The generation of leaves

With Homer on my mind, I was thinking back about some of my favourite passages from the Iliad. One in particular springs to mind, namely the simile in which Homer compares the life and death of humans with the effects that autumn and spring have on deciduous trees. In the original Greek, taken from the Chicago Homer website, the relevant passage reads (Il. 6.146–149):

οἵη περ φύλλων γενεὴ τοίη δὲ καὶ ἀνδρῶν.
φύλλα τὰ μέν τ’ ἄνεμος χαμάδις χέει, ἄλλα δέ θ’ ὕλη
τηλεθόωσα φύει, ἔαρος δ’ ἐπιγίνεται ὥρη:
ὣς ἀνδρῶν γενεὴ ἣ μὲν φύει ἣ δ’ ἀπολήγει.

Richmond Lattimore translated this as follows:

As is the generation of leaves, so is that of humanity.
The wind scatters the leaves on the ground, but the live timber
burgeons with leaves again in the season of spring returning.
So one generation of men will grow while another dies.

The words are spoken by Glaucus when he meets Diomedes on the field of battle. The words seem to contain a profound sense of sadness. All the roads of life ultimately lead to death, and Glaucus compares men with the anonymous and, to human eyes virtually indistinguishable, leaves on a tree.

These words cast a heavy shadow on the actions of the heroes in Homer’s epic and seem to draw into doubt the idea that death on the battlefield is glorious. When a warrior falls, he is like a leaf falling from a tree in autumn. In time, he will be gone, perhaps also forgotten. His place will be taken by someone new, and the cycle starts again and will continue, inexorably, until the bitter end.

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