9. Homeric Flowers and the Monstrousness of Death

In the previous chapter, we found that the Homeric floral imagery of death frequently evokes the notion of fertility, at times an exceptional fertility. The Odyssean images that we studied also associate flowers with the notions of insubstantiality and the dissolution of form. As we shall see, these different concepts combine to suggest a particular conception of death. We get a sense of what they might have to do with death when we draw on previous studies that have connected Homeric representations of death with the notion of monstrousness: our Homeric passages and their attendant conceptual associations are best explained as evocations of the monstrous disorder of death: just as monsters are forces of disorder, these floral images depict death as a force that negates the orderliness on which an individual’s living identity depends.
To help us understand how death might be conceived as something monstrous, we can refer to discussions of such notions and of their relevance to early Greek culture by Christiane Sourvinou-Inwood and Jean-Pierre Vernant. Sourvinou-Inwood, as noted in the Preamble to Part III, identifies a newfound fear of death in the conceptual systems of archaic Greece, which is reflected in certain passages from the Homeric poems. Death had come to be feared for its dissolution of an individual’s identity. In wider Greek culture, such fears were borne out, in part, through associations of death with monstrous figures such as the Gorgon or the Sphinx. These monsters acted as protectors of monuments, but also suggested the horror of death itself. [1]
As we saw in Chapter 7, Vernant contends that certain passages of archaic Greek poetry explore the concept of the beautiful death. [2] But he argues that in other aspects of archaic Greek culture death is portrayed as something horrific. And like Sourvinou-Inwood he associates such concepts both with the monstrous Gorgon and with the loss of an individual’s identity. Vernant, however, offers more specific explanations for such associations. Both in the Homeric poems and in other aspects of Greek culture, the Gorgon’s mask symbolizes the extreme otherness of death. Death, according to this conception, is “the ultimate horror,” which “assume[s] the monstrous mask of the Gorgo so as to embody all that is beyond humanity, the unsayable, the unthinkable, all that is radically other … .” And death takes on such qualities owing to its dissolution of all the structure and orderliness of life, which undergird an individual’s identity. The Gorgon’s mask suggests “the horror of chaos, the horror of what has no form and meaning” against which Homeric heroes, while still alive, must “affirm … the social permanence of [their] human individuality.” [3]
In applying these concepts to the Homeric poems, Vernant focuses in particular on two passages from the Odyssey. At the end of his visit to the Underworld, Odysseus flees before Persephone can send him the Gorgon’s mask: “green fear seized me, lest august Persephone should send me from Hades the Gorgon head of the dread monster” (ἐμὲ δὲ χλωρὸν δέος ᾕρει, / μή μοι Γοργείην κεφαλὴν δεινοῖο πελώρου / ἐξ’ Ἄϊδος πέμψειεν ἀγαυὴ Περσεφονεία, Odyssey 11.633–635). Vernant points out that Odysseus uses the same language both of his fear of the Gorgon and of his fear of the dead souls that he encounters on his arrival in Hades’ realm. As we see from the passage quoted above, Odysseus experiences χλωρὸν δέος, “green fear,” at the sight of the Gorgon’s mask. The same phrase describes his emotions at the start of the First Nekyia: οἳ πολλοὶ περὶ βόθρον ἐφοίτων / θεσπεσίῃ ἰαχῇ· ἐμὲ δὲ χλωρὸν δέος ᾕρει (“the many [dead] were wandering around the trench / with a marvelous noise; and green fear seized me,” Odyssey 11.42–43). On the basis of the linguistic parallels between these passages, Vernant concludes that Odysseus fears the same thing in both cases. Odysseus is afraid that he might be trapped in the Underworld and become like the shades he sees before him: lifeless, insubstantial, devoid of human identities. [4] As Vernant explains, the Gorgon has the power to make such fears a reality—she takes the life of any mortal who attempts to enter the realm of the dead while still alive. The dreadful head of the Gorgon would leave Odysseus like the “heads without vigor” (ἀμενηνὰ κάρηνα), as the dead are described at 10.521, 536, 11.29, 49. [5] According to Vernant, then, Odysseus’ “green fear” is a fear of the monstrous otherness of death, of its threat to dissolve all “form and meaning.” [6]
Vernant fails to discuss the other Homeric instances of the formula χλωρὸν δέος (or, to be more precise, χλωρὸν δέος plus a part of the verb αἱρέω); he does not, then, offer a complete picture of the kinds of associations that audiences familiar with Homeric poetry would have read into these Odyssean passages. Nevertheless, when we survey other instances of the formula, we find that they do, in fact, support Vernant’s conclusions: the phrase χλωρὸν δέος is associated both with a fear of death and with a fear of what is radically other.
The work of John Miles Foley, who does survey all the relevant Homeric passages, helps us to understand the connotations of the formula χλωρὸν δέος more clearly. Foley concludes that the formula always indicates a “supernaturally inspired fear”—that is, a fear of things beyond human control. [7] And this explanation is certainly consistent with a number of the Homeric instances of the phrase. At Iliad 7.478–479 and 8.75–77, for instance, “green fear” seizes soldiers who witness meteorological phenomena created by a more-than-mortal force—the thunder and lightning that are sent by Zeus. At Odyssey 24.450, the Ithacans experience “green fear” when Medon mentions the divine help that Odysseus received in his battle with the suitors; a little later, the Ithacans feel the same emotion when they hear the voice of Athena (529–535). And at Hymn to Demeter 189–190, Metaneira experiences “green fear” when Demeter reveals her true, divine form: “[Demeter] filled the doorway with divine light, and respect, awe, and green fear seized [the mortal Metaneira]” (πλῆσεν δὲ θύρας σέλαος θείοιο. / τὴν δ’ αἰδώς τε σέβας τε ἰδὲ χλωρὸν δέος εἷλεν). [8] It is reasonable to conclude, with Foley, that the fear mentioned in these passages amounts to a fear of a divine presence.
Nevertheless, other instances of the phrase χλωρὸν δέος place greater emphasis on the concept of death than on the notion of a supernatural presence. For instance, at Odyssey 12.243–244 Odysseus’ men experience “green fear” in the face of Charybdis. And while both Circe and Odysseus describe Charybdis as divine (δῖα, 104, 235), Odysseus identifies his companions’ “green fear” as a fear of death rather than divinity: τοὺς δὲ χλωρὸν δέος ᾕρει. / ἡμεῖς μὲν πρὸς τὴν ἴδομεν δείσαντες ὄλεθρον (“green fear seized them. / We fearing destruction looked towards her”). At Odyssey 22.42, moreover, the suitors experience “green fear” when Odysseus threatens them with death. As he puts it, “now the bonds of destruction have been fastened on you all” (νῦν ὑμῖν καὶ πᾶσιν ὀλέθρου πείρατ’ ἐφῆπται, 41). Immediately afterwards “each cast about to see where he might flee sheer destruction” (πάπτηνεν δὲ ἕκαστος ὅπῃ φύγοι αἰπὺν ὄλεθρον, 43). [9] Similarly, at Iliad 17.67 the phrase χλωρὸν δέος is associated with dogs who take fright before a lion, much as the Trojans in the main narrative take fright before Menelaus. There is no mention of a supernatural presence in the relevant lines. [10]
From this evidence, then, it seems that the formula χλωρὸν δέος can suggest either fear of a supernatural presence or a fear of death. Early audiences familiar with Homeric poetry would have understood the instances of the formula in Odyssey 11 in the light of such usages. And indeed notions both of the supernatural and of death are very much in evidence in our passages from Odyssey 11. At 11.43, Odysseus refers to “a marvelous noise” (θεσπεσίῃ ἰαχῇ) just before mentioning his “green fear.” The adjective θεσπέσιος carries associations with divinity: it derives from the roots *θεσ- and σπ-, otherwise attested in the words θεός (< *θεσ-ός, “god”) and ἐνι-σπεῖν (“speak”), and would originally have meant “spoken by the gods.” [11] But this divine noise is produced by dead souls. In these lines, then, the phrase “green fear” is associated both with a supernatural presence and with the notion of death.
Our second passage from Odyssey 11 evokes similar concepts. Odysseus describes how the dead souls thronged around him (632) and goes on to speak of his “green fear” (633). The juxtaposition of this phrase with a description of the shades associates Odysseus’ fear with the concept of death. But again, the dead produce a “marvelous (or god-spoken) noise” (ἠχῇ θεσπεσίῃ, 633), which is mentioned immediately before the formula ἐμὲ δὲ χλωρὸν δέος ᾕρει. Once more, then, this passage supports Foley’s association of the phrase “green fear” with the concept of the supernatural. And that theme is echoed in lines 634–635, with the mention of the Gorgon’s head, which is the mask of a deity sent by another deity, Persephone. What is more, a monstrous divinity such as the Gorgon carries particularly strong associations with the supernatural: she is not merely a deity, something more-than-mortal, but also a monster. Audiences familiar with usages of the formula χλωρὸν δέος such as we have considered above would, then, have picked up on the allusions to death and to the supernatural in these passages. They would have concluded that Odysseus’ fear amounts to a fear of both these things. And these observations are consistent with Vernant’s description of the monstrous otherness of death. As Vernant would have it, Odysseus fears death when he encounters the shades and imagines the Gorgon’s mask; but at the same time he fears what is radically other, since death would dissolve all the order that undergirds his living identity.
The notion of the monstrous disorder of death helps to account for the details of the Homeric passages that we studied in Chapter 8 and that we shall consider below. A number of the Homeric floral images of death echo depictions of monsters in other archaic Greek poems. The relevant images either resemble portrayals of specific monsters or recall the wild fertility that the Hesiodic poets attribute to monsters. And in this way, they allude not only to monstrousness but also to the theme of disorder. As mentioned above, monsters are by definition disorderly beings; but the monsters of the Hesiodic tradition, like flowers in Homeric poetry, are also characterized by a disordered fertility that fails to respect regular means of reproduction. Moreover, the irregular fertility of Homeric flowers and of Hesiodic monsters is. in both cases, associated with challenges to established order. Such allusions to disorder are complemented in our Homeric images by descriptions of physical dissolution or of the loss of identity; and these details are likewise consistent with the concept of the monstrous disorder of death.
We should now revisit the relevant passages from Homeric poetry, in order to explore the ways in which they evoke such concepts. The poppy simile from Iliad 8.302–308 offers our first example of a floral image alluding to monsters and monstrousness. We might firstly note the γοργ- root in the dying warrior’s name, which brings to mind the Gorgon. [12] Lest we think that the resemblance between the two names is fortuitous, the same root is found within fifty lines of Gorgythion’s death, where it describes the war-maddened eyes of his half-brother Hector and unambiguously evokes the glare of a Gorgon: Ἕκτωρ δ’ ἀμφιπεριστρώφα καλλίτριχας ἵππους, / Γοργοῦς ὄμματ’ ἔχων ἠδὲ βροτολοιγοῦ Ἄρηος (“Hector was turning his lovely-haired horses all around; / he had the eyes of Gorgo and of Ares, bane of men,” Iliad 8.348–349). [13]
The simile that follows, moreover, bears a close resemblance to an image describing a monster in another archaic Greek poem. In the Iliadic passage, Gorgythion “threw his head to one side like a poppy” (μήκων δ’ ὡς ἑτέρωσε κάρη βάλεν, 306) when he was struck by Teucer’s arrow. Stesichorus associates the monstrous Geryon with similar imagery. When Heracles’ arrow strikes the first head of the three-headed monster, it leans to one side like a poppy:
ἀπέκλινε δ’ ἄρ’ αὐχένα Γ̣αρ[υόνας
          ἐπικάρσιον, ὡς ὅκα μ[ά]κω[ν
ἅ τε καταισχύνοισ’ ἁπ̣α̣λ̣ὸ̣ν̣ [δέμας
          αἶψ’ ἀπὸ φύλλα βαλοῖσα̣ ν̣[
Stesichorus Geryoneis fr. 19.44–47 Davies-Finglass
Ger[yon] then leaned his neck
          to one side, as when a p[o]pp[y
which, shaming its tender [body,
          suddenly casts off its petals …
We can start to understand what the resemblances between the two pas-sages might signify if we refer to an essay by Jesús Salvador Castillo, who contends that Stesichorus’ poem reflects the original context of such images in the Greek poetic tradition. In making this argument, Salvador Castillo adopts a methodology similar to those employed in neo-analytical studies of Homeric poetry. [14] Neo-analysts have identified details in particular passages of the Iliad or the Odyssey that appear more at home in the equivalent episodes of the Epic Cycle. They have argued that these passages allude to such episodes, and that these allusions lend significance to the relevant portion of the major epics.
The Catalogue of Ships in Iliad 2, for example, obtrudes from its immediate context, and critics have argued that it recalls events early in the Trojan Cycle. Iliad 2 foregrounds the movements of the Achaean troops: they hurry to the assembly (86–94); they make a rush for the ships (142–154); subsequently, the chieftains re-establish order among them, and they are persuaded to return to the meeting-place (207–210). [15] At this point in the epic, then, we would expect any catalogue to list only the soldiers and not the ships that brought them to Troy: even though the ships are mentioned, they are not the primary focus of this episode. In fact, the Catalogue of Ships seems to belong to an earlier episode of the war, when the Achaean fleet was mustering at Aulis. For this reason, neo-analysts have read the relevant lines in Iliad 2 as an allusion to such events, which would have been described in the Cypria. And this has consequences for our understanding of the Iliadic scene. Benjamin Sammons, for instance, argues that these allusions point up a decline that has taken place in the Achaean army over their time at Troy. [16]
Similarly, Salvador Castillo argues that the image of a poppy leaning its head to one side is a more obvious fit for descriptions of many-headed monsters, such as we find in Stesichorus’ poem. He concludes that the Homeric poets are alluding to such passages, so as to enrich their account of Gorgythion’s demise. In particular, he argues that allusions to monsters and monstrosity in the relevant lines are important to the portrayal of Gorgythion’s death.
In order to demonstrate that the poppy image is more consistent with the description of the many-headed Geryon, Salvador Castillo explores, in particu-lar, the depiction of heads in the two passages. In his discussion of the Iliadic passage, he notes the focus on the heads of both Gorgythion and the poppy. As he observes, such a focus does not seem consistent with the context. Teucer’s arrow hits Gorgythion in the chest, not the head, and even if he were struck there we would expect not merely his head to loll but his whole body to crumple under the impact. [17] Stesichorus’ image, by contrast, fits its context perfectly—the relevant lines describe the death of the first head of the three-headed monster Geryon. Though Geryon’s first head dies, the rest of his many-headed body remains alive, and so we would fully expect it to loll like a poppy-head heavy with seeds. Given that the poppy image is more consistent with the physical details of Geryon’s demise, Salvador Castillo proposes that the Iliadic passage does not reflect the original context of such a simile; rather, both Stesichorus and the Iliadic poets were drawing on an earlier image that described the death of a monster. [18]
If we accept the validity of neo-analytical approaches, it is reasonable also to accept Salvador Castillo’s idea that our passage from Iliad 8 alludes to the death of a monster: the poppy image at Iliad 8.302–308, then, would echo the theme of monstrousness introduced by the name Gorgythion. We might, however, query other elements of Salvador Castillo’s argument. Firstly, while some neo-analytical studies of the major Homeric epics trace specific allusions to specific linguistic expressions in the relevant poems, others emphasize the fluidity in archaic times, both of the major epics and of the epic cycle. [19] It may be, then, that Stesichorus and the Homeric poets were not drawing on one single image from one single other poem, but rather on a certain kind of image with which they were both familiar. Secondly, we might think not so much in terms of originals and later imitations but of contemporaneous poetic traditions. The Homeric poets used the image of a poppy leaning its head to one side to describe the death of warriors; Stesichorus and other archaic Greek poets employed the same sort of image to describe the death of monsters.
I would also depart from Salvador Castillo in my explanation for the use of such elements in Iliad 8. Salvador Castillo suggests that allusions to monstrousness in Iliad 8.302–308 liken Teucer’s killing of Gorgythion to the slaying of a monster. But this does not seem a very satisfactory interpretation of the Iliadic passage. No previous achievements on the battlefield are attributed to Gorgythion; nor does he play an active role in the events leading up to his death. He seems, then, to be a singularly unlikely candidate for comparison with a terrifying monster. Teucer’s feat is, moreover, no great triumph of skill or endurance, such as we would expect from a monster-quest. In fact, he hits Gorgythion by accident, intending instead to kill Hector (Iliad 8.300–303). [20]
We can arrive at a better explanation of the allusions to monsters in this passage if we bear in mind Vernant’s discussion of the monstrousness of death—after all, Gorgythion’s name recalls the Gorgon and hence the very monster that is the focus of Vernant’s studies. And indeed it makes more sense to view allusions to monstrousness in the image as providing a comparandum not for the warrior himself, but for the death that he undergoes: if a simile were to compare a warrior with a monster, we would expect him to be the most fearsome of combatants; but death is something that all, both weak and strong, must face.
For a second example of a Homeric floral image resembling an archaic Greek description of a monster, we return to a scene that we have considered twice already, but not yet in connection with the theme of death. As we have seen, the description of the narcissus in the opening lines of the Hymn to Demeter is extremely rich in its significations: it contributes to the poem’s explorations not only of seduction and deception but also of changes to the order of the cosmos. [21] In addition, it is associated with the theme of death. We noted in Chapter 4 that in plucking the flower Korē opens up a passageway between the upper and lower worlds. Hades is thus able to rush up and seize Korē, and shortly afterwards he leads her down into the Underworld. As an immortal, Korē cannot die; nonetheless, her journey below the earth parallels that of the mortal dead. [22] Demeter, moreover, treats Korē’s abduction as a kind of death. This much can be seen from her actions, which would have resembled the sorts of rituals of mourning familiar to early audiences: when she hears Korē’s despairing cries, she tears her headdress and dons a dark veil (41–42); on arrival at the house of Celeus, she stays seated in silence and unsmiling, and refuses to taste food or drink (197–201). [23]
The characteristics of narcissi in the Greek natural environment, together with the treatment of the narcissus in wider Greek culture, would have encouraged listeners to see suggestions of death also in the opening scene of the hymn. The narcissus often decorated graves and was used as a motif in funerary art. [24] Such practices may have constituted a response to two qualities of the plant: the narcotic properties of its bulb and its blooming at colder times of the year than other Greek flowers. The earliest-flowering narcissi bloom at the start of the spring: at Historia Plantarum 6.8.1, for instance, Theophrastus notes that both the narcissus and the lily bloom very early; the Geoponica, a Byzantine treatise on agriculture that draws ultimately on ancient sources, transfers the coldness of the narcissus’ blooming period to the flower itself (ψυχρότατον δέ ἐστι τὸ ἄνθος αὐτοῦ—“its flower is very cold,” 9.25). A belief in the coldness of the flower would readily suggest an association with death: [25] as ancient authorities note, the passing of life is marked by the loss of body heat. [26]
The early Greeks also believed that the narcissus had anesthetic qualities and thought that these explained the name of the plant: they traced the Greek term to the root ναρκ-, which is associated with numbness. According to Plutarch, for instance, the ancients (οἱ παλαιοί) called the plant τὸν νάρκισσον, ὡς ἀμβλύνοντα τὰ νεῦρα καὶ βαρύτητας ἐμποιοῦντα ναρκώδεις (“the narcissus, on the grounds that it dulls the nerves and creates sleepy [narkōdeis] heaviness in the body,” Moralia 647b). [27] The ναρκ- root was, moreover, available to the Homeric poets for the description of numbness: at Iliad 8.328, a blow from Hector numbs (νάρκησε) Teucer’s hand. [28] Given their knowledge of this verb, the Homeric poets and their audiences might well have understood the origins of the term νάρκισσος in the same way as those mentioned by Plutarch. And although such explanations of the lexeme appear to be no more than folk-etymologies, [29] they may well draw on real qualities of the plant: the bulb of the narcissus contains toxic alkaloids that prove fatal in large quantities. When we take into account these natural characteristics of the narcissus and the resemblance of the first syllable of the plant’s name to the ναρκ- root, it would not be at all surprising if the narcissus put archaic Greek audiences in mind of the dulling of the senses in death. [30]
These associations of the narcissus in wider Greek culture would have encouraged listeners to see allusions to the theme of death in the opening scene of the Hymn to Demeter, which would then have been reinforced by the references to mourning later in the poem. But early audiences familiar with the Hesiodic tradition would also have perceived an allusion to the theme of monstrousness in the description of the narcissus. Jenny Strauss Clay notes that the many-headed narcissus of the hymn resembles the monstrous Typhoeus from the Hesiodic Theogony. [31] And there are, indeed, a number of striking similarities between the description of the flower at Hymn to Demeter 8–14 and the Hesiodic depiction of Typhoeus. The goddess Gaia sends up the plant from the Underworld; the same goddess unites with Tartarus, a compartment of the lower world, to produce Typhoeus (Theogony 821–822). [32] Like the narcissus, the monster has a hundred heads: ἐκ δέ οἱ ὤμων / ἦν ἑκατὸν κεφαλαὶ ὄφιος δεινοῖο δράκοντος, / γλώσσῃσι δνοφερῇσι λελιχμότες (“from his shoulders / there were a hundred heads of a dread, glaring snake, / licking with dark tongues,” Theogony 824–826). The noise of his fight with Zeus carries as far as the scent of the flower—it fills the earth, heaven, sea, and Underworld: ἀμφὶ δὲ γαῖα / σμερδαλέον κονάβησε καὶ οὐρανὸς εὐρὺς ὕπερθε / πόντός τ’ Ὠκεανοῦ τε ῥοαὶ καὶ τάρταρα γαίης (“the earth resounded terribly all around, and wide heaven above, / and the sea and the flows of Ocean, and Tartara in the earth,” Theogony 839–841).
At Hymn to Demeter 8–14, then, the Homeric poets described a flower associated with death in terms resembling Hesiodic depictions of monsters. We need not conclude that those poets were thereby alluding to our version of the Theogony: again, we may be dealing with two contemporaneous and fluid poetic traditions. Moreover, the Homeric poets may not have had in mind specifically the Hesiodic Typhoeus: the depiction of Typhoeus at Theogony 820–880 may reflect a Hesiodic template for describing monsters more generally. But even if this is the case, the Homeric description of the narcissus would have reminded early audiences of the sorts of monsters that they had encountered in performances of Hesiodic poetry. And at the same time, the Homeric poets alluded to a flower that was associated with death in wider Greek culture. If again we refer to Vernant’s findings we can posit a reason for these allusions both to death and to monstrousness: the many-headed narcissus suggests the monstrousness of death.
We notice more general similarities between Homeric flowers and Hesiodic monsters when we focus on the notion of fertility, which is given particular emphasis in the relevant passages of Homeric poetry. Both Homeric flowers and Hesiodic monsters possess a wild, disordered fertility whose operations contrast with the more regular reproductive processes associated, for instance, with human beings or with the Olympian gods. And such fertility is not merely disorderly in and of itself: it is associated in both genres with challenges to established order. Again, the combination of such themes with Homeric images of death is consistent with Vernant’s explorations of archaic Greek culture: according to him, the early Greeks conceived of death in terms of monstrous disorder.
The wild profusion of the Hesiodic monsters, for instance, contrasts with the more regular successions of divine generations. The Theogony’s stories of the gods incorporate the scenes of violent revolution discussed in Chapter 4, but they nonetheless follow a predictable pattern: a succession of brother-sister pairs (Heaven and Earth, Cronus and Rhea, Zeus and Hera) each produces a new generation of gods, and with the exception of Zeus each successive king of the gods is overthrown by one of his sons. By contrast the catalogue of monsters at Theogony 270–336 gives an impression simply of wild abundance and multiplicity, sometimes without a clear sense even of which monstrous creature gives birth to which other: in particular, the vague use of the feminine pronoun ἥ at Theogony 319 and 326, with no clear referent, creates the sense of a generalized, undifferentiated female fecundity. [33]
Similarly, two of the Homeric passages that we studied in Chapter 8 contrast the regular successions of human generations with descriptions of exceptional floral fertility. Gorgythion is identified as a son of Priam, and the narrative alludes to his mother’s fertile body (8.303–305). But lines 306–308 focus on a poppy so heavy with seeds that it can barely hold up its head. In the Gorgythion episode, then, the regular fertility associated with human generations is juxtaposed with vegetal profusion. We notice similar themes in the description of Euphorbus’ death in Book 17. Euphorbus is named as the son of Panthous (17.59), which once more reminds us of regular human generations. But a little earlier his death is associated with an image of exuberant floral fertility: the tree in the simile “overflows with white blossom” (βρύει ἄνθεϊ λευκῷ, 56). [34]
Hesiodic monsters and Homeric flowers also employ unconventional modes of reproduction. Within the Hesiodic catalogue of monsters, the Gorgon Medusa, even when decapitated, is able to give birth to Chrysaor and the horse Pegasus (Theogony 280–281). Typhoeus, despite seeming to clash with Zeus immediately after his emergence from the lower world, apparently has time to father the monsters Cerberus, Hydra, and Orthus with his mate, the monstrous Echidna (306–318). [35] Critics have, moreover, seen suggestions of mother-son couplings or parthenogenesis in lines 319–332. If such irregular processes are indeed operative in this passage, they would contrast with the modes of reproduction employed by the Olympian gods. [36] Similarly, as we saw in Chapter 6 the Homeric poets associated flowers with a fertility that failed to respect regular modes of reproduction. The archaic Greeks, responding to the sudden burst of color at the start of the Greek spring, believed small flowering plants to be capable of spontaneous generation, without the need for seeds. They thus endowed those plants with a fertility that bypassed the regular means of vegetal reproduction.
And such notions are consistent with some of the details of the Homeric images that we have studied in Part III. André Motte, for instance, notes that the ancient Greeks associated fertile meadows with spontaneous generation; and the images of death in Odyssey 11, 12, and 24 allude to just such meadows. [37] Moreover, in the Hymn to Demeter Korē’s narcissus is not said to emerge from a bulb; rather, it grows under the divine influence of Gaia (Hymn to Demeter 8–10). [38] The flower, then, not only resembles Typhoeus, but also, in its unconventional growth, the monsters of the Theogony more generally. [39]
Homeric flowers, then, possess an irregular fertility that contrasts with the regular successions of human generations or with more regular modes of reproduction; and Hesiodic monsters possess similar qualities. Such associations of flowers with irregular processes and the echoes thereby of monsters in the Hesiodic tradition are in keeping with the concepts that Vernant associates with death in Homeric poetry and elsewhere—both monstrousness and disorder.
What is more, audiences’ knowledge of the associations of flowers in Homeric poetry and of monsters in Hesiodic poetry would have encouraged them to see allusions to monstrous disorder in these Homeric images. The irregular fertility of Hesiodic monsters and of Homeric flowers is in both cases associated with challenges to cosmic order. As we found in Part II, the Homeric poets associated spontaneous growths of flowers with threats to cosmic order. And if we follow Clay, in the Hesiodic Theogony the uncontrolled procreation of monsters and the disorderly bodies that result threaten the orderliness of the cosmos. [40] These qualities of Homeric flowers and Hesiodic monsters offer a parallel for death’s dissolution of the orderliness of life: as Vernant reminds us, death threatens the orderly structures that undergird an individual’s identity.
Lastly, I would like to consider the implications of allusions to formlessness and the dissolution of form in Homeric floral imagery. These are likewise consistent with Vernant’s description of the monstrousness of death and would have supported associations of fertile flowers with such notions: they associate death with a breakdown of order in the body. Moreover, allusions to the loss of identity in those same lines suggest the consequences of this descent into disorder.
For a first example, we might return once more to the description of the death of Gorgythion. If Vernant’s findings are valid, we would expect that the allusions to the monstrousness in the poppy image and in the name of the warrior would suggest the dissolution of Gorgythion’s identity at the time of his death. And the details of the passage do, indeed, support such notions. Lines 302–305 describe the warrior’s living identity—in particular, through his relationship with his father Priam and mother Castianeira. But audiences familiar with Homeric descriptions of the Underworld would have found suggestions of the loss of identity in lines 306–308, with their focus on the heads of the flower and of the dead warrior. If they bore in mind Homeric descriptions of the dead, they would have been able to posit a reason for such a detail: it anticipates Gorgythion’s future among the “heads without vigor” (ἀμενηνὰ κάρηνα), which is the most common description of the dead in the Odyssean Nekyiai (10.521, 536, 11.29, 49). As we noted in Chapter 8, this formula suggests the insubstantiality of the shades and hence their lack of a definite physical form. And indeed this is the very fate that, according to Vernant, is symbolized by the head of the Gorgon, the monster recalled by Gorgythion’s name.
On this reading, then, there is a tension between the two halves of the Gorgythion passage: the first establishes the warrior’s living identity; the second looks forward to the loss of the physical form on which his identity depended. [41] And Gorgythion’s name provides the pivot between these two themes: his name, like any other name in the Iliad, is a mark of his individuality as a living warrior; but at the same time, with its allusion to the Gorgon it anticipates the loss of his individuality in death.
A second Iliadic poppy image, which we have yet to consider, couples references to a dying warrior’s head with more explicit allusions to physical dissolution. Near the end of Iliad 14, lines reminiscent of the Gorgythion episode describe Peneleos as he slays Ilioneus. They focus firstly on Ilioneus’ mother (as do lines 501–505, where Peneleos boasts that mother and son will have no joyful reunion); in this way, as at 8.302–305 these lines establish the identity that Ilioneus enjoyed while he was still alive. But the narrative goes on to place emphasis on the slain warrior’s head; and Ilioneus’ head is compared with that of a poppy (κώδεια), the only reference to that plant in our versions of the Homeric poems outside Iliad 8. Again, for audiences familiar with Homeric descriptions of the Underworld the focus on Ilioneus’ head would have suggested his future among the anonymous “heads” of the dead.
But while the Gorgythion simile anticipates the warrior’s loss of physical form in death, the Ilioneus episode describes the violation of the warrior’s physical integrity. Our passage from Iliad 14, with its grisly details, focuses insistently on Peneleos’ decapitation of Ilioneus. Peneleos drives his spear through his opponent’s eye, tears the eyeball away from its roots, pushes the weapon out through Ilioneus’ neck, lops off his head, and displays it to the dead man’s comrades with the spear-point still thrust through the eye:
                                  ὁ δ’ οὔτασεν Ἰλιονῆα
490    υἱὸν Φόρβαντος πολυμήλου, τόν ῥα μάλιστα
          Ἑρμείας Τρώων ἐφίλει καὶ κτῆσιν ὄπασσε·
          τῷ δ’ ἄρ’ ὑπὸ μήτηρ μοῦνον τέκεν Ἰλιονῆα·
          τὸν τόθ’ ὑπ’ ὀφρύος οὖτα κατ’ ὀφθαλμοῖο θέμεθλα,
          ἐκ δ’ ὦσε γλήνην· δόρυ δ’ ὀφθαλμοῖο διαπρὸ
495    καὶ διὰ ἰνίου ἦλθεν, ὁ δ’ ἕζετο χεῖρε πετάσσας
          ἄμφω. Πηνέλεως δὲ ἐρυσσάμενος ξίφος ὀξὺ
          αὐχένα μέσσον ἔλασσεν, ἀπήραξεν δὲ χαμᾶζε
          αὐτῇ σὺν πήληκι κάρη· ἔτι δ’ ὄβριμον ἔγχος
          ἦεν ἐν ὀφθαλμῷ· ὁ δὲ φὴ κώδειαν ἀνασχὼν
500    πέφραδέ τε Τρώεσσι...
Iliad 14.489–500
                                  and he wounded Ilioneus
490    the son of Phorbas of the many flocks, whom most of
          all the Trojans Hermes loved and granted possessions;
          to him the mother bore Ilioneus alone;
          [Peneleos] wounded him under the eyebrow through the roots of the eye,
          and pushed out the eyeball; the spear went
495    right through the eye and through the neck, and he sat down spreading
          both hands. And Peneleos drawing his sharp sword
          drove it through the middle of the neck, and he struck off the head
          onto the ground, helmet and all; but the mighty spear
          was still in the eye; and holding it up like a poppy-head [κώδειαν]
500    he showed it to the Trojans …
While Gorgythion’s head remains attached to his body, Peneleos severs Ilioneus’ head from his trunk. His action hastens the disintegration of Ilioneus’ dead body, its loss of form and orderliness. Peneleos then displays the head to the Trojans as a symbol of the monstrousness of the deaths that he intends to inflict on them. In Odyssey 11 the thought of the Gorgon’s severed head instills a fear of death in Odysseus and causes him to flee the Underworld. Similarly, at Iliad 14.506–507 the Trojans take fright at Peneleos’ grisly trophy and seek to escape the doom that it promises: τοὺς δ’ ἄρα πάντας ὑπὸ τρόμος ἔλλαβε γυῖα, / πάπτηνεν δὲ ἕκαστος ὅπῃ φύγοι αἰπὺν ὄλεθρον (“trembling overcame the limbs of all of them, / and each man looked where he might flee sheer doom”). The Trojans, then, experience the kind of horror that Vernant associates with reactions to the monstrousness of death, exhibited by characters such as Odysseus. [42]
Vernant’s notion of the monstrous disorder of death is, moreover, consistent with the themes of the Odyssean floral images that we studied in Chapter 8. As with the Gorgythion and Ilioneus episodes, Circe in her depiction of the Sirens’ victims focuses firstly on their identities as living men and then passes on to a description of their deaths. Allusions to the relationships of Gorgythion and Ilioneus with their mothers at Iliad 8.304–305 and 14.492 help to establish the identities of those warriors. The identities of the Sirens’ victims are likewise defined with reference to their familial ties: as Circe warns Odysseus, whoever is beguiled by the Sirens’ songs, his wife and children will not welcome him home (Odyssey 12.42–43). Circe goes on to place special emphasis on the dissolution of the individuality of those on the Sirens’ island. In place of living men, the Sirens’ meadow hosts a heap of rotting flesh and bones (45–46). Ilioneus’ body is dismembered by Peneleos; but in Odyssey 12 Circe offers a more thoroughgoing image of physical dissolution. It is no longer possible even to tell one body from the next, such is their state of decay.
The description of the asphodel meadow at Odyssey 24.13–14 also accords with the notions of the loss of individuality and the dissolution of form. At that point, the dead souls who inhabit the meadow are described as “images of the dead” (εἴδωλα καμόντων, 14). And the notion of the εἴδωλον is closely associated with that of insubstantiality. When Odysseus is unable to embrace the shade of his mother, he wonders if Persephone has sent him only an image (εἴδωλον, 11.213) of her. But Anticleia explains that such is the state of souls after death: their bodies dissolve and the soul flits away to the Underworld (219–222). And as noted in Chapter 8, the Homeric poets’ choice of a meadow of asphodel, which from a distance would possess a grayish hue, would have offered audiences another way to conceptualize the insubstantiality of the souls. Such a depiction of the souls accords with Vernant’s exploration of the monstrousness of death: their insubstantiality reflects the loss of the bodily form that was essential to their identities as living men and women. If Odysseus tarries in the Underworld, he risks losing his physical integrity to the sight of the Gorgon’s mask and thereby also his identity. He would become like the insubstantial souls of the asphodel meadow.
* * *
In this chapter and the last, we have laid bare the associations of the Homeric floral imagery of death and have gained a sense of its contributions to the depiction of death in the relevant passages. The allusions to exceptional fertility in these scenes create a parallel both with the characteristics of flowers in the Greek natural environment and with the depiction of monsters in the Hesiodic tradition. And given that both Hesiodic monsters and Homeric flowers are associated with a wild, disorderly fertility, these Homeric images were able to evoke the dissolution of the orderliness on which an individual’s living identity depends. Such notions are reinforced by allusions to formlessness and the dissolution of form in the relevant passages. Vernant’s work on the monstrous otherness of death helps us to understand the connections between these different concepts. With this rich network of associations, the Homeric poets offered a glimpse of death as a chaotic horror, of its negation of all the orderliness of life. [43] A dying warrior passed into a state of formlessness and disorder, monstrously at variance with the living identity that he had once enjoyed.


[ back ] 1. Sourvinou-Inwood 1995:271–273: “As [the Sphinx] is also a death-bringer, an agent of death, [she] is also, at another level, an image of death” (p. 271).
[ back ] 2. Vernant 2001.
[ back ] 3. Vernant 1991a, 1991b, 1996, with quotations from 1996:58 and 61. On the association of the Gorgon with the chaos and formlessness of death, see also Vernant 1991b:144: Gorgons “embody the figure of chaos, the return to the formless and indistinct … the fact itself of death, of that death which has no visage.” Cf. Blaise’s description (1992:362–363) of the Hesiodic monster Typhoeus: “il est par la multiplicité interne à son être, la négation de toute forme d’identité.” Blaise also associates Typhoeus with human mortality (p. 370). As we shall see, the Hymn to Demeter echoes Hesiodic descriptions of Typhoeus in its depiction of the monstrousness of death.
[ back ] 4. Vernant 1996:60. For the insubstantiality of the dead in the Odyssean Underworld, see Chapter 8 above.
[ back ] 5. Vernant 1991a:121. By this reasoning, if Persephone were to send the mask, Odysseus would be trapped in the Underworld forever. For the “heads” of the dead, see also Chapter 8 above.
[ back ] 6. Vernant 1996:61.
[ back ] 7. J. M. Foley 1999:216–218, 2002:121. Cf. Vernant 1991a:117, 128; the fear inspired by the Gorgon’s mask.is something “supernatural” (“surnaturel,” Vernant 1985:40, 61).
[ back ] 8. For the emotion of σέβας in the hymn and its relation to divinity, see the comments in Chapter 2 above on Hymn to Demeter 10.
[ back ] 9. J. M. Foley (1999:217–218) explains the “green fear” of the suitors at Odyssey 22.42 in terms of Odysseus’ reference to the gods at line 39 (οὕτε θεοὺς δείσαντες, οἳ οὐρανὸν εὐρὺν ἔχουσιν, “not fearing the gods, who hold wide heaven”): he infers that the suitors fear divine vengeance for their actions. But in his speech Odysseus does not directly mention divine vengeance. Rather, he alludes “vengeance from mortals” (ἀνθρώπων νέμεσιν, 40), and he follows this phrase with a reference to the doom that awaits the suitors (41).
[ back ] 10. Likewise, a variant of the formula in question, χλωρὸς/οὶ ὑπαὶ δείους, “green with fear,” carries clear associations with death in both its Homeric instantiations; and neither passage alludes to the supernatural. At Iliad 10.376, it describes Dolon, who fears death at the hands of Odysseus and Diomedes; at 15.4, it describes the Trojans who are intimidated by the Greeks.
[ back ] 11. See Beekes 2009 s.v. θεσπέσιος. Elsewhere in Homeric poetry, the adjective is indeed associated with divine utterances: at Odyssey 24.49, for instance, it describes the wailing of Thetis and of her fellow Nereids as they mourn for Achilles.
[ back ] 12. For the connotations of monstrousness in Gorgythion’s name, see Salvador Castillo 1994:236–238, Kelly 2015:37n81.
[ back ] 13. See Vernant 1991a:116–118 on the concentration of a warrior’s power of death in the Gorgon device on his shield: according to him, Gorgoneions suggest the eyes of a berserk warrior, like those of Hector in the passage quoted above.
[ back ] 14. For neo-analysis, see also my Introduction.
[ back ] 15. For comments on the vegetal imagery in this episode, see Chapter 8 nn. 1 and 37.
[ back ] 16. Sammons 2010:135–196.
[ back ] 17. Kirk 1990 on Iliad 8.306–308: “The explanation that [the head] is weighed down with the helmet is hardly necessary, a further piece of poetical pseudo-realistic fantasy—for the body would tend to collapse all at once, and the sagging of the head not stand out from the rest.”
[ back ] 18. Salvador Castillo 1994. Cf. Kauffman 2016, who notes Apollonius Rhodius’ use of elements from the Gorgythion and Euphorbus similes to describe the deaths of monsters.
[ back ] 19. For specific allusions, see Currie 2016; for greater fluidity, see Nagy 1999:42–58 and 2004.
[ back ] 20. Mackie’s explorations of Hector’s attempts to kill Achilles in terms of a failed monster-quest are rather more convincing (2008:21–50). The victor Achilles takes on characteristics that we would normally expect of a monster, not a warrior, such as the desire to eat human flesh (Iliad 22.346–347): had Hector been able to kill the unnatural Achilles, his would have been a feat worthy of comparison with the slaying of a monster.
[ back ] 21. Chapters 2 and 4 above.
[ back ] 22. In fact, if we follow Rudhardt (1994) and Clay (2006:202–266), Korē is later able to alleviate the horrific deaths endured by mortals in the Underworld: her annual journeys to and from the upper world allow her to appeal to her husband on behalf of Eleusinian initiates, and thereby to win them the status of “blessed” after death (Hymn to Demeter 480); see also Chapter 4n28 above. For the near-death of the gods in Homeric poetry, see Garcia 2013:159–229.
[ back ] 23. For the associations of Demeter’s actions with mourning, see Richardson 1974 on Hymn to Demeter 41, 42, and 197-201. For Demeter’s treating Korē’s abduction by Hades as a kind of death, see DeBloois 1997 and Stehle (Stigers) 1977:94–96, discussed in Chapter 2 above.
[ back ] 24. Eitrem 1935 col. 1727, Chirassi 1968:146, Richardson 1974 on Hymn to Demeter 8, Baumann 1993:68.
[ back ] 25. Eitrem 1935 col. 1727.
[ back ] 26. See Aristotle De Longitudine et Brevitate Vitae 466a.20–21, Problems 909b.29–31.
[ back ] 27. Cf. Pliny Natural History 21.128, who describes one type of narcissus as neruis inimicum, caput grauantem et a narce narcissum dictum … (“hostile to vigor, weighing down the head, and called narcissus from narce” [a Greek term for numbness]).
[ back ] 28. Interestingly, this passage follows shortly after the Gorgythion simile, which as noted in Chapter 8n29 above describes a plant with narcotic qualities—the poppy. It is possible, then, that Homeric audiences, when they heard of this wound to Gorgythion’s killer, would still have had in mind the notion of numbness that is latent in the Gorgythion passage.
[ back ] 29. Chantraine 1984–1990 and Beekes 2009 s.v. νάρκισσος.
[ back ] 30. On the fatal qualities of alkaloids from bulbs of the genus Narcissus, see Bastida and Viladomat 2002, esp. 184–185. On the recognition of these qualities in the Greek associations of the νάρκισσος, see Chirassi 1968:143–144.
[ back ] 31. Clay 2006:213–214. See also Clay 2003:150 on Hesiodic monsters more generally: they “present a kind of wild efflorescence whose continuation might imperil the final stability of the cosmos” (my emphasis). On associations of monsters, flowers, and disorder, see further below. For the engagement of the Hymn to Demeter with the story of Typhoeus, see Richardson 1974:40.
[ back ] 32. Clay 2006:214: “Like many of the prodigious creatures Gaia has brought forth in the past, the narcissus is a monstrosity of nature.”
[ back ] 33. See Clay 2003:159–161.
[ back ] 34. By contrast, Glaucus’ simile at 6.146–149, discussed in Chapter 7, likens the alternation of human generations to leaves, not flowers.
[ back ] 35. At Theogony 820–880, a description of Typhoeus’ birth passes immediately to an account of his fight with Zeus. Typhoeus is a doublet of the Typhaon mentioned at line 306 of the catalogue of monsters: see West 1966 on Theogony 306 (Τυφάονα).
[ back ] 36. Clay 2003:159–160, with bibliography.
[ back ] 37. Motte 1971:7–10, 161–162.
[ back ] 38. See Chapter 6 above.
[ back ] 39. Lowe (2015:205) notes both the resemblance of the narcissus to Typhoeus and the association of Typhoeus’ body with “monstrous fecundity.” For parallels between the wild fertility of Hesiodic monsters and spontaneous generation, see Clay 2003:150 (such monsters “come into being spontaneously in their exuberant disorder”) and Lowe 2015:46. See also Motte 1971:12, who observes that the Greeks associated meadows with both spontaneous generation and the monstrous. In a further connection between spontaneity in nature and monstrousness, spontaneous natural processes were believed, like the reproduction of Hesiodic monsters, to have irregular results. Aristotle, for instance, notes the irregular results of spontaneous (αὐτόματος) generation in animals (Historia Animalium 539b.7–14). Theophrastus, whose accounts of spontaneous generation we explored in Chapter 6, notes how “monstrosities” (τέρατα) arise from “spontaneous change” (αὐτομάτην … μεταβολήν) in plants, which can, for instance, result in a given variety exhibiting the fruit of another variety (Historia Plantarum 2.3.1–2). See also De Causis Plantarum 5.1–4, 7 on the irregular growths of parts of plants.
[ back ] 40. See Clay 2003:12–30 and 150–161: while other divine generations in the Theogony progress from the disorderly couplings of elemental beings to the regularized sexual unions of anthropomorphized gods, monsters continue to reproduce through unconventional means such as incest or spontaneous generation and to combine different categories of being. For monsters’ violation of categories, see Carroll 1990 and Cohen 1996:6–12.
[ back ] 41. Cf. Kelly’s (2007) idea that floral images in this and other Homeric passages suggest “inevitable faceless mortality” (p. 31; cf. pp. 289–290).
[ back ] 42. See also the description of the suitor’s “green fear” of death at Odyssey 22.42, which is followed by a line identical to Iliad 14.507: “each cast about to see where he might flee sheer destruction” (πάπτηνεν δὲ ἕκαστος ὅπῃ φύγοι αἰπὺν ὄλεθρον, 43).
[ back ] 43. On Homeric death, horror, and the natural world, see also Redfield 1994:103. According to Redfield, the Iliadic hero steps outside the bounds of civilization to face death in the realm of nature: “For the warrior, culture appears as a translucent screen against the terror of nature.”