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.


The images of flowers, trees, and other plants that we find in the poetry of a given region represent particular responses to a particular flora with particular characteristics familiar to those who live in that region. Therefore, if we are to achieve a proper understanding of the operations of such images and of the ways in which they would have been received by audiences and readers, we need to gain a sense of the characteristics of the relevant natural environments. These natural environments may differ from those with which we ourselves are familiar; accordingly, it is imperative that we set aside preconceptions formed on the basis of such familiar environments and focus instead on the natural phenomena peculiar to the region that we are studying. But it is necessary also to identify the specific choices made by poets of that region as they engage with their natural environments. We should bear in mind that the characteristics of these environments do not determine the poets’ choices: rather, the relevant natural phenomena provide the palette on which poets of the region draw in order to form their vegetal images.

This book provides a case-study for how we might investigate a particular body of poetic imagery and its engagements with the natural environments of a particular region. I shall be exploring the vegetal imagery of Homeric poetry and especially its images of flowers. We shall also consider comparanda from other archaic Greek genres that can help set in relief the particular choices made by the Homeric poets in their interactions with their natural environments. Such an investigation marks a clear departure from previous studies which, with the exception of a few brief articles, have not treated Homeric poetry as a response to a particular flora. [1] And even those that have done so have not set the Homeric poems against other kinds of Greek poetry; they have neglected, then, to reveal the particular choices of the Homeric poets in their engagements with the natural world.

By recognizing Homeric poetry as a particular response to a particular natural environment, we can derive new insights into the ways in which listeners would have engaged with it, and at the same time facilitate new readings of the Homeric poems. As we shall see, in forming their vegetal images the Homeric poets responded to the sorts of natural phenomena that would have been familiar to audiences from their own environments. And the most striking examples of such imagery—the associations of flowers with the concepts of deception, disorder, and the monstrousness of death—drew on some of the most striking characteristics of the Greek flora: the brief, diverse blooms of the Greek spring.

The Greek Natural Environment

The Homeric poets and their counterparts in other genres of archaic Greek poetry experienced vegetation in the world around them, and it was on the basis of such experiences that they formed their images of flowers, trees, and other plants. In order to investigate such images, then, we need to gain an understanding both of the general characteristics of the archaic Greek natural environment and also of the particular characteristics of the plants that would have been familiar to early audiences.

In order to identify a particular plant in an archaic Greek poem, we should attempt where possible to match it with a modern equivalent, since our knowledge of modern Greek flowers is more secure than our knowledge of their ancient equivalents. On the basis of linguistic continuities and/or cognates, we are frequently able to identify at least the genus of a plant in a given passage of Homeric poetry: it is, for instance, highly probable that the Homeric term νάρκισσος refers to a plant of the genus Narcissus, or that the various occurrences of the Greek noun ἴον point to a violet of one sort or another (genus Viola). Similarly, the term δρῦς is very likely to refer to trees of the genus Quercus (oak). In some cases this is as far as we can and should go, since a given floral or arboreal lexeme in a given context may not have suggested a particular species to Homeric audiences. The term “species” is, after all, a modern botanical con-cept based ultimately on reproductive qualities, and poets and their audiences might have other properties in mind, which were common to more than one modern species.

Turning to the general qualities of Greek vegetation, we have good reasons to suppose that the major characteristics of the modern Greek flora identified by botanists were also features of archaic Greece. I shall explain what these characteristics are and offer justifications for assuming that they held good for archaic Greece also.

Though neither the Hesiodic poets nor Theophrastus focuses specifically on flowering periods, we can, on the basis of this evidence for the similarity of ancient and modern climates and growing conditions, assume that the archaic Greek flora was, like that of modern Greece, remarkable for the sudden blooming of its spring flowers. I shall argue that this, probably the most striking characteristic of the archaic Greek flora, provided the basis for the Homeric associations of flowers with shifting, deceptive appearance (Part I) and with challenges or changes to the established order of the cosmos (Part II).

Homeric Poetry

We have established one of the two poles of our investigation—the characteristics of the archaic Greek natural environment. As we have seen, we can be confident that the general characteristics of the archaic Greek flora were similar to those of its modern equivalent; we have also observed that it is possible to identify the particular genera and (sometimes) species of plants in our texts. I turn now to the second major constituent of my study—the poems of the Homeric corpus. It might seem at first sight that considerably less needs to be said, by way of definition, about the Homeric poems than about the characteristics of the Greek flora; nevertheless, it is necessary to make clear which poems I am treating as Homeric and how I understand the place of those poems in the culture of archaic Greece, the time period that will form the focus of my study.

Interactions between Homeric Poetry and the Natural Environment

This book, then, will focus on passages from the Homeric epics, Homeric Hymns, and Epic Cycle and on the sorts of natural phenomena explored above. But we also need a model for how these two elements of my study—Homeric poetry and the Greek natural environment—might have interacted with one another. The breakthroughs in the cognitive study of metaphor in the work of George Lakoff, Mark Johnson, and Mark Turner offer us a promising methodology for such an investigation. With the slight modifications set out below (the broader definition of the term “metaphor”; the greater emphasis on distinctions between the metaphors of different poetic genres), their insights can be applied to the sorts of Homeric passages that we shall consider.

Building on such scholarship, I shall treat Homeric floral images as expressions of conceptual associations between more abstract concepts such as death and more concrete concepts drawn from the natural environments that would have been familiar to early audiences. And I shall study the ways in which such associations would have helped those audiences to understand the abstract concepts in question.

But although metaphors and similes in the classic sense are of interest to me, in Parts I and II I shall also be concerned with associations of vegetal images with the themes explored by whole passages. As will become clear, such large-scale metaphorical expressions are an important component of Homeric poetry: in fact, if we do not take them into account, we vastly underestimate the richness of Homeric metaphor. To give an example, descriptions of bodies with a seductive, deceptive appearance in the Homeric poems are accompanied in a number of instances by descriptions of flowers. Odysseus’ hyacinthine hair facilitates his re-seduction of Penelope, albeit in the guise of a younger man. The narcissus in the Hymn to Demeter is the double of “flower-faced” Korē, and it rouses her autoerotic desires; but she is unaware of its special, divine qualities, which draw her to the flower (see Chapter 2). The concepts of flowers, seduction, and deception are thereby associated with one another.

My emphasis on the peculiarities of Homeric metaphor represents a second departure from the work of Lakoff and his colleagues. Lakoff and Turner are at pains to show that the same basic conceptual associations underlie metaphors from different spheres of language use. Accordingly, while they acknowledge that poets manipulate metaphor in novel ways, they place greater stress on commonalities between poetic and non-poetic metaphor, or between the work of one poet and another. The evidence from archaic Greek poetry that we shall consider, however, draws our attention to distinctions between the metaphorical systems of different genres, which in turn reflect contrasting engagements with the Greek natural environment.

Such distinctions are apparent both in explorations of particular concepts and in the general outlook of Homeric and other archaic Greek poetry. For instance, both the Homeric poets and their elegiac counterparts associate flowers with death. But while the relevant elegiac images emphasize the brevity of life, Homeric floral images explore the monstrous otherness of death. And the two genres illustrate these different aspects of death by drawing on different characteristics of Greek flowers. The elegiac images focus on the brief blooms of the Greek spring, but the equivalent Homeric images associate flowers with exceptional fertility, a quality shared with the monsters of the Hesiodic tradition. What is more, the different sets of Homeric images that we shall study, when considered together, suggest a darker, more pessimistic conception of the human condition than we find in other genres: while lyric poets celebrate beauty and elegiac poets advertise the joys of youth, the Homeric poets, through their interactions with the natural environment, draw attention to the concepts of deception, instability, and horror.

Overview of the Argument

Part I explores images of flowers and eroticism in Homeric poetry and defines them against the equivalent images from archaic Greek lyric. Both genres associate flowers with physically attractive bodies; there are, however, clear distinctions between the developments of these associations in Homeric poetry and Greek lyric that imply two different constructions of eroticism, based on two different responses to natural phenomena and on two different relationships between the viewer and the viewed.

As we shall see, these Homeric images constituted a distinctive response to the characteristics of flowers in the Greek natural environment. The floral imagery of erotic bodies in Greek lyric responded to the experience of viewing flowers and judging them beautiful. The Homeric poets, by contrast, drew on the shifting vistas of extremely diverse but short-lived surfaces of flowers seen in the Greek spring and early summer to provide an image for the attractive but temporary appearances of seductive, deceptive bodies.

Part II analyzes images that describe the cosmos and human society, and explores the relationships between them. Firstly, both the Hesiodic and the Homeric poets associate plants and pillars with order in the cosmos. But while the relevant Hesiodic images would have helped audiences to understand the actual structure of the cosmos, the equivalent Homeric images offer more general evocations of the stability and permanence of cosmic order. The Homeric poets also set their associations of trees, pillars, and cosmic order against floral imagery associated with challenges or changes to that order. In Iliad 14, for example, floral imagery marks the moment when Hera disables Zeus, the ruler of the universe, but the tree on which Sleep settles in the same passage suggests the divine order that he is about to undermine.

I go on to study vegetal images of civic order and its opposite, which provide a complement to the equivalent cosmic imagery. Both the Homeric and the Hesiodic poets associate flourishing trees with orderly communities. But again there are clear distinctions between the developments of such images in the two genres. The Hesiodic poets associate well-ordered cities with flourishing vegetation in general—both floral and arboreal. The Homeric poets, however, associate civic order not merely with trees, but more specifically with trees managed by human hands—especially the orderly plantings found in orchards. By contrast, uncivilized lands in Homeric poetry are associated with wild vegetation.

I further consider the manner in which these Homeric images of civic and cosmic order engaged with Greek perceptions of the natural environment. These different Homeric associations reflect beliefs about vegetal growth that, if ancient scientific and philosophical writings are any guide (especially those of the Presocratics and Theophrastus), would have been familiar to archaic Greek audiences. The cosmic imagery of trees and flowers reflected a contrast between the sudden growth of flowering plants, perceived as spontaneous, and the more regular growths of trees in forests. The equivalent civic imagery drew on the distinction between uncontrolled growths of plants in the wild and trees managed with the techniques of arboriculture.

Lastly, I discuss the contribution of Homeric vegetal imagery and of its particular engagements with the natural environment to the Homeric corpus as a whole (Conclusion). In particular, I note that the choices of the Homeric poets in forming their floral images accord with the pessimistic tone of much of the Homeric corpus. Certain aspects of the Greek flora enabled the Homeric poets to associate flowers with negative concepts—deception, disorder, death, and monstrosity: the strikingly fertile but short-lived growths of flowers in the Greek spring contributed to associations of Homeric images with shifting and hence untrustworthy surfaces, and with ungoverned or monstrous fertility. But as we can see from other genres, these choices were not forced on the Homeric poets. The archaic lyric poets emphasized instead the beauty of flowers and thereby the beauty of the attractive youths associated with those flowers; the elegiac poets drew on the short-lived beauty of Greek flowers in order to celebrate the brief joys of youth. As I shall suggest, the choice of the Homeric poets to focus on more negative concepts in their floral imagery is indicative of their interest in the darker sides of human experience. Their compositions explore the untrustworthy nature of appearances, the instabilities latent in human communities or the cosmos as a whole, and the special horrors of the battlefield.


[ back ] 1. For exceptions, see Irwin 1984, 1990, 1994, 1997; also those sections of Motte 1971 that discuss the Homeric poems.

[ back ] 2. See Chapters 2, 4, and 9 below. For the Narcissus tazetta, see Murr 1969:248–249, Huxley and Taylor 1977:153, and Polunin 1980:502; for N. papyraceus, Polunin 1980:502.

[ back ] 3. Huxley and Taylor 1977:6.

[ back ] 4. Baumann 1993:10. Similar figures are cited by Polunin in his survey of the Balkan flora, including that of Greece (Polunin 1980:22–23). On the diversity of the Greek flora, see also Pignatti 1983:154 and Voliotis 1984. For a discussion of the geological and botanical reasons for such diversity, see Polunin 1980:22–28.

[ back ] 5. Baumann 1993:10. See also Hughes 2014:17–18, who offers the figure 2,113.

[ back ] 6. See Pignatti 1983; also Polunin 1980:26 on man’s impact on the flora of Greece over the last 10,000 years.

[ back ] 7. For the introduction of new species through human activities, see Broodbank 2013:71 on the botanical history of the Mediterranean as a whole.

[ back ] 8. Scholars differ over the extent of such changes, with some stressing continuities between the ancient and modern flora. Horden and Purcell (2000:328–330) for instance, citing Rackham and Moody 1996:123–139, note the “increasingly powerful case for very substantial overall stability” in Mediterranean vegetation over the last 3,000 years of history. Rackham and Moody, for their part, trace broad continuities in the history of the vegetation of Crete and of Greece more generally from the late Bronze Age to the present. The descriptions of Greek vegetation in the Odyssey (esp. 19.439–443: a boar lies in the thick undergrowth) and in writers such Theophrastus, Xenophon (Cynegeticus), and Pausanias remind them of the current Greek landscape, which is dominated by maquis (low, dense shrubbery) rather than woodland.

[ back ] 9. On the estimation of the plant biologist and Mediterranean expert Michael Donoghue (personal communication), diversity is probably somewhat greater in modern Greece than it would have been in ancient Greece: while some species will have become restricted to, e.g., montane zones, a number of weed species have been introduced from Asia. Ancient Greece would also, however, have hosted a comparatively diverse flora.

[ back ] 10. These phenomena will be more familiar to inhabitants of Mediterranean-like environments such as California. Nevertheless, the botanical diversity of the Mediterranean itself, to be discussed below, exceeds that of other similar environments: see Broodbank 2013:70 and, more generally, Broodbank 2013:54–81 on the uniqueness of the Mediterranean region.

[ back ] 11. Motte 1971:10.

[ back ] 12. Huxley and Taylor 1977:21. See Höhfeld 2008:39 on the flora of the Troad: “Wenn man nach den mediterranen Winterregen im Frühjahr durch die Feldfluren der Troas streift, erlebt man im saftigen Grün des Winterweizens die faszinierende Blütenexplosion in Weiß und Rot von Margeriten und Klatschmohn, die mit ihren kräftigen Tönen die Landschaft für wenige Wochen in ein rauschendes Farbenfest verwandeln—leider nur kurz, ehe sich die Flur wieder unter unbarmherziger Hitze und Trockenheit in ihr blassbraunes Sommerkleid hüllt.” (“If you roam the fields of the Troad in spring after the Mediterranean winter rains, you experience among the lush green of the winter wheat the fascinating explosion of white and red blooms of daisies and corn poppies, which for a few weeks transform the landscape with their strong tones into a glittering feast of color—unfortunately only briefly, before the field once more wraps itself in its pale brown summer cloak as a result of the merciless heat and drought”; my emphases).

[ back ] 13. Huxley and Taylor 1977:24.

[ back ] 14. Polunin 1980:30–31. See also p. 37 on the “burst of colour” in the Greek phrygana (the low shrubbery typical of Greece). See also Braudel 1972:233 on spring in the Mediterranean region, including Greece: “Of real springtime there is little or none; perhaps a short week that brings out leaves and flowers.”

[ back ] 15. Something of the brevity of the Greek spring bloom is suggested by the fact that on a visit to the same location on 29 March 2015 (in a different year, but nineteen days later in March than the original visit), the slope depicted in Plate 3—south-facing and hence exposed to the sun—was very much past peak. By contrast, more shaded areas at the bottom of the slope were considerably more advanced in their bloom than on my earlier visit.

[ back ] 16. Cf. Polunin 1980:30–31. Höhfeld (2008:39) offers a similar explanation for the springtime “Blütenexplosion” in the Troad: see the quotation in n12 above. On the hot summers and mild winters of the Mediterranean region, including Greece, see also Horden and Purcell 2000:12–13, and Broodbank 2013:56: “The technical definition of a Mediterranean climate is a particular variety of semi-arid regime in which the winter rainfall predominates (ideally threefold) over summer levels, and where summers are hot, and winters mild to cool.” For the characteristics of the Mediterranean climate, see also Hughes 2014:9–10.

[ back ] 17. Braudel 1972:232–234; 2001:15–18.

[ back ] 18. Broodbank 2013, esp. 41–44, 262–264, 506–507, and 600. The quotation is taken from p. 80. It is true that some scholars have argued that significant fluctuations occurred in the climate of the Bronze and Iron Age Mediterranean. For instance, Weiss 1982, Neumann 1993, and Kaniewski et al. 2010 explain the fall of the major Bronze Age civilizations of the eastern Mediterranean in terms of climatic crises. However, as Finné et al. (2011) point out in their survey of such studies, the evidence for these crises is at best inconclusive. Scholars have applied findings from one geographical area to the Mediterranean basin as a whole or have drawn on only one type of evidence for the ancient climate. What is more, when two or more such studies are compared, we find contradictions between them: for instance, while Weiss attributes late Bronze Age migrations to drought, Neumann suggests that they resulted from flooding. Given the conflicting climatic evidence for the Mediterranean as a whole, it is likely that, as Horden and Purcell (2000) observe, any climatic fluctuations were localized and temporary. We would not expect such fluctuations to have had a significant impact on the metaphorical systems of the Homeric poems, which developed over a long period of time and spread to a considerable range of Greek-speaking locales. For these reasons, I explore the origins of Homeric floral imagery by focusing on the more enduring and more general characteristics of the Mediterranean environment, which have after all remained consistent: over the last few millennia Mediterranean summers may at times have been hotter and drier, but they have nevertheless alternated with relatively mild winters.

[ back ] 19. Pignatti 1983:151–152.

[ back ] 20. Cf. Most 2006:133n32.

[ back ] 21. For the appearance of the Pleiades in mid-May, see Most 2006:135n34.

[ back ] 22. Cf. Aspis 393–401: the heroes Cycnus and Heracles fought at the time when the cicada sings and Sirius dries out the flesh. For a description of the parching heat of the Greek summer, see also Alcaeus 347 Voigt.

[ back ] 23. For the effect of climatic conditions on growth, see more generally De Causis Plantarum 2.1.1–3.8.

[ back ] 24. Janko 1982, 1998.

[ back ] 25. West 2011, 2014.

[ back ] 26. See, for instance, West 2011:7, 81 on the hymns and 2013:26–40 on the Epic Cycle.

[ back ] 27. For the dictation of the Homeric epics ca. 550 BCE, see Nagy 1996. For the lack of impact that these texts had on Homeric performance traditions and for the fluidity of the Homeric epics in the performance cultures of archaic Greece, see Nagy 1996:29–63 and Nagy 2004 (Nagy’s “evolutionary model” for the development of the Homeric poems). For similar conceptions of the history of Homeric poetry, see González 2013.

[ back ] 28. Justifications for this approach are revealed in Part I, where I demonstrate commonalities between the metaphorical systems of poems such as the Hymn to Demeter, the Odyssey and the Cypria. For the Homeric Hymns as preludes to epic recitals, see Parker 1991:1 and n5, Richardson 1974:3–4, Càssola 1975:xii–xvi, as well as the internal evidence for such a relationship between the hymns and epics: Odyssey 8 and Hymn to Apollo 158–161 (Demodocus/the Delian Maidens sing songs of both gods and men); Hymn 31.18–19 and 32.18–20 (the poet closes his hymn with a promise to sing of heroes).

[ back ] 29. For relationships between the Homeric epics and the Trojan Cycle, which are the focus of neo-analytical studies of Homeric poetry, see for instance Burgess 2001 and 2009.

[ back ] 30. See Nagy’s description of the eighth century BCE as the “pan-Hellenic” stage of Homeric epic (1996:39–42, 52–54), or his distinction between Homeric text (addressed in the first part of his 2004 monograph) and language (addressed in the second).

[ back ] 31. For the Epic Cycle as a reflex of the Homeric poetic system, see Bernabé 2015 on the close similarities between the language of the cycle and that of the major epics.

[ back ] 32. Parry 1971:1–190, Lord 2000, Scott 1974, 2009, Muellner 1990, Dué 2010. See also Ready 2018 on simile patterns shared by different performers of Homeric poetry.

[ back ] 33. Lakoff and Johnson 2003; Lakoff and Turner 1989.

[ back ] 34. Lakoff and Turner 1989:135.

[ back ] 35. Lakoff and Turner 1989, esp. 12–17.

[ back ] 36. I quote Sonnet 18 from Burrow 2002:417.

[ back ] 37. Lakoff and Turner 1989:144–154. For other applications of the work of Lakoff and his school to the study of Greek poetic imagery, cf. Hopman 2012, Horn 2015a and b, and Eckerman forthcoming (drawing on Lakoff and Johnson 2003), Budelmann and LeVen 2014, and Horn 2015b (drawing on Fauconnier and Turner 2002). For cognitive approaches to ancient Greek imagery more generally, cf. Minchin 2001:132–160, Crowther 2003, and Tsagalis 2012:271–372.

[ back ] 38. Job 14:1–2, cited by Lakoff and Turner (1989:14).

[ back ] 39. Recent psycholinguistic research has explored possible differences between similes and metaphors. For instance, Chiappe and Kennedy (1999) and Chiappe, Kennedy, and Smykowski (2003) argue that metaphors typically state more apt comparisons than similes; cf. Ready 2008 for applications of such ideas to Homeric poetry (see also Ready 2004 on Catullus poem 61). Other papers have asked whether similes and metaphors serve as comparisons or categorization statements. (If the latter, they would not only juxtapose the tenor and the vehicle but also be making the claim that the tenor belongs in a higher-order category, of which the vehicle is a prototypical example. For example, the metaphor “cigarettes are time-bombs” would state that cigarettes belong in a higher-order category of things liable to kill you in time [Glucksberg and Keysar 1990, 1993]). Scholars such as Ortony (1979, 1993b) and Chiappe and Kennedy (2000) have argued that both similes and metaphors make comparisons. Glucksberg and Keysar (1990, 1993), however, contend that both are categorization statements. Other studies suggest that similes offer comparisons, but that metaphors make categorization claims (cf. Haught 2013, Glucksberg and Haught 2006). Bowdle and Gentner (2005) have provided a way to reconcile these different approaches. They suggest that novel metaphors, like similes, are understood as comparisons; metaphors are only processed as categorization statements once they have become conventionalized. Given the attention that it pays to novel metaphors, Bowdle’s and Gentner’s study represents a promising way to approach poetic images, which tend to be among the more novel figures of speech in a given language. Their findings are, moreover, consistent with those of Lakoff and Turner. All four scholars agree that a poetic metaphor or a poetic simile represents an encounter between the tenor and the vehicle, with no extra higher-order category implied. And while Bowdle and Gentner point to occasional exceptions (such as “a soldier is a pawn”), they are broadly agreement with Lakoff’s and Turner’s contention that both metaphors and similes associate a more abstract with a more concrete concept (p. 200).

[ back ] 40. This broader definition of the “metaphorical” is in keeping with Buxton’s (2004) discussion of “similes and other likenesses” in Homeric poetry. While exploring metaphors and similes in the usual sense of those terms, he also notes a broader “sense of equivalence between … narrated phenomena” (p. 147), such as Calypso’s grove or Laertes’ orchards, and the main action of the Odyssey. I shall consider both these descriptions of vegetation in my discussion of the Homeric imagery of civic order and its opposite (Part II). See also Hopman’s (2012) discussion of metaphor in different representations of Scylla, including that which we find in the Odyssey. Most of Hopman’s examples are of larger scale associations within the structure of a given portion of narrative.

[ back ] 41. See Nagy 1974 and 1990 on the oral tradition of Greek lyric, 1982 on Hesiodic poetry, and 1985:46–50 on Greek elegy.

[ back ] 42. Lacan 1977, esp. 95–96; Mulvey 1989a and b.

[ back ] 43. Sourvinou-Inwood 1995.

[ back ] 44. Vernant 1991a, 1991b, 1996.