This paper analyzes personified metaphors of Death in the Homeric poems, arguing for their grounding in cross-cultural continuities of embodiment and for their subtle poetic function within the Iliad and Odyssey. Due to death’s phenomenological elusiveness, it is paradoxically construed through conceptual metaphors and metonymies that emerge from lived bodily experience (Crespo-Fernández 2006). Recent and forthcoming research in Classics-oriented cognitive linguistics (Horn 2018, Zanker 2019) has accounted for and analyzed several of these embodied metaphors as they appear in the Homeric poems.
This paper focuses on the personified metaphor of death as a pursuer (Lakoff and Turner 1989, 46), arguing that the Homeric poems use this metaphor in purposeful and contextually sensitive ways. In Homeric poetry to die is “to be caught (by death),” as if during one’s life one is constantly pursued by an invisible assailant until the moment of death (Il. 12.172, 21.281; Od. 5.312, 24.34, cf. Clarke 1999, 231–3). Death itself is something from which one must “escape,” and this notion is deeply embedded within the formulaic system of Homeric poetry (Il. 12.113, 15.287, 21.565; Od. 2.352, 5.387, 17.547, 19.558, 22.66, 23.332). When Death “seizes” the eyes of the dying hero (…τὸν δὲ κατ' ὄσσε / ἔλλαβε πορφύρεος θάνατος καὶ μοῖρα κραταιή [Il. 5.82–3, 16.333–4, 20.476–7]), this metaphorically represents the end of life through somatosensory experience (closure is touch) in a way that emphasizes a loss of bodily control (surprising [someone] is a sudden seizure).
The core of this paper will analyze how the metaphor of death as a pursuing agent is found in a more elaborate form, life is a chase. This metaphor explains why death in the Homeric poems only “seizes” the eyes of heroes who have just been “seized” by a pursuing foe in the narrative. Of the three heroes whose eyes are “seized” by death, Hypsenor is run-down by Eurypulus (…φεύγοντα μεταδρομάδην ἔλασ' ὦμον, Il. 5.80), Cleobulus is taken alive by Oilean Ajax before dying (ζωὸν ἕλε, Il. 16.331), and Echeclus is killed by Achilles, who earlier vowed to chase whomever he could catch (νῦν δ' ἄλλους Τρώων ἐπιείσομαι, ὅν κε κιχείω, Il. 20.454).
The paper concludes by treating a complex, enculturated, and elaborate version of this metaphor, life is a stadion-race, in which one’s finishing-place in a footrace is proportional to the length of one’s life. In a very specific Homeric twist, this one-off metaphor blends the temporal length of a hero’s life with the spatial distance from Troy that he reaches before dying. Recognition of this metaphor sheds new light on the footrace in the funeral games of Iliad 23 (Odysseus wins the race and dies in old age at home in Ithaca; Oilean Ajax finishes second and dies at sea in adulthood; and Antilochus is third and dies at Troy in his youth).
Metaphor in Early Greek Poetry