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Published online by Cambridge University Press:  10 December 2020

Elizabeth Minchin*
The Australian National University


My investigation into the cognitive aspects of landscape description takes as its focus the landscapes that the poet evokes on the Shield of Achilles (Il. 18.478–608). Drawing on studies in cognitive psychology I note the extent to which an audience might derive a ‘spatial mental model’ from the topographical or ‘locative’ indicators that the Homeric poet offers. Then I consider the ‘non-locative’ information that the poet conveys about the landscapes of the Shield. In this connection I develop Barbara Tversky's notion of landscape representation as a ‘cognitive collage’. What makes the scenes on the Shield vivid, however, is human presence. Finally, therefore, I draw on enactivist theories of cognition, recently introduced into Classics, which offer a valuable supplementary approach to ‘reading’ and enjoying landscape descriptions in Homer.

Research Article
Copyright © The Author(s), 2021. Published by Cambridge University Press on behalf of The Classical Association

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1 Il. 18.466–7. There has been much work now on the cognitive underpinnings of narrative composition and comprehension both in the Homeric epics and elsewhere, but there have been few attempts to analyse descriptions of landscape from a mind-based perspective. On the poet's memory for narrative in the epics, see E. Minchin, Homer and the Resources of Memory: Some Applications of Cognitive Theory to the Iliad and the Odyssey (Oxford, 2001) and the bibliography therein. I thank not only audiences in St Andrews and Sydney but also the anonymous reviewer for CQ for helpful feedback on this paper.

2 Bronze (562); gold (517, 549, 562, 574, 577); tin (574); silver (563).

3 For discussion of the Shield as an example of ekphrasis, see Francis, J., ‘Metal maidens, Achilles’ Shield and Pandora: the beginning of “ekphrasis”’, AJPh 130 (2009), 123Google Scholar; Purves, A., Space and Time in Ancient Greek Narrative (Cambridge, 2010), 45–55CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Tsagalis, C., From Listeners to Viewers: Space in the Iliad (Cambridge, MA, 2012), 419–40Google Scholar; Squire, M., ‘Ekphrasis at the forge and the forging of ekphrasis: the Shield of Achilles in Graeco-Roman word and image’, Word and Image 29 (2013), 157–91CrossRefGoogle Scholar; for the term ‘imagined ecphrasis’ [sic], see Kakridis, J., Homer Revisited (Lund, 1971), 109Google Scholar; and see too, usefully, on the divergent ancient and modern accounts of ekphrasis, Webb, R., ‘Ekphrasis ancient and modern: the invention of a genre’, Word and Image 15 (1999), 718CrossRefGoogle Scholar. On the Shield in its Iliadic context, see Taplin, O., ‘The Shield of Achilles within the Iliad’, in Cairns, D. (ed.), Oxford Readings in Homer's Iliad (Oxford, 2001), 342–64Google Scholar; and Alden, M., Homer Beside Himself: Para-Narratives in the Iliad (Oxford, 2000), 48–73, at 49–50Google Scholar.

4 This vividness is well recognized: see Leach, E., The Rhetoric of Space: Literary and Artistic Representation of Landscape in Republican and Augustan Rome (Princeton, NJ, 1988), 1214Google Scholar, to whose observations on the poet's achievement of ‘persuasive enargeia’ I shall return, and further references below.

5 Fittschen, K., Bildkunst, Teil 1: Der Schild des Achilleus (Göttingen, 1973), N 1–17Google Scholar.

6 For excellent discussion, see Edwards, M., The Iliad: A Commentary, vol. 5 (Cambridge, 1991), 200–9CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

7 Purves (n. 3), 48.

8 Taylor, H. and Tversky, B., ‘Spatial mental models derived from survey and route descriptions’, Journal of Memory and Language 31 (1992), 261–92CrossRefGoogle Scholar; on ‘locative information’, see 263.

9 Taylor and Tversky (n. 8), 261–3.

10 Taylor and Tversky (n. 8), 263.

11 Clay, J. Strauss, Homer's Trojan Theater: Space, Vision, and Memory in the Iliad (Cambridge, 2011)CrossRefGoogle Scholar: the poet's locative information allows us to follow the heroes’ movements across the battlefield. I shall argue, however, that it is enactive information that enables the creation of a spatial model.

12 Translations from the Iliad are (with occasional minor alterations) from Lattimore, R., The Iliad of Homer (Chicago, 1951)Google Scholar.

13 On the predominantly temporal underpinning of narratives by contrast with the largely spatial underpinning of pictures, see Grethlein, J., Aesthetic Experiences and Classical Antiquity: The Significance of Form in Narratives and Pictures (Cambridge, 2017), 2938CrossRefGoogle Scholar. On Iliadic catalogues, see Minchin (n. 1), 73–99, 128–30.

14 de Jong describes this as ‘description by action’, noting how subtly the poet blends description with narration: I. de Jong (ed.), Space in Ancient Greek Literature: Studies in Ancient Greek Narrative (Leiden, 2012), 21–38, at 28–9: cf. G. Lessing, Laocoön: An Essay on the Limits of Painting and Poetry (transl. E. McCormick) (Baltimore and London, 1962), 95; A.S. Becker, ‘The Shield of Achilles and the poetics of Homeric description’, AJPh 111 (1990), 139–53, especially at 141–2; and Edwards (n. 6), 207–8.

15 On the disarticulated nature of the sequence, see W. Marg, Homer über die Dichtung: Der Schild des Achilleus (Münster, 1971), 30–2.

16 Lessing (n. 14), 95 would agree; cf. Squire (n. 3), 158 and 160.

17 Cf. Edwards (n. 6), 211.

18 B. Tversky, ‘Cognitive maps, cognitive collages, and spatial mental models’, in A. Frank and I. Campari (edd.), Spatial Information Theory: A Theoretical Basis for GIS, Proceedings COSIT ’93 (Berlin, 1993), 14–24, at 14–15, 21–22.

19 See G. Miller, ‘Images and models, similes and metaphors’, in A. Ortony (ed.), Metaphor and Thought (Cambridge, 19932), 357–400, at 360. On the ancient approach to description, see Quint. Inst. 8.3.64–6, at 66 (quaedam etiam ex iis quae dicta non sunt sibi ipse adstruat ‘he may build up certain things for himself from indications that have not been spoken’).

20 Tversky (n. 18), 15.

21 S. Fletcher-Watson, Findlay, J., Leekam, S. and Benson, V., ‘Rapid detection of person information in a naturalistic scene’, Perception 37 (2008), 571–83, at 580–2Google Scholar.

22 Kuzmičova, A., ‘Presence in the reading of literary narrative: a case for motor enactment’, Semiotica 189 (2012), 2348Google Scholar; Troscianko, E., ‘Reading imaginatively: the imagination in cognitive science and cognitive literary studies’, Journal of Literary Semantics 42 (2013), 181–98CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

23 Grethlein, J. and Huitink, L., ‘Homer's vividness: an enactive approach’, JHS 137 (2017), 6791CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

24 Kuzmičova (n. 22), 24, 43–4.

25 N. Speer, J. Reynolds, K. Swallow and J. Zacks, ‘Reading stories activates neural representations of visual and motor experiences’, Psychological Science 20 (2009), 989–99, at 995–8.

26 See Kuzmičova (n. 22), 26 (on imagery), 29 (‘imagery’ implies any vicarious experience whatsoever).

27 Kuzmičova (n. 22), 29.

28 Kuzmičova (n. 22), 35–6.

29 Kuzmičova (n. 22), 25–6; on intensity, see Troscianko (n. 22), 189.

30 Kuzmičova (n. 22), 29; for experimental data, see Speer et al. (n. 25).

31 For early use of the term: J. O'Regan and A. Noë, ‘A sensorimotor account of vision and visual consciousness’, Behavioral and Brain Sciences 24 (2001), 939–1031; A. Noë, Action in Perception (Cambridge, MA, 2004).

32 Kuzmičova (n. 22), 28–9, on ‘presence’. When bodily actions are simulated from a first-person perspective, the reader (or listener) experiences the phenomenon of motor simulation: this becomes the vehicle for ‘presence and immersion’. The phenomenon was recognized also in the ancient world (Pl. Ion 535).

33 Kuzmičova (n. 22), 33.

34 This video clip of action has no beginning and no end-point. It is simply a clip. On this, see, briefly, Marg (n. 15), 29. Recent work on the Greek imperfect suggests that it serves to create in the mind of the listener or reader an impression of ongoing events (‘as if they are seen on the spot’): J. Grethlein, ‘The presence of the past in Thucydides’, in A. Tsakmakis and M. Tamiolaki (edd.), Thucydides between History and Literature (Berlin and Boston, 2013), 91–118, at 96.

35 Just as the space is generic so is the activity within it: no one is named in the scenes on the Shield—by contrast with the Iliadic narrative: Marg (n. 15), 32–3.

36 On the motif of the spectator, see below.

37 Cf. Miller (n. 19), 358–63. The houses we bring to mind may not resemble the houses of the ancient world (as we have come to know them); they are instead a convenient approximation. We draw on a resource of generic imagery to supply this material.

38 Miller (n. 19), 360; for discussion, see Troscianko (n. 22), 185–96 (who notes that ‘indeterminacy is a capacity, not a constraint’, 187).

39 Miller (n. 19), 360: ‘the vagueness of the image is critical to its utility’; Troscianko (n. 22), 187–8.

40 On the poet's use of synaesthetic effects: Squire (n. 3), 161. On the inclusion of aural information, see also de Jong (n. 14), 30.

41 On the participants’ pleasure in communal life, see Edwards (n. 6), 208–9.

42 On the poet's cues: Wyatt, W., ‘Homer in performance: Iliad 1.348–427’, CJ 83 (1987–8), 289–97Google Scholar.

43 On the city under siege and the relation of this account to the main narrative, see Alden (n. 3), 60–7.

44 In specifying these metals the poet reminds us that this is a work of art; but he quickly moves beyond that limitation as he peoples the vineyard's paths with happy grape-pickers. An exploration of the differences between describing an actual landscape and describing the representation of a landscape is beyond the scope of the present discussion.

45 An oral poet finds it harder to compose extended descriptive passages, for which he has no supporting template, than narrative passages with their strong storyline, for which he has recourse to scripted memory. On this see, for example, Minchin (n. 1), 100–31, at 112–19. A poet who composes at leisure, in writing, faces no such limitation.

46 Troscianko (n. 22), 188.

47 Cf. Troscianko (n. 22), 188 on writers and readers: ‘literary descriptions which keep things short and simple may work better in terms of eliciting an engaged and fluent imaginative response from the reader.’

48 This mind-based account overlaps with Leach's discussion of engagement with the Shield (Leach [n. 4], 12–14). Note her comment (at 13): ‘verisimilitude and narrative coherence are not intrinsic properties of the shield, but rather come into being as the spectator lends animation to the images … It becomes a microcosmic replica of nature because the spectator supplies this coherence.’

49 On the engagement that readers or listeners feel when they are active participants in a story event, see Troscianko (n. 22), 188; and on the pleasure audiences find in the processing experience, see Reber, R., Schwarz, N. and Winkielman, P., ‘Processing fluency and aesthetic pleasure: is beauty in the perceiver's processing experience?’, Personality and Social Psychology Review 8 (2004), 364–82CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed.

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