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.

Part I. Flowers and Erotic Bodies


The first part of this study focuses on vegetal images of the erotic or, more specifically, on associations of flowers and erotic bodies. Most of the surviving examples of floral images of the erotic in archaic Greek poetry are to be found in the corpus of Greek lyric; accordingly, I shall draw on that genre to set in relief the particular choices of the Homeric poets in forming their own images of flowers and erotic bodies. As we shall see, while lyric poets develop imagery that subordinates erotic bodies associated with flowers to the gaze and evaluation of the speaker, Homeric poetry attributes seductive and deceptive qualities to such erotic bodies and thereby challenges the viewer’s control over the scene.

Since the distinctions between the floral images of erotic bodies in the two genres depend in large part on different configurations of viewing and subjectivity, we can gain a clearer idea of those distinctions by drawing on the work of scholars who have analyzed such themes. I shall focus on the theories of Laura Mulvey and Jacques Lacan, which, though originally developed for the study of mainstream cinema (Mulvey) or in the context of Lacanian psychoanalysis, have proven central to a number of recent discussions of the gaze in classical literature. For Mulvey, the filmic gaze establishes dichotomies of viewer and viewed, of dominance and passivity, of masculine and feminine. In a seminal article from 1975, Mulvey argues that the filmic gaze is gendered masculine through its association with male characters and its objectification of female characters. Both the gaze of the camera and the gaze of male characters take women as their passive objects. In turn, the spectator is encouraged to channel her/his gaze through these viewpoints, and a masculine, dominating, and unreciprocated gaze is facilitated, which gratifies the erotic desire of the male viewer for a non-threatening, passive portrayal of the female. In this way, the imagery of mainstream film indulges the erotic fantasies of the male viewer. [1]

While the filmic gaze described by Mulvey operates in only one direction, from viewing subject to viewed object, Lacan characterizes the gaze as an exchange between the subject and the world, and a disturbing exchange at that. In his best-known illustration of this phenomenon, he recalls an encounter with a boy from a Breton fishing village, Petit-Jean. On catching sight of a sardine tin floating on the sea, Petit-Jean jokes “You see that can? Do you see it? Well, it doesn’t see you!” Lacan, though, has the unnerving sense that the can is, in fact, looking back at him: “if what Petit-Jean said to me, namely, that the can did not see me, had any meaning, it was because in a sense, it was looking at me, all the same.”

The evidence that we shall discuss below accords in two respects with the dynamics described by Lovatt: the erotic bodies of Homeric poetry are associated with deception, and their deceptive qualities challenge the dominance of the viewer. There are, however, important distinctions to be drawn between my findings and those of Lovatt. The erotic bodies in question may belong to characters of either gender, and those viewing them may likewise be male or female. Homeric floral images, then, are associated with a less unequal dynamics of the gaze than that which we find in the equivalent passages of Greek lyric, but not necessarily with a female challenge to male dominance.

What we are dealing with, then, is not so much a contrast between male and female poets, or between male and female viewers as a general distinction between two archaic Greek genres. In the floral imagery of archaic Greek lyric, we find dichotomies of desiring subject and desired object, of (dominant) viewer and (passive) viewed similar to those identified by Mulvey—though the gender dynamics of the gaze in the relevant passages are somewhat more fluid than those that Mulvey discovers in film. While the object of the gaze may be a beautiful girl or a beautiful boy, the viewer is for the most part gendered masculine, much like the viewers that Mulvey analyzes. In poems of Sappho that present floral images of erotic bodies the speaking subject is feminine, but the operations of the gaze otherwise resemble the unequal dynamics described by Mulvey. In both the work of Sappho and that of her male counterparts, erotic bodies decked with flowers are described as the object of the gaze and in no way threaten the subjectivity of the one who looks. The speaker claims the right to describe and to evaluate the object of her/his desires, but the beloved is allowed no corresponding opportunity to express a perspective on the scene. The speaker may also situate the beloved in an erotic space of her/his own imagining, such as the grove of Aphrodite in Ibycus fr. 282C(i) Campbell. The verbal imagery of these compositions provides an analog to the visual images discussed by Mulvey, to the extent that it reflects the erotic desires of the viewer and suggests an unequal relationship between viewer and viewed.

Conversely, Homeric floral images of the erotic suggest some degree of reciprocity between the one who gazes and the recipient of the gaze, but this reciprocity also poses a challenge to the subjectivity of the viewer. For these reasons the operations of the gaze in the relevant passages resemble those described by Lacan. Like Lacan’s sardine can, the deceptions carried out by erotic bodies in the passages from Homeric poetry that we shall study challenge the subjectivity of viewers and the uniqueness of their perspectives on the scene.


[ back ] 1. Mulvey 1989b. In a second article, however (1989a), Mulvey qualifies her conclusions. She asks why it is that female viewers are still able to experience pleasure when viewing films, even when the filmic gaze is so strongly associated with the masculine and the passivization of the feminine. She suggests that such viewers, while watching a film, identify with active male chararacters and the masculine gaze as much as with the objectified females.

[ back ] 2. Lacan 1977:95–96; quotations from p. 95; italics in the original.

[ back ] 3. Stehle 1996, Sutherland 2003, Greene 2010:37–92.

[ back ] 4. Lovatt 2013, esp. pp. 7–9. In common with Lovatt’s book and a recent study of the Odyssey (Grethlein 2018), I draw on Mulvey’s explorations of the dynamics of the gaze without incorporating her psychoanalytic terminology. Cf. Lovatt 2013:8: “The superstructure of [Mulvey’s] argument may retain its strength, even if we do not accept the Freudian underpinnings.”

[ back ] 5. Lovatt 2013, esp. pp. 206–251; quotations from pp. 216 and 260.

[ back ] 6. For Zeus’ plan to bring about the Trojan War, cf. Cypria fr. 1 Bernabé and Proclus’ summary of the Cypria at Bernabé 1996:38–39, lines 4–7.

[ back ] 7. For the presentation of a distinct conception of eroticism in a particular Greek genre, cf. Konstan 1994 on the Greek novel. According to Konstan, Greek novels, as opposed to other kinds of ancient literature, are remarkable for their symmetrical depictions of eroticism, which focus on the relationships between a young man and a young woman. We shall not find such erotic symmetry in images from either of the two genres that we shall discuss in Part I, but the Homeric depictions of challenges to the dominance of the viewer by seductive, deceptive bodies bring us closer to such a phenomenon than the stricter dichotomies of viewer and viewed that are described in the equivalent imagery from Greek lyric.

[ back ] 8. It is not, however, immediately obvious which aspects of flowers the Greeks would have found beautiful. While modern westerners tend to think of flowers predominantly in terms of hue, ancient viewers may have responded more readily to other qualities. Irwin (1994), for instance, observes the use of the epithet ῥοδοδάκτυλος/βροδοδάκτυλος (“rosy-fingered”) for phenomena as dissimilar in hue as the Dawn (Homeric epic) and the moon (Sappho fr. 96.8 Voigt), and suggests that this adjective, along with the similar term ῥοδόπηχυς (“rosy-armed”) evoked not rosy hue but delicacy and fragrance—of flowers, goddesses, and nubile girls. Cf. Irwin 1974, where she argues that in archaic and classical poetry color terms can pick out qualities such as value (i.e., brightness or darkness) or surface sheen. See also Elliger 1975:96–102 on the lack of terms for hue in Homeric poetry.

[ back ] 9. Lakoff and Johnson 2003, Lakoff and Turner 1989.