Homeric Imagery and the Natural Environment

  Brockliss, William. 2019. Homeric Imagery and the Natural Environment. Hellenic Studies Series 82. Washington, DC: Center for Hellenic Studies. http://nrs.harvard.edu/urn-3:hul.ebook:CHS_BrocklissW.Homeric_Imagery_and_the_Natural_Environment.2019.

7. Beauty and Transience? Flowers and Death in Greek Elegy and Homeric Poetry

The Greek elegiac poets frequently associated the phrase ἄνθος ἥβης (the “flower of youth”) with brevity, old age, and death. [2] A prime example of the elegiac use of ἄνθος ἥβης is offered by Mimnermus fr. 2 West2, which couples the phrase (this time in the plural) with highly developed imagery, both of vegetation and of death. Like the generalizing statements from Greek elegy mentioned above, Mimnermus’ poem establishes a general, pessimistic contrast between the brief joys of youth and the trials of old age. I quote the first ten lines:

          ἡμεῖς δ’ οἷά τε φύλλα φύει πολυάνθεμος ὥρη
                   ἔαρος, ὅτ’ αἶψ’ αὐγῆις αὔξεται ἠελίου,
          τοῖς ἴκελοι πήχυιον ἐπὶ χρόνον ἄνθεσιν ἥβης
                  τερπόμεθα, πρὸς θεῶν εἰδότες οὔτε κακὸν
5        οὔτ’ ἀγαθόν· Κῆρες δὲ παρεστήκασι μέλαιναι,
                  ἡ μὲν ἔχουσα τέλος γήραος ἀργαλέου,
          ἡ δ’ ἑτέρη θανάτοιο· μίνυνθα δὲ γίνεται ἥβης
                   καρπός, ὅσον τ’ ἐπὶ γῆν κίδναται ἠέλιος.
          αὐτὰρ ἐπὴν δὴ τοῦτο τέλος παραμείψεται ὥρης,
10               αὐτίκα δὴ τεθνάναι βέλτιον ἢ βίοτος·

Mimnermus fr. 2.1–10 West2

          We are like the leaves that the many-flowered season of spring
                   Sends forth [ phúei ], when immediately they are increased by the rays of the sun,
          Like them we enjoy the flowers of youth for a cubit’s
                  Span, knowing from the gods neither evil
5      Nor good; but the black Fates stand beside us,
                  One having the fulfillment of grievous old age,
          The other of death; the fruit of youth is
                  As brief as the time the sun spreads over the earth.
          But when this end of the season passes,
10             Straightway dying is better than life.

Mimnermus’ poem incorporates traits peculiar to Greek spring vegetation. The phrase πολυάνθεμος ὥρη / ἕαρος (“the many-flowered season of spring”) suggests the abundance of Greek spring flowers, and the use of the plural ἄνθεσιν ἥβης in line 3, as opposed to the singular ἄνθος ἥβης that we find in many other elegiac poems, is in keeping with this notion: we imagine a plurality of flowers. But Mimnermus places greater emphasis on the notion of the brevity of flowers and of other vegetal growths, which he associates with the brevity of youth and of life itself. We pass quickly to old age and then to death (lines 5–7). Leaves grow suddenly (αἶψ’) under the rays of the spring sun (ἔαρος, ὅτ’ … αὐγῆις αὔξεται ἠελίου, line 2). Mimnermus thus captures the suddenness of vegetal growth in the early Greek spring. In the first line, the present tense of the verb φύω, describing the bursting forth both of leaves (φύλλα), may reinforce this notion of sudden growth: as we saw at the end of Part II, the Homeric poets associate the non-stative tenses of φύω with the sudden, apparently spontaneous floral growths of the Greek spring. The brevity of the blooming period of Greek flowers is then suggested in lines 3–4 with the association of “the flowers of youth” with “a cubit’s span,” presumably to be understood as a brief period of time. [3] We find a further image of brevity in lines 7–10, which associate the passing of the brief “fruit of youth” (ἥβης / καρπός, 7–8) with the departure of the sun at “this end of the season” (τοῦτο τέλος … ὥρης, 9)—presumably a reference to the passage from autumn to winter. In this poem, then, the notion of the “flowers of youth” forms part of a rich set of vegetal images that suggest the brevity of human and vegetal flourishing.

It is possible to read Glaucus’ image as an evocation not just of the succession of flourishing generations, but also of the brevity of life: our generation will pass quickly, like the leaves that scatter in a forest. And indeed the elegist Simonides appears to offer such a reading of this Homeric passage. In fr. 19 West2, which quotes the first line of Glaucus’ simile in its entirety, Simonides interprets the image as a warning that is all too often ignored, especially by the young:

          ἓν δὲ τὸ κάλλιστον Χῖος ἔειπεν ἀνήρ·
“οἵη περ φύλλων γενεή, τοίη δὲ καὶ ἀνδρῶν”·
          παῦροί μιν θνητῶν οὔασι δεξάμενοι
στέρνοις ἐγκατέθεντο· πάρεστι γὰρ ἐλπὶς ἑκάστωι
          ἀνδρῶν, ἥ τε νέων στήθεσιν ἐμφύεται.

Simonides fr. 19 West2

          The Chian man [i.e. Homer] said this one most beautiful thing:
“Like a generation of leaves, just so is a generation of men”;
          Few mortals, receiving this with their ears
Have placed it in their breasts; for hope, which grows
          In the chests of youths, accompanies each man.

Presumably, the hope refererred to in the fourth line is a kind of blind hope that youth and life will last; in Simonides’ opinion, Glaucus’ image challenges such delusions.

What is more, if West’s reconstruction is correct, Simonides believed that the Homeric passage and its themes were fully compatible with the elegiac notion of the ἄνθος ἥβης. West prints Simonides fr. 19 separately in his edition of Greek elegy; but subsequent to its publication, he has argued that fr. 19 followed the admonition in Simonides fr. 20 West2 concerning the blindness of mortals, who have no expectation of death, so long as they have ἄνθος … πολυήρατον ἥβης (“the much-beloved flower of youth,” line 5). And as in Mimnermus fr. 2, Simonides in fr. 20 associates the concept of flowers and youth with the notion of the brevity of life (lines 9–10): [6]

5             θνητῶν δ’ ὄφρα τις ἄνθος ἔχηι πολυήρατον ἥβης,
                  κοῦφον ἔχων θυμὸν πόλλ’ ἀτέλεστα νοεῖ·
          οὔτε γὰρ ἐλπίδ’ ἔχει γηρασέμεν οὔτε θανεῖσθαι,
                  οὐδ’, ὑγιὴς ὅταν ἦι, φροντίδ’ ἔχει καμάτου.
          νήπιοι, οἷς ταύτηι κεῖται νόος, οὐδὲ ἴσασιν
10               ὡς χρόνος ἔσθ’ ἥβης καὶ βιότου ὀλίγος
          θνητοῖς. ἀλλὰ σὺ ταῦτα μαθὼν βιότου ποτὶ τέρμα
                  ψυχῆι τῶν ἀγαθῶν τλῆθι χαριζόμενος.

Simonides fr. 20.5–12 West2

5      As long as any mortal possesses the much-beloved flower of youth
                  With a light heart he thinks of many things that will have no end;
          Nor does he have any expectation that he will grow old and die;
                  Nor, while he is healthy, does he worry about sickness;
          The fools, whose minds are thus disposed, do not even know
10               That the time of youth and life is short
          For mortals. But you—learn these things and endure to the end of life
                  Rejoicing at good things in your soul!

If these lines did indeed precede fr. 19 West2, then in the combined poem Simonides contrasted the reasonable expectation (ἐλπ[ίδ’ fr. 20.7) that we shall grow old and die with the blind hope that we shall live and thrive forever (ἐλπίς, fr. 19.4). Youths are seduced by the false promise of the latter. [

But there is one important difference between Glaucus’ simile as it is presented in Iliad 6 and the explorations of the ἄνθος ἥβης in elegiac poems such as Simonides fr. 20(/19) West2: Glaucus makes no mention of flowers. We cannot, then, assume that Homeric instances of the phrase ἄνθος ἥβης will carry connotations similar to those of their elegiac instantiations.

And indeed in the two passages where the phrase ἄνθος ἥβης occurs in Homeric poetry, we find that it does not carry the sorts of associations with brevity, old age, and death that are typical of its elegiac instantiations. In fact, the relevant passages offer a rather different response to the Greek natural environment from the equivalent elegiac images. While poems such as Mimnermus fr. 2 and Simonides fr. 20(/19) West2 associate the brevity of youth with the brevity of flowers in the Greek spring, the relevant Homeric passages associate the prime of life with vegetal flourishing. At Iliad 13.484, for instance, Idomeneus uses the phrase ἄνθος ἥβης to allude to Aeneas’ youthful vigor: καὶ δ’ ἔχει ἥβης ἄνθος, ὅ τε κράτος ἐστὶ μέγιστον (“and he has the flower of youth, which is the greatest power”). Idomeneus is clearly the older man: he points out that he and Aeneas are not of the same age (Iliad 13.485); a little earlier, our texts describe Idomeneus as graying (μεσαιπόλιος, 361). But there is no suggestion in these lines that Aeneas himself, who possesses the “flower of youth,” is soon to grow old. A second Homeric passage that employs the phrase ἄνθος ἥβης likewise associates it with flourishing youth but not with the brevity of life. At lines 375–376 of his Homeric Hymn, Hermes contrasts his own infancy with Apollo’s youthful flourishing: ὁ μὲν τέρεν ἄνθος ἔχει φιλοκυδέος ἥβης, / αὐτὰρ ἐγὼ χθιζὸς γενόμην (“he has the tender flower of glorious youth, / but I was born yesterday”). In Apollo’s case, there is not even the possibility of old age and decay: the flower of his youth may be tender (τέρεν), but as an immortal he will always possess it. [8]

It would seem, then, that while elegists such as Mimnermus or Simonides employed “the flower of youth” as a symbol for the inevitability of aging, the Homeric poets associated it with the prime of life. Further differences emerge between Homeric and elegiac treatments of the phrase ἄνθος ἥβης when we consider elegiac depictions of death in battle, which offer a closer parallel than Mimnermus’ or Simonides’ poems for the events described in the Homeric epics. The elegist Tyrtaeus associates the flower of youth not just with the brevity of life and the inevitability of death, but also with the preservation of a young warrior’s beauty after death. The Homeric poets do on occasion associate flowers with such miraculous preservation, but much more often they focus on the inevitable decay of corpses.

Tyrtaeus fr. 10 West2, for instance, contrasts the ugly death in battle of an older man who lies, breathing his last in the dust and clutching his genitals, with that of a young man, who has the ἥβης … ἄνθος (line 28) and whose beautiful body is admired both in life and death:

          αἰσχρὸν γὰρ δὴ τοῦτο, μετὰ προμάχοισι πεσόντα
                  κεῖσθαι πρόσθε νέων ἄνδρα παλαιότερον,
          ἤδη λευκὸν ἔχοντα κάρη πολιόν τε γένειον,
                  θυμὸν ἀποπνείοντ’ ἄλκιμον ἐν κονίηι,
25        αἱματόεντ’ αἰδοῖα φίλαις ἐν χερσὶν ἔχοντα—
                  αἰσχρὰ τά γ’ ὀφθαλμοῖς καὶ νεμεσητὸν ἰδεῖν,
          καὶ χρόα γυμνωθέντα· νέοισι δὲ πάντ’ ἐπέοικεν,
                  ὄφρ’ ἐρατῆς ἥβης ἀγλαὸν ἄνθος ἔχηι,
          ἀνδράσι μὲν θηητὸς ἰδεῖν, ἐρατὸς δὲ γυναιξὶ
30               ζωὸς ἐών, καλὸς δ’ ἐν προμάχοισι πεσών.
          ἀλλά τις εὖ διαβὰς μενέτω ποσὶν ἀμφοτέροισι
                  στηριχθεὶς ἐπὶ γῆς, χεῖλος ὀδοῦσι δακών.

Tyrtaeus fr. 10. 21–32 West2

          For this is a shameful thing, that an older man lie
                  Having fallen among the first fighters before the youths,
          Already with a white head and gray chin,
                  Breathing out his bold spirit in the dust,
25      Holding his bloody genitals in his own hands—
                  These are shameful things for eyes to see and a source of blame,
          And his flesh is also naked; for young men everything is fitting,
                   So long as the glorious flower of lovely youth holds them;
          [A youth] is admirable for men to see, desirable for women
30               While he is alive, and beautiful/fine having fallen among the first fighters.
          But let any man remain in place, standing with both feet well apart,
                  Fixed on the earth, biting his lip with his teeth.

At the start of the poem, in a phrase that offers a clear contrast with the first two lines quoted above, Tyrtaeus states that “it is beautiful/fine for a noble man fighting for his fatherland to die having fallen among the first fighters” (τεθνάμεναι γὰρ καλὸν ἐνὶ προμάχοισι πεσόντα / ἄνδρ’ ἀγαθὸν περὶ ἧι πατρίδι μαρνάμενον). This usage of καλόν in the neuter (“it is beautiful/fine”) in line 1 is then echoed by the use of the καλός in the masculine near the end of the poem (“[he is] beautiful/fine,” 30). In this way, Tyrtaeus’ poem, strikingly, conflates the ethical fineness (καλόν, 1) of the young man’s death for his country with the esthetic fineness or beauty of his dead body (καλός, 30).

Vernant fails, however, to note certain dissimilarities between the two passages, which are indicative of important distinctions between the Homeric and Tyrtaean treatments of death. [11] While Tyrtaeus states explicitly that the dying youth is himself καλός (“beautiful/fine”), the Iliadic passage is somewhat vaguer: πάντα δὲ καλὰ θανόντι περ, ὅττι φανήῃ, “all things are fine for the dead [youth], whatever appears” or “all things are fine for the [youth], though he be dead, whatever appears.” The phrase might refer to the youth’s body, but it could also allude to the ethical fineness of his actions. [12] Tyrtaeus, however, focuses boldly and unequivocally on the physical beauty of the young warrior’s body. He asserts not only that the young man while alive is admirable to men and sexually attractive to women (ἀνδράσι μὲν θηητὸς ἰδεῖν, ἐρατὸς δὲ γυναιξί, 29), but also that he retains such beauty when he has fallen among the first ranks (καλὸς δ’ ἐν προμάχοισι πεσών, 30). Tyrtaeus’ poem eroticizes and makes a spectacle of the young warrior’s corpse. Tyrtaeus may be drawing on a traditional image that contrasted the deaths of a young man and an old man in battle, or more directly on a Homeric instantiation of such imagery; but whichever is the case, he has recast his model in a strikingly innovative manner. His Spartan addressees might well have been spurred more readily to martial boldness and to stand their ground in battle (cf. lines 31–32) by the remarkable attribution of beauty to the corpses of youths slain in battle.

These passages, then, together with the other evidence that we have considered in this chapter, suggest differences between the floral images of death in Greek elegy and Homeric poetry. The Homeric poets might, at times, set the transient beauty of flowers against the preservation of a corpse’s beauty; but such notions cannot be said to lie behind the entire class of Homeric floral images of death. They do not, for instance, explain the attribution of the ἄνθος ἥβης to Aeneas, who is far from being a corpse in need of preservation. Moreover, the Homeric uses of the phrase ἄνθος ἥβης do not share in the focus on the brevity of life that we find in elegiac treatments of the same phrase.

In subsequent chapters, I shall build on these observations as I study other Homeric floral images of death. As we shall see, while the floral imagery of elegiac poetry dwells on the brevity of youth (Mimnermus, Simonides) or on the preservation of beauty after death (Tyrtaeus), rather different concerns unite the equivalent Homeric images: they focus on notions such as fertility and the dissolution of form.

Such associations demand explanation. It is clear that poems such as Mimnermus fr. 2 West2 associate the brevity of spring flowers with the brevity of youth and life, and that the floral imagery of poems such as Tyrtaeus fr. 10 West2 or Iliad 23.186–187 associates the beauty of flowers with the beauty of dead warriors. But it is not immediately obvious which aspects of death would be evoked by the concepts of fertility and formlessness, nor precisely how such imagery would interact with the characteristics of flowers in the natural environment. Accordingly, it is on such imagery that I shall focus in the remainder of Part III, in order to lay bare its conceptual associations and to explore its relationships with the concepts of death and flowers.


[ back ] 1. We might expect that the genre of women’s lament, which was likewise closely connected with death, would offer useful comparanda for the passages from Homeric poetry to be discussed in Part III. And indeed, it is likely that the vegetal images of the two genres interacted with one another: scholars have argued that the poetry of lament influenced Homeric images, such as the Euphorbus simile (Iliad 17.50–60) or Thetis’ comparison of Achilles with “a tree in an orchard” (18.57)—see Holst-Warhaft 1992:109, Alexiou 2002:198, Dué 2006:65–67. For the influence of lament on Homeric poetry, see more generally, Martin 1989:86–88, Holst-Warhaft 1992:108–113, Nagy 1999:170–177, Murnaghan 1999, Alexiou 2002:11–13, Dué 2002, 2006:30–56. But while elegiac poems incorporating vegetal images survive from the seventh century BCE onwards (see below on Tyrtaeus), we lack direct evidence of women’s lament from early Greece: in fact, the Homeric poems themselves present some of our best indications of what archaic Greek lament might have been like (e.g., Thetis’ lament at Iliad 18.52–64). This being the case, it is not possible (in keeping with the methodology of this volume) to set the images of archaic lament against their Homeric equivalents and to determine how the two bodies of imagery differed from one another.

[ back ] 2. Cf. Theognis 1007–1012 (youth will not come twice, and death is inevitable for mortals; we should therefore enjoy ourselves while we still have the ἄνθος ἥβης); Theognis 1069–1070 West2 (we should mourn the passing not of death, but of the ἄνθος ἥβης); Mimnermus fr. 1 West2 (the speaker claims to prefer death to an old age excluded from the joys of Aphrodite, which are the “flowers of youth [ἥβης ἄνθεα] to be seized by men and women,” lines 4–5). See also Mimnermus fr. 5.2–5 West2 (= Theognis 1018–1021 West2), which employs the similar phrase ἄνθος ὁμηλικίης. The speaker describes his desire for others, but regrets the brevity of their youth: “I am aflutter as I look on the flower of my coevals [ἄνθος ὁμηλικίης], / At the same time pleasurable and beautiful; would that it were more; / But prized youth … / like a dream lasts a short time.” Early audiences would also have been familiar with the phrase ἄνθος ἥβης and related imagery from epitaphs: see Lattimore 1962:195.

[ back ] 3. On flowers and the brevity of life in Greek elegiac poetry, see also Irwin 1984:152–154. For the brevity of the blooming period of Greek spring flowers, see Polunin 1980:30–31, Braudel 1972:233, and my Introduction.

[ back ] 4. Where this theme is found, it is associated most prominently with Achilles: see Thetis’ plaints over her son’s short life at Iliad 1.414–418. Thetis, however, is unusual for her knowledge that Achilles will soon die, so long as he remains at Troy; other characters, ignorant of their fate, do not tend to express such sentiments.

[ back ] 5. The precise nature of the relationship between the two sets of imagery is unclear. Griffith (1975) believes that Mimnermus is reacting against the Homeric passage, providing a more personalized, pessimistic depiction of death; see also Sourvinou-Inwood 1995:393–394, 426–427. Martin (1989:128), however, reads Glaucus’ image as an intrusion of elegiac sensibilities into epic. Allen (1993:41) is uncertain whether a direct relationship exists between the two texts: they may both have been “formed from traditional, common stock.”

[ back ] 6. West 1993:10–11.

[ back ] 7. For the ambiguity of the term ἐλπίς, “hope,” see Clay 2003:103 on the presence of Ἐλπίς among the evils of Pandora’s jar (Works and Days 94–98): “Hope promises and seduces, but all too rarely delivers.”

[ back ] 8. For another association of youthful vigor with flowers in Homeric poetry, see the hyacinthine hair that Athena grants Odysseus (Odyssey 6.229–235 ≈ 23.156–162), discussed in Chapter 2 above. Odysseus is decked with the curly locks of an archaic κοῦρος statue, an image of youth (see Irwin 1990). Again, there is no suggestion in Odysseus’ appearance of youthful vitality that will soon wither into old age: rather, we get a sense of old age artificially reversed. As noted in Chapter 2, this use of floral imagery is reminiscent of Aphrodite’s preservation of Hector’s body with “rosy oil” (Iliad 23.186–187), which is also discussed below.

[ back ] 9. Vernant 2001:328–331, on Tyrtaeus fr. 10 West2.

[ back ] 10. Vernant 2001:327–330.

[ back ] 11. For reasons to question Vernant’s attribution to Homeric poetry of the Tyrtaean notion of the beautiful death, other than those that I set out below, see Mirto 2012:126–139.

[ back ] 12. The words ὅττι φανήῃ, for instance, could refer either to visible things (cf. LSJ s.v. φαίνομαι, B.I) or to facts that are manifestly the case (B.II), such as the dead youth’s moral excellence. Vernant (1991d:84) points out that the dead body of Priam’s addressee, Hector, is the object of wonder on the part of the Achaeans (Iliad 22.370). It should be noted, however, that the relevant line refers to the stature and general appearance of Hector (φυὴ καὶ εἶδος) not, as Vernant would have it, to his beauty (“beauté”). What is more, the surrounding lines make clear that Hector’s body has been defiled: Achilles lifts “bloody spoils” from his opponent’s shoulders (368–369) after drawing his spear out from the body; the Achaean onlookers join in, each dealing a fresh wound to the corpse (371).

[ back ] 13. Vernant 2001:322–328. On the preservation of youthful beauty after death, see Loraux 1982:32: “La belle mort réalise d’un coup la valeur … d’un combattant: elle fixe la jeunesse des guerriers homériques, éternisés dans la fleur de leur âge … .”

[ back ] 14. Tyrtaeus’ image also departs from the elegiac treatments of the “flower of youth” that we considered above: while flowers in poems such as Mimnermus fr. 2 West2 are associated with the brevity of floral blooms, the flower of youth possessed by the dead warrior will endure.

[ back ] 15. Vernant 2001:339.

[ back ] 16. Descriptions of Hector’s corpse in the following book may, moreover, associate the preserved body with flowers for a second time. In an image of “extraordinary boldness” (Garland 1985:41), both Hermes and Hecuba describe his body as ἐερσήεις/ἑρσήεις (“dewy,” Iliad 24.419 and 757), an epithet used elsewhere in Homeric poetry only of flowering plants: the galingale (Hymn to Hermes 107) and the lotus (Iliad 14.348—at Odyssey 9.84 the lotus is the “flowery food” of the Lotus-Eaters). Hector’s flesh, it would seem, has the look of a flower in the morning dew. On the floral resonances of this image, see Segal 1971:70, who sees a possible connection between these passages and the description of Aphrodite’s “rosy oil.” For further discussion of Aphrodite’s “rosy oil,” see Chapter 2 above.

[ back ] 17. Cf. Iliad 24.411, where Hermes tells Priam that birds and dogs have been kept from Hector’s corpse. Likewise, in the proem the narrator anticipates that many heroes will become food for dogs and birds (Iliad 1.4–5). And at Iliad 19.23–27, Achilles expresses fears that worms will burrow into Patroclus’ corpse. Responding to her son’s concerns, Thetis drips ruddy nectar into Patroclus’ nostrils (38–39), an action that is reminiscent of Aphrodite’s preservation of Hector’s body with “ambrosial, rosy oil.”

[ back ] 18. For the theme of mistreatment of the corpse in the Iliad, see Segal 1971. While heroes’ bodies are threatened with physical degradation in the Iliad and, in the absence of special intervention, lose the “flower of youth” after death, the poem associates the memory of those same heroes with unwithering vegetation. See especially the phrase κλέος ἄφθιτον, “unwithering fame” (Iliad 9.413), which anticipates Achilles’ future glory, if he should stay and die at Troy. Given the associations of κλέος with Homeric poetry (cf. Iliad 2.486, 9.189; Odyssey 8.73–74, 24.196–198), this allusion to “unwithering fame” suggests the preservation of Achilles’ memory in epic song: see Nagy 1974:229–261, 1999:175–189. Nagy also (e.g., 2013:314–364) associates this and other Homeric vegetal images with the preservation of a warrior’s memory in hero cult. See too Nagy 2013:406–410 on the cult of Achilles, described at Philostratus Heroicus 53.8–13: Achilles receives offerings of στεφάνους ἀμαραντίνους (53.9)—either “garlands of amaranth” or “unwilting garlands” (cf. LSJ s.v. ἀμαράντινος)—a phrase that Nagy connects with the “unwithering fame” of Iliad 9.413.