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Diary    H4'ed 4/10/20

The Magic Word in Homer

This reminds me of the harbor in Stavro, Thiaki, Greece, thought to be ancient Ithaka, Odysseus's long-sought and finally regained homeland.
This reminds me of the harbor in Stavro, Thiaki, Greece, thought to be ancient Ithaka, Odysseus's long-sought and finally regained homeland.
(Image by Katsujiro Maekawa)
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Words, UnLtd. November 1999


The Magic Word in Homer

Back in the olden days, they say, before the Grecian Grandeur, things were a lot simpler. There were no intellectuals and no philosophers and therefore no abstractions. Life was nitty gritty. People worried about winning wars and appeasing the gods and acquiring a lot of jewels and power and eating well and storing lots of olives in the pantry and lots of sheep in the pasture. The shamans or soothsayers were the closest thing to philosopher/intellectuals. Some people even theorize that our minds were more primitively shaped back then, "bicameral," as it were, far closer to the animals. Be that as it may.

There are lots of abstract words in Homer, however, that belie all this. One of them is euphrosuneà , another homophrosuneà , each referring to different sorts of rapport that prevail, ideally, in love relationships. Some scholars conclude that these abstractions were added later than the time of Homer. But another transcendent abstraction is very Homeric and not so easily dismissed. It encompasses far more than ideal relationships. In one word it embraces everything a person back then, or anytime before or since, could ever want. It has to be authentic because it is present throughout Homer in its many spectral aspects, so versatile that its specific reference must be highlighted at each occurrence.

To Homer, everything a person could want was portrayed as "everything on the ground." To be exactly where you want to be in life was expressed by the related concept "to be on the ground." The concept "on the ground" is abstracted to mean "firm, strong, steady, level-headed, sure and certain" among other things. Concretely, it also means "present, not absent or somewhere else," "on the ground, not at sea or hanging in the air," "on course, not off course," and so on. Antonym concepts are frequently expressed in its midst in order to define it clearly as well as specify which aspect of this catch-all the context requires, just because it has so many applications. It is a catalyst, in other words, always provoking clarification.

There is but one place in Homer where our actual phrase "to be on the ground" occurs: at a point when Odysseus entreats the king of Phaeacia for a free ride on one of his magic ships back to Ithaka. If Phaeacia is actually the modern Corfu, this was not much of a request, since Corfu is right across the bay from present-day Ithaka. Problem is, angry Poseidon, Odysseus's nemesis, turned their magic boat to stone on their way back, still angry at Odysseus for blinding his son, the Cyclops, at the beginning of his journey home from Troy. So he visits this punishment on other children of his. The verb used to describe the action of freezing the magic ship is enepedese, "rendered immobile," with the same ped- root we find in the other word forms in this study of empedon. But this is all tangential to our theme, empedosuneà . Three times in the Odyssey the noun counterpart to "being on the ground" is expressed, with the very appropriate modifier "all" added, to encompass not just some of what Odysseus was striving to regain but all of it, "everything on the ground." "Does Penelope remain with my son and watch over everything on the ground?" the hero asks twice, "or has she remarried and moved elsewhere, betraying her trust?" "To watch the ground" evolved into the more abstract concept "to be still" in nearly all the romance languages, terram intueri in Latin, most notably, "not to move from a place." To be "on the ground" in Homer means "to be still, not in motion," motion a concept also poetically abstracted as being at sea, which applies mentally as well as concretely, according to many Homerists. To them the sea in that ancient poem symbolizes the entire realm of the irrational that the hero confronted so bravely, also disorientation and all the dangers the seafaring Greeks of that era so dreaded: squalls, shipwreck, piracy, what have you.

When Odysseus beseeches Alkinoos for a conveyance home, he pairs the concepts "being on the ground" and "conveyance." The line in question, 8.30, says literally, "He beseeches a conveyance and is dying to be back 'on the ground,'" [meaning 'on his ground, among everything he cherishes']. Throughout Homer, not only are these concepts always clarified, as mentioned above, but the two themes "conveyance" and "on the ground" are paired together repeatedly, variations also spinning off ad infinitum; verbal counterparts also appear together repeatedly and then at times synonyms with different etymologies are substituted, all within a very complex metrical scheme that only the "primitives" could generate with uncanny skill, a sort of mother's milk our twentieth-century mentalities could not begin to recreate, even with our prosaic computers. One semantic but not etymological equivalent to "be on the ground" turns out to be "everything his heart desires." Another doublet corresponding to "conveyance/return home" evolves to "pamper and dote upon." All of these metrical equivalents, that is, units of meaning within a line that correspond, i.e., can replace each other like building blocks of verse, confirm the evidence that the poet Homer was aware of meanings and varied nuances and implications and was skillful enough to substitute one for another with convincing spontaneity and acute awareness.

The adjectival equivalent to "on the ground' occurs twice in close proximity at the climactic recognition scene of the poem, the anagnorisis between Odysseus and Penelope, where they let down all reserve and embrace and allow their dramatic reunion to occur. The "sure and certain" clues they provide each other at this point, and those the hero slips to his other loyal supporters in this crucial part of the poem are all modified by the same adjective, "on the ground." But right in the midst of the crucial anagnorisis Penelope is compared to a sailor regaining dry land after a shipwreck at sea, Odysseus being her earth in this pivotal image, a role reversal indicating a poetic awareness of the power of metaphors and the battles women fought on other frontiers than Troy or any overt scenario of physical violence gone amuck. Mental cruelty can be just as enervating as fighting spear to spear and blade to blade, Homer is telling us.

What is even more uncanny is that this same imagery crops up again and again throughout Western, Indo European literature. Closest to Homer, it occurs in Aeschylus, whose work is saturated with Homeric language and whose Agamemnon resonates with Odyssey allusions just as the Odyssey refers to Agamemnon's sorry fate as an unhappy counterpoint to the triumphant reunion between Odysseus and Penelope despite so many overwhelming obstacles, human nature certainly not the most negligible among them. Aeschylus uses the image of foot touching ground ("foot" and "ground" are cognate concepts in ancient Greek, and Homer displays this awareness in our context again and again) to suggest return home and Klytemnestra uses the same "sailor escaped from shipwreck" image as does Homer, but in her context the image is, of course, sadly and cruelly ironic considering the tragic outcome of Agamemnon's attempt at duplicating Odysseus's triumph.

We find the "on the ground" as opposed to "off the ground" in the sense of "divine versus human" in ancient Sanskrit epic, where the Penelope figure Damayanti recognizes a god masquerading as her husband because his feet can't touch the ground but hang slightly above it. The Greek Presocraticphilosopher Parmenides echoes Homer's ideal "groundedness" by defining his "what-is" as "ungenerableand indestructible, indivisible, immobile, and complete or perfect" (his formulaic awareness of the concept is also apparent at 28B126-27). In his Nemean 56-57, Pindar juxtaposes "on-the-ground destiny" with "complete good fortune." At the poetic and formulaic level, Parmenides echoes Homer's language also, juxtaposing at consecutive verse ends "send/return home" and the antonym "off the track/path" (lines 26-27). Dante, uncannily, millennia later, exhibits a poetic awareness of this Homeric association in the Paradiso (I.139-41) of his Divina Comedia in a similar, didactic context. The evidence seems limitless and ubiquitous. I never stop finding it, in other research contexts, accidentally, where it is not my main focus at all.

Scholars have studied Homer ever since scholarship first came into being as we know it, which was not long after Homer himself first sang these verses. But no study of earth imagery per se survives from that time; what we have, throughout the history of Western literature since then, however, is the echo of this concept at an artistic, unconscious level, as if these immortal contributors to our culture had read Homer in the original and assimilated him to a level where they reiterate his themes spontaneously, un"footnoted" because it exists in their semi-consciousness as much as anywhere else. It was a universal, a poetic association, a love of the earth and all it signifies and suggests poetically, but the echoes are so precise that one wonders and marvels and almost concludes that this thesis, my thesis was written in fifth-century Athens to explicate Homer, because one finds it among poets rather than ancient (the Alexandrian scholiasts read it differently!) or more recent scholarship. The abstraction is decidedly universal but the language to express it that keeps reappearing seems too precise to be spontaneous. A systematic collection of all these sources is warranted and perhaps the most ancient testimony will someday be discovered a project probably in the hands of archaeologists and epigraphers as much as philologists, and not out of the question, considering all the new ways evolving to revive the past and rediscover material evidence we can now prevent from disintegrating before being captured and preserved for all time.

Also sprach A.C. 10/18/99

*Note: "AC" stands for "a classicist." This is a version of my master's thesis that I translated for the public (I hate the term "non-classicist") without the foreign-language philology. It was first published in the newsletter I edited for the university press where I worked, then republished in my hard-copy newsletter "Words, UnLtd." In case anyone read my previous public diary and became interested in my thesis, here it is in accessible form. Anyone who wants to see the original is most welcome to--just email Thanks for reading this. I thought it might provide a pleasant escape from the reality of the Next Noahs, who won't last long underground. How do we reach posterity after this next deluge? How can we distill what was good about it, once literacy returns, if it ever does, or another way to interpret our heritage, the good part. The bad part will live in infamy. Will the good "lie interred with us"?

Copyright  Marta Steele 1999, 2003, 2020. All rights reserved.

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Marta Steele is an author/editor/blogger who has been writing for since 2006. She is also author of the 2012 book "Grassroots, Geeks, Pros, and Pols: The Election Integrity Movement's Nonstop Battle to Win Back the People's Vote, (more...)

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