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
Trees, Flowers, and the Deaths of Warriors in the Iliad
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.
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.  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.  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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.”  As is suggested by these verbs, the noun ἔρνος focuses on vigorous action rather than weak passivity.  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.
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.
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.
Meadows of Death in the Odyssey
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.
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.  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).
φοίτα μακρὰ βιβᾶσα κατ’ ἀσφοδελὸν λειμῶνα,
γηθοσύνη ὅ οἱ υἱὸν ἔφην ἀριδείκετον εἶναι.
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:
θῆρας ὁμοῦ εἰλεῦντα κατ’ ἀσφοδελὸν λειμῶνα,
τοὺς αὐτὸς κατέπεφνεν ἐν οἰοπόλοισιν ὄρεσσι…
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:
ἔνθα τε ναίουσι ψυχαί, εἴδωλα καμόντων.
Where souls dwell, images of the dead.
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.  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.  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.