The associations of location in classical writing

A polytheistic universe

The ancient Greeks and Romans had multiple deities, each representing a different aspect of existence. For example:

  • Aphrodite (for the Romans, Venus) was the goddess of sexual love
  • Artemis (Diana) of female chastity (male chastity doesn’t appear to have mattered much)
  • Athene (Minerva) deified wisdom
  • Zeus (Jupiter) ruled the heavens, his angry voice was the thunder
  • Hera (Juno) his wife – also sister – represented women and marriage
  • Ares (Mars) was god of war
  • Poseidon (Neptune) was the divine personification of the sea. 

Gods and their locale

The implications go far beyond the details of which deity did what: classical paganism saw the world in a very different way compared to monotheistic worldviews. Monotheism by definition centralises existence; polytheism spreads the divinity around. This affected more than just the classical gods. In Greek and Roman myth, Pan (or Faunus), god of nature and the countryside, had his attendants, fauns or satyrs – strange spirits, half-man, half-goat, who haunted forests and hillsides. Then there were the nymphs – what we might call secondary goddesses – who inhabited the mountains, meadows, woods and springs. 

The result was that every place, every geographical feature, was seen as ‘belonging’ to some spirit or other; the entire landscape was invested with religious resonance. Thus the specific scenes, landscapes and places that feature in classical myths have a vibrancy and significance they wouldn’t otherwise possess. 

This idea continued to resonate as the canon of western literature developed over the centuries (not surprising, given that any educated person would have been schooled in the Greek and Roman classics). For the poet responding to the beauties of a field or a forest glade, or the novelist in search of a setting which will be something more than a mere ‘backdrop’ for an unfolding action, the attractions of the pagan scheme aren’t hard to understand. Investing the world around us with meaning is a large part of what literary writing is all about.

Wild woods

The darkness and concealment of a wooded grove made it the home in classical mythology to satyrs and fauns, bold, unruly and unashamedly lecherous spirits. It was in woodland that rites were offered for Pan or Faunus, god of Nature’s wild freedom – and brutality. 

The deep woods were also the haunt of Artemis (Diana), goddess of hunting and of chastity. She was also associated (through its dazzling whiteness) with the moon. (Over time, most of the classical deities took on multifaceted characters and varied associations: later writers were able to draw on these to bestow vibrancy on seemingly simple scenes.) 

  • The Victorian novelist, Thomas Hardy, knew the sinister power of a woodland setting. In Tess of the d’Urbervilles, it’s intriguing to wonder how far, when Alec d’Urberville takes Tess to the Chase on the night he rapes her, Hardy was prompted by his thoughts of ancient woodland glades as places of mischief and disorder.
  • Shakespeare certainly sensed this significance in the night-time wood he chose for the action of A Midsummer Night’s Dream – though there of course the chaotic events are ultimately more benign. 

Water features

For farming peoples in the ancient Mediterranean, water was very precious – it really was the stuff of life. In ancient imagery, then, sources of water such as lakes, streams and rivers were full of meaning. Pools and fountains were womblike, feminine. They were seen as cradles, not just of life, but of all sorts of creativity – hence the importance of the springs of Parnassus and Helicon, in Greece. These pools were homes to the Muses – female deities who represented the different sorts of creative inspiration: everything from poetry and history to music and dance. 

Rivers represented fertility in a contrasting form. Long and powerful – so, arguably, the ultimate phallic symbol – they were viewed as symbols of masculine potency. Welling up from the ground as they did, they offered an obvious connection between the underworld and the earth inhabited by mortals. They were also important in marking boundaries.

No boundary could be more intimidating than the one separating life and death. In Greek and Roman mythology, this was marked by the great River Acheron. The real-life river runs through the mountains of Epirus, in the far northwest of Greece, up against the border with what is now Albania. As far as the first Greeks were concerned, this rugged region really was the end of the world, and it made sense to see the Acheron as the entrance to the Underworld. In the mythology, a boatman, Charon, waited to row the souls of the dead across the river in his skiff: the ancient Greeks therefore buried their dead with coins in their mouths to pay their fare. 

The sea, the sea

Safe haven

Both Greece and Italy are peninsulas, surrounded by sea (the Mediterranean) and thus easily accessed by sail. At a time when roads were few and land travel difficult (and many Greeks lived in scattered island communities), the sea was viewed as a connecting highway, rather than a barrier. It is no surprise therefore, that when the Greek soldiers of Xenophon’s Anabasis (c. 400 BCE) were trudging through the heat and dust of Anatolia (modern Turkey), in retreat after a disastrous campaign, they were thrilled to top a rise and see before them a line of blue: ‘The Sea! The Sea!’ 

  • Perhaps Keats was thinking of this moment when, in his Sonnet On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer (1816), he recalls Hernán Cortéz’ first ecstatic sight of the Pacific after crossing the Isthmus of Panama with his men? 

Treacherous waters

For Xenophon’s troops, the sea represented an end to their fearful sufferings and a safe way home to their families in Greece. So the sea’s occasional treachery was all the more disturbing.

  • When Agamemnon, the Greek commander, found his departure for the Trojan War obstructed by stormy seas, he had to sacrifice his daughter Iphigenia to Artemis to secure fair winds

Both in Homer’s Odyssey (8th Century BCE) and, later, in Roman Virgil’s Aeneid (c. 20 BCE), the epic heroes find their plans thrown into confusion by sudden storms: 

  • Poseidon, the ‘earth-shaker’, sends one ferocious tempest to frustrate Odysseus in his return to Ithaca from Troy as conqueror
  • An angry Juno sends a storm to prevent the Trojan refugee Aeneas from finding sanctuary on Italian shores. 

No one would suggest that every storm in every work of literature is classically inspired, but, collectively, associations like these lend an extra depth and emotional resonance to passages of writing about the sea’s dangers.


Places of sanctuary

The ancient Greeks and Romans were both vague and inconsistent in their stories of the afterlife. Different myths suggest different destinies for the dead. (With no strong association between death and judgement, individuals were much more concerned with the rituals of correct interment and commemoration after death, than with leading a ‘good’ life before it.)

Some stories do seem to have been told, however, of restful island sanctuaries for those who had lived especially well: the Islands of the Blest were believed to lie far out in the Western (Atlantic) Ocean; great heroes were held to reside here in perpetual summer. In some traditions, these islands became linked with the legend of the Hesperides, an Eden-like garden looked after by nymphs, the daughters of Hesperus, the Evening Star (or planet Venus). 

Places of danger

But if islands could be blissful refuges, they could also be places of entrapment – as Odysseus found when he sailed past the Island of the Sirens. These beautiful female spirits lured passing seafarers to their deaths on their island’s rocky coast with their enchanting song. 

Into the earth: caves and caverns

The cave can signal the sort of quiet retreat in which Virgil’s Aeneas meets his lover, the Carthaginian Queen Dido, in Book II of the Aeneid. More often, it’s a route to some symbolically unconscious underworld. So it is, for instance, when:

  • In Homer’s Odyssey, the hero at one point makes the dread descent into hell
  • Later in the Aeneid, when Aeneas ventures down into the Underworld and meets his own late father (and Dido, who had committed suicide after he abandoned her). 

The descent into the underworld may represent a symbolic process of death and rebirth – a return to the nurturing womb of mother earth. Hence, for example:

  • The singer Orpheus makes his mythical journey to the depths in hopes of rescuing his wife Eurydice, who has lately died. She is allowed to follow him back to the light of day – on condition that he makes no attempt to look back. As he reaches the earth’s surface, he turns instinctively, to see that she is still with him, and Eurydice is once more snatched away.
  • After the death of her daughter, Proserpina (Persephone), the agricultural goddess Ceres (Demeter) goes down to the realms of Hades (Dis) to bring her home. Only partly successful, Ceres is allowed to bring her back to the light of day for only half the year: these seasons of her joy become the spring and summer – the earth’s ‘rebirth’ after the long, slow death of autumn and winter.

This same basic idea has returned in one form or another throughout later literature: from Dante’s Inferno (a fourteenth-century poem which recasts the ancient Underworld as a Christian version of Hell) to Mark Twain’s Tom Sawyer (1876).

Up to the heavens: mountains

Sacred mountains are to be found in many different religious cultures: straining upwards towards heaven, they point to a (literally) higher plane of existence, beyond our own. In classical mythology, the Greek gods were held to inhabit the high summit of Mount Olympus, among the clouds. But other mountains were sacred to specific gods and goddesses: 

  • Mounts Parnassus and Helicon in central Greece belonged to Apollo, god not only of the sun but also of truth and wisdom, medicine, poetry and music
  • Sicily’s Mount Etna belonged to Venus (Aphrodite), the Roman goddess of sexual love. (An active volcano, Etna’s regular eruptions were said to show the anger of Vulcan (Hephaestos) - god of fire and metalworking – at his lover’s frequent infidelities.)
  • The mountains of Thessaly in northern Greece were said to have been heaped up as a ramp by the Giants, the forces of Chaos, who hoped to take Olympus and dethrone Zeus and his fellow deities.

Stereotypical cities

Wilful destruction

Down into modern times, the ruined city of Troy has endured as a symbol of human enterprise brought low by treachery. Often, specifically, by feminine guile, given that the war had been fought over Helen of Sparta. Although she was hardly to blame (having been abducted by Prince Paris and taken off to Troy), the destructive power of Helen’s beauty to ruin a civilisation has echoed through Western literature:

  • ‘Was this the face that launched a thousand ships / And burnt the topless towers of Ilium?’, asked Christopher Marlowe in Doctor Faustus (c. 1592)
  • ‘Why, what could she have done, being what she is?’ Yeats asks of a changeable and (to his mind) destructive lover in No Second Troy. ‘Was there another Troy for her to burn?’
  • In Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida, the Trojan War becomes the backdrop for a love affair between the Trojan Prince, Troilus, and a Greek girl, Cressida, who betrays him. The drama is pervaded by what we know of the disaster dooming the city; its vision of love contaminated by our consciousness of the treacheries to come.

Symbols of human enterprise

But real, historic places have come to be just as drastically stereotyped in the imaginative memory:

  • Rome has been associated with military glory and civic grandeur
  • Athens is celebrated as a seat of civilisation, learning – and, especially for modern writers, of democracy.

No matter that the Athenians were ruthless empire-builders, or the Romans more complicated in their attitudes: these cities have been mythologised as symbols.

Urban sophistication and sin

The capital of the ancient world, Rome has also served as the original symbol of the sinful city:

  • The ‘Whore of Babylon’, from the Bible’s final book, Revelation, is believed to have been based on first-century Rome, centre of anti-Christian persecution. This name also harks back to the Middle Eastern city whose ruler carried off leading Jews into captivity for fifty years in the sixth century BCE.
  • Latin writers like the historian Tacitus, the philosopher Seneca and the satirist Juvenal attacked big-city life on a wide range of issues: everything from luxury, decadence and disorder to social snobbery and street-crime.

Such critiques have been echoed by anti-urban writers ever since.

Scan and go

Scan on your mobile for direct link.