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Published online by Cambridge University Press:  27 November 2015

Brooke Holmes*
Princeton University


The true subject of the Iliad, Simone Weil famously wrote, is force. Time and again, ‘the human spirit is shown as modified by its relation with force, as swept away, blinded, by the very force it imagined it could handle, as deformed by the weight of the force it submits to’. Force turns men, perpetrators of violence and its victims alike, into things: objectification is its bane. Homer's clarity about the moral degradation of war, that machine of force, is what makes him, in Weil's accounting, not just the first but the greatest of poets.

Research Article
Copyright © Aureal Publications 2015 

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1. Weil (2005), 3.

2. Dimock (2008), 73f.

3. Bonnafé (1984), i.13f., estimates that 87% of the similes in the Iliad refer to nature or life in nature (including animal life). On the image of hostile nature conveyed in the similes, see Bonnafé (1984), i.22-38; Bouvier (1986), 246-52; Redfield (1994), 189-92.

4. The phrase ‘weatherless space’ is from Purves (2010b), 323, who is referring to Fränkel (1921), 102 (= Fränkel [1997], 108f.). Purves goes on to deftly analyze the very porosity of the simile's boundary and wind's infiltration into the narrative space of the epic.

5. I have argued elsewhere that the gods’ adoption of human form in Homer helps to establish them as moral agents in a mortal/immortal community: see Holmes (2010), 41-83, esp. 76-78.

6. Nagy (1992), 325, argues that the simile at Il. 21.237 is a conscious acknowledgement of a variant tradition for representing river combatants as bulls. On the many representations of Achelous as a human-faced bull (and bull-headed human) in Greek vase painting and on coins beginning in the seventh century BCE, see Waser (1909), 2780-82; Gais (1978), 357-59; Weiß (1984), 15-20; Ostrowski (1991), 16-18; Currie (2002), 29. River personifications become less zoomorphic and more anthropomorphic in the classical period. For literary representations, see Archil. frr. 287-89 (West); S. Tr. 9-17, with Clarke (2004a); Ael. VH 2.33. Bull-bellowing rivers also appear in ancient Near Eastern sources: see Nagler (1974), 150, with n.26; D'Alessio (2004), 26f. A scholiast (Schol. *BE4 Hom. Il. 21.237 [μεμυϰὼς ἠΰτε ταῦρος]) sees Homer's decision to represent Scamander as a river in terms of technical confidence: Ἀρχίλοχος μὲν οὐϰ ἐτόλμησεν Ἀχελῷον ὡς ποταμὸν Ἡραϰλεῖ συμβαλεῖν, ἀλλ’ ὡς ταῦρον, Ὅμηρος δὲ πρῶτος ποταμοῦ ϰαὶ ἥρωος ἠγωνοθέτησε μάχην. ἑϰάτερος οὖν τὴν αὐτὴν ὑπόθεσιν ἐμέτρησε τῇ δυνάμει (‘Archilochus did not dare to pit Achelous in the form of a river against Heracles, but [cast him] in the form of a bull. Homer, by contrast, was the first to set up a battle of a river and a hero. Each poet, then, fitted the same topic to his talent’).

7. Vernant (1991b), 71f. On the body abandoned without burial, see also Holmes (2010), 32-34, arguing that this body is designated by sōma. On the encroachment of animals and the breakdown of burial customs in the latter books of the poem, see Segal (1971), 30-32, and Redfield (1994), 169, 183-203, who describes Book 21 as part of the cresting of the poem's ‘rising arc of horrors’.

8. Translations are my own unless otherwise noted.

9. On the emergence of the physical body, see Holmes (2010).

10. Haraway (2003). Redfield's masterpiece on ‘nature and culture’ in the Iliad, originally published in 1975, is a far more supple analysis of the crossings of those terms than the title might suggest, and my reading of Scamander is deeply indebted to Redfield's study of purity and impurity (at 160-223). It is not a coincidence that the most important species at the juncture of nature and culture for Redfield is also the star of Haraway's manifesto—namely, the dog (see Redfield [1994], 193-99), though the valences of the canine are very different in the two. The stability and separability of the categories ‘nature’ and ‘culture’ in Redfield's analysis, however, rely on a nineteenth-century anthropological framework, on which see Descola (2012), 28-39, and Descola (2013), 57-88; Haraway (2003) sketches a more promising way forward. See also the perceptive remarks at Lynn-George (1993), 221, on moving beyond entrenched dualisms in our inquiry into Homeric values and esp. Purves in this volume on Homer's ‘vibrant materialism’; Purves begins with a similar critique of the dualism implicit in Weil's reading of force.

11. See Scheibner (1939), 113; Bremer (1987), esp. 36f.

12. I use the terms ‘affect’ and ‘emotion’ to capture both shifts of intensity within a body, here a fluid body, as it is acted upon and directs its energies back outwards (that is, affect, a term often used in contemporary discourse as an inheritance from Spinoza via Deleuze but whose deeper history lies in a concept of dynamis in Greek medicine and philosophy) and the cohesion and expression of feeling within a social framework (that is, emotion). These terms introduce a difference, however, that is hardly present in the Iliad, where emotion is conceptualized in terms of the always-dynamic state of fluids and breath: life and mind are always processual. See further nn.31-34 below.

13. Il. 2.459-68, 5.36, 5.774, 7.329, 11.499. On the bareness of the landscape of combat, see Bouvier (1986), 242-46.

14. The account of the Achaean wall is unusual in a number of respects, and the passage in which its destruction is described has been seen as suspect since antiquity: see Scodel (1982), 33-35; Porter (2011), esp. 2-12. The problems with the passage are not relevant here.

15. But what time is being restored? It could be peacetime Troy (and a reading of Scamander in ‘topocosmic terms’, on which see below, would support this). But if the Achaean wall is, as Porter argues, ‘a virtual image of Troy’ (Porter [2011], 22, emphasis original; see also 32f.), then its destruction could point to a ‘deep-time’ notion of the land as it was before Troy.

16. ‘Antifuneral’: see Redfield (1994), 167-69, 183-86; see also Ford (1994), 153. For Redfield, the antifuneral ‘is in the Iliad emblematic of the impurity latent in war’ (183), although insofar as the destruction of the wall is focalized from the perspective of the gods and, arguably, the landscape, it takes on a purifying quality. Here we meet the tension between the ‘purity’ of a landscape and the ‘purity’ of human culture. As Ford (1994), 152, remarks, ‘in Greek terms, eroding rains, washing streams, and destructive torrents are the elements most inimical to the hopes of graves and tombs’. Scodel (1982) reads the watery destruction of the wall even more broadly, in terms of a deluge, modeled on Near Eastern sources, that marks the boundary between the Heroic Age and the present age.

17. Ford (1994), 155.

18. The poem is by no means worried about the capacity of what we would classify as geographical features to travel far afield. On this aspect of the personification of landscape, see Clarke (1997), esp. 68f. on rivers and Scamander in particular.

19. Whitman (1958), 272.

20. On this broader meaning of Dios boulē, see Allan (2008).

21. The third movement of the poem is usually located at 18.354 or 19.1 (note that on both calculations, it is shorter than the other two movements) in structural analyses of the poem, most of which favor a tripartite structure, perhaps corresponding to the days of recitation: see Richardson (1993), 2f.

22. Bremer (1987), 33-36.

23. For Near Eastern examples of the motif, see West (1995).

24. For λιλαίομαι, see e.g., Il. 11.574, 15.317, 21.168.

25. That Achilles is called equal to a god (δαίμονι ἶσος, 20.493; cf. 21.18, 227) signals the formal mode of the aristeia. Cf. 5.438, 459, 884 (Diomedes); 16.705, 786 (Patroclus).

26. For this doubleness in representations of proto-natural forces (e.g., personifications like Hypnos and Eros), see further Holmes (2010), 66f.

27. I thank Mark Payne for helping me think through this point. On the equivalence between life and movement in early Greek poetry and religion, see Clarke (1995).

28. The sacred status of river water is established already at Hes. Op. 737-41, 757-59. See further Cole (2004), 35 and 57, on the sanctity of flowing water in ancient Greek culture and Toutain (1926), 5f., for later evidence that entering or crossing a river could be seen as transgressive.

29. On the substitution of revenge (poinē) for ransom (apoina) in the poem, see Wilson (2002), 13-39; Holmes (2007), 76f.

30. ‘…the matter that begot and nourished him is now re-absorbing his life’ (Tsitsibakou-Vasalos (2000), 5; see 3-6 on Asteropaeus’ lineage).

31. For cholos as a fluid, see Padel (1992), 78-98, esp. 82; Clarke (1999), 90-97 (anger is ‘a rushing movement of fluid into the breast’, 92), and generally 79-115 for a rich and important discussion of the dynamics of what Clarke calls ‘mental life’; and Purves in this volume. The kradiē ‘swells’ (οἰδάνεται) with anger at Il. 9.646; it can be ‘quelled’ (σβέσσαι χόλον, 9.678); it is like smoke waxing or rising up (ἀέξεται) in the chest (18.110). The verb that describes the surging of wind and water is thu(n)ō, on which see Clarke (1999), 80-83. A fluid dynamics of emotion does not, however, play much role in Clarke's own discussion of Scamander (Clarke [1999], 274-76; see also Clarke [1997], 68).

32. Redfield (1994), 14.

33. For torrents in similes, see also Il. 4.452-56; 5.598f.; 11.492-96; 16.384-93 (where the swelling of the rivers expresses divine retribution), with Soutar (1939), 69-73; Bonnafé (1984), i.26-28.

34. Cholos is frequently described as a force that has to be checked or contained (e.g., Il. 1.192, 4.24, 8.461). In the case of Scamander, it is in part because his streams have already been blocked that the waters flood so that the ‘cause’ of his anger has to be understood in terms of Achilles’ actions as literally blocking the river's flow and as instigating an emotional response, as I argue above.

35. It is relevant to note that the poem refers to the force of a river as ἲς ποταμοῖο (21.356)—that is, the same word (ἴς) is used of the force that allows a human being to run or throw a weapon (e.g., 5.244f., 7.269, 11.668, etc.): see Clarke (1999), 111f. Here, the limits of Weil's designation of force as non-human are especially evident.

36. On the hand as a symbol of the gods’ power, see Holmes (2010), 53-56.

37. Contrast this seamlessness with the hylomorphism of Aristotle, who describes anger as both a boiling of the blood and a cognitive response (de An. 403a31).

38. For the chaos demon, see Nagler (1974), 147-57. Nagler sees an equivalence between Scamander and Oceanus, ‘who symbolizes the inchoate, disorganized condition of the cosmos which always threatens to return’ (151) and thus takes the battle between Scamander and Achilles as ‘the climax of the Iliad on its mythic level of organization’ (152). For Hades, see Mackie (1999), 493-500.

39. On animal sacrifices to rivers in antiquity, see Waser (1909), 2777; Weiß (1984), 15; Ostrowski (1991), 12f.; Parker (2011), 138, with n.59.

40. Cf. Hes. Th. 337-45, where Scamander is born from Tethys and Oceanus.

41. His arrogance scandalized later readers: Athenaeus excised the verses as shockingly impious, while Plato lists Achilles’ ill treatment of the river god among those details that make the Iliad deeply unsuitable for young men in the Republic (3, 391b).

42. Hector had made a structurally similar boast over the body of Patroclus implicating Achilles as failed protector (ἆ δείλ’, οὐδέ τοι ἐσθλὸς ἐὼν χραίσμησεν Ἀχιλλεύς, ‘Wretch! Achilles, great as he was, could do nothing to help you’, 16.837), a failing that Achilles himself recognizes at 18.98-100. The verbal echo underscores the mirroring of Achilles and Scamander not just as wild forces but as givers-of-care angered by impotence. On χραισμεῖν, see Lynn-George (1993), who observes that it is always negated in the Iliad (208); cf. 210f. on Achilles’ boast over Scamander.

43. The protective function is also important to the definition of a leader in Homer, who is entrusted with protecting the people (laos) (though in the Iliad, the three major leaders, Agamemnon, Achilles and Hector, all fail at this task): see Haubold (2000), 24-32.

44. Schol. Il. ad 14.246, ad 23.142a1, 23.142a2.

45. See also, e.g., Paus. 1.37.3, Philostr. Her. 13.4 and Waser (1909), 2777f.; Ostrowski (1991), 12; Larson (2001), 98; Parker (2011), 75f.

46. Girls, moreover, could also dedicate a lock of hair as symbolic of their virginity: see Currie (2002), 31, with n.78.

47. Ps.-Aeschin. Ep. 10.2-3.

48. Currie (2002), 32.

49. See, e.g., S. OC 685-91; Artem. Oneir. 2.38, with Borthwick (1963), 231-36; Gais (1978), esp. 369f.; Currie (2002), 32, with n.86; Lee (2006), 323f.

50. Larson (2001), 98. Cole (2004), 27, writes, ‘Citizens had a responsibility to defend the soil that gave them birth and nourishment, and therefore every city projected a strong identity not only with its territory but with the earth itself and the local springs and rivers that were its sources of water.’ The relationship between rivers and cities is emphasized, too, by the frequent representation of rivers on coins.

51. See also, e.g., Il. 5.541-49 (Crethon and Orsilochus, descendents of the Alpheius); 16.173 (Menesthius, son of the Spercheius). See further Currie (2002), 32 nn.87 and 88.

52. See Apollod. 3.12.1-6, with Larson (2001), 194f., and Fenno (2005), 482-84.

53. Most rivers presumably would have had this local association although Achelous could be seen as the origin of all freshwater: see D'Alessio (2004). The belief in an underground fluvial network also allowed rivers to connect otherwise distant communities (such as mother cities and colonies): see Cole (2004), 28f.

54. Segal (1963), 26, citing Gaster (1950), 4f. The symbiosis in question should be understood more precisely than in the claims that the archaic Greek feels a continuity with the natural world around him (e.g., Parry [1957], 4, coming in a long line of Romantic readings of early Greek poetry).

55. This passage points to the limits of the claim that Homer invokes things from the natural world ‘in connexion with their usefulness for man’ (Forster [1936], 102; see also Ruskin [1963], 82). On these limits, see further Payne (2014).

56. Bonnafé (1998) notes the shift into the present tense and observes ‘la description de lieu s'inscrit donc dans un temps étranger au récit et qui contraste fortement avec lui’ (13). References to the priests of Scamander elsewhere in the poem also summon up this time: see 5.76-83, 21.130-32.

57. Slatkin (1991), 88, observes that the capacity to ‘ward off destruction’ (λοιγὸν ἀμύνειν, a phrase used almost exclusively of the Achaeans) successfully within the framework of the Iliad is limited to Apollo (esp. in the first book, as agent of plague, and then at 21.539) and Achilles; it is also accorded to Zeus and, importantly for Slatkin's argument, Thetis (Il. 1.398). But note that it is not entirely clear how unsuccessful Scamander is; and, in any event, the fact that the phrase is used of him twice in Book 21 (21.138, 250) means his actions should be considered in relationship to the broader dynamic of care and protection in the poem.

58. On the spike in similes that assimilate Achilles to a parent in the closing books of the Iliad, see Pratt (2007), 37f., and on the complexities of the parental relationship between Achilles and Patroclus (who also ‘mothers’ Achilles), see Mills (1990). See also Pratt (2007), 31f., on the will-to-protect as part of the definition of a parent in the poem.

59. See Il. 24.200-27, with Holmes (2007), 77-80. See also Slatkin (1993), esp. 85-105, on the ‘wrath of Thetis’ as a latent but potent counterhegemonic force in the poem.

60. I borrow the hendiadys ‘witness and avenger’ from Mark Payne's reading of Schiller: see Payne (2014).

61. See further Boehm (1998), 57-60, on the association of characters with particular landscapes in tragedy.

62. S. Ant. 844-49. See also E. Ba. 5, where Dionysus greets the two rivers of Thebes (Dirce and Ismenus) as part of his homecoming; E. Hipp. 555-57, for the identification of Thebes via Dirce.

63. S. Ph. 1452-63. These lines are the culmination of Philoctetes’ apostrophes to aspects of the Lemnian environment over the course of the play: see also 936-40, 1146-61, with Nooter (2012), 124-46.

64. I am grateful to the audience in Santa Barbara for their comments and criticisms, as well as to the editors and anonymous referees for insightful feedback. I am also very grateful to Mark Payne, whose comments improved this paper immeasurably. Finally, my thinking on many of the issues discussed here was spurred on by the panel that Mark and I co-organized for the 2012 SLSA, ‘The Ancient Nonhuman’ (where I was presenting not on rivers but on plants), and I thank Mark and the other participants, Alex Purves and Emma Bianchi, for their thought-provoking papers and inspiring conversation.

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