Tsagalis, Christos. 2012. From Listeners to Viewers: Space in the Iliad. Hellenic Studies Series 53. Washington, DC: Center for Hellenic Studies. http://nrs.harvard.edu/urn-3:hul.ebook:CHS_TsagalisC.From_Listeners_to_Viewers.2012.
Space: An Interdisciplinary Approach
- Historical space: archive and place of remembrance
- Political space: public and state of emergency
- Economic space: megacities and globalization
- Corporeal space: gender and performativity
- Postcolonial space: thinking about borders and thirdspace
- Social space: spatialization
- Technological space: Enträumlichung
- Media space: images—signs—cyberspace
- Cognitive space: orientation—mental maps—organizing and processing data
- Topographical space: nature and heterotopy
- Urban space: square—city—agglomeration
- Tourist space: mobility and imagination
- Poetic space: chronotopos and geopolitics
- Epistemological space: labor and the geography of knowledge
Such a systematic and detailed classification of space may seem overwhelming to any modern reader of Homer, but a closer look shows that some of the insights of this type of spatial study are also applicable to the Iliad. Leaving aside cognitive space, which I will treat later on, I will now summarize the findings of recent research on space that are relevant to my topic. Of the fourteen categories of space studied by modern research, the six that are applicable to the Iliad are historical, political-social, corporeal, cognitive, topographical, and poetic space.
- a. John’s house is in London.
- b. John’s house is near the lake.
- c. John’s house is painted white.
- d. John’s house is two acres in size.
- e. John’s house is very noisy.
- f. John’s house is like one of those old farm houses built in the middle of a prairie.
- g. John’s house is of traditional style, large, with a garden filled with dozens of trees, two kitchens (one for the maids and the butler in the basement), two halls on the first and second floors, a spacious living room in the second floor leading to a separate room with a large pool table, three bathrooms (all upstairs with the exception of one in the basement), seven bedrooms (including a cozy attic), and what you would consider the best view from the third floor balcony.
In all these cases, space is represented by means of different spatial modalities. In (a), the placement of John’s house is described in terms of its location. Location in itself is only relative, for when the speaker wishes to locate a person or an object, he also needs to identify the place where the person or object is. In other words, he needs to determine a “there” by using further spatial details. Here, the use of the place name “London” allows the speaker to avoid spatial subdivisions, since it supplies the reader with all the necessary information, given that he is expected to know where London is. Turning to the Iliad, we can see that this form of spatial representation, which is only used with place names, may be divided into two smaller but distinct groups: one that pertains to real topographies, that is, locations where part of the plot takes place, and another referring to imaginary ones—absent locations that (mainly but not solely) feature in the speeches of certain characters. Mount Ida, for example, or Samothrace belong to the first category, as they are used as vantage points where the gods stand to watch the fighting in the plain of Troy. Phthia, Pylos, or Lycia need no further geographical determination, but also constitute locations in absentia that are regularly summoned to the hic et nunc of the plot by means of analeptic or proleptic references endorsed respectively (but not solely) by Achilles, Nestor, Sarpedon, and Glaukos. Having said this, I will try to explore how the tradition of the Iliad has devised a system of spatial representation that fully exploits the traditional referentiality of these place names, which in the process of growth and shaping of the epic tradition have acquired a secondary function that has gradually absorbed their first meaning. Because these locations have shaped their epic identity by being tied to figures that are emblematic of the heroic tradition, it is fair to say that they have been transformed into metonymic pathways, leading to a whole nexus of associations with each hero and the tradition that has developed around his persona.
From this perspective, the qualitative difference between the formulation “John’s house is magnificent” and “John’s house is two acres in size” is that while the former employs the abstract idea of beauty and magnificence, the latter promotes a specific feature of the house, namely its huge size. The advantage from the point of view of visualization and memory recall becomes obvious: whereas “beauty” as an abstract concept is hard to visualize, size determined by specific numerical data helps the speaker and listener alike create a concrete mental image of John’s house, as “a house two acres in size.” Analogous arguments can be applied to the Iliad. The size of the heroes and gods who inspire awe, and the emphasis on their armament and stature and their glorious deeds, are to a great extent substitutes for causal chains of events and ideas that have been fused into the particular sets of actions and behavioral systems that these agents embody. The tradition of oral epic storytelling has internalized the entire world into its own system of associations, developed around specific, concrete actions that are readily imagined and evoked during the performance of oral song. Moreover, apart from their usefulness for memorability, specificity and concreteness are particularly effective for a kind of elliptical thinking typical of oral song-making. As the reader or listener is expected to infer that John is probably a very wealthy man, since he owns such a big house, so the Homeric audience is expected to figure out that a warrior’s twelve-cubit spear indicates his exceptional heroic prowess and status, a point that the narrator can also use to create unexpected but dramatically powerful tropes in his narrative.
Space in the Iliad