BMCR 2020.08.18

Metaphor in Homer: time, speech, and thought

, Metaphor in Homer: time, speech, and thought. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2019. x, 263 p.. ISBN 9781108491884 $99.99.


In Metaphor in Homer: Time, Speech, and Thought, Andreas Zanker uncovers the metaphoric underpinnings of Homeric diction. The resulting masterwork of scholarship is one of the first monographs devoted to applying conceptual metaphor theory to the Homeric texts.[1] Zanker lucidly presents conceptual metaphor theory in his 29-page introduction, drawing from George Lakoff and Mark Johnson’s groundbreaking work in cognitive linguistics Metaphors We Live By (1980).[2] Zanker then turns to Homer, focusing on three general metaphor types: time, speech, and thought. In each of these categories, Zanker displays thorough mastery of the many Homeric examples as well as the history of pertinent scholarship.

Zanker’s introduction rewards careful reading. He explicates conceptual metaphor theory in clear prose, with helpful examples and figures. The theory holds that language is often structured by underlying conceptual “mappings,” in which a target concept is understood in terms of features of a source concept. So in the English phrase “going through life,” an underlying conceptual metaphor, LIFE IS A JOURNEY, shapes the understanding of LIFE (the target concept) in terms of features of travel along a path (source concept).[3] One tenet of particular relevance to the book is the role of embodiment at work in these mappings. Conceptual metaphors tend to describe abstract target domains (for example, mental processes) in terms of concrete, embodied experiences. So the phrase “I get it!” maps the embodied experience of holding onto the abstract concept of understanding, a transference that relies on the underlying conceptual metaphor UNDERSTANDING IS GRASPING. Zanker points out that mapping concrete experiences onto abstract phenomena aids communication and also allows for rich variations, a point he returns to in “Appendix I: Metaphor and Composition in Performance.” He lists the four ways he uses “metaphor” in his book (p. 12): conceptual; linguistic (“instantiations” of conceptual metaphors in language); poetic (which extend the previous two metaphor types); and “one-shot image” metaphors, which rely on physical resemblance, not underlying conceptual frameworks, and therefore figure only tangentially in the book. Zanker introduces more complex developments in the theory such as “conceptual blending,” and he ably defends his choice to apply conceptual metaphor theory to the Homeric corpus. Although the introduction may be challenging to those coming to cognitive linguistics for the first time, Zanker makes the material accessible.

Zanker then devotes chapter 1 (“Ancient and Modern Views on Metaphor in Homer”) to a lively history of scholarship on metaphor in Homer. This chapter is divided into three sections: the first on four representative discussions of Homeric metaphor from antiquity; the second on modern views of metaphor in Homer, which largely revolve around its relationship with Homer’s similes; and the third on discussions of Homeric metaphor in the wake of Lakoff and Johnson’s work on conceptual metaphor. Zanker shines when it comes to summarizing the ideas of others in engaging, succinct strokes. As he traces the long history of scholars linking metaphor to what is deliberately poetic and inventive, as opposed to what is literal, he exposes the limitations of these distinctions. He sets out to show instead how metaphor operates in the Homeric poems at the level of the structures of thought, whether “intended” by the poet or not.

Chapters 2 through 4 apply conceptual metaphor theory to the Homeric texts. Each chapter is comprehensive, and here we come to a potential drawback of this book: examples so abound for each category of conceptual metaphor that the sections verge on piling up data. So for example, in chapter 2, “Conceptual Metaphors for Time in Homer,” Zanker explicates the metaphor TIME IS SPACE in the interconnected temporal and spatial uses of oblique cases; in container metaphors; and in three specific variants: TIME IS AN EGO MOVING ALONG A PATH (e.g., one “meets one’s fate”); TIME IS AN OBJECT MOVING ALONG A PATH (e.g., years “go by”); and SEQUENCE IS POSITION ON A PATH (e.g., translations of πρόσσω and ὀπίσσω that are “ego-less” and relational, irrespective of the time of the speaker/viewer); ending with six pages cataloging “Other Metaphors” at the chapter’s close. It is a lot of material, with dozens of examples. Yet each time the examples begin to feel like mere lists, Zanker rescues our attention by pulling a common thread between them. One unifying point of discussion concerns how these different metaphorical schemata locate agency in the person or in some outside force (e.g., “years go by” figures human beings as subjects of time’s passing, whereas “meeting one’s fate” makes the human person the one acting). Zanker observes that these varied conceptual metaphorical structures contribute to the disunified picture of “fate” in Homer and the conflicting representations of the degree to which mortals (and gods) are subject to it. Another thread traced through this chapter regards the similarities between Homer’s time metaphors and our own.[4] In light of these similarities, as well as parallels in Sanskrit and Hittite, Zanker boldly suggests at the end of the chapter that metaphors for time might be “(near) universals that arise in a wide range of cultures beyond the Indo-European sphere” (102).

The distance between contemporary English and Homeric conceptual metaphors widens slightly in chapter 3, “Conceptual Metaphors for Speech in Homer.” Where English conceives of words as containers that have meaning “put into” or “extracted” from them, Homeric Greek merges word and meaning: Zanker demonstrates that ἔπος and μῦθος can mean the statement itself or the content of the statement, with no distinction in terminology or metaphoric underpinnings. In both English and Homeric Greek, a basic conceptual metaphor WORDS ARE OBJECTS pervades the language; but the metaphors at work in the Homeric poems emphasize the speed and directness of speech by way of versions of the WORDS ARE ARROWS metaphor (e.g., Achilles “sent forth a vain word,” ἅλιον ἔπος ἔκβαλον, Il. 18.324). Chapter 3’s major contribution is in providing the first comprehensive study of all of the Homeric metaphors for speech, through which we gain “a sense of the systematic and pervasive nature of a small set of metaphors” (108). In light of this systematic patterning, Zanker argues, the interpretation of specific examples can be made with some sureness. Zanker takes on several contested expressions, including ἔπεα πτερόεντα, “feathered/winged words,” arguing that an archery metaphor is the most likely motivation for the phrase. Towards the chapter’s close, Zanker elucidates a second group of systematic metaphors for speech: metaphors of selection and collection. In these expressions, the Homeric speaker has to gather the parts of a statement into a meaningful whole (λέγω), while the listener must put the parts together (συνίημι). Zanker notes that these selection and collection metaphors counterbalance the simplicity suggested by the metaphor WORDS ARE ARROWS.

Zanker completes his impressive study with chapter 4, “Conceptual Metaphors for Mind, Intention, and Self in Homer,” building on the previous two chapters. The metaphors he investigates here deal with the most abstract domains of the book, as well as some of the most discussed topics in Homeric scholarship. He confines his examples to those that facilitate debate on these topics. To questions of carving up the Homeric mind into its various organs, Zanker argues for metaphoric, not literal, understandings. So, for example, when the Homeric narrator uses the same verb “stir up” to describe the movement of the sea and of the heart in one’s breast, he draws on a pervasive conceptual metaphor MENTAL ACTIVITY IS THE MOVEMENT OF WIND AND LIQUID. This conceptual metaphor schema is somewhat less familiar to English speakers; but in the cultural context of the Homeric poems, Zanker argues, the speaker would have found it easy to draw on knowledge of the elements to explicate the workings of mental functions. Zanker also notes that thinking, especially νόος, is often “directional” in the Homeric poems, drawing on the metaphor PURPOSES ARE DESTINATIONS as well as more general path metaphors. His last section in this chapter offers a nuanced reading of passages where an indecisive character addresses his thumos and then wonders why his thumos says such things to him; these scenes draw on systemic links between thinking and speaking (e.g., the polysemy of φημί and φάσκω), as well as metaphorical “splits” between one’s “Subject” and “Self,” especially in moments of inner conflict (evident in English when we talk about “holding (one)self back,” e.g.), which draw on metaphors for oneself based on one’s social relations, as well as the conceptual metaphor SELF-CONTROL IS OBJECT-POSSESSION.

In his conclusion, Zanker reviews the contributions of his book and indicates directions in which his research can be taken. Metaphor in Homer successfully replaces long-held distinctions between “literal” and “figurative,” or “living” vs. “dead” metaphors—distinctions that are hard to establish and maintain—with more accurate investigations of the connections that happen on the level of thought, and the role they play in shaping Homeric diction (203). Certain ongoing puzzles in the text, such as its conception of mind and self, are shown in Zanker’s work to be less troublesome when considered in light of metaphoric concepts. Indeed, Zanker’s book as a whole demonstrates that many conceptual metaphors are shared between languages and cultures. At the same time, Zanker shows that, when the specifics of Homeric language remain hard to interpret, this is so precisely because changes in the culture bring changes in underlying metaphorical concepts, as has been the case with certain conceptions of the mind and human physiognomy.

Zanker successfully demonstrates that conceptual metaphor theory can help us understand seemingly foreign elements in Homeric diction and that the Homeric poems bolster certain tenets of conceptual metaphor theory, especially its reliance on concrete, embodied experiences to make abstract concepts communicable. In some ways the book reads as a precursor to a second book, in which this groundwork is applied to more systematic interpretation of the Homeric texts—something that I miss in the book as it stands, although Zanker peppers his analysis with interpretive gems throughout, like his observation that fate seem unevenly portrayed in the poems in part because of their various conceptual metaphors for time (and thus agency). Zanker ends with appendices that move in two different interpretive directions. In “Appendix I: Metaphor and Composition in Performance,” Zanker summarizes Parry’s and later scholars’ work on oral composition theory, positing multiple ways in which conceptual metaphor could have aided the oral composition of the Homeric epics. For example, Zanker suggests that underlying metaphorical systems reduce the cognitive effort it takes to produce various metrical instantiations of related ideas, a point that I find especially persuasive. In “Appendix II: Homeric Metaphor and the Lexicon – The Case of ὄσσομαι,” Zanker argues that conceptual metaphor theory helps us to avoid assigning unwarranted definitions to rare words when the word can be interpreted in a way consistent with its other attested meanings.

The book includes a thorough Bibliography; a General Index and Index Verborum, selected to include only words and themes that are stressed in the book; and a comprehensive Index Locorum. The book is well produced and contains few errors (one is noted in note 4 below). Metaphor in Homer covers new theoretical ground, paving the way for much fruitful work at the intersection of Homeric studies and cognitive linguistics. For anyone with interests in these topics, this book is a must-read.


[1] Zanker notes in his preface that Fabian Horn’s Habilitationsschrift, Metaphern und mentale Infrastruktur in der frühgriechischen Dichtung (forthcoming) was written independently and covers similar ground, but from a different point of view (vii); he also mentions Alexander Forte’s manuscript in preparation on the topic (vii), as well as several articles, especially since 2015, about which he says, “It appears that conceptual metaphor theory and conceptual blending have now fully reached Homeric studies” (59).

[2] Lakoff, G. and M. Johnson. 1980. Metaphors We Live By. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

[3] This review follows the convention of referring to conceptual metaphors with small capital letters.

[4] Here Zanker counters Fränkel’s claim that the Homeric conception of time is far removed from our own (see H. Fränkel, 1955, “Die Zeitauffassung in der frühgriechischen Literatur,” in Wege und Formen frühgriechischen Denkens, 1-22, Munich: Beck (n.b., Zanker’s text misprints the year of publication as 1953). Zanker notes, however, that Fränkel was right about χρόνος never occurring in the nominative case in Homer, which means that “Time” is never an “agent in its own right in the poems,” 101.