On ‘connecting the dots’—metonymically—between a shield and a garland presented to Achilles

2021.04.03 | By Gregory Nagy

§0. In a book titled Masterpieces of Metonymy (Nagy 2016|2015, hereafter abbreviated as MoM), I showed line drawings of black-figure pictures painted on two vases, both of Athenian manufacture and both dated to the earlier years of the sixth century BCE. In both line drawings, we see a picturing of the hero Achilles, who at this very moment is reaching out to receive his Shield—as if for the very first time. The Shield of Achilles is being presented to him by his Nereid mother, the goddess Thetis. In this essay, I show those same pictures, but now in reverse order. For now, I show first the second of the two pictures, where we see Thetis presenting to Achilles not only a shield but also a garland. By contrast, in the first of the original two pictures, which has now become secondary for the sake of what I am arguing in this essay, Thetis is seen presenting to Achilles only the shield, but her sisters, other Nereids who are seen accompanying Thetis, are seen holding in their hands what seem to be garlands. In our newly-placed first picture, the singular garland presented to Achilles along with his Shield is clearly made of leaves. As for the newly-placed second picture, we see painted on the surface of the Shield a picture within our picture. Painted on the Shield of Achilles is a single flower—a generic kind of flower that is generally given a generic description by art historians: they call it a rosette. And, elsewhere, rosettes generally appear in the plural, as a series of decorative patterns—again I am thinking in terms of generic descriptions used by art historians. In any case, what I argue in this essay is that garlands, which are in general made from flowers as well as from leaves, are metonymically connected with shields. I deliberately express this connectivity by using the plural forms of these words instead of the singular: garlands, leaves, flowers, shields. That is because, as we will see, the metonymic connectivity of garlands and shields was expressed, in ancient Greek song culture, by way of the various different kinds of plantlife that flourished in various different regions of the Greek-speaking world.

Attic black-figure hydria: Thetis presenting shield and garland to Achilles. Attributed to the Tyrrhenian Group. Paris, Musée du Louvre, E869. Line drawing by Valerie Woelfel. For the overall vase, I cite the Beazley Archive, here.
Attic black-figure column krater: Thetis presenting shield and other pieces of armor to Achilles. Attributed to the Painter of London B76. Berlin, Staatliche Museen, Antikensammlungen, 3763. Line drawing by Valerie Woelfel. For the overall vase, I cite the Beazley Archive, here.

§1.0. In making the point I just made, I need to recall my working definition of metonymy in Masterpieces of Metonymy (MoM 0§01, following what I formulated in an earlier book, Nagy 2013 [hereafter abbreviated H24H] 4§32) which I correlate with my working definition of metaphor:

– Metonymy is a mental process that expresses meaning by connecting something to something else that is next to it or at least near to it, thereby making contact.

– Metaphor is a mental process that expresses meaning by substituting something for something else.

§1.1. From the start, I confronted in my book (at MoM 0§03) a potential obstacle to my argumentation—an obstacle that also needs to be confronted in my essay. The word substitution in my working definition of metaphor may be misunderstood. Let me clarify: when I say substitution, I am referring not to the simple replacement of one word by another. Even the use of metonymy can involve replacements in wording. Rather, the process of substitution in the use of metaphor is something that transcends words: substitution in metaphor is a mental process where one way of thinking is replaced by another way that is alien to the previous way.

§1.2. In the light of such a clarification (which applies also to my earlier formulation in H24H 4§32), I need to offer a supplementary working definition of metonymy (MoM 0§3, supplementing what I say in the earlier paragraph, already cited, at MoM 0§03). To restate, then: metonymy is a mental process of connecting things that are familiar rather than alien to the self.

§2. That said, I return to a point I made in the introductory paragraph (§0) of my essay here—about the various different kinds of plantlife that flourished in various different regions of the Greek-speaking world. The differences in plantlife, as I now hope to clarify, were connected to differences in local customs involving myth and ritual. Different people in different locales would be familiar with different forms of plantlife involved in their myths and rituals. And, since the plants that produce flowers as well as leaves would be different from locale to locale, there was a vast variety of garlands that a local population would be weaving when they string together the leaves and flowers of their local plantlife. To express the idea of localized variety, I have already used the plural leaves and flowers instead of their singular counterparts.

§3. For an example of such localized variety, I start by focusing on the myths and rituals of the people of Argos in their celebration of the Hēraia, a seasonally recurring festival held in honor of their primary goddess, Hērā. A centerpoint for the rituals of this festival at Argos was a presentation of a bronze shield and a garland of myrtle to winners in a contest—which was presumably an athletic competition. I cite the testimony of the Scholia for Pindar Olympian 7.152c 1 ABCEQ:  

τελεῖται δὲ κατὰ τὸ Ἄργος τὰ Ἥραια ἢ τὰ Ἑκατόμβαια διὰ τὸ ἑκατὸν βοῦς θύεσθαι τῇ θεῷ. τὸ δὲ ἆθλον, ἀσπὶς χαλκῆ· οἱ δὲ στέφανοι ἐκ μυρσίνης.

The festival of the Hēraia or Hekatombaia at Argos is ritually enacted [teleîsthai] with the sacrifice [thuein] of one hundred cattle to the goddess. And the prize-to-be-won-in-competition [athlon] is a bronze shield [aspis khalkē]. According to other sources, the prizes are garlands [stephanoi] made of myrtle [mursinē].

§4. Here I return to the Athenian picture that I showed at the beginning of this essay, where we see Achilles being presented with a shield and a garland by his Nereid mother, the goddess Thetis. I highlight a parallelism with what we have just read in the scholia for Pindar about a seasonally recurring festival of the goddess Hērā at Argos, where the young men of the city, who would be entering into adult status as citizen-warriors, were competing with each other for the prize of being presented with a shield and, according to other sources, with a garland of myrtle. So also Achilles is being presented with a shield and a garland before he ever heads off to Troy to encounter his very first wartime experiences.

§5. In the Athenian vase-painting, what we see being pictured is the notionally “original” Shield of Achilles, not the new Shield that we see being masterfully described in Iliad 18. Such a new Shield would be of course a replacement of the “original” Shield that Patroklos was carrying off to battle in Iliad 16 when he volunteered to become a personal replacement for Achilles. By contrast, the “original” would be the same Shield that Hector will be carrying off after he kills Patroklos in Iliad 16 and after he despoils the armor of Achilles in Iliad 17. It is almost unnecessary for me to emphasize here that the old armor of Achilles, to be replaced by the new armor to be made for him by Hephaistos in Iliad 18, again at the request of Thetis, who had “originally” requested the old armor for her son when he first set out for war at Troy, would have of course included the old “original” Shield.

§6. All that I have just said about the presentation of an “original” shield, along with a garland, in the first of the two pictures I have shown earlier, both painted on vases of Athenian manufacture that are dated to the earlier years of the sixth century BCE, is relevant to my overall argument, as formulated at the beginning, that there is a metonymic connection between shields and garlands. But I still need to explain how this argument applies to a specific detail that we have read in the scholia for Pindar, namely, that the garlands presented as prizes along with shields at the festival of Hērā in Argos were woven specifically with the leaves or flowers of an evergreen tree or bush (in its more domesticated state) that is called the mursinē or ‘myrtle’, known as Myrtus communis to botanists today. This plant, widespread in the Mediterranean world, can be markedly varied in form: different kinds of myrtle, in some cases native to different locales, show different colors when they blossom with flowers, ranging from red to pink to white, and there are different seasons for the blossoming of different kinds of myrtle, ranging from early spring all the way to late autumn. So, we are faced with a problem here, since the garland represented in the first of the two pictures I show in this essay is so stylized as to seem generic. Although I just said a moment ago that garlands can be woven specifically with the flowers as well as the leaves of a given plant, there are no flowers to be seen on the garland that is being presented to Achilles. And the leaves of the garland are too stylized to be identified as revealing the morphology of a specific plant like the myrtle, so that it seems safer to say that we see generic leaves here. As for the prominent flower that is painted on the shield presented to Achilles in the second of the two pictures I show in this essay, that flower is likewise stylized: to say that this flower is a rosette is merely to say that we see here a generic flower. 

§7. Even in the specific case of the festival of Hērā at Argos, although we have read in the scholia for Pindar that the garlands worn there are made specifically of myrtle, we cannot be certain whether these garlands were woven with the flowers of the myrtle or merely with the leaves. It all depends, of course, on the timing of the festival of Hērā in this case: when would myrtles blossom in Argos? I should think that the festival was synchronized with such a time of blossoming, but, as I said earlier, the range of seasonality for the blossoming of myrtles can vary from early spring all the way to late autumn. An example of late blossoming comes from a passage in the Hērōïkos of Phlostratus, who flourished in the early third century CE: in this work about hero cults, a character who is the groundskeeper of a garden that is sacred to the cult hero Protesilaos is quoted as saying that the breeze that he has just felt blowing his way is really the exhaled breath of the hero himself, and that this hero ‘smells sweeter than myrtles [múrtoi] in autumn’ (ἀπόζει αὐτοῦ ἥδιον ἢ τοῦ μετοπώρου τῶν μύρτων: Hērōïkos 10.2). In this case, the whole scene in the sacred garden takes place in the late autumn (Hērōïkos 3.2), and the setting itself is described as a perfection of right timing, of the right hōrā ‘season’ (again, Hērōïkos 3.2). I must add that this hōrā is described as poikilē ‘varied’ at a later point (Hērōïkos 3.5): that is to say, the beauty of nature is never the same, always changing from one delightful vision to the next (H24H 14§16; on the sense of poikilos ‘varied’ as ‘never the same’, I cite HPC 306-307 | II§453, with special reference to Plato Republic 8.568d).

§8. I find it relevant to epitomize here what I have said elsewhere about hōrā in this same context (H24H 14§17). As we see here in the Hērōïkos of Philostratus (3.2, 3.5), the word hōrā, meaning ‘season, seasonality’, is the ‘perfect time’ for the epiphany of a cult hero like Protesilaos in his own cultivated garden (3.5). The beauty of the garden is linked to the presence of the cult hero, who delights in the natural beauty by manifesting himself in epiphanies, showing off his own beauty as an exercising athlete (3.6). Here I expand on my working definition of this word hōrā: it means not only ‘season, seasonality’ but also ‘the right time, the perfect time’. Further, the idea of hōrā is related to the very idea of the goddess Hērā as the immortal model of seasonality, and to the idea of the human hērōs ‘hero’ (plural hērōes) as the mortal model (H24H 1§§26-29). 

§9. Before we leave the specific example of Protesilaos as a mortal model of hōrā or ‘seasonality’, which as we know from other contexts is the primary characteristic of Hērā as the immortal model—as the goddess of seasons—I note that such an idealization of the seasons, in the case of Protesilaos, is described as epi-khari in the Hērōïkos of Philostratus (10.2): τὸ γὰρ ἐπίχαρι αὐτῷ φίλον ‘whatever is epi-khari is near and dear [philon] to him’. In analyzing this passage, I once translated epi-khari as ‘charming’ (H24H 14§29), which is appropriate to one of the general meanings of the noun kharis as ‘charm, charisma’. This meaning, as we will see, is relevant to the basic idea of seasonality as embodied in the person of the goddess Hērā herself. Of further relevance, as we will now also see, is the even more general and abstract meaning of kharis as ‘pleasurable beauty’, which can be connected directly to a far more specific and concrete meaning, ‘garland of myrtles’. 

§10. A traditional term for referring to blossoms of myrtle was in fact kharites, which is the plural form of kharis, the abstract meaning of which, as I just said, is ‘pleasurable beauty’. To put it another way, the word kharis could refer metonymically to the festive use of myrtle blossoms in the making of garlands, as we see in the Scholia D (via Scholia A) for Iliad 17.51 (commentary in HPC 295–296 | II §424):

Μακεδόνες δὲ καὶ Κύπριοι χάριτας λέγουσι τὰς συνεστραμμένας καὶ οὔλας μυρσίνας, ἃς φαμὲν στεφανίτιδας.

Macedonians and Cypriotes use the word kharites [= plural of kharis] with reference to myrtle-blossoms [mursinai] that are compacted and curled [around a garland]. We call them garland-blossoms [stephanitides]. 

§11 [epitomizing MoM 4§145]. We can actually see the same metonymic reference in Argive usage, as reflected in the diction of Pindar. In a song of his that celebrates the winner of a wrestling event at the festival of Hērā in Argos, we find the plural of kharis, that is, kharites, personified as the Kharites or ‘Graces’, and these divine attendants of Hērā are invoked at the very beginning of the song (Pindar Nemean 10.1: Χάριτες).

§12 [epitomizing MoM 4§146]. There is a parallel metonymic reference reported by Pausanias (2.17.3–4): when this traveler enters the temple of Hērā in Argos, he sees inside the pronaos, that is, when he gets inside the front third of the temple, a set of archaic statues that are known to the Argives as the Kharites or ‘Graces’, those divine attendants of Hērā who personify the pleasurable beauty of kharis; and, remarkably, Pausanias reports seeing next to the Kharites an archaic shield, presumably made of bronze, which once belonged to the hero Euphorbos (commentary in HPC 296 | II§427). In the Homeric Iliad, where the death of this hero is described, the droplets of blood that grace the hair of the dead Euphorbos are actually compared by way of simile to kharites, and the word seems to be referring in this context to red blossoms of myrtles­­­­, as we see in Iliad 17. 51–52: 

|51 αἵματί οἱ δεύοντο κόμαι χαρίτεσσιν ὁμοῖαι |52 πλοχμοί θ’. 

|51 With blood bedewed were his locks of hair, looking like kharites, |52 with the curls and all.

§13. In the overall context of Iliad 17.51–59, there is a modulation from red to white coloring in a complex simile that extends from lines 51–52, focusing on the red color of myrtle blossoms, to lines 53–59, focusing on the white color of olive blossoms (HPC 296 | II§425n80). 

§14. The interplay here of two sequential colors, red and then white, in this Homeric simile that starts off by describing the droplets of the blood besprinkling the disheveled hair of a freshly-killed youth whose name is Euphorbos, which is a speaking name that pictures the ‘beautiful’ (eu-) ‘flourishing’ (-phorbos) of plantlife, is pointedly relevant to what I think we see in the simile, blossoms of myrtle, which can in real life be colored either red or white, unlike the blossoms of olive, which can only be white. The explicit whiteness that modulates from the redness of the blood in this simile accentuates a theme that we can find elsewhere as well in Greek poetry, where the redness of blood pictured as flowing from the living body of a beautiful youth who is freshly killed is contrasted with the whiteness of his dead body after all the life-blood has been drained out. Flowers like myrtles or anemones or even roses, all of which can have either red or white blossoms, are most appropriate for expressing such a poetic theme—which in fact reflects a mythological theme of great antiquity. A case in point is the mythology surrounding the death of Adonis, beautiful lover of Aphrodite—a goddess for whom flowers like myrtles and anemones and roses are all sacred. A striking example of this mythological theme can be found in the poem Lament for Adonis, by Bion of Smyrna (second / first century BCE). Even though the poetry of Bion himself is of course far newer than the poetry of the Homeric Iliad, the myth about the death of Adonis as retold in the Lament by Bion reveals elements that date far back enough in time as to predate, in terms of my reconstruction, even the relatively early entry of the very idea of Adonis into the Greek-speaking world. I add here an epitome of my reconstruction, as presented in paragraphs §§11–14 of another essay (Nagy  2021.01.09, linked here):

§15 [epitomizing §11]. As we read in Lament for Adonis by Bion, the very first rose that ever blossomed in this world had originated from the blood of Adonis—after a mighty boar that he was hunting gored him in the thigh with his tusk, so that the boy bled to death. We read about it at lines 64–66 of the Lament

§16 [epitomizing §12]. But there is more to it. The blood of Adonis is connected to the love of Aphrodite. I focus here on a detail in the Lament of Bion, at lines 6–14. We read here that blood was pumping out of the gash in the thigh of Adonis before the moment of his death, but it stopped flowing when that moment finally arrived, and now the blood was drained even from his rosy lips when, at the very moment of death, Aphrodite kissed those lips of his for the last time—or maybe not at all for the last time ever. Here are the lines from the Lament of Bion, 6–14, followed by my working translation:

         αἰάζω τὸν Ἄδωνιν· ἐπαιάζουσιν Ἔρωτες.
         κεῖται καλὸς Ἄδωνις ἐν ὤρεσι μηρὸν ὀδόντι,
         λευκῷ λευκὸν ὀδόντι τυπείς, καὶ Κύπριν ἀνιῇ
{10} λεπτὸν ἀποψύχων· τὸ δέ οἱ μέλαν εἴβεται αἷμα
         χιονέας κατὰ σαρκός, ὑπ’ ὀφρύσι δ’ ὄμματα ναρκῇ,
         καὶ τὸ ῥόδον φεύγει τῶ χείλεος· ἀμφὶ δὲ τήνῳ
         θνᾴσκει καὶ τὸ φίλημα, τὸ μήποτε Κύπρις ἀποίσει.
         Κύπριδι μὲν τὸ φίλημα καὶ οὐ ζώοντος ἀρέσκει,
         ἀλλ’ οὐκ οἶδεν Ἄδωνις ὅ νιν θνᾴσκοντ’ ἐφίλησεν.

         I cry aiai—I make this lamenting cry for Adonis. And lamenting
              in response are the Cupids [Erōtes].
         [He lies there, dead,] the beautiful Adonis is lying there. In the
              mountains—his thigh, the [boar’s] tusk
         —the gleaming-white tusk had struck his gleaming-white thigh,
              and, for Aphrodite, he [now] makes-passionate-pain [aniân]
              for her [to feel], 
         as he oh-so-delicately [leptón] breathes-out-his-breath-of-life,
              and, with his dark blood running down
{10} his snowy flesh, his eyes, as they look up from under his brow,
              are-glazing-over [narkân].
         Now the rose [rhodon] escapes from his lip, and on that lip
         dies also the kiss that Aphrodite will maybe-never [mē-pote]
         For Aphrodite the kiss—even though he is now not alive—gives
         but he does not know, Adonis does not, that she, as he dies, has
              just kissed him.

§17 [epitomizing §13]. According to some (for example, Reed 1997:201), the blood of Adonis at line 11 of the Lament by Bion is a rhodon ‘rose’ simply because the lips of Adonis once had a rosy color—before the blood was drained out of them by death. While I agree that the poetry of Bion has metaphorized here the mythological idea that the blood of Adonis was transformed into the very first rose that ever blossomed in our world, I still prefer to interpret the rose at line 11 of Bion as mythologically the same “real” blood that was “really” circulating in the body of Adonis until it got drained out, even from his lips, through the open wound of the gash inflicted by the boar’s tusk. My interpretation is supported, I think, by the existence of variant myths about the death of Adonis, where the blood that flows from the open wound of this boy-love of Aphrodite is transformed not into a rose, which is what we read at line 66 of the Lament by Bion, but into other flowers, such as the anemone or anemṓnē ‘wind-flower’ (as we read in Scholion 831 for line 26 of Lycophron, Alexandra; also in the Scholia for line 92 of Idyll 5 of Theocritus; the story is most memorably narrated in Ovid’s Metamorphoses 10.731–739; extensive documentation of the primary sources by Reed 1997:233). 

§18 [epitomizing §14]. And there also existed, I now propose, a variant myth where the blood of Adonis was transformed into the flower of a myrtle-tree. In this case, although we have no direct evidence, the indirect evidence is of great antiquity. I start with a report by Pausanias (6.24.6-7), analyzed in a previous essay (Nagy 2020.12.31, linked here), about the connections of Aphrodite and Adonis, as a pair, with myrtles as well as roses. As Pausanias says, the statues of the Kharites or ‘Graces’ that he sees in the agora of the people of Elis are linked with roses and myrtles, since one of the three ‘Graces’ is represented as holding a rose while another of the three is holding a spray of myrtle. In the case of the mursinē or ‘myrtle’, as Pausanias calls it, I find it significant that the word kharis itself, as I have noted, is viewed as the embodiment of blossoms grown by the myrtle tree—whether these blossoms are colored red or white.


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Nagy, G. 2021.03.27. “On visualizing heavenly origins for particularized icons in the Greek-speaking world of today.” Classical Inquiries. https://classical-inquiries.chs.harvard.edu/on-visualizing-heavenly-origins-for-particularized-icons-in-the-greek-speaking-world-of-today/.

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