Part III. Youth and Death


The third and final part of this monograph focuses on Homeric vegetal images of death and, in particular, on Homeric associations of death with flowers, which provide some of the most striking examples of such imagery. We might feel intuitively that such floral images will capture the brevity of life—its brief bloom—an idea that is common in the modern west, as for instance in Shakespeare’s image of the “darling buds of May.” And such a reading seems to gain justification when we consider the floral imagery of Greek elegiac poetry, which carries connotations similar to those of its western equivalents. We should however be wary of applying modern ideas to ancient texts, even when we find support for our conceptions from some elements of ancient culture. When we carefully consider the Homeric floral imagery of death, both from the Iliad and elsewhere, we see that it focuses on a concept altogether different from the brevity of life: namely, the monstrous otherness of death.
We get a first glimpse of the conception of death suggested by Homeric floral imagery and of its place in wider Greek culture when we consider Christiane Sourvinou-Inwood’s seminal study “Reading” Greek Death, Ian Morris’ response to her work, and Jean-Pierre Vernant’s separate explorations of death in Greek culture. Sourvinou-Inwood argues that the passage from the Dark Age to the archaic age witnessed a change in attitudes to death. In the Dark Age, death was hated but not feared; its incorporation into notions of generational continuity and into the structures of the family and of the wider community made it somewhat more acceptable. The archaic age, by contrast, saw the development of a more individualistic conception of death; death came to be feared as the dissolution of an individual’s identity. These attitudes were expressed in part through depictions of monstrous figures such as the Sphinx or the Gorgons. Sourvinou-Inwood associates Homeric conceptions of death primarily with the Dark Age and with its acceptance of death, but identifies occasional intrusions of archaic sensibilities into the Homeric poems: for instance, according to her the notion of punishments and rewards for the dead in Odyssey 11 or Hermes’ function as the conveyer of souls to the Underworld in Odyssey 24 reflect archaic Greek attempts to assuage fears of death. [1]
Sourvinou-Inwood’s findings (at least as they are presented in earlier articles) have come under attack from Ian Morris. [2] In a review both of her literary and of her archaeological evidence, Morris argues that no clear progression can be traced from Dark-Age to archaic Greek conceptions of death: a particular set of early Greek poets might place greater emphasis on one or other aspect of death in response to different social milieux or to changing political circumstances; nevertheless, a relatively consistent attitude towards death unites the output of poets from this period. Morris accepts that depictions of death in pre-classical poetry to some extent reflect contemporary political developments. The Homeric poems focus on the glory of the noble individual, which would have been celebrated in traditional, aristocratic societies. Poets such as Tyrtaeus and Callinus responded to the development of the archaic Greek polis: their poems place emphasis on the warrior-as-citizen, as a representative and defender of his community. Morris also acknowledges that poets might have emphasized particular aspects of death in response to particular social contexts, such as the symposium. For instance, the elegiac poetry of Mimnermus, which “stress[es] youthful sympotic pleasures,” carries different emphases from the Homeric poems, or indeed from the elegiac poetry of Tyrtaeus and Callinus. [3] But Morris argues that a consistent conception of death underlies all of these depictions: they reflect a general acceptance of death—whether through the winning of glory on the battlefield or through dying on behalf of the polis, or in the course of old age—rather than the individualistic fear of death described by Sourvinou-Inwood.
Vernant, for his part, argues that both early epic and Greek culture as a whole explore contrasting perspectives on death. And unlike Morris, he does not suggest that such perspectives reflect a single underlying conception of death. For Vernant, death in Homeric epic presents two “faces”: the one, glorious and beautiful; the other, horrific and monstrous. [4] And such elements of Homeric poetry reflect attitudes to death in wider Greek culture. Myths of terrifying female deities such as the Gorgon and Medusa explore the notion of the monstrousness of death. [5] And poets such as Tyrtaeus offered their own depictions of the beautiful death. [6]
Space does not allow for an extensive review of all the evidence explored by these scholars. However, the vegetal imagery to be considered in the following chapters gives us reasons to endorse elements of all three scholars’ arguments. Given the continuation of the Homeric performance tradition throughout the archaic age alongside other poetic traditions, we have reason to question Sourvinou-Inwood’s attribution of the Homeric poems to the Dark Age and her arguments for their anteriority to archaic Greek conceptions of death. [7] In this respect, then, Morris is right to resist the idea of a neat progression from one conception of death to another in early Greece.
In addition, floral images from the elegiac and Homeric corpora support Morris’ notion of distinctions between different Greek genres; however, the distinctions that we shall observe suggest not to much the sort of unified picture of archaic Greek culture offered by Morris as the clear contrasts identified by Vernant. As will become clear, a comparison of the floral imagery of archaic Greek elegy with that of Homeric poetry (which I treat as products of contemporaneous performance traditions) reveals a dialogue between two different conceptions of death.
These conceptions, moreover, recall aspects of death explored by all three scholars. As Morris points out, the elegiac image of the “flower of youth” suggests that death is a part (albeit an unwelcome part) of life: it succeeds the brief pleasures of youth all too quickly. But in the images that we shall consider the Homeric poems reflect the kind of terror of death that Sourvinou-Inwood attributes to the archaic age. And when we supplement her work with Vernant’s observations, we come to see that these Homeric floral images treat death itself as something monstrous. [8]


[ back ] 1. Sourvinou-Inwood 1995. See pp. 66–70 on justice for the Homeric dead and pp. 103–107, 303–356 on Hermes Psychopompus.
[ back ] 2. Morris 1989.
[ back ] 3. Morris 1989:307. I discuss Mimnermus’ poetry alongside that of Tyrtaeus in Chapter 7 below.
[ back ] 4. Vernant 1996.
[ back ] 5. Vernant 1991a, c.
[ back ] 6. Vernant 2001.
[ back ] 7. See my Introduction for the different poetic traditions of archaic Greece. With particular relevance to the poems that I shall discuss below, see Nagy 1985:46–50 on Greek elegy.
[ back ] 8. Vernant 1991a, 1991b, 1996.