Part II. Cosmic and Civic Order


In Part I, we considered a set of Homeric floral images associated with erotic bodies, and we explored their interactions with the characteristics of flowers in the Greek natural environment. I would now like to focus on a rather different class of Homeric vegetal images. As we shall see, the Homeric poets developed both floral and arboreal images to illustrate the concepts of order and disorder, both as they relate to the cosmos as a whole and to human communities. Once again, I would like to set in relief the choices of the Homeric poets through comparison with another genre of archaic Greek poetry that treats similar themes. Of all such poetry the relevant Homeric images find their closest parallels in the Hesiodic poems. Nevertheless, the vegetal images of the two genres show significant differences in their treatments of order and disorder.
In making such distinctions, I diverge from other studies of order and disorder in the two genres, most notably those of Noriko Yasumura and Jenny Strauss Clay. Yasumura identifies a story-pattern of challenges to Zeus’ supremacy that is present in the Homeric epics, the Homeric Hymns and the Hesiodic Theogony. [1] Clay situates the Homeric Hymns midway between the evolving cosmos of the Hesiodic Theogony and the more settled order of the major Homeric epics. Over the course of the Theogony and the Homeric Hymns, the physical structure of the cosmos is established and then refined; at the same time, the relations between the different divine beings and between gods and mortals settle into their current state. For Clay, the Hesiodic and Homeric poems form a continuum: they tell one overarching story of increasing order. [2] For Yasumura, some of the tales of order and disorder in the two genres are similar enough to be treated as instantiations of a single underlying archetype.
Yet when we focus on vegetal imagery of good order and its opposite, we notice distinctions between the two genres: at least in this respect, then, the two sets of poets offered different treatments of such themes. [3] The Hesiodic poets did not develop vegetal imagery to illustrate forces of disorder, change, and revolution; such imagery does however accompany their descriptions of good order. The Works and Days associates the orderliness of just societies with flourishing vegetation. The Theogony by contrast associates the permanent structure of the cosmos with the structure of plants.
The Homeric poets developed a richer set of vegetal images to illustrate such cosmic and civic themes. While the Hesiodic poets associated the structure of the cosmos with the structure of plants, their Homeric counterparts associated images of trees and pillars with the stability and permanence of cosmic order. In the Homeric poems moreover images of managed vegetation accompany descriptions of civilized order. The Iliad employs both agricultural and arboricultural imagery for this purpose, while the Odyssey, in its images of civilized order, places particular emphasis on the management of trees. By contrast, the Works and Days associates orderly and just communities with flourishing vegetation in general, whether wild or domesticated—and this despite the fact that most of the poem focuses on agricultural labor.
What is more, unlike their Hesiodic counterparts the Homeric poets also developed vegetal images to accompany their descriptions of challenges and changes to good order, or of a simple lack of orderliness. While they associated trees and pillars with the stable order of the cosmos, they associated floral growths with changes or challenges to that order. And in their explorations of civic order and its opposite they contrasted their imagery of managed vegetation with descriptions of wild floral and arboreal growths untamed by human hands.
These Homeric and Hesiodic images represent two contrasting responses to the Greek natural environment. The Hesiodic images seem on the face of it easier to explain. The Hesiodic poets illustrated the more abstract concept of cosmic structure through the more readily observable structure of plants in the natural environment. And they helped their audiences to understand the notion of flourishing communities through reference to the more concrete concept of flourishing vegetation. But the Homeric associations require further explanation. As we shall discover, such images drew on early Greek perceptions of different types of vegetal growth. According to such conceptions, the sudden, apparently spontaneous growth of small flowering plants contrasted with the orderly growth of wild trees, and wild vegetation in general differed from the managed growths of fields and orchards.
And in these respects, the relevant Homeric images offered somewhat different treatments of good order and its opposite from their Hesiodic equivalents. Granted, the Hesiodic poems do not shy away from describing challenges to cosmic or civic order. In the Theogony, for instance, Zeus faces challenges from the Titans (Theogony 617–735) and the monstrous Typhoeus (820–850); the Works and Days explores the injustices present in human communities. And yet in their vegetal images the Hesiodic poets emphasized only the more stable structures of the cosmos or human societies. The equivalent Homeric imagery, by contrast, explores tensions between forces of order and disorder.


[ back ] 1. Yasumura 2011.
[ back ] 2. See Clay 2003 on Hesiodic poetry and Clay 2006 on the Homeric Hymns.
[ back ] 3. For general distinctions between the two genres and their treatments of order and disorder see my Conclusion.