Mental Illness and Suicide from Pagan Times Until Now

Leora Skolkin-Smith: Suicide Through Pagan Times up to Now
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Continuing the series on the stigma of suicide and mental illness, I looked into attitudes towards suicide in Pagan times. Much later, in 1919, a journalist named Nelly Bly feigned being “crazy” in order to enter a state asylum and write about the patients and staff there. Ten Days in a Madhouse was the published book she wrote about her experiences.

Her book characterized being “crazy” like this:

I began to think my task a hopeless one; but it had to be done. So I flew to the mirror and examined my face. I remembered all I had read of the doings of crazy people, how first of all they have staring eyes, and so I opened mine as wide as possible and stared unblinkingly at my own reflection. I assure you the sight was not reassuring, even to myself, especially in the dead of night. Between times, practicing before the mirror and picturing my future as a lunatic, I read snatches of improbable and impossible ghost stories, so that when the dawn came to chase away the night, I felt that I was in a fit mood for my mission yet hungry enough to feel keenly that I wanted my breakfast.

Describing Samson’s suicide, one of the only incidences whereupon the Bible does not condemn suicide, the Old Testament says:

Then he (Samson) called to the Lord and said, “O Lord God, please remember me and please strengthen me just this time, O God, that I may at once be avenged of the Philistines for my two eyes.” Samson grasped the two middle pillars on which the house rested, and braced himself against them, the one with his right hand and the other with his left. And Samson said, “Let me die with the Philistines!” And he bent with all his might so that the house fell on the lords and all the people who were in it. So the dead whom he killed at his death were more than those whom he killed in his life.

The contrast between the modern asylum at the beginning of the twentieth century and the notion of “madness” and suicide is so striking I don’t feel I need to explicate more except to ask: what happened through the centuries to make “madness” and suicide be perceived so radically different?

The pagan world before the fifth century had a philosophy that not only accepted suicide, but in the colony of Massalia (the present day Marseilles), those who wanted to kill themselves applied to the Roman Senate. If their reasons for taking their own lives were deemed “reasonable” they were then given hemlock free of charge.

The Greek historian, Herodotus wrote, “When life is so burdensome, death has become for man a sought-after refuge.”

There were exceptions. Suicide was outlawed in three cases: soldiers, slaves, and those accused of a capital offense. The reason was all the same. Wikipedia tells us, “it was uneconomic for these people to die. If the accused killed themselves prior to trial and conviction then the state lost the right to seize their property, a loophole that was only closed by Domitian in the 1st century AD, who decreed that those who died prior to trial were without legal heirs.” The suicide of a soldier was treated on the same basis as desertion. If a slave killed himself or herself within six months of purchase, the master could claim a full refund from the former owner.”

But both Plato and Socrates debated a cause for what they termed a “virtuous suicide,” as Socrates had committed, famously taking his life by hemlock rather than submitting to an unfair, moralistic trial. His “honor“ was gained by taking his own life.

For the Romans, the validity of suicide depended on the reason for such self-murder. There were suicides termed “patriotic suicide,” responses to dishonor. For the Greek Stoics, self-murder was often the key to personal freedom, a valid exit to an intolerable existence as was the case of Cato the Younger, who killed himself after the Pompeian cause was defeated at the Battle of Thapsus. In Utica, Cato refused to participate in the war and its battle and was unwilling to live in a world led by Julius Caesar. Refusing even to give Caesar the power to pardon him, he took his life in April 46 BC. According to Plutarch, “Cato attempted to kill himself by stabbing himself with his own sword, but failed to do so due to an injured hand. Cato did not immediately die of the wound; but struggling, fell off the bed, and throwing down a little mathematical table that stood by, made such a noise that the servants, hearing it, cried out. And immediately his son and all his friends came into the chamber, where, seeing him lie weltering in his own blood, a great part of his bowels out of his body, but himself still alive and able to look at them, they all stood in horror. The physician went to him, and would have put in his bowels, which were not pierced, and sewed up the wound; but Cato, recovering himself, and understanding the intention, thrust away the physician, plucked out his own bowels, and tearing open the wound, immediately expired.”

There were arguments in favor of allowing an individual to choose between life and suicide through the centuries up until suicide itself was stigmatized by the New Testament and the Judeo-Christian tradition and the corpses of suicides thrown at the crossroads, stabbed through their hearts like vampires in the Middle Ages. Before the Middle Ages, those in favor of suicide as a personal choice rejected the thought that suicide is always or usually unfounded and “crazy,” accepting that suicide might be a solution to very real problems; a line of personal choice that can legitimately be taken when the alternative to living is considered worse. They believed that no being should be made to suffer unnecessarily, and suicide provides an escape from suffering.

We would, therefore, after going through the history of suicide have to place the actual condemnation of the act in the Middle Ages, and tie it to the Judeo-Christian world emerging. The Oxford English Dictionary places the first occurrence of the word in 1651. Suicide was seen with much disgust, therefore many did not put the word in their dictionaries, let alone vocabulary. They used phrases like “self-murder,” “self-killing,” and “self-slaughter” in place of suicide. They felt these phrases more appropriately portrayed how closely it related to murder.

Because suicide was believed to be closely related to murder, many worried about the welfare of the soul for one who has committed suicide. This became a major religious question, and there are many different religious views of suicide.

It wasn’t really until the 1940s that suicide was considered a philosophical question, a personal jump towards freedom and perhaps an answer to the absurdity of life itself. Schopenhauer wrote, “They tell us that suicide is the greatest act of cowardice… that suicide is wrong; when it is quite obvious that there is nothing in the world to which every man has a more unassailable title than to his own life and person.”

Eventually, in the fifties, scientists and doctors considered suicide as a result of suicidal despair, and both as illness. But the Biblical stigmas still persisted. When I was in the psychiatric hospital, there was woman named Maureen who had taken an overdose with every hope of succeeding to kill herself. She was personable; she had such a pleasing personality and it was truly mysterious why she tried to take her life. What I remember most vividly is that she had been treated in a Catholic hospital and she had said she woke up to a nun condemning her with her angry eyes. Shaking her head at Maureen and praying for her soul, perhaps after what was construed as a murder. I remember this because I remember Maureen’s wide face, beaming after two weeks on an antidepressant, as if she had in fact reached not for death but a rebirth of sorts. The possibility that if one survived suicide, one could embrace a new rebirthing seems to me also a contemporary theme, something that arose in the last few years when medical drugs opened up the possibility of recapturing one’s life and change. I wonder if that goes back really to pagan times, when there was a clear validated reason for suicide, and speaks to the blistering condemnation the church and synagogue has inflicted on the depressed. I even wonder if empathy and sympathy was beginning to take place when Nellie Bly in 1919 decided she could reveal the brutal practices in state mental asylums. A lot of this history creates a sense of continuum. As being a whore or “loose” woman was condemned by the Judeo-Christian tradition, suicide, from the Middle Ages all the way up to the middle of the twentieth century was condemned, judged immoral, and the person who did it unable to enter the paradise of the afterlife, their soul condemned to hell. In Israel, no suicide is allowed to be buried in the same cemetery as other Jews. In most fundamentalist religions of our time, suicide, like abortion is considered a sinful, invalid murder.

Is it that the image Nellie Bly wrote about in the mirror is so threatening, centuries of hate and stigma prevailed and now is an opportunity to talk about suicide as one might abortion or any other public, social issue?

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