Part I. Flowers and Erotic Bodies


The first part of this study focuses on vegetal images of the erotic or, more specifically, on associations of flowers and erotic bodies. Most of the surviving examples of floral images of the erotic in archaic Greek poetry are to be found in the corpus of Greek lyric; accordingly, I shall draw on that genre to set in relief the particular choices of the Homeric poets in forming their own images of flowers and erotic bodies. As we shall see, while lyric poets develop imagery that subordinates erotic bodies associated with flowers to the gaze and evaluation of the speaker, Homeric poetry attributes seductive and deceptive qualities to such erotic bodies and thereby challenges the viewer’s control over the scene.
Since the distinctions between the floral images of erotic bodies in the two genres depend in large part on different configurations of viewing and subjectivity, we can gain a clearer idea of those distinctions by drawing on the work of scholars who have analyzed such themes. I shall focus on the theories of Laura Mulvey and Jacques Lacan, which, though originally developed for the study of mainstream cinema (Mulvey) or in the context of Lacanian psychoanalysis, have proven central to a number of recent discussions of the gaze in classical literature. For Mulvey, the filmic gaze establishes dichotomies of viewer and viewed, of dominance and passivity, of masculine and feminine. In a seminal article from 1975, Mulvey argues that the filmic gaze is gendered masculine through its association with male characters and its objectification of female characters. Both the gaze of the camera and the gaze of male characters take women as their passive objects. In turn, the spectator is encouraged to channel her/his gaze through these viewpoints, and a masculine, dominating, and unreciprocated gaze is facilitated, which gratifies the erotic desire of the male viewer for a non-threatening, passive portrayal of the female. In this way, the imagery of mainstream film indulges the erotic fantasies of the male viewer. [1]
While the filmic gaze described by Mulvey operates in only one direction, from viewing subject to viewed object, Lacan characterizes the gaze as an exchange between the subject and the world, and a disturbing exchange at that. In his best-known illustration of this phenomenon, he recalls an encounter with a boy from a Breton fishing village, Petit-Jean. On catching sight of a sardine tin floating on the sea, Petit-Jean jokes “You see that can? Do you see it? Well, it doesn’t see you!” Lacan, though, has the unnerving sense that the can is, in fact, looking back at him: “if what Petit-Jean said to me, namely, that the can did not see me, had any meaning, it was because in a sense, it was looking at me, all the same.”
This experience upsets Lacan’s sense of his centrality to the scene before his eyes and challenges his belief in the overriding importance of his own subjectivity. Previously, without reflecting on it, he was treating his surroundings—both human and nonhuman—as the passive contents of a “picture” that he himself controlled and that was subject to his judgement. But the feeling that the sardine tin is looking at him brings with it a realization antithetical to such beliefs. The tin is closely tied to the difficult work of Petit-Jean and the other fishermen, and its glinting surface reminds Lacan that he himself has no place in such activities. The “gaze” of the tin, then, gives him the sense that he is being judged as alien to the scene. He extrapolates from this experience the fact that, whenever he views the world, he can never view himself and is therefore always alien to the scene before his eyes. He is viewed by the very things that make up his visual field, and his subjective evaluation of them is always matched by their (competing) evaluation of him. [2]
Mulvey’s and Lacan’s theories of the gaze have had an important influence on studies of ancient epic and ancient lyric. But we can arrive at new conclusions regarding their relevance to these genres if we focus specifically on floral images and on their interactions with the characteristics of Greek flowers. Scholars such as Elizabeth Sutherland and Ellen Greene have identified a Mulveyan gaze in the work of male lyric poets (specifically those of the Roman tradition): according to Sutherland and Greene, the gaze of the poet’s male persona dominates its female objects. As in Mulvey’s analysis of film, this objectification of the female beloved and her subordination to the poet’s gaze respond to male erotic desires. While male fantasies of the objectified female are given visual form in films, these lyric poems reflect such fantasies in their verbal descriptions. Eva Stehle argues that the poetry of Sappho undermines such objectifications of the female. Her poems, according to Stehle, assign the role of gazing subject to female personae and characters, and thereby suggest the possibility of equality in erotic relationships. [3] My studies, however, suggest that similarly unequal dynamics of the gaze are operative in the floral images of Sappho and of her male counterparts. And this is the case whether the gazing subject or desired object happen to be male or female.
By contrast, we shall find that the depiction of the gaze in Homeric floral images of the erotic more closely resembles the dynamics described by Lacan. In making this observation, my findings to some extent coincide with Helen Lovatt’s on ancient epic in general. Lovatt derives the theoretical parameters for her discussion of the gaze partly from the work of Mulvey and Lacan. [4] She resists a straightforward equation of the epic gaze with the masculine gaze described by Mulvey and identifies a female gaze that operates “from the margins” and that is able to challenge even the direct power of the divine gaze. One realm in which this female gaze operates is in dreams, where it is associated with “deception, emotion and insubstantiality.” This female gaze disrupts the dominance of the male gaze and of male subjectivity, like the disruptive contents of the visual field described by Lacan. [5]
The evidence that we shall discuss below accords in two respects with the dynamics described by Lovatt: the erotic bodies of Homeric poetry are associated with deception, and their deceptive qualities challenge the dominance of the viewer. There are, however, important distinctions to be drawn between my findings and those of Lovatt. The erotic bodies in question may belong to characters of either gender, and those viewing them may likewise be male or female. Homeric floral images, then, are associated with a less unequal dynamics of the gaze than that which we find in the equivalent passages of Greek lyric, but not necessarily with a female challenge to male dominance.
What we are dealing with, then, is not so much a contrast between male and female poets, or between male and female viewers as a general distinction between two archaic Greek genres. In the floral imagery of archaic Greek lyric, we find dichotomies of desiring subject and desired object, of (dominant) viewer and (passive) viewed similar to those identified by Mulvey—though the gender dynamics of the gaze in the relevant passages are somewhat more fluid than those that Mulvey discovers in film. While the object of the gaze may be a beautiful girl or a beautiful boy, the viewer is for the most part gendered masculine, much like the viewers that Mulvey analyzes. In poems of Sappho that present floral images of erotic bodies the speaking subject is feminine, but the operations of the gaze otherwise resemble the unequal dynamics described by Mulvey. In both the work of Sappho and that of her male counterparts, erotic bodies decked with flowers are described as the object of the gaze and in no way threaten the subjectivity of the one who looks. The speaker claims the right to describe and to evaluate the object of her/his desires, but the beloved is allowed no corresponding opportunity to express a perspective on the scene. The speaker may also situate the beloved in an erotic space of her/his own imagining, such as the grove of Aphrodite in Ibycus fr. 282C(i) Campbell. The verbal imagery of these compositions provides an analog to the visual images discussed by Mulvey, to the extent that it reflects the erotic desires of the viewer and suggests an unequal relationship between viewer and viewed.
Conversely, Homeric floral images of the erotic suggest some degree of reciprocity between the one who gazes and the recipient of the gaze, but this reciprocity also poses a challenge to the subjectivity of the viewer. For these reasons the operations of the gaze in the relevant passages resemble those described by Lacan. Like Lacan’s sardine can, the deceptions carried out by erotic bodies in the passages from Homeric poetry that we shall study challenge the subjectivity of viewers and the uniqueness of their perspectives on the scene.
And in fact, viewers’ control of the scene is undermined to a greater extent than in the episode described by Lacan: their very agency is called into question. In the Judgement of Paris from the Cypria, for instance, Paris looks at Aphrodite’s body, decked with flowery robes, and is seduced by her charms and by her offer of the hand of Helen. But when he judges Aphrodite the winner of the beauty contest, he has no sense that he is also choosing the destruction of Troy: in fact, the abduction of Helen will act as the catalyst for the Trojan War. [6] Korē sees a reflection of her own beauty in the narcissus; but she misses its special, divine qualities, which are designed to lead her astray. Unlike Lacan himself, Paris and Korē are overcome at the moment of encountering these objects of their vision—their conscious reflection on the operation of deception comes only later in their respective stories. They are fooled into performing actions that prove detrimental to their own interests: it is not merely that their subjectivity is called into question but that their agency is circumscribed.
In this way, the floral images of Greek lyric and Homeric poetry not only present contrasting associations of flowers and erotic bodies, but thereby also create a dialogue between two different conceptions of eroticism and the gaze. [7] And these two sets of floral images represent two contrasting engagements with the Greek natural environment. Both the Greek lyric poets and their Homeric counterparts drew on perceptions of the beauty of flowers to conceptualize the attractiveness of desirable youths. [8] In addition, the lyric descriptions of erotic bodies reflect interactions with the natural environment in which flowers are the object of the evaluative gaze of the viewer. Homeric poetry, however, draws on other characteristics of flowers. The Homeric poets focused on the many-colored, shifting surfaces of flowers in the Greek spring, which masked the normally arid appearance of the Greek landscape.
In both cases, through their engagements with the natural environments familiar to early audiences, these poets, in accordance with the analysis of metaphor of Lakoff, Johnson, and Turner, used more concrete concepts to explain more abstract concepts. [9] Specifically, they drew on more concrete concepts associated with flowers in the Greek natural environment to help their audiences to understand more abstract concepts associated with erotic bodies, such as beauty, deception, and seduction. Both the Homeric poets and their lyric counterparts drew on the palette of characteristics presented by the Greek flora to illustrate their particular perspectives on the erotic.


[ back ] 1. Mulvey 1989b. In a second article, however (1989a), Mulvey qualifies her conclusions. She asks why it is that female viewers are still able to experience pleasure when viewing films, even when the filmic gaze is so strongly associated with the masculine and the passivization of the feminine. She suggests that such viewers, while watching a film, identify with active male chararacters and the masculine gaze as much as with the objectified females.
[ back ] 2. Lacan 1977:95–96; quotations from p. 95; italics in the original.
[ back ] 3. Stehle 1996, Sutherland 2003, Greene 2010:37–92.
[ back ] 4. Lovatt 2013, esp. pp. 7–9. In common with Lovatt’s book and a recent study of the Odyssey (Grethlein 2018), I draw on Mulvey’s explorations of the dynamics of the gaze without incorporating her psychoanalytic terminology. Cf. Lovatt 2013:8: “The superstructure of [Mulvey’s] argument may retain its strength, even if we do not accept the Freudian underpinnings.”
[ back ] 5. Lovatt 2013, esp. pp. 206–251; quotations from pp. 216 and 260.
[ back ] 6. For Zeus’ plan to bring about the Trojan War, cf. Cypria fr. 1 Bernabé and Proclus’ summary of the Cypria at Bernabé 1996:38–39, lines 4–7.
[ back ] 7. For the presentation of a distinct conception of eroticism in a particular Greek genre, cf. Konstan 1994 on the Greek novel. According to Konstan, Greek novels, as opposed to other kinds of ancient literature, are remarkable for their symmetrical depictions of eroticism, which focus on the relationships between a young man and a young woman. We shall not find such erotic symmetry in images from either of the two genres that we shall discuss in Part I, but the Homeric depictions of challenges to the dominance of the viewer by seductive, deceptive bodies bring us closer to such a phenomenon than the stricter dichotomies of viewer and viewed that are described in the equivalent imagery from Greek lyric.
[ back ] 8. It is not, however, immediately obvious which aspects of flowers the Greeks would have found beautiful. While modern westerners tend to think of flowers predominantly in terms of hue, ancient viewers may have responded more readily to other qualities. Irwin (1994), for instance, observes the use of the epithet ῥοδοδάκτυλος/βροδοδάκτυλος (“rosy-fingered”) for phenomena as dissimilar in hue as the Dawn (Homeric epic) and the moon (Sappho fr. 96.8 Voigt), and suggests that this adjective, along with the similar term ῥοδόπηχυς (“rosy-armed”) evoked not rosy hue but delicacy and fragrance—of flowers, goddesses, and nubile girls. Cf. Irwin 1974, where she argues that in archaic and classical poetry color terms can pick out qualities such as value (i.e., brightness or darkness) or surface sheen. See also Elliger 1975:96–102 on the lack of terms for hue in Homeric poetry.
[ back ] 9. Lakoff and Johnson 2003, Lakoff and Turner 1989.