Aspect Perception and the Homeric Inhabitants of Hades

James Norman

Research output: ThesisDoctoral Thesis

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Homeric epic contains many ambiguous images of the entity that inhabits Hades. In one way, Homer gives different names to this inhabitant: namely, νεκύς, ψυχή, and εἴδωλον. In another way, the ghost appears seemingly contradictory. In the Nekyia, the shades, at some moments, seem almost human and corporeal: they can drink, run, speak, and recognise the living by themselves. By contrast, at other moments, they are insubstantial, they screech like bats, and they cannot communicate with the living without drinking from a pool of blood. Scholars have suggested that these diverse descriptions are the product of compositional strata, metaphorical models, or poetic license. But few of these studies concentrate sufficiently on how the poet or characters try to make sense of the dead through these ambiguous presentations.
In this thesis, I propose that a phenomenological and psychological model, “aspect perception”, can disambiguate these seemingly confusing and contradictory descriptions of the wraith. Coined by Ludwig Wittgenstein, aspect perception is the idea that properties of a stimulus inform our perception of the percept. Wittgenstein uses Jastrow’s duck-rabbit image to show how the Gestalt’s properties lead us to think that the picture is either of a duck or of a rabbit. Inspired by this study, my aim is to show that the ghost’s characteristics impel both the poetic narrator and characters not only to form diverse conceptions of the wraith, but also to describe the shade inconsistently as human and inhuman. In order to demonstrate this, I argue that the inhabitant of Hades is an entity that has opposing qualities. It is a shade that can appear simultaneously corporeal and incorporeal, sentient and insentient. It is these properties, and ultimately this mode of perception, which account for these inconsistencies and ambiguities.
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • Royal Holloway, University of London
  • Lowe, Nick, Supervisor
Award date1 Jul 2023
Publication statusUnpublished - 2023


  • Homer
  • Wittgenstein
  • Hades
  • ghosts
  • aspect perception
  • narratology
  • cognitive metaphor theory

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