Part IV. Descriptive Space

Description constitutes a rather restricted mode of discourse within Homeric poetry, where narration is preeminent. [1] In the Iliad, this unequal distribution between narration and description becomes even more obvious than in the Ody ssey, [2] since descriptive passages, around twenty-four in number, refer to various objects that the characters of the plot have in their possession. It has been argued that “because the poet’s descriptions of these small treasures render the items themselves memorable, the occasions with which they are associated remain in our memories also.” [3] By offering his audience a description of these prized possessions, the poet brings the plot to a standstill, so as to bestow on his tale vividness, authenticity, and dramatic tension by temporarily prolonging or suspending its development. [4]
Taking my cue from the work of Elizabeth Minchin, who has emphasized the role of both visual memory and implicit knowledge in the way Homeric epic deals with descriptive segments, and was even able to identify a rough format (summary description, workmanship, material, size/value, memorable feature, history) that the oral storyteller employs in describing such valued objects, I will attempt to explore the function of perspective with respect to object-description and the method of organizing mnemonic formats. I will further argue that it is spatial memory that plays a pivotal role in activating specific mental formats, and that among other things the size, color, and shape of the object, or its history, constitute forms of spatial organization. I will also treat in detail, by focusing my attention on the shield of Achilles, the issue of ecphrastic space, which needs to be approached according to the framework of oral storytelling and the techniques employed by storytellers within the context of the performance. I will argue, therefore, that in this case the narrator uses the same technique he employs in the Homeric similes. The transition here from description into narration is similar to that from a simple comparison into a developed, extended simile. It is the workings of visual memory that enhance this shift, and in particular it is spatial memory, a powerful cue to recall, that creates the rich visual panorama of the shield of Achilles. In particular, I will maintain that the individual narrative snapshots of the shield are all drawn, more or less, from the same rich pictorial storehouse as the similes, and that they are based on equivalent devices of spatial memory.


[ back ] 1. See Genette 1969, who tried to overcome the dichotomy between narration and description by arguing that narration deals with objects and people in motion, while description with those in stasis. This approach has been strongly disputed; for a recent survey of previous research, see Dennerlein 2009:13–47 and 115–163. See also Riffaterre (1981:25), who has argued that description’s “primary purpose is not to offer a representation, but to dictate an interpretation.” Bal (1997:42–43) distinguishes six types of description: referential-encyclopaedic, referential-rhetorical, metaphorical metonymy, systematized metaphor, metonymic metaphor, and series of metaphors.
[ back ] 2. On hodological descriptions in the Odyssey, see Byre 1994b.
[ back ] 3. Minchin 2001:102.
[ back ] 4. See Tannen 1989:138–140; Rubin 1995:56 with further bibliography.