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.

8. Fertility and Formlessness: Images of Death in the Iliad and the Odyssey

In the last chapter, we compared Homeric and elegiac treatments of the “flower of youth” and found that, while the elegiac poets associated the phrase with the brevity of life, their Homeric counterparts employed it only in evocations of the prime of life. In order to study the Homeric floral imagery of death, we need, in fact, to look to different passages from the Homeric corpus. The relevant passages associate fallen warriors with flowers, or flowery meadows with the concept of death. As we shall see, these passages consistent-ly evoke the concept of fertility; some also allude to the notions of insubstantiality or the dissolution of form.

Trees, Flowers, and the Deaths of Warriors in the Iliad

Many of the Homeric floral images of death that we have yet to consider are found in the Homeric epic of war, the Iliad. That being the case, it is reasonable to continue our investigation of such imagery with a focus on its Iliadic instantiations. As in the previous chapter, it is possible to set such imagery in relief by comparing it with other vegetal imagery. But whereas in Chapter 7 we compared Homeric floral images with images from a different genre (that of elegiac poetry), I would now like to draw on comparanda from the Homeric corpus itself. As we shall see, we can gain a clearer understanding of the relevant floral images if we compare them with Iliadic arboreal images that are likewise associated with individual warriors, though not always with their deaths. [1]

Perhaps the clearest example of a simile that associates trees and warriors’ strength is found at Iliad 12.131–136. As Polypoetes and Leonteus take their stand against Asius’ assault on the Achaean wall, their strong resistance is likened to that of oaks enduring the wind and the rain:

          τὼ μὲν ἄρα προπάροιθε πυλάων ὑψηλάων
          ἕστασαν ὡς ὅτε τε δρύες οὔρεσιν ὑψικάρηνοι,
          αἵ τ’ ἄνεμον μίμνουσι καὶ ὑετὸν ἤματα πάντα,
          ῥίζῃσιν μεγάλῃσι διηνεκέεσσ’ ἀραρυῖαι·
135    ὣς ἄρα τὼ χείρεσσι πεποιθότες ἠδὲ βίηφι
          μίμνον ἐπερχόμενον μέγαν Ἄσιον οὐδὲ φέβοντο.

Iliad 12.131–136

          The two men were standing before the high
          Gates, as high-headed oaks in the mountains,
          Which wait out wind and rain all their days,
          Fixed on great, continuous roots;
135    So they, trusting in their hands and force,
          Were awaiting great Asius’ attack, nor did they flee.

This simile accesses the botanical characteristics of oaks to emphasize the warriors’ steadfastness. In choosing oaks the Homeric poets focused their audiences’ minds on some of the strongest and most enduring elements of the Greek flora. [
5] Early audiences would have been able to imagine gnarled old oaks standing alone at a vantage point in the landscape (οὔρεσιν, 12.132), resisting the assaults of wind and rain, much as Leonteus and Polypoetes endure all that Asius can throw at them. The allusion to the trees’ “great continuous roots” (ῥίζῃσιν μεγάλῃσιν διηνεκέεσσ’, 134) places further emphasis on the warriors’ firm resistance. [6] The simile, then, focuses not on peacefulness but on the concept of strength: the steadfastness that Leonteus and Polypoetes share with oak trees enables them to excel at their martial task.

If we consider arboreal similes that are associated with injured or dying warriors, we find—alongside comparisons of tree-felling with the slaying of men—similar associations of trees, sturdiness, and strength. For instance, when a little later Asius meets his end, he is compared with an oak, poplar or pine cut down by craftsmen to form a ship’s timber:

ἤριπε δ’ ὡς ὅτε τις δρῦς ἤριπεν ἢ ἀχερωΐς,
ἠὲ πίτυς βλωθρή, τήν τ’ οὔρεσι τέκτονες ἄνδρες
ἐξέταμον πελέκεσσι νεήκεσι νήιον εἶναι·
ὣς ὁ πρόσθ’ ἵππων καὶ δίφρου κεῖτο τανυσθείς,
βεβρυχώς, κόνιος δεδραγμένος αἱματοέσσης.

Iliad 13.389–393

He fell as when an oak or poplar or tall pine
Falls, which craftsmen cut in the mountains
With newly sharpened axes, to be a ship’s timber;
So he lay stretched out before the horses and chariot,
Groaning, clutching the bloodied dust.

When Hector (albeit temporarily) is laid low with a stone, even he, the greatest of the Trojans, is likened to a tree. The relevant lines compare the impact of the stone hurled by Aias with that of Zeus’ thunderbolt:

ὡς δ’ ὅθ’ ὑπὸ πληγῆς πατρὸς Διὸς ἐξερίπῃ δρῦς
πρόρριζος· δεινὴ δὲ θεείου γίγνεται ὀδμὴ
ἐξ αὐτῆς, τὸν δ’ οὔ περ ἔχει θράσος, ὅς κεν ἴδηται
ἐγγὺς ἐών, χαλεπὸς δὲ Διὸς μεγάλοιο κεραυνός,
ὣς ἔπεσ’ Ἕκτορος ὦκα χαμαὶ μένος ἐν κονίῃσι.

Iliad 14.414–418

As when under the blow of father Zeus an oak falls,
Uprooted; and a terrible smell of sulfur arises
From it; and he is not possessed by boldness, whoever is close
And sees it, but the thunderbolt of great Zeus is a difficult thing;
So the might of Hector fell swiftly onto the ground in the dust.

As with the Leonteus and Polypoetes simile, this image evokes the roots of the oak. But unlike the oaks that are “fixed on great, continuous roots” at 12.134, the tree in the image from Book 14 is “uprooted” (πρόρριζος, 14.415). Audiences would have recognized that no weak blow could have done this: as noted above, oaks are among the sturdiest trees of the Greek world. And indeed, the simile draws attention to the power of Zeus’ thunderbolt, which is a “difficult thing” and terrifies onlookers (416–417). These lines, then, give an impression not of Hector’s weakness, but rather of the great power of Aias’ assault, which overcomes such a steadfast warrior, much as Zeus’ thunderbolt is able to uproot even an oak tree.

Our findings thus far suggest that Iliadic arboreal similes focus not on weakness or on the peaceful world the warrior has left behind but on his strength and steadfastness. In this way, they are suitable for describing major heroes no less than minor warriors. With them, the Homeric poets encouraged their audiences to draw on their knowledge of trees in the natural environment; they could thereby imagine steadfast warriors in terms of strong roots, great height, and sturdy trunks.

We turn now to arboreal similes that incorporate floral elements or which are otherwise closely connected with flowers in order to consider what particular associations such elements introduce. Our first such passage comes from an account of a warrior’s death early in the Iliad. When Simoeisius dies at Iliad 4.473–489, he is likened to a poplar that grows in a meadow, is cut down by a chariot-maker, and dries by a riverbank. But the narrative surrounding the simile also introduces floral elements to the description of Simoeisius’ death. As we shall see, the comparison of the warrior with a tree in these lines once more suggests strength, even if his strength is not as great as that of the warriors discussed above; but the floral elements in this passage are associated with the notion of fertility:

          ἔνθ ἔβαλ’ Ἀνθεμίωνος υἱὸν Τελαμώνιος Αἴας,
          ἠίθεον θαλερὸν Σιμοείσιον, ὅν ποτε μήτηρ
475    Ἴδηθεν κατιοῦσα παρ’ ὄχθῃσιν Σιμόεντος
          γείνατ’, ἐπεὶ ῥα τοκεῦσιν ἅμ’ ἕσπετο μῆλα ἰδέσθαι.
          τοὔνεκὰ μιν κάλεον Σιμοείσιον· οὐ δὲ τοκεῦσι
          θρέπτρα φίλοις ἀπέδωκε, μινυνθάδιος δέ οἱ αἰὼν
          ἔπλεθ’ ὑπ’ Αἴαντος μεγαθύμου δουρὶ δαμέντι.
480    πρῶτον γάρ μιν ἰόντα βάλε στῆθος παρὰ μαζὸν
          δεξιόν· ἀντικρὺ δὲ δι’ ὤμου χάλκεον ἔγχος
          ἦλθεν· ὁ δ’ ἐν κονίῃσι χαμαὶ πέσεν, αἴγειρος ὥς,
          ἥ ῥά τ’ ἐν εἱαμενῇ ἕλεος μεγάλοιο πεφύκει
          λείη, ἀτάρ τέ οἱ ὄζοι ἐπ’ ἀκροτάτῃ πεφύασι·
485    τὴν μὲν θ’ ἁρματοπηγὸς ἀνὴρ αἴθωνι σιδήρῳ
          ἐξέταμ’, ὄφρα ἴτυν κάμψῃ περικαλλέϊ δίφρῳ·
          ἡ μὲν τ’ ἀζομένη κεῖται ποταμοῖο παρ’ ὄχθας.
          τοῖον ἄρ’ Ἀνθεμίδην Σιμοείσιον ἐξενάριξεν
          Αἴας διογενής.

Iliad 4.473–489

          Then Telamonian Aias hit the son of Anthemion,
          The burgeoning youth Simoeisius, whom once
475    His mother bore, coming down from Ida by the banks
          Of the Simoeis, when she followed her parents to see their flocks.
          For that reason they used to call him Simoeisius; but he did not compensate
          His dear parents for his rearing: short was his life
          When he was conquered by the spear of great-hearted Aias.
480    First he struck him in the chest by the right nipple
          As he approached; the bronze spear went straight on
          Through his shoulder; and he lay on the ground in the dust like a poplar,
          Which had grown in the meadow of a great marsh;
          It is smooth, but branches have grown at its very top;
485    A chariot-maker cut it down with gleaming
          Iron, so that he might bend a wheel-rim for a very beautiful double-car;
          It lies drying by the banks of a river.
          Simoeisius the son of Anthemion was like that when god-born
          Aias slew him.

The following lines reinforce such notions: they likewise evoke both vegetal fertility and human fecundity, and indeed associate them with one another. Lines 474–477 describe Simoeisius’ birth on the banks of the river Simoeis, a minor river of the Troad, for which he was named. For early audiences, the description of such a landscape would have carried connotations of vegetal fertility. They would have been familiar with the fertile soil around the rivers of the Greek world, which is still in evidence today: for instance, the banks of the Scamander, the major river of the Troad, are notable for their rich vegetal life, as we see from Plate 6. [15] Audiences would also have been familiar with Homeric descriptions of the lush vegetation growing in such places. A little earlier in Iliad 4, we hear of the deep rushes and grassy banks of the river Asopus (Ἀσωπόν … βαθύσχοινον λεχεποίην, 383); at 5.777 the river Simoeis itself sends up ambrosia for Hera’s horses; at Iliad 21.350–351, trees and other vegetation crowd the banks of the Scamander; Odyssey 5.463 mentions rushes around a river in Scheria; and Hymn 9.3 alludes to the deep rushes of the river Meles (βαθυσχοίνοιο Μέλητος). Moreover, the description of the tree in the simile that accompanies the death of Simoeisius in Iliad 4 would have reminded audiences of such fertile landscapes. The tree is cut down and left to dry by a river (487); presumably the marsh in which it grew (483) is near this river. Audiences would, then, have imagined the banks of the river Simoeis, which are described in the main narrative, as fertile terrain.

Other Iliadic descriptions of the death of warriors that likewise allude to flowers support this interpretation of the floral lexemes in the Simoeisius simile. In the passages that we shall study, we find references to human and vegetal fertility alongside explicit evocations of floral fertility. We might, for instance, consider the description of Euphorbus’ death at 17.50–60. As with the other Iliadic images that we have discussed, the relevant lines associate trees with strength; but they also emphasize the notion of fertility. Euphorbus falls like an olive-sapling, brimming with blossoms, that is thrown from a ditch by a storm-wind:

50      δούπησεν δὲ πεσών, ἀράβησε δὲ τεύχε’ ἐπ’ αὐτῷ·
          αἵματί οἱ δεύοντο κόμαι Χαρίτεσσιν ὁμοῖαι,
          πλοχμοί θ’, οἳ χρυσῷ τε καὶ ἀργύρῳ ἐσφήκωντο.
          οἷον δὲ τρέφει ἔρνος ἀνὴρ ἐριθηλὲς ἐλαίης
          χώρῳ ἐν οἰοπόλῳ, ὅθ’ ἅλις ἀναβέβρυχεν ὕδωρ,
55      καλὸν, τηλεθάον· τὸ δέ τε πνοιαὶ δονέουσι
          παντοίων ἀνέμων, καί τε βρύει ἄνθεϊ λευκῷ·
          ἐλθὼν δ’ ἐξαπίνης ἄνεμος σὺν λαίλαπι πολλῇ
          βόθρου τ’ ἐξέστρεψε καὶ ἐξετανυσσ’ ἐπὶ γαίῃ·
          τοῖον Πάνθου υἱόν, ἐϋμμελίην Εὔφορβον,
60      Ἀτρεΐδης Μενέλαος, ἐπεὶ κτάνε, τεύχε’ ἐσύλα.

Iliad 17.50–60

50      He fell with a thud and his armor clattered about him;
          His hair like the Graces and the locks that he used to bind
          With gold and silver, wasp-style, were wet with blood,
          Like a vigorous olive-sapling, beautiful, burgeoning,
          That a man rears in a lonely spot
55      Where enough water has bubbled up; the breaths of every sort of wind
          Twist it, and it overflows with white blossom;
          The wind coming suddenly with a great gale
          Turns it out of its ditch and stretches it on the ground;
          Just so was Panthous’ son, Euphorbus of the good ash spear,
60      When Menelaus son of Atreus killed him and stripped his armor.

There is less emphasis here on the strength of the tree than in the arboreal images discussed above. Nonetheless, when we focus on the details of this passage, we see that its arboreal elements once more suggest a doughty warrior. The term ἔρνος, which is here associated with Euphorbus’ upbringing, evokes strong, healthful growth. We should not be deceived by the regular English translation “sapling,” whose first syllable alludes to one of the least sturdy attributes of a tree, its sap, and whose diminutive suffix suggests puny size. In fact, the word ἔρνος derives from the root ὀρ-/ἐρ-, found in the verbs ὄρνυμι, “stir to action” and ἐρέθω, “stir to anger.” [
19] As is suggested by these verbs, the noun ἔρνος focuses on vigorous action rather than weak passivity. [20] In line 53, such connotations are echoed by the term ἐριθηλὲς, “flourishing exceedingly”; this adjective, though etymologically unrelated to ἔρνος, forms a rhyme with the first syllable of that noun and reinforces its associations with strong growth.

When we compare this passage with the only other Iliadic instance of an ἔρνος image, we find that it suggests specifically the strong growth that results from careful nurture early in a warrior’s life. The term is used by Thetis of the pre-eminent Greek warrior Achilles at 18.55–57 and 436–438: she describes him as a mighty son (κρατερόν, 55) and the best of heroes (ἔξοχον ἡρώων, 56, 437), who shot up like a sapling (ὃ δ’ ἀνέδραμεν ἔρνεϊ ἶσος, 56, 437). Thetis’ choice of a young tree in her image is determined by her wish to emphasize not Achilles’ current appearance, but her tendance of him as a youth (τὸν μὲν ἐγὼ θρέψασα … , 57, 438), which is rendered futile by his impending death (59–62, 440–443). Similarly, the Euphorbus simile places emphasis on the rearing of the warrior/tree. Within the simile, a man tends the sapling. Before and after the image, several references are made to Euphorbus’ mother and father: Menelaus reminds Euphorbus that he allowed his brother Hyperenor no happy return to his parents (τοκῆας, 17.28), but Euphorbus boasts that he will give them Menelaus’ head and armor (38–40); and at the end of our passage, the narrator calls Euphorbus Πάνθου υἱόν, “the son of Panthous” (59). [21] It appears, then, that the ἔρνος in the image is a symbol of Euphorbus’ upbringing and vigorous growth as a boy, rendered vain now that he has come of age by Menelaus’ blows. And if we bear in mind Thetis’ words, we would assume that Euphorbus is now a strong warrior—even if he is not of the same caliber as Achilles.

The blast that uproots the tree in the simile suggests, of course, the fatal blow that Menelaus delivers to Euphorbus. But such elements of the simile and the narrative cast neither the tree nor the warrior in a negative light. As we have seen, the tree has already endured “the breaths / of every sort of wind” (πνοιαί / … παντοίων ἀνέμων, 55–56); therefore only a particularly strong blast would be able to uproot it. Line 57 stresses the power of this blast: it “com[es] suddenly with a great gale” (ἐλθὼν δ’ ἐξαπίνης… σὺν λαίλαπι πολλῇ). Similarly, Euphorbus’ defeat at the hands of Menelaus does nothing to counter the impression of his martial prowess. In our passage from Book 17, Euphorbus faces Menelaus in his aristeia. At that time, when no other Trojan is willing to face the Greek champion (17.68–69), Euphorbus takes the initiative in challenging Menelaus, much as he had earlier been the first to strike Patroclus: he orders Menelaus to retreat and to leave Patroclus’ corpse (12–17). But his valor is in vain. As our simile indicates, at this moment Menelaus is irresistible as the storm-wind that fells a tree (57–58).

We turn lastly to an image for the death of an individual warrior which, uniquely for Iliadic similes of death, incorporates floral but not arboreal elements. As we might expect, then, there is little emphasis on the warrior’s strength, a concept that is associated with trees in the other Iliadic images that we have studied. But once more flowers are associated with the theme of fertility; and as in the Euphorbus simile there is a suggestion of an exceptional fertility. When Gorgythion is killed by Teucer in Book 8, he hangs his neck to one side like a poppy in a garden, whose head is weighed down by seeds and spring rains:

                          ὁ δ’ ἀμύμονα Γοργυθίωνα,
          υἱὸν ἐῢν Πριάμοιο, κατὰ στῆθος βάλεν ἰῷ·
          τὸν ῥ’ ἐξ Αἰσύμηθεν ὀπυιομένη τέκε μήτηρ
305    καλὴ Καστιάνειρα, δέμας εἰκυῖα θεῇσιν.
          μήκων δ’ ὡς ἑτέρωσε κάρη βάλεν, ἥ τ’ ἐνὶ κήπῳ,
          καρπῷ βριθομένη νοτίῃσί τε εἰαρινῇσιν·
          ὣς ἑτέρωσ’ ἤμυσε κάρη πήληκι βαρυνθέν.

Iliad 8.302–308

                          But he hit the blameless Gorgythion,
          A noble son of Priam, through the chest with an arrow;
          His mother, the beautiful Castianeira, with a body like a goddess,
305    Bore him when she came from Aisymē for marriage;
          He threw his head to one side like a poppy, which is in a garden,
          Weighed down by fruit and spring rains;
          So his head bent to one side, weighed down by his helmet.

Some of the details of the opening lines might lead us to expect an impressive warrior, perhaps the equal of Euphorbus: Gorgythion is “blameless,” “noble,” and a scion of the Trojan royal house. But other elements of the narrative in Book 8 and of the Gorgythion simile run counter to such expectations, as can be seen if we compare the relevant lines with the descriptions of Euphorbus in Books 16 and 17. Euphorbus is active on the battlefield: he is the first mortal to strike Patroclus (16.806–808) and he takes the fight to Menelaus (17.12–17). But the poem attributes no prior accomplishments to Gorgythion; in fact, he is not even mentioned before the passage quoted above. And while Euphorbus falls victim to a man that he himself has confronted, Gorgythion is killed by accident: Teucer actually intended to hit Hector (8.300–303).

In contrast with many previous studies, then, we have found that the floral and arboreal elements in Iliadic similes of death carry two contrasting sets of associations. Trees suggest sturdiness and strength; only when no arboreal element is present, as in the Gorgythion image, does a vegetal image of death fail to emphasize such concepts. Flowers, however, evoke fertility and, at times, an exceptional fertility. As we shall see in Chapter 9, this concept is important to our understanding of the particular conception of death evoked by such Homeric imagery.

Meadows of Death in the Odyssey

The juxtaposition of flowers with such concepts is far from coincidental. The particular flowers mentioned in our second set of passages from the Odyssey were themselves suggestive of formlessness: the meadows of gray asphodel in the Underworld would have helped audiences to imagine the insubstantiality of the dead souls. And as noted in Chapter 9, the general associations of flowers in Homeric poetry would have complemented allusions to formlessness and the dissolution of form in the scenes that we shall study. The descriptions of moldering bodies or of insubstantial shades in our Odyssean passages suggest the breakdown of the order on which an individual’s living identity depends. And the Homeric associations of flowers with disorder (Part II) would have supported the allusions to such concepts in the relevant passages.

The Sirens’ meadow is first introduced at Odyssey 12.37–54, where Circe describes the singers as the first in a line of deadly threats that Odysseus and his men must face:

          Σειρῆνας μὲν πρῶτον ἀφίξεαι, αἵ ῥά τε πάντας
40      ἀνθρώπους θέλγουσιν, ὅτις σφέας εἰσαφίκηται.
          ὅς τις ἀϊδρείῃ πελάσῃ καὶ φθόγγον ἀκούσῃ
          Σειρήνων, τῷ δ’ οὔ τι γυνὴ καὶ νήπια τέκνα
          οἴκαδε νοστήσαντι παρίσταται οὐδὲ γάνυνται,
          ἀλλά τε Σειρῆνες λιγυρῇ θέλγουσιν ἀοιδῇ,
45      ἥμεναι ἐν λειμῶνι· πολὺς δ’ ἀμφ’ ὀστεόφιν θὶς
          ἀνδρῶν πυθομένων, περὶ δὲ ῥινοὶ μινύθουσι.

Odyssey 12.39–46

          You will firstly approach the Sirens, who beguile
40      All men, whoever arrives in their land.
          Whoever approaches them in ignorance and hears the voices
          Of the Sirens, for that man neither wife nor infant children
          Stand beside him and rejoice when he returns home,
          But the Sirens charm with their clear song,
45      Sitting in a meadow; on every side is a great heap of bones
          Of rotting men; and skin withers around them.

Circe does not make the connections between the different elements of her speech explicit, but the logic seems to run like this: any man who approaches the Sirens in ignorance (ἀϊδρείῃ, 41) of their powers will be lured in by their beguiling song (θέλγουσιν, 40, 44); he will want to stay forever, forgoing the chance to return home to his wife and children (42–43) and eventually dying on the Sirens’ island; accordingly, he will join the rotting bodies of their previous victims (45–46). In this very first mention of the Sirens’ meadow, then, it is closely associated with the danger of death and specifically with the rotting corpses of those who tarry on the island. [
38] We are offered an image of the dissolution of form. In place of distinct bodies, one would see only a confused mass of bones (ὀστεόφιν, 45) and skin (ῥινοί, 46). And in the place of living individuals, there is only a “heap” (θίς, 45) of what used to be men (ἀνδρῶν, 46).

Circe’s and Odysseus’ descriptions of the Sirens’ meadows, then, evoke the concepts of flowers, fertility, death, and the dissolution of form, and associate them with one another. The Odyssean descriptions of meadows in the Underworld likewise associate such fertile, flowery locales with the concept of death. But the relevant passages focus on slightly different aspects of death from their equivalents in the Sirens episode. Circe associates the Sirens’ meadows with the dissolution of form through her description of moldering bodies; but the gray meadows of asphodel mentioned in the Nekyiai offer an image for the insubstantiality of the shades and hence for their lack of distinct forms.

Such impressions of a fertile landscape are confirmed when we consider descriptions of the Underworld in Books 11 and 24. In Book 11, having traveled inland from the Grove of Persephone, Odysseus notices a second grove: various fruit trees tempt the ravenous Tantalus (11.588–590). The relevant lines place particular emphasis on the abundance of the fruit. As Odysseus witnesses the scene, the trees “were pouring down fruit from their tops” (κατὰ κρῆθεν χέε καρπόν, 588). Odysseus observes pears, pomegranates, “apple-trees with their glorious fruit” (μηλέαι ἀγλαόκαρποι, 589), “flourishing olives” (ἐλαῖαι τηλεθόωσαι, 590), and “sweet figs” (συκέαι … γλυκεραί, 590). And again these descriptions of fruit carry with them no suggestion of fertility interrupted. Rather, this second grove shares the remarkable fertility of the Phaeacian orchards, which likewise boast apples, pears, pomegranates, figs, and olives: in fact, lines 11.589–590 are identical with lines 7.115–116 from the description of those orchards.

The Underworld moreover plays host to floral growth, in the form of meadows of asphodel. These are mentioned three times in the poem. Firstly, the soul of Achilles strides off happily through the meadow after Odysseus describes the valor of Achilles’ son Neoptolemus:

Ὣς ἐφάμην, ψυχὴ δὲ ποδώκεος Αἰακίδαο
φοίτα μακρὰ βιβᾶσα κατ’ ἀσφοδελὸν λειμῶνα,
γηθοσύνη ὅ οἱ υἱὸν ἔφην ἀριδείκετον εἶναι.

Odyssey 11.538–540

Thus I spoke, and the soul of the swift-footed grandson of Aeacus
Wandered off with long strides through the asphodel meadow,
Happy that I had said his son was conspicuous.

A little later, Odysseus sees the soul of Orion, who is using the asphodel meadow as his eternal hunting ground. There he continues to pursue the (shades of?) beasts that he killed in the course of his life:

Τὸν δὲ μέτ’ Ὡρίωνα πελώριον εἰσενόησα
θῆρας ὁμοῦ εἰλεῦντα κατ’ ἀσφοδελὸν λειμῶνα,
τοὺς αὐτὸς κατέπεφνεν ἐν οἰοπόλοισιν ὄρεσσι…

Odyssey 11.573–575

After [Minos] I noticed huge Orion
Rounding up beasts throughout the asphodel meadow,
Which he himself had killed in lonely mountains …

And in the final book of the Odyssey the asphodel meadow is home to all the souls of the dead:

αἶψα δ’ ἵκοντο κατ’ ἀσφοδελὸν λειμῶνα,
ἔνθα τε ναίουσι ψυχαί, εἴδωλα καμόντων.

Odyssey 24.13–14

Straightaway [the souls of the suitors] arrived throughout the asphodel meadow,
Where souls dwell, images of the dead.

By using the phrase κατ’ ἀσφοδελὸν λειμῶνα (“through(out) the asphodel meadow”) in these three descriptions of the Underworld, the Homeric poets once more associated one of the most fertile features of the Greek natural environment—its flowery meadows—with the concept of death. In the next chapter, we shall consider the implications of the more general associations of flowers, fertility, and death that we have observed in this and other Homeric images. But for now I would like to focus on the reasons why the Homeric poets might have chosen to focus specifically on the asphodel in our passages from Odyssey 11 and 24. In order to get a sense of this, we need to retrace the history of the phrase.

Reece moreover contends that the formula’s later associations with the asphodel were inappropriate for descriptions of the Underworld: for Reece, then, the two versions of the formula are mutually exclusive alternatives. But the evidence that we shall consider below suggests that this is not the case. Firstly, it is possible that different auditors at the same oral performance could have heard either version of the formula or perhaps even both versions at the same time, since they are near-identical in Greek. Secondly, if we consider the connotations of the phrase κατ’ ἀσφοδελὸν λειμῶνα, it becomes clear that, in fact, both it and *κατὰ σποδελὸν λειμῶνα would be appropriate for the sorts of contexts exemplified by the passages quoted above. The implications of the two phrases are perfectly compatible with one another and with the Odyssean descriptions of the Underworld: both evoke death and colorlessness, and would thus have helped audiences to imagine the bleak, insubstantial afterlife of the shades.

But as we shall see, the two phrases are, in fact, compatible with one another: both asphodels and ash are associated with death, and only one species of asphodel possesses the bright coloration that Reece associates with the term ἀσφοδελός. The phrase *κατὰ σποδελὸν λειμῶνα would clearly have carried associations with death: like the editors cited by Herodian, early audiences would quite reasonably have associated an adjective σποδελός, “ashen,” with the ash from pyres, such as are described by Anticleia at Odyssey 11.218–222 (see below). And as both Amigues and Reece note, asphodels are associated with death in wider Greek culture. For instance, Eustathius, commenting on the phrase κατ’ ἀσφοδελὸν λειμῶνα at 11.539, refers to epigrams that describe mallow and asphodel growing on tombs. Drawing both on the evidence presented by Eustathius and on a Latin version by Ausonius, Reece reconstructs an example of such an epigram:

Νώτῳ μὲν μαλάχην τε καὶ ἀσφόδελον πολύριζον,
κόλπῷ δ’ Ἱππόθοόν τ’ ἠδὲ Πύλαιον ἔχω.

On my back I hold mallow and many-rooted asphodel;
In my bosom I hold Hippothous and Pylaeus.

Other metrically equivalent names could be substituted in place of Hippothous and Pylaeus. [
52] The asphodel is also linked with the concept of death through its chthonic associations: the Suda and the lexicographer Pausanias associate it with Persephone and with other deities of the Underworld. [53] Indeed, despite the fact that his lemma to Odyssey 11.539 is cited by Amigues and Reece as a reason to question the primacy of the form ἀσφοδελός, Herodian himself eventually opts for ἀσφοδελός, rather than σποδελός, on the grounds that the asphodel is appropriate for a meadow of Persephone. [54]

The two phrases *κατὰ σποδελὸν λειμῶνα and κατ’ ἀσφοδελὸν λειμῶνα, then, not only resemble one another phonetically but would also have shared associations with death and with grayish hues. Building on such observations, I propose that the two hearings of the phrase κατασπ/φοδελὸνλειμῶνα could have existed side-by-side—or even superimposed upon one another—in the minds of at least some of those present at early archaic performances of Homeric poetry. In oral performance, unlike in written texts, audience members are not forced to choose one alternative to the exclusion of the other. The two are able to co-exist, each reinforcing the associations of the other. Seen from a distance, an asphodel meadow is an expanse of gray flowers, which could readily be imagined, through the interference of the similar adjective σποδελός, as “ashen.” Audience members would have been encouraged to make this connection from the associations of both asphodels and ash with the dead in wider Greek culture.

They might well, then, have conceived of the asphodel as the “ash-flower.” And this would go some way to solving Amigues’ difficulty with the accentuation of the ἀσφοδελός: if archaic Greek listeners (mistakenly) imagined that the adjective meant “ashen,” they could very well have conceived of the name of the flower as derived from it, picking out one of its most salient characteristics, much as the lupin, θέρμος, was the “hot” or θερμός flower. From its association with the phrase *κατὰ σποδελὸν λειμῶνα, then, the formula κατασπ/φοδελὸνλειμῶνα would have picked up the connotation of “ashen,” and when audience members thought they heard ἀσφοδελός, they would have transferred that meaning to the plant with the similar name.

But it is another quality of the souls that is given the greatest emphasis in the Odyssean Nekyiai. Several passages and several of the formulae used to describe the souls emphasize their insubstantility. This concept complements the notion of physical dissolution which, as we have seen, is associated with flowers in the Sirens episode: while bodies on earth lose their form, the concept of insubstantiality implies a lack of definite form—in particular, a lack of clear boundaries or dimensions. The souls are “shadows” (σκιαί, 10.495) or “images (of dead mortals)” (εἴδωλον, 11.83, 602; [βροτῶν] εἴδωλα καμόντων, 11.476, 24.14); and they are described no fewer than four times as “heads without vigor” (ἀμενηνὰ κάρηνα, 10.521, 536, 11.29, 49).

Given the emphasis on the notion of insubstantiality in these Odyssean passages, we can understand why the Homeric poets chose to situate the souls in an ash-gray meadow. The formula κατ’ ἀσφοδελὸν λειμῶνα in Odyssey 11 and 24 suggests not merely the gloom of the Underworld, as Reece suggests for the similar phrase *κατὰ σποδελὸν λειμῶνα, but more specifically the gray, insubstantial appearance of the souls, who are images, shadows of the dead individual. [62] Listeners familiar both with the asphodel and with Homeric descriptions of the Underworld would have perceived these connections: when they heard of the souls of Achilles and Orion striding through the asphodel meadow at 11.538–540 and 573–575, they would have imagined insubstantial shades. And the notion of insubstantiality is explicitly associated with the phrase κατ’ ἀσφοδελὸν λειμῶνα in its third occurrence in the Odyssey: the meadow is the setting for “souls, images of the dead” (ψυχαί, εἴδωλα καμόντων, 24.14). In agreement, then, with George Lakoff’s and Mark Johnson’s theories of metaphor, the Homeric poets used the phrase κατ’ ἀσφοδελὸν λειμῶνα (or κατασφοδελὸνλειμῶνα) to help their audiences conceive of something more abstract in terms of something more tangible. They related a concept derived from their physical environment—“asphodel” or “the ashen flower”—to the less accessible notion of the state of souls after death.

In this way, the descriptions of flowery meadows in Odyssey 11, 12, and 24 not only complement one another, but also echo the kinds of Iliadic images that we have explored in this chapter. While the Sirens’ meadow is associated with the dissolution of bodily form (12.45–46), the asphodel meadow of Books 11 and 24 suggests the insubstantial souls that leave the body as it dissolves on earth. In all these Odyssean passages, moreover, flowers are not only associated with concepts such as these, but also evoke the notion of fertility: the descriptions of the Sirens’ island and of the Underworld refer to meadows and hence to the most fertile locales in the Greek world. And our passages from the Odyssey thus echo the allusions to flowers and fertility that we discovered in Iliadic descriptions of dying warriors. In the next chapter, we shall seek an explanation for these Homeric associations of flowers with death, dissolution, insubstantiality, and fertility. As will become clear, these concepts evoke a characteristic of death that we have not yet explored: the death faced by the warriors at Troy and by other characters in the Homeric corpus is portrayed as a monstrous horror, which dissolves all the orderliness of life.


[ back ] 1. Similarly, though agricultural similes in the Iliad may be associated with the deaths of warriors, they do not all carry such associations. For instance, the comparison of the Trojans and Achaeans with reapers at 11.67–71, which we considered in Chapter 5, suggests that they will mow down their opponents like the wheat and barley in the simile. But at 2.147–149, another simile describing a wheat-field focuses not on mowing but on motion: following Agamemnon’s proposal that the Greek troops return home, their movements at the assembly are like that of a wheat field stirred by the West Wind.

[ back ] 2. See Griffin 1976 (esp. 179–181), Kauffman 2016, Scheijnen 2017:4–5, and my Conclusion.

[ back ] 3. This conclusion is somewhat similar to that of Bonnafé (1984–1987 1:19–22). She, however, sees the arboreal elements in Iliadic similes as evocations of a resistance that is insufficient in the face of death. As will become clear, I do not believe that such imagery carries any connotations of inadequacy on the part of the warrior. For readings of Iliadic arboreal images in terms of beauty or weakness, see for instance Schein 1976 on the Simoeisius simile from Book 4 and Scott 2009:147, 152, on the Euphorbus simile from Book 17, both of which are discussed below.

[ back ] 4. Wofford (1992:51, 61, 62) notes the elements of fertility in a number of the images that I shall discuss, including the Simoeisius and Gorgythion similes. She argues that this fertility creates a contrast with the violent finality of death on the battlefield; but as we shall see in Chapter 9, it in fact reveals something about death itself—its monstrous otherness.

[ back ] 5. See Theophrastus’ comments on the strength and endurance of oak wood (Historia Plantarum 5.3.3, 4.1, 4.2).

[ back ] 6. In fact, the oaks in the simile are fixed in place as firmly as the Hesiodic cosmos, which is described in very similar terms at Theogony 812. Like the trees at Iliad 12.134, the threshold of the Hesiodic Tartarus is fixed (ἀρηρώς/ἀραρυῖαι) on continuous roots (ῥίζῃσι(ν) … διηνεκέεσσ(ιν)). For the importance of roots to the Leonteus and Polypoetes image, see Ready 2011:188. He studies Vergil’s rendering of the simile at Aeneid 9.679–682, where Bitias and Pandarus are compared with trees. But he notes that Vergil’s lines make no mention of roots and that Bitias, unlike Leonteus or Polypoetes, is killed. Ready therefore associates the description of roots in the Iliadic image with Leonteus’ and Polypoetes’ successful resistance.

[ back ] 7. Friedrich 2003:88–91.

[ back ] 8. Scott 2009:179.

[ back ] 9. See Minchin 2001:147 on the height of the tree and its suggestion of Asius’ impressive stature. At 17.742–746, a similar image of a sturdy beam describes the corpse of Sarpedon’s killer, Patroclus—though here the tree from which the beam is fashioned is not mentioned. The passage in question develops the narrative of the Sarpedon simile a stage further. Mules are now employed to “drag a supporting beam or great ship’s timber from the mountain, down a rugged path” (ἕλκωσ’ ἐξ ὄρεος κατὰ παιπαλόεσσαν ἀταρπὸν / ἢ δοκὸν ἠὲ δόρυ μέγα νήϊον, 17.743–744). The mules are likened to the two Aiantes, as they strain to carry away the mighty form of Patroclus over the battlefield. The possibility that the timber in the simile will serve as a supporting beam, δόκος, suggests the significance of the loss of Patroclus’ powerful support to the Achaeans. The progression between these two similes echoes that of the main narrative. These are the first two in the chain of three deaths, Sarpedon-Patroclus-Hector, that will complete Zeus’ plan to honor Achilles (see Scott 2009:243n104). On the progression between these images, see also Rood 2008.

[ back ] 10. See Kirk 1985 on Iliad 4.484.

[ back ] 11. Cf. Friedrich’s (2003:54–58) comparison of the Simoeisius simile with the arboreal image for the death of Imbrius (Iliad 13.177–181). He notes that while Simoeisius’ death is associated with the poplar, Imbrius is associated with a stronger tree, the ash (13.178). On these grounds, he concludes that Simoeisius’ death is the more pathetic.

[ back ] 12. We should not assume that ancient audiences would see the soft wood of the poplar as unsuitable for a chariot-wheel: see Kirk 1985 on Iliad 4.485–486 on the use of soft woods for wheels in Mycenaean times.

[ back ] 13. Comparison with a similar passage from Book 17 confirms the distinction between the references to a short life at 4.477–479 and the allusions to flowers and fertility elsewhere in the passage. Hippothous’ brief life and inability to repay his parents is described in terms identical to Simoeisius’ (4.478–479 = 17.303–4), but the account of his death lacks both the floral elements and the references to fertility that we find in the passage from Book 4. Moreover, the other Iliadic passages that use the adjective μινυνθάδιος to describe the short lives of warriors—Achilles at 1.352, Hector at 15.612, and Lycaon at 21.84—do not include floral imagery.

[ back ] 14. The use of this root in the patronymic Ἀνθεμίωνος may in this instance color the general vegetal implications of θαλερός with floral overtones. It is in this sense that Bakker (2002:25) takes these lines: “Simoeisios the ‘blossoming’ [θαλερόν] son of ‘Flowerman’ [Ἀνθεμίωνος υἱόν].”

[ back ] 15. See also Höhfeld 2009:112 (from an essay by R. Aslan).

[ back ] 16. See Motte 1971 on Greek meadows: like riverbanks, meadows were well-watered lands that would have differed markedly from the dry terrain that dominated the Greek world. According to Motte, meadows were imagined as fertile female bodies. See also the next section for Homeric associations of flowers, meadows, fertility, and death.

[ back ] 17. See Bakker 2002:25 and Schein 1976:3. Schein argues that the tragedy of Simoeisius is condensed in the phrase ἠίθεον θαλερόν, which carries the associations not-married/ready-for-marriage: elsewhere in the Iliad (6.430, 8.156, 190), θαλερός describes husbands.

[ back ] 18. See Introduction and Chapter 3 above. As emphasized in Chapter 9, however, the depiction of flowers in Homeric poetry suggests more specifically a disorderly fertility, and this concept helps us to understand the associations of Homeric floral images with the monstrous disorder of death.

[ back ] 19. Chantraine 1984–1990 s.v. ἔρνος.

[ back ] 20. In this reading of Homeric sapling imagery, I depart to some extent from Scott (2009:229–230n67), who states that “there seems to be a scaling in the relative strength/weakness of trees within the tree simileme: oak trees are consistently strong … vs. saplings that are vulnerable.” (For Scott, a “simileme” is the oral-poetic template underlying a given class of Homeric similes.) As I explain above, I do not regard Iliadic sapling images as evocations of vulnerability. I would, however, endorse Scott’s view that the various Iliadic arboreal similes suggest different degrees of strength: the Simoeisius image suggests that the young warrior is strong but also tender; but there is no hint of tenderness in comparisons of warriors with oaks or ship’s timbers.

[ back ] 21. For Menelaus’ killing of Hyperenor, see Iliad 14.516–519.

[ back ] 22. See Edwards 1991 on Iliad 17.53–60.

[ back ] 23. See Janko 1994 on Iliad 16.808–811.

[ back ] 24. Cf. Irwin 1997:377–378. The occurrence of reflexes of the root θαλ- twice in three lines (ἐριθηλές, 17.53; τηλεθάον, 55) is reminiscent of the term θαλερόν (4.474), which, as noted above (n17), suggests Simoeisius’ readiness for marriage. Here, similarly, Euphorbus is a youth killed at the time he should have wed.

[ back ] 25. Audiences acquainted with Homeric poetics might perceive further associations with flowers in this passage, given that it echoes a floral image that we discussed in Chapter 2 above. If the olive’s blossom is to be associated with any particular part of Euphorbus’ body, it would be his hair (Griffin 1976:181, Edwards 1991 on Iliad 17.53–60), and the comparison of Euphorbus’ hair, bound in gold and silver, to the Graces (Χαρίτεσσιν, 51–52) is reminiscent of Odysseus’ hyacinthine hair: Athena pours grace (χάρις) on his hair, like a craftsman mixing gold and silver (Odyssey 6.229–235 ≈ 23.156–162; and see Edwards on Iliad 17.51–52).

[ back ] 26. LSJ s.v. βρύω: “to be full to bursting.”

[ back ] 27. The verb βρύω may also have been a striking lexeme in a Homeric context. Beyond the Euphorbus episode there are no other occurrences of this verb in our versions of the Homeric poems. It would seem, then, that exceptional language is here used to evoke an exceptional vegetal fertility.

[ back ] 28. We might also compare the description of Gorgythion’s death with that of Lycon at 16.335–341. Lycon takes an active part in the fighting: he and Peneleos encounter one another (συνέδραμον, 335) and engage one another with swords and spears. Peneleos, the victorious warrior, shears through Lycon’s neck, leaving his head hanging only by a flap of skin. But there is no suggestion of Lycon’s weakness prior to his death.

[ back ] 29. No variety of poppy is specified, but given the focus on the head and seeds of the plant (lines 306–307), archaic audiences might well have been put in mind of Papaver somniferum. This species is the source of opium, whose narcotic and potentially fatal properties were well known to ancient writers. Theophrastus observes that opium can be mixed with hemlock to bring about a painless death (Historia Plantarum 9.16.8); Dioscorides notes that in smaller doses it induces sleep but that in larger doses it is fatal (4.64).

[ back ] 30. See Maggiuli 1989:194, Lazzeri 2008:259, and Curtis 2011:150. Lazzeri and Curtis are commenting on a Stesichoran image very similar to that of Iliad 8.302–308, for which see Chapter 9 below.

[ back ] 31. For the wordplay in this passage, see Salvador Castillo 1994:228.

[ back ] 32. See Murr (1969:184), who notes that there are typically 30,000 seeds in each head of P. somniferum.

[ back ] 33. The poppy was also connected with fertility in Greek religion: Porphyry notes that it was associated with Demeter as a symbol both of vegetal fertility and of her own fecundity in giving birth to Korē (τῆς πολυγονίας σύμβολον, fr. 357aF Smith).

[ back ] 34. Cf. Silk 1974:5, who cites this simile as a prime example of the effect of “unlikeness” in comparisons.

[ back ] 35. On the contrast between the fertility of the rains and Gorgythion’s death, see also Irwin 1997:378. For the notion of fertility in the reference to rain, see Kelly 2007:31 and 290–291, who places the passage in the context of other Iliadic similes that allude to the season of spring. He argues that such details evoke “vitality.”

[ back ] 36. See also Taplin 2007:188: “the tipping flower will have profuse progeny, while the beautiful young man Gorgythion will have none.”

[ back ] 37. Audiences may also have perceived allusions to death and fertility in an Iliadic image of a flowery meadow, which describes the Greek army as it musters for battle: ἔσταν δ’ ἐν λειμῶνι Σκαμανδρίῳ ἀνθεμόεντι / μυρίοι, ὅσσα τε φύλλα καὶ ἄνθεα γίγνεται ὥρῃ (“they were standing on the flowery meadow of the Scamander / numberless, as many as the leaves and flowers that grow in due season,” Iliad 2.467–468). By comparing these warriors with flowers (ἄνθεα), the Homeric poets assimilated them also to the flowery (ἀνθεμόεντι) meadow on which they are standing. On the basis of their familiarity with the sorts of Iliadic floral images that we discussed above, audiences might well have associated this image with the deaths of these warriors in the coming battles. The floral image of Iliad 2 is, moreover, followed by a comparison of the soldiers to flies, which are associated with corpses in other Iliadic passages: at 16.641–646 for instance the warriors who crowd around the corpse of Sarpedon are like flies buzzing around milk-pails (see also 17.570–573, 19.24–26, 30–31 for associations of flies and dead bodies).

[ back ] 38. See Ford 1992:83–84. For the Sirens’ associations with death, see in general Buschor 1944. Circe’s allusions to death, however, contrast with the attractive promises of the Sirens themselves at 12.184–191: they claim that, after hearing their song, travellers will “return home, having rejoiced and knowing more” (τερψάμενος νεῖται καὶ πλείονα εἰδώς, 188). We are offered no clear way to adjudicate between their claims and the warnings of Circe. See Doherty 1995a:138: “the confirmation of [the Sirens’] hostility that might have been provided by Odysseus or the epic narrator is lacking”; see also Doherty 1995b:87. For discussions of the implications of the contrast between Circe’s description of decaying corpses and the Sirens’ promises, see also Ford 1982:83-84 and Pucci 1979.

[ back ] 39. Motte 1971:11–15, 161–162 and Chirassi 1968:91–95.

[ back ] 40. Motte 1971:5–9.

[ back ] 41. See Motte 1971:7–9 and Beekes 2009 s.v. λειμών. Early audiences’ beliefs about meadows would moreover have supported their association of the concept of death with Odyssean descriptions of flowery meadows. As Motte explains (1971:233–279), the three-dimensional structure of meadows motivated associations with death in wider Greek culture. Their attractive surfaces hid deep fissures and unstable, watery soil into which, it was believed, the unwary might sink. They were thought to be places of decay or gateways to the Underworld—as in the Hymn to Demeter, where Hades emerges from a flowery meadow to seize Korē. For ancient Greek associations of meadows with death, see also Chirassi 1968:113–124.

[ back ] 42. Ancient listeners appear to have been struck by the usage of the epithet ἀνθεμόεις at this point in the Odyssey or in similar Homeric descriptions of the Sirens’ island. In other Greek poems, this adjective serves as the name of the island, Ἀνθεμόεσσα: see Hesiod fr. 27 MW and Apollonius Rhodius 4.892.

[ back ] 43. Cf. Odyssey 10.498 (on hearing from Circe that he must travel to the land of the dead, Odysseus fears that he will never again see the light of the sun); 11.93–94 (the soul of Tiresias asks Odysseus why he has left the light of the sun); 11.498 and 619 (the soul of Achilles and the shade of Heracles refer to their former lives “under the sun’s rays”).

[ back ] 44. On the fertility of the Greek Underworld in this and other depictions, see Chirassi 1968:96–124 and Vermeule 1979:74–75. Vermeule, commenting on the vegetation growing above Tantalus’ head at Odyssey 11.588–590, notes that it is “odd indeed in the darkness of Hades.” (p. 74).

[ back ] 45. Cf. Pliny the Elder’s explanation of the Homeric epithet at Natural History 16.46.

[ back ] 46. See Stanford 1959 on Odyssey 10.508ff.

[ back ] 47. Hesychius s.v. λάχεια, quoted from Latte 1966.

[ back ] 48. For the agricultural potentials of Goat Island, see Chapter 5 above.

[ back ] 49. Amigues 2002a, Reece 2009:261–271 ( ≈ Reece 2007).

[ back ] 50. Herodian on Odyssey 11.539 (Lentz 1868:152): κατ’ ἀϲφοδελὸν λειμῶνα: ὀξυτόνωϲ. ἄδηλον δὲ πότερον ϲφοδελόν ἢ ἀϲφοδελόν. λέγεται γὰρ καὶ χωρὶϲ τοῦ ᾱ. τινὲϲ δὲ γράφουϲι ϲποδελὸν διὰ τὴν ϲποδὸν τῶν καιομένων νεκρῶν. ἄμεινον δὲ ἀϲφοδελὸν διὰ τὸ Περϲεφόνηϲ εἶναι λειμῶνα τὸν τόπον. (“κατ’ ἀϲφοδελὸν λειμῶνα: oxytone; unclear whether it is ϲφοδελόν or ἀσφοδελόν. For it is also said without the alpha. Some write ϲποδελόν on account of the ash [ϲποδός] of burning corpses. But ἀϲφοδελόν is better because the place is a meadow of Persephone.”)

[ back ] 51. Reece 2009:266 ( = 2007:395).

[ back ] 52. Reece 2009:267–268 ( ≈ 2007:396–397), with Reece’s Greek text on 2009:268 (2007:396). For Eustathius’ text, see Stallbaum 1825:433: νώτῳ μὲν μαλάχην καὶ ἀσφόδελον πολύριζον, κόλπῳ δὲ τὸν δεῖνα ἔχω (“On my back I hold mallow and many-rooted asphodel; in my bosom I hold person X.”).

[ back ] 53. Pausanias (Erbse 1950:166) and Suda (Adler 1928:396) s.v. ἀσφόδελος.

[ back ] 54. For the associations of the phrase κατ’ ἀσφοδελὸν λειμῶνα with flowers and with death, cf. the usage of the similar formula formula ἐς ἀσφοδελὸν λειμῶνα at Hymn to Hermes 221 and 344. It is very likely that the Odyssean phrase lies behind the formula in the hymn, which admits of no ambiguity regarding the presence or absence of initial ἀ-, and hence must mean, “to the asphodel meadow” (Amigues 2002a:13–14). Therefore the associations of the phrase κατ’ ἀσφοδελὸν λειμῶνα with the asphodel were well established by the time of the composition of the Hymn to Hermes (probably in the second half of the sixth century: see Vergados 2017:130–147, Shelmerdine 1986:51 and 51n8, Janko 1982:133–150, Brown 1969:102–132). Early audiences may moreover have connected the asphodel meadows of the hymn directly with those of the Odyssean Nekyiai. By leading his stolen cattle over an “asphodel meadow,” Hermes anticipates his later career as Psychopompus, the conveyor of souls to the “asphodel meadow” of the Underworld. He is first seen in this role at the opening of Odyssey 24, when he leads the dead suitors to their new home κατ’ ἀσφοδελὸν λειμῶνα (line 13; see the passage quoted above). For the associations of the meadow of the Hymn to Hermes with that of the Underworld, see Motte 1971:240: “Hermès mène son butin d’une très infernale prairie d’asphodèle.”

[ back ] 55. See Irwin 1997:388–390 on the contrasting responses of critics to the perceived brightness or darkness of the asphodel.

[ back ] 56. Reece 2009:261 ( = 2007:389). In the absence of separate Greek terms for the genera Asphodelus and Asphodeline, we may assume that the lexeme ἀσφόδελος could refer to either.

[ back ] 57. Irwin 1997:388.

[ back ] 58. Baumann 1993:65: “the pale, greyish flower … gives to the landscape a dull appearance matching the sadness and the emptiness of the Underworld.”

[ back ] 59. Tiresias, it seems, is exceptional in that he still possesses his wits (10.493).

[ back ] 60. This formula suggests their celebration in epic songs, such as the Odyssean Nekyiai. See Nagy 1999 on the importance to epic poetry of κλέ(ϝ)ος (“fame,” from the same root as κλυτός).

[ back ] 61. Similarly, at 11.392–394 the shade of Agamemnon is unable to grasp Odysseus, since the strength (κῖκυς, 393) that was in his limbs is gone. For the separation of the soul and the body, see the distinction between the soul of Elpenor and his body, “unburied and unwept” (11.51–54), or between his soul, which traveled to Hades, and his body, broken by the fall from Circe’s roof—a further image of physical disintegration (64–65).

[ back ] 62. Amigues 2002a:13: “en harmonie avec les ombres des défunts, l’asphodèle [est] sans couleur ni parfum.” Irwin (1997:388–390) proposes an alternative reason for the association of death and the asphodel (presumably excluding the genus Asphodeline, with its somewhat more impressive flowers): “The … flowers … on the terminal spike are small for the height of the stalk and do not open at the same time but, starting from the bottom, bloom and fade progressively” (p. 388). Once all the flowers have fallen off, the bare stalks remain. Irwin therefore suggests that “the asphodel represents continuity and mortality” (p. 390)—the mortality of each individual is set against intergenerational continuity. For Baumann, however (1993:65), the flowerless stalks left by the plant offer an explanation of why they might have been associated specifically with dead soldiers in the Odyssean Underworld (11.40–41, 538–540, 573–575): “The bare stalks of the asphodels in winter have represented for poets the shadowy army which wanders up and down the banks of the Acheron.”