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Published online by Cambridge University Press:  27 November 2015

Alex Purves*
University of California, Los


      ἕρϰος Ἀχαιῶν: ἔμψυχον τεῖχος τῶν Ἑλλήνων.
      Bulwark of the Achaeans: living wall of the Greeks.
    Schol. D. Il. 6.5 (on Ajax)
      Now, still breathing, he is simply matter…
    Simone Weil, ‘The Iliad or the Poem of Force’
The two quotations at the start of this paper, one from the D scholion on the Iliad and the other from Simone Weil's famous essay on force, both make of the Homeric warrior a kind of ‘breathing material’. Two references, then, to the liveliness of objects, but each meaning very different things. For the scholiast places man on the same side as materiality, as if humans and things can equally be infused with life and can exist in a sort of continuum, but Weil argues that a human who is reduced to mere matter, even if he is a still a thing that breathes, is as good as nothing. Unlike the scholiast, Weil's interpretation is predicated on a strong belief in the duality of body and soul in the structure of human life, and since objects do not have souls they are, for her, essentially dead. Throughout her essay, Weil visits again and again the materiality of Homeric man and his propensity to turn, under the crushing power of force, into what she calls alternately a ‘thing’, ‘inert matter’, ‘stone’, and even ‘nothingness’. But for the D scholiast, the comparison of Ajax to stone does not subjugate him or turn him into a ‘mere’ or ‘inert’ object. On the contrary, the gloss ἔμψυχον τεῖχος speaks instead to the lively and permeable boundary between human and nonhuman in early Greek epic, one that suggests that objects can have their own life form, their own energy, vitality, and even creativity.

Research Article
Copyright © Aureal Publications 2015 

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1. In the original: ‘respirant encore, il n'est plus que matière…’

2. Force, as Weil (2005), 3, argues, when ‘exercised to its limit,…turns man into a thing in the most literal sense…’ It even has ‘the ability to turn a human being into a thing while he is still alive’. For further discussion of Weil's reading, see Holmes in her essay for this volume, pp.28-31 above.

3. Weil (2005), 3, 5, 7, 26, and passim.

4. ἔμψυχον means literally to have life or ψυχή in one, and can be used of plants, animals, or humans. Aristotle calls the slave an ἔμψυχον ὄργανον at EN 1161b4 (LSJ s.v.).

5. For recent work on extra-somatic agency in Homer, see Holmes (2010), 1-83 (and, on nonhuman agency, this volume); Whitley (2013).

6. Weil (2005) was originally published in 1940 as ‘L'Iliade, ou le poème de la force’ in the journal Cahiers du Sud; Snell (1953), 1-22, began its life in 1939 as a chapter in Neue Jahrbücher für Antike; Auerbach (1953), 3-23, was composed between 1942 and 1945 and originally published in 1946 in Mimesis: Dargestellte Wirklichkeit in der abendländischen Literatur; Fränkel (1975), 75-85, was originally published in 1951 in Dichtung und Philosophie des frühen Griechentums. On the circumstances of Mimesis' composition, see Bremmer (1999); Porter (2008 and 2014). On Weil's reading of the Iliad and the context of its composition, see especially Schein (forthcoming).

7. Auerbach and Weil were forced into exile in 1935 and 1940 respectively.

8. My use of ‘man’ and the masculine pronoun is deliberate, since this essay is concerned with a version of the Homeric human that is specifically marked as male.

9. Auerbach (1953), 12.

10. Snell (1953), 21 and 76. Much has been written on Snell's thesis, which is based on an observation first made by Aristarchus that there is no word for ‘living body’ in Homer. See, e.g., Adkins (1970), 13-48; Austin (1975), 81-129; Renehan (1979); Williams (1993), 21-49; Gill (1996), 1-40; Clarke (1999), esp. 37-49; Bolens (2000), 19-59; Porter and Buchan (2004), 1-19; Holmes (2010), 1-40 and 45f.; Gavrylenko (2012).

11. See e.g., Porter and Buchan (2004), 8; Whitley (2013).

12. Whitman (1958), 182, sums up the paradox well: ‘Homer approaches the matter [of Achilles’ wrath] as an insolubly tragic situation, the tragic situation par excellence. Personal integrity in Achilles achieves the form and authority of immanent divinity, with its inviolable, lonely singleness, half repellent because of its almost inhuman austerity, but irresistible in its passion and perfected selfhood’ (italics mine).

13. Important work on the limits and meaning of the human in Homeric epic include Redfield (1975), Griffin (1980), and Schein (1984).

14. Auerbach (1953), 11. Cf. Ingold (2011), 119: ‘How can we progress beyond the idea that life is played out upon the surface of a world already furnished with objects?’

15. Fränkel (1951), 80.

16. Austin (1975), 81f.

17. See Ahmed (2010), Bennett (2010a), Bennett (2010b), and Ingold (2011). For Ingold, for example, human beings are part of an open, material world that is always in flux, while for Ahmed, bodies are always oriented in relation to the dynamic and contingent effects of matter. The notion of object agency had also been set forth, differently but influentially, by Gell (1998), who argued that objects, although they could not act as ‘primary agents’ (because they had no intentions), nevertheless mediated agency within the material world. He calls this a ‘kind of second-class agency which artifacts acquire once they become enmeshed in a text of social relationships’ (17).

18. Cf. Porter and Buchan (2004), 10f.: ‘In other words, can it be imagined that Homeric poetry is willing to stare down, and even to deconstruct, what modern interpreters of Homer seem to cherish most of all (whether they find it in him or not), namely, the fantasy of the unified subject?’

19. On New Materialisms, see Coole and Frost (2010), 1-43. The term ‘vital’ or ‘vibrant’ materialism is from Bennett (2010a and 2010b). I use ‘vibrant’ in the title of my paper because it is the adjective which best fits the sense of the ‘aliveness’ of objects in the epic.

20. ‘Entanglement’ is a favored term for the blurring of subject and object roles that material agency can bring about. See further, for archaeology, Hodder (2012); Whitley (2013).

21. ‘Does life only make sense as one side of a life-matter binary, or is there such a thing as a mineral or metallic life, or a life of the it in “it rains”?’ (Bennett [2010a], 53). Similarly Ingold (2011), 21: ‘Does rain belong to the material world, or only the puddles that it leaves in ditches and pot-holes? Does falling snow join the material world only once it settles on the ground?’ On the word ‘thing’, see e.g., Brown (2004), 1-22; Miller (2010), 42-78; Hodder (2012), 7, all of whom want to expand its meaning. The danger here is that in the end ‘thing’ seems to mean everything, which on the one hand is obviously problematic (surely their relations and agencies will all be significantly different) but on the other extraordinarily helpful, for it better allows us to understand humans as things and to rethink the way that we categorize in general.

22. Bennett (2010a), 33, 61.

23. I.e., on the one side, rational, self-conscious, subjective mind-soul-autonomy-agency; on the other, material, body, animal, object, nonhuman. This mindset, dominant in Western thought since Plato, has always been hard to map on to the pre-Platonic Homer. See further Clarke (1999), 39-49, Holmes (2010), 1-83.

24. See further Ahmed (2010), 240: ‘To “co-incide” suggests how different things happen at the same moment, a happening which brings things near to other things, whereby the nearness shapes the shape of each thing. If being near to this or that object is not a matter of chance, what happens in the “now” of this nearness remains open, in the sense that we do not always know how things will affect each other, nor how we will be affected by things’. Ingold (2011), 24, argues that human beings live in a permanent and entangled flux with their environment, continually ‘swimming’ in an ‘ocean’ or ‘current’ of materials that can change from moment to moment.

25. Bennett (2010a), 5.

26. I thank one of the volume's readers for valuable commentary on this point.

27. Bennett (2010a), 6.

28. See Mueller (forthcoming) on the ‘distributed personhood’ of Ajax’ sword in Sophocles’ Ajax (Ch. 1), and her discussion of Ajax’ shield (Ch. 5). She describes the epic hero as a ‘perfectly blended person-weapon’. See also Lissarrague (2007) and Lissarrague (2010), 192: ‘Body and armour are the two sides of the heroic identity, and their conjunction creates the heroic warrior.’

29. Diomedes, Odysseus, Agamemnon and Eurypylus are at this point in the plot injured and out of the fighting, which places further pressure on Ajax as defender. This scene picks up from the one at the end of Book 15, as discussed further below.

30. Translations are my own unless otherwise noted.

31. Note the five-fold use of βελ- or βαλ- words in this short passage, all engaging the notion of throwing (βάλλω).

32. On the continual adjustments that must take place between an experienced practitioner and his tools, see Ingold (2011), 52. On repetition and variation in Iliadic battle stances as part of oral epic technique, see Fenik (1968), esp. 1-8.

33. See e.g., Griffin (1980), 1-49, who argues that ‘symbolic and significant objects and gestures are a development of those which were originally conceived as magical and charged with supernatural power’ (24); Nagy (1990b), 202-22, on reading the sēma as material and symbolic object; Zeitlin (1996), 19-52, on the bed as sēma; Grethlein (2008) on objects and memory (including his count of significant objects). For a reading that does accord liveliness and agency to Homeric objects, especially across genres, see Mueller (forthcoming) and, from an archaeological perspective, Whitley (2013).

34. Il. 3.229, 6.5, 7.211; Od. 11.556, and to Achilles (as ἕρϰος Ἀχαιοῖσιν) at Il. 1.284. On the undoing of Ajax, fixed by his epithet, in Sophocles’ Ajax, see Worman's masterful reading: Worman (2001).

35. Il. 7.219-23. Cf. Panoussi (2002).

36. Cf. Aristotle's alignment of shield and self at De An. 2.11.423b15, when discussing the appropriateness of calling the flesh the ‘organ’ of touch: ‘It is as if a man were struck through his shield, where the shock is not first given to the shield and passed on to the man, but the concussion of both is simultaneous’ (tr. J.A. Smith).

37. Mueller (forthcoming), Ch. 1. See also Lissarrague (2007 and 2010); Gell (1998) 20f.: ‘The soldier's weapons are parts of him which make him what he is’ (italics original).

38. Gavrylenko (2012), 490f. Cf. Nagy's argument about the σάϰος (cow-hide shield) referring to the self: Nagy (1990b), 264. As Gavrylenko argues, it is only when the shield fails and the body is penetrated that the notion of χρώς (skin, outer body) emerges (I thank John Esposito for discussion on this point). Bolens (2000), 9-60, also argues that the Homeric hero follows much more the model of ‘articulated parts’ than of ‘envelope’ (with the latter suggesting a shutting off from the world).

39. This even given the fact that Ajax’ shield is the strongest on the Achaean side after Achilles’ (Il. 18.192f.). Although presented in the Iliad as basically impermeable (on the victorious match-up of σάϰος against ἀσπίς in the Iliad see Bershadsky [2010]), it is clear from the passage at hand that Ajax’ shield, like his body, can ‘tire’ and break.

40. Louden (1995), 31.

41. For another pun on (both) Aiases and aiei, see Il. 17.752: ὣς αἰεὶ Αἴαντε μάχην ἀνέεργον… (‘so always the two Ajaxes were holding back the attack [of the Trojans]…’).

42. 15.727 = 16.102. I thank Ineke Sluiter for pointing this out to me. As I discuss further below, the tension between the two words speaks to the false equation of materiality with fixity, as if either Ajax or his shield could actually last forever. Perhaps the contradiction between αἰεί and οὐϰέτι also brings to mind a third important Homeric word beginning with αἰ-, which is αἰών (both the animating principle of one's life and one's ‘life time’). Differently, note that at Soph. Aj. 430-34, Ajax draws attention to the soundplay between his name and his repetitive grieving (αἰαῖ, αἰάζειν).

43. Αἴας δ’ ὁ μέγας αἰὲν ἐφ’ Ἕϰτορι χαλϰοϰορυστῇ / ἵετ’ ἀϰοντίσσαι (‘The great Ajax was always striving to thrust his spear at bronze-helmeted Hector’, Il. 16.358f.). On the frequent exchange between these two heroes, who meet sixteen times in battle (far more often than any other pair), see Duffy (2008); Mueller (forthcoming).

44. Cf. Dem. Eloc. 48, which also notes the soundplay between Αἴας and αἰέν (Louden [1995], 31). Additionally, the ‘collision of sounds’ that Demetrius is referring to here may be the irregular lengthening of the first syllable of μέγας after the unusual use of the article (Innes [1995], ad Eloc. 48; Janko [1992], ad Il. 16.358-63).

45. Cognate with συμπλήσσω, also the source of the name for the Symplegades, or Clashing Rocks.

46. Trevor van Damme points out to me that the ‘shimmering’ or ‘gleaming’ aspect of many Homeric objects intersects nicely with Bennett's description of vibrant things shimmering or sparkling with their own ‘quivering effervescence’: Bennett (2010a), passim.

47. Ahmed (2010), 47.

48. On distributive agency, see Bennett (2010a), 20-38.

49. Note that Ajax will commit suicide with the sword received as a gift from Hector after the duel in Iliad 7 (Soph. Aj. 661), an object which takes on its own hostile agentic force (Mueller [forthcoming]). In a fragment of Aeschylus’ lost treatment of this myth (TrGF Fr. 83 Radt, also discussed by Mueller) Ajax’ skin takes on something of the quality of his shield, becoming almost impenetrable as he attempts to pierce it with his sword.

50. Cf. Haraway (1991), 178, on cyborgs: ‘Why should our bodies end at the skin, or include at best other beings encapsulated by skin?’ For a complementary reading of the fluid boundary between human and nonhuman as realized in the Iliad's river Scamander, see Holmes this volume (pp. 29-51 above).

51. There is a separate argument to be made about Ajax’ particular relationship to his arms, and how it is different from Achilles’ or Hector's relationships to theirs, which I have chosen not to engage with here. This is in part because I am trying specifically to avoid the human-driven concerns of plot and character development in an attempt to bring the vibrancy of objects into focus.

52. In earlier scholarship there was an inclination to label this line of thought ‘primitive’. Thus Stanford (1936), 56: ‘I believe synaesthesia in words is a survival of the physical synaesthesia of primitive man when sense perceptions were far keener and far more efficiently co-ordinated than in more domesticated times’; Snell (1953), 1: ‘It has long been observed that in comparatively primitive speech abstractions are as yet undeveloped, while immediate sense perceptions furnish it with a wealth of concrete symbols which seem strange to a more sophisticated tongue’. As Austin (1975), 81, puts it of this strain of Classical thinking, ‘Hegel gave support to the antiromantic concept of a dichotomy between the Ignoble Savage, all sense-consciousness, and Civilized Man, all self-conscious spirit’. For recent discussion on the senses (and synaesthetic metaphor), see Porter (2010 and 2013) and the essays in Butler and Purves (2013). On the replacement of ‘primitive’ with ‘ethnographic’ for labeling dividuals (over individuals) see Whitley (2013), 396f.

53. An important exception is Porter (2010 and 2013), but otherwise I take my definition of the material largely from outside Classics. Bennett (2010a) categorizes under her ‘vibrant matter’ elements as diverse as electricity, hydrogenated fats, and the weather. Ingold (2011) argues that the shadow of a tree is as much a part of the material world as the tree itself, and includes within the material air, rain, snow, frost, fog, fire, smoke, molten lava, volcanic ash, and liquids of all kinds, ‘from ink to running water’ (21). See also Miller (2010), 70: ‘Is a hard thing, such as a stone, more material than a soft thing, such as a bubble? Is an idea that lasts more material than one that doesn't?’; and Brown (2003), whose work turns on the notion that ‘things and ideas should somehow merge’ (3).

54. Clarke (1999), 92-97; Walsh (2005), 205-17, 222-24.

55. As Stocking ([forthcoming], Ch. 1) observes, anger activates two image systems in Homeric poetry: anger as food and anger as fire. Both are in play here, with the smoke suggesting a ‘cooking’ in the chest (as he argues, in Greek the word for digesting [πέσσω, used of anger at Il. 1.81, 4.513, 9.565] has the sense of ‘ripening’ or ‘cooking’ rather than catabolic processing). See also, on anger, Holmes (this volume).

56. Holmes (2010), 64.

57. Erbse (1969-1988) ad loc.; Edwards (1991), ad loc. I discuss this use of pukinos in Purves (2013).

58. Stanford (1936), 53. He groups the phrase with other early Greek metaphors that mix sensory domains, such as ‘lily-voiced’ (ὄπα λειριόεσσαν) at Il. 3.152 (47-62; also discussed in Gavrylenko [2012], 494f.). See further LeVen (2013) on the transference between sound and sight terms in early Greek poetry.

59. Note the traditional tale, apparently told by the fourth-century mendacious traveler Antiphanes of Berge, of sounds that freeze in very cold air and then unfreeze again to be heard in the summertime. Plut. Mor. 79a; Hansen (2002), 146f.

60. I thank Catherine Connors and John Marzluff for helpful clarification of the kind of sounds made here by the birds. The ‘alarm calls’ of starlings, which is most likely what Homer is referring to here, consist of clicks and some buzzy noises; the latter are particularly vibratory. A sound file of startling alarm calls can be found here:

61. As if ἄϰρον were a substantive rather than an adjective: Cunliffe (1963), s.v. ἄϰρον, τό (4). This second construction has ἄϰρον causing its modifier to break physically into the genitive (ῥηγμίς to ῥηγμῖνος; compare the unbroken form of ϰαρπόν (wheat), bounded by nu, in ἄϰρον… ϰαρπὸν). For further discussion of the sea's surface and ἄϰρον in Homer, see Purves (forthcoming).

62. See above, p.80.

63. Cf. Od. 3.312.

64. 18.104. For the motif of the earth weighed down by bodies on its surface, see Il. 2.95f., 459-66; schol. D Il. 1.5; Cyp. Fr. 7.

65. Cf. Porter's discussion of Aesch. Sept. 100-03, where amidst the clashing of shields and spears the chorus shout ‘I see a sound!’ (ϰτύπον δέδορϰα): Porter (2013), 22.

66. OED A.2, s.v. Cf. Whitley (2013) on ‘dividuals’.

67. Bennett (2010a), 30, following Diana Coole.

68. Haraway (1991); Deleuze and Guattari (1987), 10; Ingold (2011), 51-62; Bennett (2010a), 1-19; Ahmed (2010). I am grateful to Helen Morales and Victoria Wohl for suggesting various parallels through which this material could be expanded: Lacan's sardine can, Haraway's cyborgs, Deleuze and Guattari's ‘becoming-wasp of the orchid’ and ‘becoming-orchid of the wasp’.

69. Mark Payne and Brooke Holmes first invited me to write on this topic for a panel on the ‘Ancient Nonhuman’ held at the meeting of the SLSA in 2012, and the paper has greatly benefited from both the discussion there and the other papers presented. I am also grateful to the audiences at the APA nonhuman panel and the Classics department at the University of Toronto for incisive feedback, as well as to Lilah Grace Canevaro, Melissa Mueller, Nigel Nicholson, Ralph Rosen, Mario Telò, Victoria Wohl, and the editors and readers of this volume for their suggestive comments on the written version.