How do We Recognize and Read Metaphors in Ancient Texts?

⇩ Download as PDF

“L’image y est réduite au schéma. Mais leschéma c’est l’image encore.”

“The image is reduced to the schema, but the schema is still the image.”

(France 1895, 276)

How do you know that someone with whom you are communicating used a word metaphorically? For example, suppose on a military campaign you heard someone say, “John bought it yesterday.”  You might very well hypothesize this statement to mean that this soldier was killed in combat. The reason for hypothesizing “buy” to mean “be killed” is that in the context of battle you are somehow aware of this metaphorical use of the word “buy,” even though this awareness might be no more than an intuitive grasp. A cognitve linguist could clarify your intuition by pointing out that the metaphorical meaning is “motivated” by a sense of the word “buy” that precedes the metaphorical sense; we might call this the “motivator.” In Conceptual Metaphor Theory (CMT) the motivator is what is called the source frame and that which was “motivated,” i.e., the metaphor, the target frame. The source frame motivates a metaphor when its inferential structure is mapped by a reader/listener onto the target frame (Dancygier and Sweetser 2014, p. 4; ch. 2). This idea of a frame is based in what Charles Fillmore originally called “scenes-and-frames” semantics (Fillmore 1977). In his early writing he seperated what he called a scene from the frame. He called the vocabulary used to talk about the scene, a frame. In Fillmore’s terms a metaphor is applying “a frame (=set of vocabulary) that is associated in advance with one scene to a novel scene” (Fillmore 1977, 70). Thus, the reason “buy” can be understood to mean “be killed” is that there is a motivating scene on which comprehension of the metaphor is dependent. In this case, the motivating scene that preceded this metaphor would be the COMMERCIAL TRANSACTION scene. This scene includes a “buyer,” “goods,” “money,” “the store,” etc. and a series of expectations that are based on repeated involvments in commercial transactions. The scene-and-frame is mapped on to the event of a death on the battlefield with the use of the word “buy.” The soldier <= buyer> “buys” the bullet <= the goods> with his life <= money> on the battlefield <= the store>.

You may find this explanation satisfactory because of your immersion in our western culture and its practices of commercial transactions. However, now we need to ask: How does a scholar reading an ancient text know that a word is being used metaphorically? I don’t think that we have the intuitive luxury in reading an ancient text that we have with our native language. I don’t think we can accurately make intuitive determinations when studying word forms that come to us, so to speak, out of nowhere. Instead we must rely soley on a mechanical procedure which mimics intuition. When we come across a word that we hypothesize is a metaphor, we accordingly search for the scene-and-frame that is the motivator.

In what follows I will explore the question of motivator-motivated with respect to metaphor in ancient texts with a look at the ancient Greek adjective ἄσυλος, ásylos. I will leave this Greek word untranslated and expect the scenes in which it is used to lend a meaning to it. Just to be clear a motivator is not just a word form, it is a “scene” which has a set of vocabulary, a “frame.” Any part of this frame, even one word, can evoke a scene as the motivator for a metaphor.


This adjective ásylos comes “out of nowhere” in the 5th c. B.C.E. in the plays of Euripides and in the Poem of Parmenides. I will have room to only give a brief sketch of Euripides’ use of ásylos in his play Helen. This play tells an odd story about how the “real” Helen was taken in a cloud by Hermes to Egypt. The “Helen” that was present at Troy was merely an εἴδωλον ἔμπνουν, eídōlon émpnoun “a breathing (living) image” (Eur. Helen 31-36). The real Helen was brought to Egypt to keep the λέχος, léchos “(marriage)-bed” unmixed with men in faithfulness to her husband Menelaus. She was able to be “ásylos of marriages” with the protection of Egypt’s King, Proteus. (Helen 45-61). Is this a metaphorical use of this adjective? If we hypothesize that it is, then there must be a motivating scene that precedes Euripides use of the adjective. It’s meaning in Euripides will be dependent on this motivator. To find such a scene, we use everything at our disposal.

The morphology of the adjective ásylos provides an important clue as to where to look for a motivating scene with which the adjective might be associated. Ásylos is the alpha privative of the of verb συλᾶν (sylân) (Beeks and van Beek 2010, 1422), thus yielding the construction ásyl-os, perhaps something like “un-syl-able” in English. According to Langacker, “Negation evokes as background the positive conception of what is being denied” (Langacker 1991, 59). In other words, it is impossible to understand the privative nature of the deverbal adjective á-sylos, without being familiar with what is being denied: the scene of sylân-ing. To confirm this association Euripides tells of the death of the king and now his son, the antagonist Theoclymenus is trying to sylân Helen by forcing her to marry and have intercourse with him (Helen 975-990). If he succeeds, Helen would no longer be ásyl-os of marriages. So, we look for the motivator with the verb sylân.

The Motivator

I mentioned above that in an ancient text a motivator should have precedence. The earliest attestations of sylân occur in Homer’s Iliad, 8th-7th B.C.E. The verb occurs twenty-six times. Twenty-four of those occurrences are descriptions of soldiers in the heat of battle sylân-ing or attempting to sylân the τεύχεα (teúchea) “full suite of armor” off their slain enemies. These suites of armor had great value and the purpose of this action was to devalue the enemy both monetarily and symbolically. The sylân scene is a component of the battle scene. Every time there is a battle there is the expectation for the sylân-ing event to take place. The fallen warrior’s comrades in arms were expected to stop the sylân-ing from taking place and so render the fallen soldier á-syl-os.

From this data the event structure of this scene can be formed. It consists of four basic roles: 1) an Item of Value, the possession in question 2) the Owner, the possessor of the item of value who has been rendered vulnerable; 3) the Aggressor, the would-be possessor struggling for possession of the item value; 4) the Protector, an ally of the vulnerable Owner, trying to stop the Aggressor from achieving the goal. These four roles are invariably evoked (presupposed) with the use of the verb sylân; they comprise the invariant semantic structure or generic space of the sylân scene.

The Motivated

Euripides’ use of the ásylos/sylân pair in a would  be novel scene suggests that the adjective was considered a part of the frame. The roles that I established in that sylân scene in the Iliad are all present and introduced in Helen’s opening speech in the play. The “item of value” is Helen. The “owner rendered vulnerable” is Menelaus. The role of “protector” changes hands from first king Proteus to his daughter and eventually to Poseidon. The “aggressor” is Theoclymenus.

Did Euripides have as his point of departure the sylân scene as represented in Homer? Or was there another culturally entrenched sylân scene that Euripides may have had in mind? This is important to determine as closely as possible for as Fillmore intimates, in a metaphor the new scene is derived from an original concrete scene as entrenched in a culture. In other words, the metaphor is not derived from the invariant semantic structure in and of itself; it is derived via a “flesh and blood” scene. Or as Dancygier and Sweetser put it “the intersubjectively accessible” (Dancygier and Sweetser 2014, 65).

The citizens in the audience would be well versed in the sylân scenes as found in Homer. Euripides’ Helen in particular would evoke Helen as the woman who was the cause of the Trojan war, along with the story of how Apollo stopped Menelaus from carrying away the armor he had sylân-ed from Euphorbus (Iliad 17.59-71). However, at the same time there is competition. Also fresh in the minds of the audience would be a scene by now entrenched in the 5th BCE: the sylân-ing of the temples in Greece by the Persians (Hdt. 6.19, 6.101, 8.33, 8.35). Among these and foremost would be the sylân-ing of the old temple of Athena and the setting ablaze of the entire Acropolis of Athens by the Persians in 480 BCE (Hdt. 8.53.2).


Which scene then is the motivator of the metaphor in Euripides Helen? The answer I believe is in the target frame itself (Dancygier and Sweetser 2014, 3.5). The target frame “invites” and “shapes” the source frame’s invariant semantic sturcture via a concrete motivator. In other words, there are elements in the play Helen itself that will point a reader/listener to a concrete source frame, a frame “of flesh and blood” not the invariant structure. Is Helen the “valued possession” seen as a suit of armor sylân-ed from a fallen warrior? Or is she seen as that image of the god which was sylân-ed from the temple by the Persians? Does it matter?


Beeks, Robert, and Lucien van Beek. 2010. Etymological Dictionary of Greek. 2 vols. Leiden • Boston: Brill.

Dancygier, Barbara, and Eve Sweetser. 2014. Figurative Language. Kindle. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Enfield, N J. 2015. The Utility of Meaning: What Words Mean and Why. Oxford: Oxfrord University Press.

Fillmore, Charles J. 1977. “Scenes-and-frames Semantics.” In Linguistic Structure Processing, edited by Antonio Zampolli, 55-82. Amsterdam: North Holland Publishing Company.

France, Anatole. 1895. Le Jardin d’Épicure. Paris: Calmann-Lévy.

Langacker, Ronald. 1991. The Foundations of Cognitive Grammar: descriptive application. Vol. 2. Stanford: Stanford University Press.











⇩ Download as PDF

Leave a Reply (Release after moderation)