Polydore Vergil’s Comments On Death And Burial Customs

The charm of old books often lies in their inaccuracies, errors, and absurdities.  It is not a requirement of entertainment that everything must be factual.  It is a pleasant thing to be reminded every now and then of our humanity; and nothing is more human than error.  Only by seeing how far knowledge has advanced through the centuries can we appreciate the achievements of those who came before us.

The Renaissance humanist Polydore Vergil was a scholar, diplomat, and priest who lived from 1470 to 1555.  His most notable achievement was an compendium of knowledge called De inventoribus rerum, a title that is commonly translated in English as On Discovery.  It is a digest of “firsts”; it attempts to record who did what “first” in history.  Then as now, such collections have proven to be popular sellers; in Polydore’s lifetime alone his book went through thirty editions in Latin.  By the eighteenth century, we are told, it had been translated into eight languages.  The fact that he and his book are nearly unknown today tells us much about the speed and progress of knowledge since his era.

Nevertheless, I did not buy his book (in both Latin and English) for his scrupulous accuracy.  We buy his book today (if at all) for the same reason that we might open Pliny the Elder at random and see what he may have to say about volcanoes or butterflies or thunderstorms or art history.  We do it because we enjoy finding out what our ancestors thought of the world.  We should never feel superior to them:  we may have outdistanced them in masses of information, but they are still our superiors, perhaps, in gentility, refinement, cultural appreciation, and–perhaps–spiritual depth.

I randomly opened his book today and was amused to find out what he thought of burial practices.  I am referring to book III, chapter X, a section entitled “On the various burial practices of ancient peoples” (De vario apud gentes olim sepeliendi usu).  I thought readers might find his comments as interesting as I did.  Let me paraphrase them here.

He begins with the obligatory paragraphs, taken from Herodotus and other ancient writers, about how the Egyptians embalmed their dead.  He then describes how other peoples dealt with their corpses.  He says the Ethiopians buried their dead in glass coffins; the Scythians buried alive those loved by the deceased; the Nasamones buried their dead, he thinks, in a sitting position.  When someone was about to die, people around him sat him up so that he might not expire lying down.  The Hyrcanians threw their infirm living members to the “birds and dogs.”

Moving right along, Polydore assures us that the Assyrians “preserved their dead in honey and coated them with wax.”  Nabataeans considered corpses as “dung” (pro stercore) and threw them in waste-heaps along with other excrement.  Caspians and Taxili (?) left their corpses to the birds and animals to consume.  Bactrians did the same, and supposedly bred special dogs to eat corpses.  St. Jerome apparently wrote that one of Alexander the Great’s governors (Nicanor) tried to abolish the practice, but nearly had a popular revolt on his hands.  So attached are societies to their rituals.

Polydore also assures us that the Issedonians (a people of “Asian Scythia”) would ritually eat the corpses of their deceased at funeral processions; after this they coated the skulls with gold and “used them as drinking vessels.”  Far from being horrified by this practice, they considered this ritual to be a special duty related to filial piety.  As for the Hyperboreans, Polydore relates, this is how they chose to slough off this mortal coil:

The Hyperboreans thought that the best kind of burial was this:  When people felt themselves tired of life, they should dine and anoint themselves and then go to a particular cliff and throw themselves into the depths of the sea. [Trans. by B.P. Copenhaver].

The Romans cremated their dead, which of course Polydore considers the most civilized practice.  More interesting than this is his description of how expired emperors were dealt with.  When an emperor had died and his body buried, an image of the emperor was fabricated and placed on an “ivory couch” in the vestibule of the palace where it could be seen by those passing through.  After seven days the couch with the mannequin of the deceased was carried to the Campus Martius and burned on a pyre of wood and spices.  The new emperor would be given the honor of lighting the fire.  An attendant present would then release an eagle into the air, a symbolic act that portrayed the spirit of the departed’s ascent into heaven.  This was how the custom of “deification” of an emperor was carried out, according to Polydore.

Polydore based his statements on what he found in other ancient writers.  Probably much of it was based on truth, with some allowance to be made for hyperbole or other inaccuracies in transmission.  But we must love him still, warts and all.

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