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 II. Cosmic and Civic Order


In Part I, we considered a set of Homeric floral images associated with erotic bodies, and we explored their interactions with the characteristics of flowers in the Greek natural environment. I would now like to focus on a rather different class of Homeric vegetal images. As we shall see, the Homeric poets developed both floral and arboreal images to illustrate the concepts of order and disorder, both as they relate to the cosmos as a whole and to human communities. Once again, I would like to set in relief the choices of the Homeric poets through comparison with another genre of archaic Greek poetry that treats similar themes. Of all such poetry the relevant Homeric images find their closest parallels in the Hesiodic poems. Nevertheless, the vegetal images of the two genres show significant differences in their treatments of order and disorder.

The Homeric poets developed a richer set of vegetal images to illustrate such cosmic and civic themes. While the Hesiodic poets associated the structure of the cosmos with the structure of plants, their Homeric counterparts associated images of trees and pillars with the stability and permanence of cosmic order. In the Homeric poems moreover images of managed vegetation accompany descriptions of civilized order. The Iliad employs both agricultural and arboricultural imagery for this purpose, while the Odyssey, in its images of civilized order, places particular emphasis on the management of trees. By contrast, the Works and Days associates orderly and just communities with flourishing vegetation in general, whether wild or domesticated—and this despite the fact that most of the poem focuses on agricultural labor.

What is more, unlike their Hesiodic counterparts the Homeric poets also developed vegetal images to accompany their descriptions of challenges and changes to good order, or of a simple lack of orderliness. While they associated trees and pillars with the stable order of the cosmos, they associated floral growths with changes or challenges to that order. And in their explorations of civic order and its opposite they contrasted their imagery of managed vegetation with descriptions of wild floral and arboreal growths untamed by human hands.

These Homeric and Hesiodic images represent two contrasting responses to the Greek natural environment. The Hesiodic images seem on the face of it easier to explain. The Hesiodic poets illustrated the more abstract concept of cosmic structure through the more readily observable structure of plants in the natural environment. And they helped their audiences to understand the notion of flourishing communities through reference to the more concrete concept of flourishing vegetation. But the Homeric associations require further explanation. As we shall discover, such images drew on early Greek perceptions of different types of vegetal growth. According to such conceptions, the sudden, apparently spontaneous growth of small flowering plants contrasted with the orderly growth of wild trees, and wild vegetation in general differed from the managed growths of fields and orchards.

And in these respects, the relevant Homeric images offered somewhat different treatments of good order and its opposite from their Hesiodic equivalents. Granted, the Hesiodic poems do not shy away from describing challenges to cosmic or civic order. In the Theogony, for instance, Zeus faces challenges from the Titans (Theogony 617–735) and the monstrous Typhoeus (820–850); the Works and Days explores the injustices present in human communities. And yet in their vegetal images the Hesiodic poets emphasized only the more stable structures of the cosmos or human societies. The equivalent Homeric imagery, by contrast, explores tensions between forces of order and disorder.


[ back ] 1. Yasumura 2011.

[ back ] 2. See Clay 2003 on Hesiodic poetry and Clay 2006 on the Homeric Hymns.

[ back ] 3. For general distinctions between the two genres and their treatments of order and disorder see my Conclusion.