Many (Un)Happy Returns: Ancient Greek Concepts of a Return from Death and their Later Counterparts


  • Sarah Iles Johnston Ohio State University


Greek myths liked to meditate on why death came to particular people at particular times, on what happened to souls after death, and on the question of whether those souls could sometimes return to the world of the living. Interestingly however, with the notable exception of Alcestis (and perhaps not even always in her case), the Greeks did not imagine the return to life to be a happy thing. Myths such as those of Orpheus and of Protesilaus’ wife suggest that such returns brought tragedy for the living; myths such as that of Sisyphus suggest that the revenant himself was likely to regret his return. After analyzing the reasons that the ancient Greeks could not even begin to imagine a happy return from death, I will turn to some examples of stories about the revenants from European cultures of the 18th through 20th centuries and explore the very different ways in which they manage to send the same message—namely, that humans are better off leaving death alone, as a final decision.

Author Biography

Sarah Iles Johnston, Ohio State University

Sarah Iles Johnston is the Arts & Humanities Distinguished Professor of Religion and professor of classics and comparative studies at Ohio State University. Her many publications include Restless Dead: Encounters Between the Living and the Dead in Ancient Greece (University of California Press, 1999); Ritual Texts for the Afterlife: Orpheus and the Bacchic Gold Tablets (coauthored with Fritz Graf; Routledge, 2013); and the edited volume Religions of the Ancient World: A Guide (Belknap, 2004).