Metaphors Concerning Speech in Homer

Rob Wiseman, in Robert T. Craig and Heidi L. Muller (eds.) Theorizing Communication: Readings Across Traditions, 2007, 7–18.

The oldest texts in the Western tradition large enough for detailed analysis are the Iliad and the Odyssey. Neither, of course, is a text on communication. But we can glean from them how the archaic Greek understood communication by looking at the ways in which Homeric poets described speaking, how people used it and were affected by it, as well as at the metaphors they used to explain it. In this chapter, I have used examples from the longer and older of the two, the Iliad, except where the Odyssey provides clearer examples.

We need to be aware, when looking at Homer, that the conceptual world of the archaic Greek is very different from our own. In particular, there was not really a category for “mental stuff”: no words that translate naturally as ‘mind’, ‘thought’, thinking’, ‘idea’, or ‘concept’. Emotional life is also curiously limited from our perspective. While there are terms for immediate feelings, such as anger, delight, rage, hate, joy, and lust, there are no corresponding abstract terms, such as ‘sadness’ or ‘anticipation’. Everything we describe as ‘mental’ and most of what we call ’emotional’, the Iliad describes physiologically: either as sensations and hypostases, or by relating them to organs of the body. In the Iliad and Odyssey, the important organs and physiological sensations are, in order of frequency …