In mid-June readers of James Joyce’s Ulysses who know his characters Molly and Leopold Bloom, will know what ‘Bloomsday’ is all about. Ulysses is an ordinary man’s journey through a day. The book is a cultural mix, started in Rome, set in Dublin and based on the wanderings of the Greek warrior, Odysseas. Professor of classics Mary Beard asked some years back, ‘Does Odysseas offer an appropriate model for mankind? In short, the myth of Odysseas asks the most important question there is: how should a man behave?’

She also said that Odysseas’ reentry into Ithaca was marked by mass slaughter. He killed his wife Penelope’s opportunistic suitors, ‘who maybe deserved it’, but also a group of maidservants ‘…whose only crime, in a household under duress, was sex with the suitors.’ The sack of Troy saw slaughter and atrocity on a huge scale. Hector’s young son Astyanax was mercilessly thrown from the walls. Yet in war, one man’s criminal is another man’s hero.

The God of the Old Testament had no qualms about asking for human sacrifice as many old gods across so many cultures did, the Irish being no exception. St. Patrick had a delicate path to weave among Ireland’s pagans to stop that barbarism. Poor old Abraham was asked to kill his beloved son to prove his obedience to God and he was ready, albeit with deep sorrow, to comply but got a reprieve for good behaviour. Agamemnon was ready to sacrifice his daughter Iphigenia to Artemis in the same cause that saw Odysseas go to war.

Giving up the life of a loved one to deities they adored in return for a favour, was the ultimate offering in humankind’s murky past. The unfortunates concerned, however, may not have wanted their lives to end but had no say in the matter. Politicians send men and women to war to suffer, fight or die while they command from comfortable rooms, eat the best of food and sleep safely under guard as unchecked atrocities befall innocents. They are not the ones mutilated, or whose stinking bodies lie in dirt or muck, or actually kill people. And for those who have pangs of conscience over killing, coping with the PTSD problems if they survive. How many war-declaring leaders have sent their own sons or daughters to the front?

In India, not all that long ago, women went to their deaths with husbands who had predeceased them. Viking lore also tells of sacrificial women accompanying a warrior on his trip to Valhalla, set to sea in a fiery boat. In a Japan tuned to the dignity of the Code of Bushido, seppuku, ritual self-disembowelling, was considered an honourable death. Famous Japanese author Yukio Mishima chose to die that way but his beheading was botched by a nervous swordsman, his agonising end not the proud one he had desired. The incredibly courageous act of seppuku was traditionally ended mercifully when a skilled swordsman standing behind the disembowelled man beheaded him swiftly. Compare that to the method used by terrorist groups who delighted in making videos showing a blade sawing into the neck of some unfortunate prisoner.

The death penalty is now mostly gone and, considering innocents were convicted and ‘legally’ executed, good riddance. The right to end one’s life by one’s own hand when pain makes living unbearable, or by asking someone close to take your life if you are unable to do so, is a hurdle some wish to leap over; others don’t want to face. Too many questions to raise here but personally, if a suffering person is of sound mind, gives written permission in front of independent witnesses that they want it to end, that right to a gentle suicide with loved ones near, is one I’d honour and hope for myself.

Too many die at the hands of those who take life as though it were a thing to be thrown away without thought. Life is each individual’s private possession. What warmth is shown by gods who demand suffering in exchange for love? Those with the courage to end the agony of a beloved out of absolute unselfishness are making an indescribable sacrifice for love.