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Beyond the Generation of Leaves: The Imagery of Trees and Human Life in Homer


Homer regularly connects the life cycle of trees with the life and death of human beings to bring vividly before his audience the strength and endurance of his characters and the fragility and transience of the human condition. My work builds on previous studies of tree imagery in Homeric similes but focuses specifically on the relationship between tree imagery in speech and narrative tree similes. I argue that Homeric characters use tree imagery in ways that mirror and manipulate common Homeric themes expressed by the narrator.

In the introductory chapter, I discuss the provenance of the metaphor linking plants and humans and discuss the poet's relationship to the narrator and characters. Each of the following chapters, then, presents the close reading of a speech that features a tree image, explicates the rhetorical impact of that image in its immediate context, and finally compares that reading with the way the narrator uses similar images. In Chapter 2, I read Achilles' oath on the scepter (Il. 1.234-9) against the tree-similes of the Iliad's battle narrative. Chapter 3 compares Glaucus' simile of the leaves (Il. 6.146-9) with the other leaf imagery in the Homeric corpus. Chapter 4 connects Odysseus' recollection of the sacred palm on Delos (Od. 6.160-9) with plant imagery in epithalamic poetry and with other mentions of shoots and saplings in Homer. Chapter 5 shows how Odysseus' description of his rooted bedpost (Od. 23.183-204) draws on the narrator's descriptions of rooted trees and of carpentry in the corpus to buttress his claims of his identity as husband of Penelope and rightful king of Ithaca.

Each chapter, therefore, reveals how the characters subtly manipulate details of their plant descriptions, how each follows or departs from norms established by the narrator, and, ultimately, how trees, leaves, shoots, and roots each carry their own distinct symbolic meanings. What results, then, is a nuanced account of tree imagery in Homer that illustrates its considerable range and shows how it is capable of representing the full scope of heroic strength and vulnerability.

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