BMCR 2021.01.15

Homeric imagery and the natural environment

, Homeric imagery and the natural environment. Hellenic studies series, 82. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2019. P. 294. ISBN 9780674987357 $28.50 (pb).

William Brockliss’ Homeric imagery and the natural environment starts from the contention that the botanical images used 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” (p. 1). Accordingly, Brockliss sets forth to read Homeric floral imagery concerning eros, order, and death as a poetical response to—and an engagement with—the regional characteristics of Archaic Greek flora.

The idea behind the book is clearly stated in the Introduction. The main characteristics of Greek flora depend on long-term climatic factors, which are unlikely to have changed from Archaic Greek times to present day, so that we can still grasp them. First, Greek landscapes harbor a considerable variety of floral species; second, flowers bloom more suddenly and for a shorter period of time than in many other regions of the world. These two features of Greek flora form the basis of the botanical images used within the Homeric tradition, as represented by the Iliad, the Odyssey, the Homeric Hymns, and fragments of the Cyclic Poems. In particular, the Homeric poets would have used the variety and the sudden blooming of Greek landscapes as way of conveying abstract ideas in a more concrete form, to the benefit of their audience. This contention is grounded in Cognitive Metaphor Theory, briefly evoked; however, Brockliss also marks his distance from it, inasmuch as his work will center on metaphor in various poetic traditions, and on “large scale metaphorical expressions” (p. 11).

The monograph’s three parts explore the floral imagery of the eroticized body (Part One), of stability and change in the cosmic and civic orders (Part Two), and of youth and death (Part Three). Each part comprises a preamble summarizing the main findings and three chapters dealing with the relevant images. In each part, Homeric imagery is contrasted with that of a different poetical tradition within ancient Greece.

Focused on the floral description of eroticized bodies, Part One frames the difference between Homeric and lyric poetry in terms of contrasting types of gaze. According to Brockliss, bodies decked with flowers in Ibycus, Anacreon, and Sappho are associated with an objectifying gaze, similar to the one theorized for mainstream movies by feminist media theorist Laura Mulvey (chap. 1). In contrast, Homeric poetry, as Brockliss argues, associates flowers with both seduction and deception (chap. 2): the narcissus described at the beginning of the Homeric Hymn to Demeter is a lure for Korē; Aphrodite’s flowery robe (Cypria fr. 4 Bernabé) misguides Paris’ judgment; Odysseus’ hyacinthine hair participates in the seduction of Nausicaa and Penelope (Odyssey, 6 and 23). This second kind of gaze is typified according to Jacques Lacan’s suggestion that each viewer can also “be viewed by the very things that make up his visual field” so that “his subjective evaluation of them is always matched by their (competing) evaluation of him” (p. 20). Homeric flowery bodies would be as deceptive as the gaze dynamics described by Lacan.[1] By analyzing “the associations of the flowers and those of the root poikil‑” (p. 76) with seduction and deception in Homeric poetry, Brockliss concludes that the flowers’ poikilia makes them a good candidate for “the early audience … to conceptualize the deceptive qualities of the erotic bodies described by the Homeric poets” (p. 82). Conversely, the lyric poets would have used the experience of gazing at and judging flowers to express their first-person, evaluative look (chap. 3).

Part Two centers on change and stability at the cosmic and the human level. Here, the Homeric images are weighted against those of Hesiodic poetry. Dealing first with the cosmic level (chap. 4), Brockliss argues that arboreal imagery evokes the stability of the cosmos both in Hesiod and in the Homeric poems; evidence for this, however, seems somewhat limited.[2] By contrast with the arboreal, it is argued that floral images in Homeric poetry are associated with changes in or threats to the cosmic order. Moving from the cosmos to social realities, chap. 5 explores the contrast between cultivated and uncultivated vegetal growth. Brockliss contends that whereas Hesiod’s Works and Days associates the stable order of civilization with both spontaneous and cultivated vegetation, Homeric poetry carefully distinguishes them. Thus, wild growth would be associated with the lack of civilization (p. 134), whereas human-managed growth – esp. trees in enclosed orchards—would be indicative of civilization, stability, and order (p. 153). Chap. 6 systematizes the findings of the preceding chapters in terms of the classification of botanical generation in Theophrastus, HP, 2.1.1. In Brockliss’ reading, this passage implies a distinction between four modes of generations, two of which are spontaneous, and two managed by human techniques. Flowers and wild trees (reproducing spontaneously) are associated with images of disorder; crops and garden trees (tended by humans) with order. According to Brockliss, in fact, since the spontaneous growth of flowers departs (in a sense) from nature, ancient authors and their audiences might construe them as outright examples of disorder and monstrosity. This is key to Brockliss’ arguments on order in this part of the book, and on death in the next.

Part Three focuses on images of death and beauty. First (chap. 7), Brockliss argues that elegists associate the phrase anthos hēbēs with the transience of youth, whereas Homeric poets associate it only with the prime of life—which would also reflect two different conceptions of the “beautiful death”. He then goes on to contrast arboreal and floral images within the Iliad (chap. 8): according to Brockliss, in the similes, trees always convey the idea of strength and flowers that of fertility. The Odyssey allows Brockliss to expand the picture: flowers here are interpreted as expressing the decomposition of bodies (the Sirens inhabit a meadow where one could see the scattered bones of the dead), and formlessness (the greyish asphodel meadow of the Underworld suggests the dead souls’ insubstantiality). Eventually (chap. 9), Brockliss borrows the idea of the “monstrous otherness of death” from J.‑P. Vernant’s works to tie together the interpretations developed in this last part of the book. According to Brockliss, the flowers’ spontaneous generation would recall overabundant fecundity, monstrosity, and disorder, three concepts that would encapsulate this ghastly alterity.

In the Conclusions, Brockliss summarizes his main findings and argues that the treatment of vegetal imagery in the Homeric poems expresses a more pessimistic take on eroticism, disorderliness, and the horror of death than the imagery of other Greek poetical traditions. The chapter ends on a discussion of the horrific vs. the heroic nature of the Homeric depictions of death. An Appendix explores the semantics of anthos and its cognates in the Homeric poems.

The book is finely produced, typos are virtually absent or trivial in nature,[3] and an Index of subjects and an Index locorum help the reader identify pages of interest.

Brockliss makes his case with clarity, his arguments are signposted and summarized at the main articulations of the book, his views are informed by recent and relevant scholarship—although I note the absence of a classic, Marcel Detienne’s Gardens of Adonis, which would have been important for the argument developed in Part II.[4] Some of Brockliss’ pages offer very perceptive readings of ancient texts. Particularly stimulating, from this point of view, is for example chap. 5, which develops a subtle assessment of the poetic values of vegetal spaces in Homeric poetry: the pastoral vs. wild landscapes of the Hymn to Aphrodite, the mingling of flowers in the Hymn to Pan (suggestive of the mixed form of the god), or the different gardens and orchards described in the Odyssey. More generally, Brockliss is to be praised for his attempt to recover less obvious connotations that the Greek authors would have associated with that imagery (other than “beauty”, “transience”, and the like).

For all that, this reviewer did not find all arguments to be equally compelling. As the summary above hinted, the book proceeds by black-or-white dichotomies, often based on a single criterion. Although these allow for a neat characterization of the subject matter, more nuance could have been introduced.[5] A broader disagreement with this book lies with the way in which Brockliss links together the botanical images and the “abstract ideas” which they are purported to convey. This is framed in terms of “association” (e.g. p. 91, 110), a mechanism which seems to operate at quite an abstract level and independent of contextual clues. According to Brockliss, a given botanical image may express not only themes or concepts with which a poem deals in that image’s immediate context, but also those that the poem tackles elsewhere, or those that may pertain to a (our?) general reading of it. A good instance of this practice is found in Part Two’s argument about flowering as an expression of threats to the cosmic order. None of the poems quoted uses floral imagery to directly express the idea of disorder; rather, flowering is mentioned within poems that elsewhere—or at a more general level—might be interpreted as engaging with such a theme.[6] At times, these oblique connections seemed contrived to me. In any case, they would have worked differently—cognitively speaking—from more direct metaphorical expressions such as that of anthos hēbēs.

In conclusion, how well does the idea fare that the botanical imagery in the Homeric poems responds to the archaic Greek vegetal environment? Brockliss convincingly argues that Greek landscapes’ poikilia could have helped to express deception. The sudden nature of blooming might have been useful to convey the sense of disorder or monstrosity Brockliss recognizes in some images. On this subject, it could have been interesting to compare the Homeric imagery with that of epic poetry from outside ancient Greece: that would have helped to single out where the Homeric poets responded to characteristics specific to the archaic Greek environment, rather than to the general characteristics of plant life. I have been more uncomfortable with the apparently self-evident nature of other—indeed lesser—points made throughout the book: e.g. when Brockliss explains that ancient audiences would have recognized the artificial nature of the narcissus plucked by Kore, since “no real narcissus would possess such a powerful fragrance as to fill the whole earth, heaven, and the sea” (p. 47), or that they would have perceived the uncanny nature of the asphodel meadows of the gloomy Underworld, since “it seems unlikely that populations of archaic Greece, whose economies were based on agriculture, were unaware that plants needed light to grow” (p. 209-210). The book is at its best elsewhere, most notably where Brockliss tries to recover the lenses through which ancient authors might have explored the botanical realm. This effort, together with Brockliss’ dexterity in differentiating botanical images and vegetal spaces all too often lumped together, makes this monograph a welcome and useful addition to the scholarship on archaic poetry, but also to the recent field of vegetal poetics.


[1] However, according to Brockliss, what Homeric beautiful “floral” bodies do is to seduce, lure, and deceive the viewer, and cause him/her “to misjudge their value” (p. 73). I fail to see how this amounts to Lacan’s role reversal between the viewer and the viewed.

[2] The evidence for the arboreal imagery of cosmic stability is limited to Hesiod’s description of the roots of the earth and the sea (Th., 727-8); to the same author’s mention of the roots of the threshold of Tartarus (Th., 811-3); and to the Homeric evocation of trees and pillars on the Island of Calypso in Odyssey (1.50-4).

[3] E.g. p. 11, n. 39 “they are broadly agreement with.

[4] Marcel Detienne, The gardens of Adonis: spices in Greek mythology, translated from the French by Janet Lloyd ; with an introd. by J.-P. Vernant. Atlantic Highlands, N.J. : Humanities Press, 1977.

[5] E.g. in chap. 7, where floral images in elegy and in Homeric poetry are contrasted according to whether or not the phrase anthos hēbēs correlates with the explicit mention of death. On this basis, Brockliss claims elegists associated flowers only with the brevity of life, whereas Homeric poets associated them only with the prime of youth. Actually, elegists do associate the phrase anthos hēbēs with both (and also with other themes, such as beauty, eros, and charis). On the other hand, floral images in Homer do participate in the picture of the brevity of life (although the phrase anthos hēbēs is not used in the context): one could think of the simile comparing Euphorbos to a blooming young plant, ripe with gleaming flowers, and suddenly uprooted by a gust of wind (Il. 17, 50-60).

[6] Consider e.g. the scene of the Dios Apatē in Iliad 14. Famously, Gaia produces a layer of flowers underneath Zeus and Hera at the moment of their union (Il., 14, 347-9): the immediate context, of course, is an erotic one, and flowery meadows are a common setting for such a situation, as Brockliss duly points out (p. 118). However, Hera’s wiles constitute a challenge to Zeus’ authority and her allusion to the reconciliation of Okeanos and Tethys at Il. 14, 198‑210 might be construed as a threat to Zeus’ cosmic order. Thus, Brockliss interprets the imagery of the flowers as expressing Hera’s (unrealized) threat to the cosmic order of Zeus – although nothing contextually points in that direction and the idea of cosmic disorder is to be derived from (a reading of) 14, 198‑210, that is, from a scene occurring some 150 lines before.