept underlies the Jesus story and Christian thought in general, reflecting both divine mercy, and the mercy of humans for other humans.

Yeats wrote:

In pity for man's darkening thought
He walked the room and issued thence
In Galilean turbulence;
The Babylonian starlight brought
A fabulous, formless darkness in;
Odour of blood when Christ was slain
Made all Platonic tolerance vain
And vain all Doric discipline.
Source: The Resurrection (1931)

Here the poet seems to be saying that dispassionate philosophy breaks down in the face of human agony. The passion of the Christ, or, of any human in extremis.

This notion, as you note, goes back to at least Gilgamesh, but it was very robustly explicated in Greek Drama, often in the context of the Trojan war. Why Greek Drama specifically? Catharsis, which is a purgative feeling of pity and dread.

The popular show Westworld posits that it our suffering that makes us human. T.S. Eliot suggests it is even a condition of redemption:

The chill ascends from feet to knees,
The fever sings in mental wires.
If to be warmed, then I must freeze
And quake in frigid purgatorial fires
Of which the flame is roses, and the smoke is briars.
East Coker, IV

Roses represent love, and the briars the pain that comes with it, here specifically in reference to Christ's crown of thorns. Eliot is indicating that passion is a combination of love and agony, and that it can apply both to romantic love (eros) and to divine love (agape).

What is notable about the Pietà is that it's not a huge, dramatic show of grief, but quiet and personal and human.

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  • Oedipus stabs out his own eyes with the brooches from his mother's dress when he finds her hanging dead by her own hand.

There we beheld the woman hanging by the neck in a twisted noose of swinging cords. And when Oedipus saw her, with a dread deep cry he released the halter by which she hung. And when the hapless woman was stretched out on the ground, then the sequel was horrible to see: for he tore from her raiment the golden brooches with which she had decorated herself, and lifting them struck his own eye-balls, uttering words like these: No longer will you behold such horrors as I was suffering and performing! Long enough have you looked on those whom you ought never to have seen, having failed in the knowledge of those whom I yearned to know—henceforth you shall be dark! With such a dire refrain, he struck his eyes with raised hand not once but often. At each blow the bloody eye-balls bedewed his beard, and sent forth not sluggish drops of gore, but all at once a dark shower of blood came down like hail.
Oedipus Tyrannus, 1263 ff.

His grief is understandable as he was married to her for many years, and she was the mother of his four children.

The golden pins reflect the blinding rays of Apollo as sun god, whose Delphic prophecies drive the whole cycle, here the revelation of what's been hidden from Oedipus his entire life.

Oedipus' name means "swollen foot", in reference to the piercing of his ankles when he was exposed as an infant and left to die, one of the ironic clues as to his identity.

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