From Listeners to Viewers: Space in the Iliad

  Tsagalis, Christos. 2012. From Listeners to Viewers: Space in the Iliad. Hellenic Studies Series 53. Washington, DC: Center for Hellenic Studies.


The aim of this book has been to offer a systematic and comprehensive presentation of the function of space in the Iliad. To this end, and following Nünning’s theoretical model, four different aspects of space were studied, of which the first two (simple story space and embedded story space) pertain to the classical division between narrator text and character text proper, while the other two (similes and prized objects) belong to such special registers as imagery and description.

In chapter 1, I studied how the battlefield is presented as either dynamic, martial or static, nonmartial space. For the former, I examined the entire range of fighting activity in the epic, and explored how space is organized when the context is martial. Instead of offering a description of the vast, uncharted area of the Trojan plain, the storyteller has used his characters’ actions during the battle as his visual compass to create a clear mental picture of the base-level setting. The various forms of Iliadic combat (ἀνδροκτασίαι, fighting in small groups, pairs of warriors, groups of θεράποντες and ἑταῖροι, formal duels, and ἀριστεῖαι) constitute different, yet complementary ways of organizing space.

In the case of ἀνδροκτασίαι, space is viewed dynamically. The storyteller’s mental camera constantly changes perspective, following first one group of warriors and then another. This zigzag technique, which is combined with frequent close-ups on second- and third-rank heroes, shows that the narrator can switch from a global, panoramic view when the Achaean and Trojan armies approach each other, to zoom in on the shocking details of actual combat that accentuate the sheer brutality of war.

With respect to fighting in small groups, either as pairs of warriors or as groups of θεράποντες and ἑταῖροι, space is miniaturized by spotlighting: the storyteller zooms in on specific warriors, whose position is determined not by some topographical sign but through their proximity to an ancillary group of heroes. Likewise, in the case of larger masses of the two armies, which are described as they fight behind the πρόμαχοι, the narrator builds on a binary opposition between foreground and background: elite warriors fight in the front ranks, while ordinary groups of soldiers fight behind them.

In the climactic triad of formal duels that lies at the core of the Iliad’s plot, the storyteller introduces his audience to a spatial grammar that creates expectations which are initially met, but ultimately violated. From the separate viewing of Sarpedon and Patroklos attacking one another, to the focus on the disoriented retreat of Patroklos speared in the back by Hektor, and finally to the transformation of symmetrical dueling space into the asymmetrical space of a pursuit in the Achilles-Hektor encounter, the narrator presents a wide range of fighting possibilities. The gradual shift from spatial symmetry (Sarpedon-Patroklos), to disorientation (Patroklos-Hektor), and finally to nullifying all spatial protocols for a duel (Hektor-Achilles) enhances narrative associations and reveals a carefully constructed thematic blueprint. Narrative cohesion is further strengthened by means of associative visualization, in the form of an internal preview. By introducing the impending duel through a preliminary minor episode in which Patroklos kills the henchman (Thrasudemos) of his future victim (Sarpedon), and then the charioteer (Kebriones) of the man by whom he will be soon defeated (Hektor), the storyteller helps the audience visualize the space of the ensuing duel, so that when the main confrontation takes place, the emphasis can be on evaluating the duel itself. The lesson he teaches his audience is that the two duels are subtly and ironically interconnected: Patroklos will prevail in the first duel, but will perish in the second. Tellingly, when the duel is deprived of such a minor incident, as in the Achilles-Hektor confrontation, listeners can be turned into viewers, who see Hektor’s complete isolation from the rest of the troops in their minds’ eye.

The ἀριστεία represents a complex and fluid form of dynamic space that combines features of both the ἀνδροκτασίαι (successive killings) and the duel (emphasis on an individual warrior). The main technique employed here is that of a continuous action space, or a single trajectory to which the activity of an individual hero belongs. By focusing on the exceptional military performance of a protagonist who is constantly “on the move,” the storyteller can visualize an expanding space in the form of a trail. In this case, narrative unity almost amounts to spatial unity.

These techniques (zigzag, close-ups, spotlighting, foreground-background, symmetrical viewing, disorientation, asymmetrical space, internal preview, trail) show that warriors are used as space-organizers, representing martial activity in its most appalling minutiae and helping the audience recognize a coherent narrative sequence instead of random fighting scenes.

In the section “Static Space,” I explored how martial space is transformed into static, nonmartial space to accommodate other activities, such as swearing oaths, friendly meetings, and assemblies. In addition, I studied a series of locus-images, such as the oak tree of Zeus, the fig tree, the river and ford of Skamandros, the tombstone of Ilos, the tomb of Myrine, and the rise in the plain.

The transformation of martial space is always narratively exploited by the storyteller: in the case of oath-swearings, he creates a limited, carefully delineated ritual space, contrasting with the vast and uncharted martial space of the battlefield, in order to present his audience, both internal and external, with credible scenarios about the end of the war. By associating the violation of the ritual space of the oath-swearing with the collapse of false expectations about a potential end of hostilities, the narrator silently comments on the illusory and temporary transformation of martial space. Likewise, the reversal of the typological features of a formal duel so as to meet the requirements of a friendly meeting, such as that between Diomedes and Glaukos, points out to the audience the inevitable other side of heroic camaraderie: the sheer brutality of war and the relentless carnage will soon take over. In the case of assembly meetings, the storyteller takes pains to help his audience visualize small areas that are either free of corpses or have been mentioned before as the site of some hero’s intense martial activity. In a remarkable crossing-over from the level of the story to the level of the discourse, the Homeric narrator creates for his characters a clear space for an assembly, more or less as he creates for his audience a new mental image of a clear space in which to picture it.

Locus-images have two functions, a cognitive and a thematic. They help the narrator construct his story on the fly and mentally orient himself among multiple elements that creep into his mind. They also evoke association through connotative meaning: the oak tree of Zeus, the fig tree, and the river Skamandros denote an interplay between protection and danger; the tombstone of Ilos and the tomb of Myrine constitute time-marks, as they indicate the transformation of place into space by reactivating emotionally charged experience; whereas the rise in the plain stands for a change in the course of the war, as the Achaeans rise victorious after the return of Achilles.

In chapter 2, I explored the function of various framing spaces, such as the Achaean camp, Troy, and the places from where the gods watch or enter into the human theater of action. The Achaean camp includes the headquarters of Agamemnon and Achilles, the seashore, the Achaean wall, and the ships. When the action is located within the hut or in the headquarters of an Achaean leader, whether Agamemnon in Iliad I or Achilles in Iliad IX and XXIV, the role of space becomes all the more important, since the particular location is used not only as a place where an event takes place but as a special social space, which shapes the particular events occurring there, and more significantly functions as a code for “reading” the episode at hand. The seashore constitutes a highly thematized area, a place of isolation and sadness, of prayer and lament. It is closely associated with Achilles, who meets his mother Thetis there in Iliad I, XVIII, and XXIV, but as the episode with Khruses shows (he prays to Apollo while walking along the shore), it is also a “breakaway” space where mortals and immortals communicate. The Achaean wall and ditch perform three functions: (1) they help the narrator pin down the various phases of both the Achaean retreat and the Trojan attack, as Zeus begins to fulfill the promise he made to Thetis in Iliad I; (2) they are a means of intratextual misdirection, creating the illusion of safety for the Achaeans; and (3) they delay the return of Achilles to the war. The area of the ships is sometimes used as a lookout, from where the Achaeans observe what is going on in another part of the camp. Like the area of the Achaean camp, this vaguely charted space undergoes an internal expansion and provides the necessary background against which specific narrative events are placed.

In the funeral games for Patroklos, the storyteller first pictures for his audience the place where the games will be held. He therefore transforms an area inside the Achaean camp into an ἀγών, a “contest space,” both by keeping his mental lens on Achilles’ action while he organizes the actual games, and by mentally separating a rather uncharted area, inside the Achaean camp but at some distance from the huts of the army. In the individual contests, he separates the chariot race, which is the most important event, from the other contests, which he presents by distinguishing between those involving physical contact between the participants (boxing, wrestling, running, and duels in armor) and throwing events (weight, archery, and javelin). This classification is reflected in the type of mental picturing that the narrator employs: whereas in the chariot race he uses both the zooming-in and high-angle long or medium camera-shot techniques, he applies the former to the physical contact events (including running), and the latter to the throwing events.

The city of Troy, with its various subsettings (walls, palace, and the entrance to the city), fufills four distinct functions: as a place for councils, observing the enemy, prayer, and lament. That said, the locale of Troy represents a cluster of activities that allows the audience to glimpse the “hidden” world of the city, with its own social dynamics. All the key scenes that occur inside Troy are essential both to the dramatic input of the plot and to relations of power, whether notions of control, heroism, family, or jurisdiction. The fixed setting of the walls becomes the showpiece of a spatialization of conflict, shedding light on the gap that separates the family from the heroic world, the two extremities around which the Iliadic storyteller unravels the tragic life stories of two of his most important characters, Helen and Hektor. By limiting the spatial representation of the city of Troy to the houses of Priam, Paris, and Hektor and the temple of Athena, the Iliad makes space reflect its main narrative blueprint, which is centered only on the principal figures of the plot. To this end, the palace is presented by means of brief descriptions that are expressed from the particular perspective of a given character, who functions as an internal focalizer.

The distinction between the worlds of mortals and immortals, and the former’s inability to access the latter, underlines the unbridgeable gap between gods and men. Specific spatial features of the divine world skillfully call attention to the profound difference between it and the events taking place on the Trojan plain and the mortal world at large. Emphasizing the spatial aspects of divine intervention in the mortal realm signals distance as a form of irony, since the ease with which the immortals enter and leave the mortal world stands in marked contrast to humans’ confinement and entrapment in a space, both literal and figurative, that they cannot escape.

Apart from the use of spatial memory to visualize Olympos, dynamic space creates associations of cognitive and hierarchical factors that take the form of social and axiological coding. The intentional distinction between higher and lower places within the realm of Olympos indicates the higher divine status of Zeus, first among all the Olympian gods. Along the same lines, the emphasis on both the (often) lonely figure of Zeus, whom divine travelers visit at Olympos, and the fact that Zeus never travels to meet with another god, connects the cognitive schema that stresses the importance of “one” versus “many” with the higher status of Zeus, who dominates Olympos. With respect to the function of Olympos, I have drawn a line between its thematic and its symbolic roles, the former pertaining to the evolution of the plot, the latter to spatial theography, translating the thematic aspect of divine travel into a symbolic one, based on standard antitheses of status such as high (gods) versus low (men), or even higher (the Olympians) versus lesser gods (Thetis, Iris). The depths of the sea, as the abode of Thetis, symbolize the place where crucial narrative shifts begin to happen: the three fundamental changes in Achilles’ behavior are linked to his mother’s involvement in the Iliadic plot, since she is always pictured as being in her underwater home when she listens to her son or to the other gods.

The Iliad avails itself of a number of locations used by the gods as observation posts. From there, immortals watch what is going on, either in the plain of Troy or in the Achaean camp, and decide to intervene and influence the action. That said, it should be noted that these locations are not lacking in symbolic function: the land of the Aethiopes stands for an idyllic, problem- and tension-free community of gods and men that is contrasted with the world of the Iliad. Mount Ida and the highest peaks of Samothrace, by facilitating the transfer of a panoramic, actorial, and fixed standpoint from the omniscient storyteller to Zeus, a figure in the plot, amount to a metaliterary comment on the traditional dichotomy between the viewer and the viewed object. The Wall of Herakles and the Hill of Kallikolone represent two symmetrical landmarks used by the gods as observation points within the plain of Troy. They are both highly thematized spaces, since their location is closely entwined with the gods who stand on them: the Wall of Herakles is occupied by the pro-Achaean gods, while the Hill of Kallikolone is used by the pro-Trojan ones. At the same time, the Wall of Herakles and the Hill of Kallikolone pertain to an archaeology of space, as they both refer to the past. Whereas the former was built by the Trojans and Athena in order to help Herakles escape from a sea beast, the latter was the hill where the Judgment of Paris took place.

Taking a cue from the traditional narratological division between narrator and character text, part 2 is devoted to the study of embedded story space, that is, the absent space constantly referred to by the characters of the Iliadic plot. The theoretical foundation of this chapter lies in Fludernik’s theory of natural narratology, and in particular the notion of experientiality, according to which focalizing characters constitute cognizers, or in other words thinking agents whose stock of experience shapes their perception of what is going on in the story-world. According to this line of argument, the epic tradition uses heroes as independent mental entities, whose role in the Iliad is shaped by both general features of human consciousness at large and personal characteristics stemming from their “biographies” in the entire epic tradition.

Before exploring the function of place-names in character text, I discussed their use in the two extended passages of narrator text, the Catalogue of Ships (CS) and the Catalogue of Trojans and Allies (CT&A). In this comprehensive view of the Greek and Trojan-and-allies worlds, the narrator offers a programmatic view of the Iliad by “tagging” heroes to specific geographical regions. By making use of the mental processes of the map and the tour, the storyteller offers a panorama of the forces arrayed against each other in the war at the lowest possible cognitive cost.

With respect to embedded story space, I chose to present the relevant material on the basis of the geographical opposition between the two sides of the Aegean (chapter 3: Greece vs. chapter 4: the Troad and Lycia). Since each of the most frequently mentioned place-names in mainland Greece (Phthia, Argos, Pylos, Thebes, Sparta, Ithaka, Mycenae) and the islands of Lesbos, Lemnos, Skyros, and Crete is associated either with a specific Achaean hero or with a given phase of this hero’s mythical lore, I set out to explore how space is employed as a filter that allows the tradition to measure an individual’s role in the Iliad.

Phthia symbolizes the emotions, thoughts, and concerns of Achilles: in the beginning of his quarrel with Agamemnon in Iliad I, it figuratively embodies his loneliness, his marginalization and isolation in a war that is not his own. Later on, it becomes the means for a powerful spatial misdirection when Achilles declares that he will return to Phthia immediately, thus threatening to deprive not only the Achaean army of their best hero but also the Iliadic epic of its most necessary thematic prerequisite, the one of the two figures around whom the theme of μῆνις is centered. In Iliad IX, Phthia is evoked through Achilles’ father Peleus, narratively activating his pre-Iliadic past in his stance towards his son’s participation in the war. Through a web of intertextual references, the epic downplays or ignores versions in which Peleus did not send Achilles to the war, in favor of versions in which he willingly sent him to Troy. Along this line, the Iliadic tradition applies the motif of “paternal assent” to Patroklos as well, and transforms Phthia into a spatiotemporal metonym for the involvement of both heroes in the war, and their figurative journey to death and epic κλέος. Last, Phthia is treated not as a mere topographical location but as a “site of memory.” By excluding himself from the constellation of the other Achaean leaders who were summoned to Troy and by shattering the very foundations of a “canonical” version of the past promoted by the Atreidai, Achilles turns Phthia into the political space of an “anti-Troy,” throwing the Achaeans’ heroic rhetoric into sharp relief.

In contrast with Phthia, which is associated strictly with Achilles, the semantic range covered by “Argos” is wide: it designates variously the homeland of Diomedes in the Argolid, the homeland of Achilles (Pelasgian Argos) in Thessaly, the homeland and kingdom of Agamemnon in the Peloponnese, the entire Peloponnese, and the whole of Greece. Whereas the first two meanings are not frequently used—since the former lies outside the scope of the Trojan epic tradition and the latter has been superseded by Phthia as an emotionally loaded space for Achilles—Argos is invoked in the poem mainly as the homeland of Agamemnon. Whereas Achilles adopts for Phthia a discourse of spatiotemporal discontinuity, full of abrupt breaks and deep ruptures, Agamemnon constructs a different picture of Argos, one that erases all manner of irregularities, since he excludes from his perception of the homeland those events that are against the kind of personality he wants to present to the army: major dividing lines like the sacrifice of Iphigenia, the state of his relation to Klutaimnestra, and his insulting Achilles at the expense of enormous Achaean losses are thus erased or repressed, and filtered into a discourse that reveals his anxiety about disgrace and blame should he return to Argos unsuccessful on the one hand, and an almost complete lack of reference to or consideration of his family on the other. Argos becomes a vehicle for channeling into the epic typical dichotomies between κλέος and νόστος and praise and blame. Geography is thus turned into space that represents a hero’s “epic home,” the notional center around which his past, present, and future constantly revolve. When “Argos” designates the Peloponnese or the whole of Greece, it is used as an alias for each speaker’s focalization of the entire Trojan War, or a part of it. The Achaeans tend to refer to Argos as a thematized space that epitomizes their concerns about dishonor, while the Trojans refer to it in the sense of “Greece,” either in the context of a potential agreement between the two sides or with respect to their fears or hopes about the future.

Pylos functions as a spatial metonym for a gate or passage that points to narratives centered on human arrogance, against which Nestor, the only son of Neleus who survived Herakles’ attack on Pylos, and who is associated with light and life, can prevail. Pylos’ figurative function accords with the extremely positive presentation of Nestor in the Iliad. Being endowed with an almost emblematic sweet voice (λιγὺς ἀγορητής) and unsurpassed rhetorical skills, he possesses a narrative authority that is harmoniously matched with his wisdom and moderation: from this point of view, Nestor functions as the backdrop against which the audience is invited to evaluate the negative paradigms of Thamyris and Herakles, who both symbolize the sudden shift from skill and ability to arrogance and punishment. Stories and storytelling are particular to Nestor, and stand for his privileged field of Iliadic activity. The narrative about his journey from Pylos to Thessaly to assist the Lapithai helps the audience to contrast him with Achilles, who was not bound by oath but whose participation in the expedition was considered indispensable for winning the war. In Nestor’s story in Iliad I, Pylos becomes an “anti-Phthia,” a space where he never explicitly says that he wishes to return, like Achilles, but which he has deliberately left in order to participate in various exploits and so build up his heroic persona. In this way, Nestor’s Pylos becomes the kind of epic past that the Iliadic tradition uses to counterbalance Achilles’ Phthia.

Boeotian Thebes constitutes a spatiotemporal bridge between the Theban and Trojan War epic traditions. It is regularly invoked as the necessary background for measuring the exploits and heroism of warriors in both Theban and Trojan epic. The picture that is painted is rather vague: while sometimes it results in the implicit praise of certain “Theban” heroes who feature in the Iliad, other times the comparison works against them. Thebes, therefore, points to the first or the second Theban war, since its epic past spans two different expeditions and is represented by a series of epic song traditions, as the epic poems Thebais, Epigoni, and Alcmaeonis amply attest. As far as the much weaker Herakles connection is concerned, space signifies deception and bewilderment, which serves as a useful parallel to the Iliadic theme of μῆνις.

In contrast with most of the minor places (like Sparta, Ithaka, Crete, and Mycenae) that constitute simple geographical references, the three Aegean islands of Lemnos, Lesbos, and Skyros stand for highly thematized spaces that form a network of associations around the fate of Achilles. Lemnos points to events further back in time, namely the Achaean fleet’s sojourn there while sailing to Troy, and represents a space that is friendly to Achilles; Lesbos (the Aeolic filtering of which should be noted) is associated with hostile space and is linked to the more recent past, since its sack by Achilles occurred only after the Achaeans arrived at Troy; whereas Skyros, also sacked by Achilles, is evoked in the Iliad through both his marriage to king Lukomedes’ daughter Deidameia and a non-Iliadic future involving Neoptolemos’ coming to Troy after his father’s death.

Locations in Asia Minor are rarely thematized, since the Trojans, fighting in their own country, are by definition deprived of the typical polarity between κλέος and νόστος that marks the Achaean presence in Troy. The wider Troad, though, is often thematized through the association of certain places with the fate of specific figures whose life stories dramatically converge with the fate of Achilles. The antithesis between the proximity of the cities surrounding Troy and the remoteness of Phthia is mapped to Achilles’ unprovoked destructive actions in the Troad. The Iliadic tradition employed these locations as a device for measuring Achilles’ dramatic role in the epic. Hypoplakian Thebes, Lurnessos, Pedasos, and Khruse are turned into variations on the theme of Achilles’ arrogance and brutality against a people who have never harmed him. The Iliad further exploits this narrative strategy by capitalizing on the spatial aspect of size: the stark difference between the great ease with which Achilles sacks all these small cities in the Troad, taking captive various women, and his failure to take the great city of Troy and get Helen back amounts to a profound critical statement about the situation he has been facing. On a complementary level, the cities sacked by Achilles supply a male-dominated epic either with female characters (Khruseis, Briseis, Andromakhe) who are linked to other first-rank heroes of the epic and represent distinct phases in the development of the plot, or with other male characters (Lukaon) whose fate will be associated with a particular phase of Achilles’ reintegration in the warrior society.

Lycia is the most significant of all the locations in Asia Minor. As the place of origin of the most important Trojan allies, the Lycians, it is regularly employed to achieve various ends. It thematizes the motif of “coming from afar,” which is used as an accusation against Trojan cowardice, more or less in the way Achilles uses Phthia and the life he has left behind to come and help Agamemnon, whom he blames in Iliad I; and it is presented as social space through a brief description of the life, status, and privileges Lycian kings possess and enjoy. In the case of Pandaros, Lycia is evoked in the manner of a second-level associative allusion: it shapes his identity through the traditional reference to Lycians as famous archers, so that it can conjure up another character (Paris) and create a link to his insolent behavior as a violator of unwritten law in the events preceding the plot of the Iliad. It is used by Tlepolemos from the point of view of a rival Rhodian tradition aimed at invalidating any Lycian claims to esteem and honor, and by Glaukos as part of a mythical landscape that explains and supports arguments about a common genealogy between enemies on the battlefield. Finally, Lycia is employed as the place of a hero’s future cult, the space where sleep and death, that is, fainting and dying, will cease to operate, through the cultural process represented by the tomb and σῆμα that Sarpedon’s countrymen will build for him.

Part 3 offered a detailed examination of what I have termed the paratopic space of the Homeric simile. This term describes how the space of the similes exists next to or in parallel with the space of the main narrative to which it is anchored, but also beyond and above the regular story space. Homeric similes do not invent a novel story-world, but aim at immersing the audience in a different visual universe, whose density is fully exploited as the storyteller’s lens gradually zooms in on its details.

In chapter 5, I analyzed the distribution and function of simile space versus narrative space in Iliad II, V, XI, and XVI. Drawing on cognitive theory, which explores the role of space as a powerful and effective cue to recall, and Rubin’s pioneering work on memory and oral traditions, I argued that the narrator organizes the visual space of similes by means of visual units, the mental building blocks of narrative scenes. Such a finding has sweeping consequences for the storyteller’s mode of performance, since it stresses the importance of the technique of mental association, which is enhanced by spatial unity, a mnemonic aspect recognized in cognitive psychology as a cue to information retrieval. Within the medium of oral performance, the system displays a remarkable economy: as long as the visual setting of a given narrative unit remains the same, the space delineated in the corresponding extended simile also remains the same, or at least of the same sort.

Chapter 6 was devoted to the study of the cognitive aspect of the Homeric simile. In this light, I explored the simile’s ontological boundaries, that is, both the transfer of the audience from the world of the plot to different visual spheres by means of mental imagery, and a boundary-crossing experience by which the narrator creates a further spatial dichotomy between the mental world of the narrative and that of the ontological and corporeal habitat of the real world. To this end, I explored several aspects of the multiformity of the extended simile, such as bilaterality (as a manifestation of transformational thinking), complex expansions (stemming from the simile’s openness and traditional referentiality), mapping inconsistency between the target and base domains, and the multiplied simile (the elliptical combination of two superimposed narrative structures).

Keeping in mind that the Homeric simile allows for a boundary-crossing experience into a different world, visualized in vivid snapshots of suspended action occurring in medias res, it becomes clear that the audience is invited on a journey to the new mental space of the simile’s pictorial universe. Reinforced by the simile’s deictic demarcation, the narrator attempts to key his listeners to a distinct note, free them from the spatiotemporal constraints of the world of the plot, and transport them to a new chronotopic framework, a different mental landscape which they are invited to explore. At the same time, by relativizing the medium, the narrator engages his listeners in a revealing realization of the fact that like the similes, the poetry of the Iliad enhances the sameness, or at least similarity, of human nature and human fate. The paratopic space of the Homeric similes reflects the storyteller’s effort to limit and control the audience’s multiple image-mappings of familiar scenes of the natural world, which he can easily access by means of their mental stock of common experience. It is exactly at this critical juncture that the pictorial richness of the simile lies: the disparity between the different mental visualizations available to the narrator and the members of the audience results in a fascinating outburst of visual imagery.

Part 4 dealt with description, one of the principal areas of spatial representation. Given the absence of landscape description in the Iliad, I focused my attention on descriptions of prized objects (chapter 7), culminating in the monumental ecphrasis on Achilles’ shield (chapter 8). Building on the work of Minchin, who has stressed the importance of visual memory and implicit knowledge in Homeric description, I explored both the function of perspective in object-description and the way mnemonic formats are organized. Thus I examined spatial aspects such as the position of the beholder, diagrammatic iconicity, both dynamic and static (subdivided into extrinsic and intrinsic perspective), and mixed description.

The position of the beholder plays a pivotal role, since it may determine the particular way the description will unfold. A character-viewer may offer a visual tour of a precious object, which can serve as a reminder of the object’s history, or may assume the role of a mobile beholder who moves his mind’s eye in a certain direction or along a visual path, whose spatial demarcations prolong the dramatic moment and transfer the object’s magnificence to the narrative to follow.

Diagrammatic iconicity refers to analogies or similarities between the code used for space perception and the way spatial description is organized. Dynamic spatial description is about visualizing an object’s movement in space. The object’s transfer from one owner to another through a catalogue format removes all traces of their individual biographies and translates time into space, transforming the past into the distance that dictionally separates them. Static spatialization, which is subdivided into extrinsic and intrinsic perspectives, represents the most common form of spatial description in the Iliad. Extrinsic perspective refers to an object’s perceptual significance, determined by spatial pairs like near-far, foreground-background, dark-shining, center-periphery. A significant number of prized objects are described in the Iliad from the extrinsic perspective of one or two noteworthy features they possess. The narrator eschews a point-for-point photographic description, but rather zooms in on what he considers to be truly noteworthy, assuming that his audience will supply all the missing details on their own. Given that occasionally these characteristics of the described objects are presented in contrast to others of the same kind, the description of a prized object becomes a sort of selection of details regarded as meriting description. It is in this light that the single-feature technique is especially observable in brief descriptive passages. The reason for this is twofold: first, the narrator must counterbalance the description’s brevity by emphasizing a single feature, and second, he can easily create a mental link in his mind between the single feature highlighted in the descriptive passage and a detail found either in the narrative segment immediately following it, or in a previous reference to the same object or its owner. Diagrammatic iconicity is also built around the static perspective of other extrinsic spatial pairs like outside-inside and top-bottom. Here, spatially conceived contrasts bring what is important to the fore: they are used as both cues that help the storyteller visualize what he describes, and guides that allow the audience to evaluate the description during the performance of the song.

Unlike the widespread use of extrinsic spatial perspective, intrinsic perspective, which is organized according to the principle of topographical contiguity based on an object’s inherent function, is absent from Iliadic epic, for two reasons: First, this kind of description would have emphasized not what an object is, but where it is, which would have been very much against the Iliad’s emphasis on presenting an object to its audience in terms of how it functions, not where it is placed. Second, descriptions from an intrinsic perspective are notoriously lacking in multiple cues, for they are based on the object’s standard and widely known function, which stems from the highlighting of its inherent role. Mixed types do exist: the narrator can construct large descriptive segments consisting of an initial static diagrammatic description followed by dynamic iconicity in the form of the object’s history.

Apart from the traditional dichotomy between narration and description, there are passages marked by a certain blurring of the boundaries between these two modes. The term descriptivized narration or pseudonarrative refers to description disguised as narration: in this case description remains in the background, concealed by narration. Such a fusing of boundaries in the Iliad is accompanied by an expansion of certain aspects of the description and the occasional use of a small-scale ecphrastic format. The main result of this technique of spatial description is to reconceptualize a given object, by activating certain narrative domains, and to enlarge its own spatial domain. Thus Agamemnon’s role in the Iliad is so deeply marked by his initial conflict with Achilles that the narrator, having planned an ecphrasis on Achilles’ shield on a massive scale in Iliad XVIII, decided to endow Agamemnon with multiple but smaller ecphrases before his own ἀριστεία in Iliad XI. In this way he invited his audience to realize, during the extended ecphrasis dedicated to a single part of Achilles’ armor in Iliad XVIII, that in contrast with Agamemnon, the son of Thetis will not be wounded but will masterfully prevail on the battlefield, and that his own single ecphrasis allusively outdoes the multiple short ecphrases of Agamemnon, just as his heroic prowess far surpasses that of the king of Mycenae.

Ecphrastic space (chapter 8), with respect to Achilles’ shield, refers both to the “external” or “physical” space or material on which the depiction is placed and to the “internal” space or spaces included in the various narrative snapshots that make up the ecphrasis. Moreover, ecphrastic space fuses the distinction between narrative levels and the effective gambit orchestrated around the verbal-cum-visual syllepsis that the shield of Achilles offers.

Building on Groensteen’s innovative work on image and language in comics, I particularized these constraints with respect to the shield of Achilles and suggested a division of the five folds on which the depictions are placed into visual sections, on the basis of smaller visual panels which can be further divided into frames, hyperframes, megaframes, and multiframes. My analysis showed that the narrator organizes his mental images by a triple process of segmentation, grouping, and interlacing. He breaks down his pictorial material into separate segments, which he arranges into groups that he can weave together at will. He does this by employing both restrained and general linkage between the various groups of images: the former designates the interconnection and interaction of panels sequentially, whereas the latter refers to the nonsequential way panels are associated, by means of evoking or resonating terms used before and featuring again in one or more nonadjacent panels. In this context, space is of paramount importance for understanding the entire process of organizing mental images. The storyteller visualizes the various episodes depicted on the shield by means of “mini-tours,” mentally leaping from one spatial node to another. Even within the framework of individual scenes, added elements are anchored to locations or movements that facilitate the retrieval of information and speed up mental navigation.

Finally, I studied how space in the description of the shield of Achilles constitutes the earliest extended metalepsis in Greek literature. The blurring or transcending of the distinction between narrative levels, as when the narrator enters the space of the characters or the characters invade that of the narrator, or the narrator intervenes with a metanarrative comment or becomes the creator instead of the reporter of the story, is particularly significant in the case of Achilles’ shield. By means of these types of metalepsis, the ecphrasis assumes an all-encompassing perspective: it extends far beyond both its immediate context and the Iliadic plot in general, becoming an emblem of poetics and a hint to the audience, who are invited to evaluate the story-world of the Iliad against the impressive visual illusion of a fictive constellation of images and unfinished snapshots.


[ back ] 1. See Bal 1997:136–137.

[ back ] 2. Ryan 2009:421–422.

[ back ] 3. On such a distinction between base-level and framed or framing spaces, see Ronen 1986.

[ back ] 4. Neer 2010:67.

[ back ] 5. Johnson 2008:2.