Heraclitus Died When He Covered Himself in Cow Dung
History is filled with bizarre stories about death, and the ancient Greeks are no exception. While the great intellectual Empedocles is said to have jumped into a volcano, in a misguided attempt to prove his immortality, the pedantic poet Philitas supposedly starved to death while writing about someone’s incorrect use of vocabulary. Meanwhile, the great dramatist Aeschylus was killed when an eagle mistook his bald head for a rock. Nevertheless, the death of Heraclitus takes the prize for being both revolting and ridiculous at the same time.
The 6th-century BC philosopher Heraclitus of Ephesus, included alongside the predominant Greek philosophers in the famed fresco entitled The School of Athens, influenced both Plato and Aristotle. Arrogant in nature, Heraclitus believed change to be the essence of life and famously presented his ideas in riddles: “We both step and do not step into the same rivers; we both are and are not.”
In Lives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers, one of the few surviving sources related to the history of ancient Greek philosophy, Diogenes Laertius claimed that by the end of his life Heraclitus had become a “complete misanthrope” who had retreated to a hermit-like existence in the mountains.
Heraclitus, the Weeping Philosopher. (Public domain)
Apparently suffering from dropsy, a now-obsolete term which defined the accumulation of fluid in the body, he consulted physicians. True to his nature, however, he presented them with a riddle which they didn’t understand, asking “whether they were able to produce a drought after wet weather.”
Taking things into his own hands he tried to cure himself by covering himself in cow dung. It seems that the idea was that the heat from the dung would make the fluid evaporate, but he soon died covered in excrement. Diogenes Laertius goes on to state that according to Neanthes of Cyzicus, Heraclitus got trapped in the dung like quicksand and ended up being eaten by dogs. Shit happens!
While this sounds like a pretty unpleasant demise, even for ancient Greece, it seems that the story of the death of Heraclitus was actually a myth based on his philosophical ideas. Janet Fairweather explained that the “idea that he died of the dropsy most probably originated as an ironical inference from his teaching that ‘For souls it is death to become water.’”
Top image: Heraclitus by Abraham Janssens Source: Public Domain
By Cecilia Bogaard