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.


Over the course of this book, we have gained a sense of the particular choices made by the Homeric poets in forming their vegetal images. We have seen that the relevant images draw on some of the most striking characteristics of the Greek flora—the sudden, exceptionally diverse blooms of the Greek spring. And by accessing these phenomena, the Homeric poets were able to draw their listeners’ attention to particular aspects of eroticism, order, disorder, and death, and to enhance their understanding of these abstract notions. But none of these choices were forced on the Homeric poets: other archaic poets focused on rather different characteristics of the Greek flora and on different facets of the relevant concepts.

In my concluding remarks, I would like to focus not only on the particular conceptions of eroticism, the cosmos, society, and death facilitated by the Homeric poets’ interactions with the natural environment, but also on the place of such conceptions within the wider Homeric corpus. In particular, I shall show that both these images and the Homeric poems more generally offer pessimistic treamtents of these themes. When we survey the concepts that the Homeric poets illustrated with their vegetal images, we might well be struck by their negativity: the vegetal images of other genres celebrate beauty, orderliness, and the joys of youth; but alongside evocations of orderly societies or the strength of warriors, Homeric vegetal images explore deception, disorder, and the monstrousness of death. And the emphasis in these different images on more negative concepts is indicative of the preoccupations of Homeric poetry as a genre: it suggests an interest in the darker aspects of human experience.

The negative tendencies of Homeric poetry as opposed to other genres can be seen in the Homeric poets’ treatments of erotic themes. Greek lyric poets explore the beauty of the beloved or the pleasure of erotic encounters. But their Homeric counterparts often portray erotic relationships as unfulfilled, interrupted or otherwise imperfect, and at times these relationships are even a danger to one or other of the partners. The Epic Cycle opens with a wedding—that of Peleus and Thetis—but the event is notable primarily for the intrusion of the goddess Strife, which has dire consequences for mortals: she provokes the quarrel between Athena, Hera, and Aphrodite that leads to the Judgement of Paris, the abduction of Helen, and the Trojan War. [1] In the Iliad, Helen and Paris are the only mortal couple whose lovemaking is so much as anticipated: after Aphrodite rescues Paris from the battlefield, she insists that Helen join him in their bedchamber. But Helen’s initial resistance to Aphrodite’s wishes and her verbal abuse of her new husband sour the occasion (3.383–447). Andromache and Hector, who seem to enjoy a more harmonious relationship, are allowed to meet only once and for the last time as Hector prepares to return to battle (6.390–502). [2]

The Homeric floral imagery of the erotic accords with the negative cast of these examples. In Homeric poetry, the alluring surface of erotic bodies associated with flowers conceals the regular appearance of the body in question or hides dangers to which the lover will be exposed. This seems to have unwelcome implications for the nature of erotic encounters. If they are like this, one can never be entirely sure of the identity of one’s beloved, nor whether the consequences of such an encounter will be pleasurable or even confined to the sphere of the erotic. By contrast, in archaic Greek lyric, the lover’s gaze dominates and safely evaluates the beloved who is associated with flowers (Part I).

Such a distinction, as we have seen, is dependent on two different interactions with the natural environment. Greek lyric poets reminded audiences of the experience of gazing on flowers and judging them beautiful, and thereby illustrated the beauty of erotic bodies, seen from the perspective of the first-person speaker. Their Homeric counterparts, by contrast, drew on the shifting, ποικίλος surfaces of flowers in the Greek spring to suggest the deceptive qualities of bodies decked out for seduction.

The Works and Days explores the injustices of the current Age of Iron and offers baleful predictions for its moral decline and ultimate destruction by Zeus (Works and Days 182–194). Nevertheless, the poem does not describe the sorts of threats to societal order that we find in the Homeric poems. Neither insurrection nor other forms of political instability are major themes of the Works and Days. The narrator does not portray dissension among the ranks of the barons who rule the narrator’s society: there is no equivalent, then, of the wrangling of Achilles and Agamemnon in the Iliad.

And the Hesiodic poets do not offer a parallel for the political situation of Odyssey Books 13–21, where the actions of the suitors and of their favorite servants threaten to confuse distinctions between the strata of Ithacan society. If Zeus reacts to the barons’ injustice (Works and Days 248–269), this does not seem to entail a change in societal structure: he punishes the common people alongside their lords (260–262), and a whole city suffers for the injustice of one bad man (238–247). It does not appear, then, that the people will be able to seize power from their former lords. Nor does the narrator associate his disturbing prophecy for the future of the Iron Race with political upheaval. The Iron Race will be remarkable for its violence and disloyalty, which will lead to the breakdown of familial attachments and of the guest-host relationship. But this is to speak only of personal ties: the passage in question does not describe the dissolution of distinctions between the different classes that make up Iron Age society.

The two genres also differ in their use of vegetal images to illustrate such themes. Both the Homeric and the Hesiodic poets associated arboreal growths with good order, whether in the city or the cosmos. But the Homeric poets also drew on natural phenomena to explore the more disorderly elements in civic and cosmic structures. They associated challenges to cosmic order with the apparently spontaneous growth of Greek flowers. And the contrast between the explosive floral growths of the Greek spring and the steadier, more constant growths of trees offered the Homeric poets a way to illustrate the twin concepts of cosmic order and disorder. Those same poets, moreover, cast light on the tensions between forces of civic order and disorder through reference to wild growths and to the managed vegetation that listeners would have encountered in the natural world and in the plantations near human settlements. And while the Hesiodic poets associated wild growths of trees with the flourishing city-state, their Homeric counterparts, in describing the restoration of order on Ithaca, focused specifically on trees governed by the techniques of arboriculture. They thereby suggested that civic order, which was open to challenge from unruly elements, could only be maintained by the careful management of a king.

Which of these explorations of the cosmos and of human society a listener or reader finds more negative will depend on the particular elements of the two genres that s/he chooses to emphasize. The Hesiodic poets offered harrowing tales of cosmic strife; but they also depicted an increasing orderliness in the cosmos, and with their vegetal imagery they emphasized stable structures and flourishing cities. The Homeric poets did not focus on the sorts of tales of cosmic revolution that we find early in the Theogony; however, both in the stories that they told and in their vegetal images they stressed constant tensions between forces of order and disorder. Suffice it to say that in their explorations of such themes both Homeric and Hesiodic poetry offer ample justifications for pessimistic readings.

Homeric vegetal images, then, offer negative portraits of the erotic and of civic and cosmic structures, which are in harmony with the Homeric poems’ generally pessimistic treatments of such concepts: in the one case, deception mingles with beauty; in the other, disorderly undercurrents pose a challenge to the good order of the cosmos or the city. And these negative elements lend a somewhat darker tone to the relevant passages than would otherwise be the case. But some of the darkest aspects of Homeric poetry are to be found in its descriptions of death in war, many of which focus on the horrors of the battlefield. Again, such a tone is consistent with the associations of Homeric vegetal images: as we have seen, Homeric floral images portray death as a monstrous horror.

In the concluding section of a book, it is not the place to offer an extensive analysis of the nature of tragedy and horror. But if we are to apply those concepts to the Homeric poems, we should, at least, prepare for such a discussion by noting some of the key distinctions between them. I would like to focus on two important respects in which horrific description, whether in Homeric poetry or elsewhere, departs from Aristotelian notions of the tragic.

The first concerns the emotions that are evoked. Tragedy on an Aristotelian definition elicits both pity and fear from its audiences. We feel pity for someone experiencing misfortune insofar as s/he does not deserve their suffering, and we experience fear insofar as s/he is like ourselves (Poetics 1453a3–6). Presumably, we fear that the same might happen to us, given that we resemble the person suffering. Horrific description by contrast elicits only the emotion of fear, and that to a particularly heightened degree.

It is true that not every one of the Homeric descriptions of death points in the direction of horror: some passages would indeed have encouraged listeners to view them as tragic or pathetic. We noted in Chapter 8 that critics have read Iliadic vegetal images as evocations of a world of peace that introduce notes of pathos to the depiction of warriors’ deaths. As we have seen, such notions do not, in fact, dominate the floral and arboreal imagery of the Iliad. Nevertheless, it is perfectly possible to find pathos in some of these images: for instance, the focus on Simoeisius’ chest and the suggestion of his smooth trunk at 4.480–486 would have invited listeners to sympathize with this young warrior at the time of his death.

Certain of the Odyssey’s descriptions of death are also consistent with the notions of tragedy and pathos. In the Underworld, for instance, Odysseus employs the same formulaic line to describe his feelings as he beholds the shades of Elpenor, Anticleia, and Agamemnon: τὸν/τὴν μὲν ἐγὼ δάκρυσα ἐλέησά τε θυμῷ (“I wept and pitied him/her in my heart,” 11.55, 87, 395). Audiences might have shared Odysseus’ emotions as they contemplated the state to which these characters have been reduced.

Evidence from the Odyssey leads us to similar conclusions: when the epic focuses on death, it indulges in horrific description. We have already noted Circe’s description of the “heap / of rotting men” that decorates the Sirens’ island (θὶς / ἀνδρῶν πυθομένων, 12.45–46). Horrors likewise attend Odysseus’ description of the Cyclops. The monster soaks the ground with the blood and brains of Odysseus’ companions as he consumes their bodies (9.290–295). Later, Athena manipulates the appearance of Odysseus’ halls in such a way as to anticipate the grisly consequences of the suitors’ feasting: “they were laughing with another’s jaws, / and were eating meat daubed with blood” (γναθμοῖσι γελώων ἀλλοτρίοισιν / αἱμοφόρυκτα δὲ δὴ κρέα ἤσθιον, 20.347–348). And the prophet Theoclymenus responds with a macabre vision of his own: he imagines walls sprinkled with blood, and night spreading over the hall (351–357).

A number of the Homeric descriptions of death, then, point not in the direction of tragedy but towards horror. They lay emphasis on the emotion of fear and on the material realities of death. We hear of Terror on the Iliadic battlefield and of the “green fear” of the suitors; we witness the corpses on the battlefield and on the floor of Odysseus’ halls; we are presented with the blood, bones, and flesh of violated or decaying bodies.

And it is precisely such concepts that are the focus of the Homeric floral imagery of death and of its particular responses to the Greek natural environment. The poets of the elegiac tradition drew on the brevity of floral blooms in their celebrations of the brief joys of youth. Their Homeric counterparts drew on qualities that flowers shared with monsters in early Greek poetry—many-headedness or a disorderly fertility—to illustrate the monstrous horror of death. The relevant passages, moreover, associate death’s monstrous otherness with the negation of the order on which a warrior’s living identity depended, and in particular with the dissolution of the physical orderliness of his body. This latter concept is explored not only in Homeric floral images, but also in the horrific descriptions of woundings, of blood coursing through the battlefield, and of decaying corpses that we find in the Homeric poems.

We have seen, then, that the Homeric poets were able to draw on the striking suddenness and proliferation of Greek spring blooms to aid their audiences’ understanding of a number of striking concepts. They conjured up images not so much of a floral beauty that, though brief, might still be enjoyed, but of darker notions, such as sudden disappearance, unruly growths, and monstrous profusion. These guided their audiences’ conceptions of deceptive surfaces, of insurrection, and of the monstrousness of death. And in turn such images, together with the concepts introduced by them, directed listeners towards darker perspectives on the world and towards the more pessimistic principles on which they were founded: uncertainty, instability, horror.


[ back ] 1. See Proclus’ summary of the Cypria at Bernabé 1996:38–39 lines 4–11. For the Trojan War as a consequence of the Judgement of Paris, see Chapter 2.

[ back ] 2. Sappho, by contrast, celebrates the wedding of Hector and Andromache (fr. 44 Voigt). This event may not have featured in the Epic Cycle: it is not mentioned in Proclus’ summary of the cyclic poems. And the Iliad refers to it only in connection with Andromache’s widowhood: Iliad 22.470–472.

[ back ] 3. See Chapter 3 above.

[ back ] 4. As mentioned in the Preamble to Part II, previous studies have explored such intersections between the two genres: Yasumura (2011) identifies similar treatments of divine rebellion in Hesiodic and Homeric poetry; Clay (2003, 2006) traces a continuum from the Theogony’s explorations of order and disorder to those of the Homeric Hymns and major epics.

[ back ] 5. Clay 2006.

[ back ] 6. For Zeus’ plans in the Odyssey and for the manner in which he responds to Poseidon’s opposition, see Marks 2008.

[ back ] 7. See 17.212–253 (Melanthius assaults the disguised Odysseus and wishes Telemachus dead); 20.177–182 (he threatens his disguised king); 22.135–146 (he brings arms to the suitors, in full knowledge that Odysseus has returned); 18.320–325 (Melantho cares nothing for Penelope, despite the queen’s kindness to her as a child); 18.326–336, 19.65–69 (she berates the disguised Odysseus).

[ back ] 8. In Part III, we found that the Homeric poets drew on such Hesiodic themes in their explorations of the monstrous disorder of death.

[ back ] 9. On the themes of justice and injustice in the Works and Days, cf. Erbse 1993, Nelson 1997, Beall 2005/2006, Mordine 2006.

[ back ] 10. For such a teleological reading of the Theogony, see Clay 2003:12–30.

[ back ] 11. See also Catalogue of Women fr. 30 MW; cf. [Apollodorus] Library 1.9.7.

[ back ] 12. Griffin 1980, esp. 81–143; Redfield 1994; Rinon 2008; cf. Liebert 2017 on the tragic emotions of the Iliad. For Aristotle (Poetics 1459b8–17), the Homeric epics follow the same overall forms and are made up of the same components as tragedies, with the exceptions of lyric song and spectacle.

[ back ] 13. For the focus on the material facts of death in the Iliad, cf. Weil 1965. See also Marg 1976:10: “it is characteristic of the Iliad that it lets battle speak for itself factually and without pathos so that its basic character, death, shows forth” (“die Ilias eigentümlich sachlich und unpathetisch den Kampf für sich sprechen läßt, so daß er bis auf seinen Grundcharakter, das Töten, durschsichtig wird”). For the association of horror with bodily materiality, cf. Kristeva 1982 on the excreta of the living body and the corpse.

[ back ] 14. Despite the fact that Griffin and Redfield emphasize the tragic aspects of the Iliad, both also identify elements of horror in the epic: see Redfield 1994:179–186 on the horror surrounding the unburied body and its materiality. Griffin, however (1980:19–21, 45–47), argues that such elements are downplayed in the Iliad, as opposed to other early epic traditions.

[ back ] 15. For the pity of the Iliadic gods and for their function as a tragic audience, see Griffin 1980:195–196.

[ back ] 16. Cf. the description of Apollo’s motives for preserving Hector’s corpse: φῶτ’ ἐλεαίρων / καὶ τεθνηότα περ (“pitying the mortal, / even though he was dead” 24.19–20). For the gods’ feelings of pity, see also 8.350, 15.12, 44, 16.431, 19.340, 24.332.

[ back ] 17. Nevertheless, before his mistreatment at the hands of Achilles, Hector is actively involved in the horrors of the Iliadic battlefield. Of all the warriors at Troy, he has a particular association with the madness that descends on a warrior. At 8.299, Teucer likens Hector to a “mad dog” (κύνα λυσσητῆρα), and a little later in Book 8 Hector “ha[s] the eyes of the Gorgon and of Ares, bane of mortals” (Γοργοῦς ὄμματ’ ἔχων ἠδὲ βροτολοιγοῦ Ἄρηος, 8.349; see Chapter 9). For Hector’s war-madness, see also 9.237–239, 305, 13.53, 15.605–610.

[ back ] 18. For the negative depictions of Agamemnon, see Iliad 1 and 19: he insists on exact compensation for the loss of Chryseis and then deflects blame for his error onto the goddess Delusion. See also Murnaghan 1987 on Agamemnon’s misogyny in the Odyssey, which distinguishes him from other male characters.

[ back ] 19. For blood, dust, and corpses on the Iliadic battlefield, see also 11.163–164, 13.393, 16.486, 639–640, 795–796, 17.360–363, 18.538–540.

[ back ] 20. See Marg (1976:9) on Iliad 4.439–451: “Das Bild ist duster und grausig … Unheimlich ist die Atmosphäre des Schlachtfeldes” (“The image is dark and gruesome … . The atmosphere of the battlefield is uncanny”).

[ back ] 21. See Chapter 9 for discussion of this passage.

[ back ] 22. On the horror of the events in Book 21, see Segal 1971:30–32.

[ back ] 23. Cf. Nietzsche 1980:784: Achilles’ mistreatment of Hector’s corpse is “für uns etwas … Grausen Einflößendes” (“for us something that inspires horror”).

[ back ] 24. Segal 1971.

[ back ] 25. For horror in the Iliad, see also Strasburger (1954), who identifies pathos in the poem’s portrayals of death alongside a focus on the gruesomeness and inevitability of death.

[ back ] 26. Cf. 22.401–402: Eurycleia “found Odysseus among the dead bodies, / spattered with blood and filth” (εὗρεν… Ὀδυσῆα μετὰ κταμένοισι νέκυσσιν, / αἵματι καὶ λύθρῳ πεπαλαγμένον).

[ back ] 27. The only characters to be spared, the herald Medon and the bard Phemius, do not number among the suitors.

[ back ] 28. The characters of Amphinomus and Eurymachus are clearly distinguished from each other in Book 18 through their behavior towards the disguised Odysseus. Amphinomus provides him with food (118–123), but Eurymachus throws a stool at him (387–397).