“It is said that Calchas the seer came here from Troy […] and died of vexation when he chanced to meet a seer […] who was greater than himself. Mopsus, the son of Manto […]. Calchas set Mopsus the following problem:
‘Amazement strikes my heart at how many figs this fig tree has, though it is quite small. Can you tell me the number?’
And Mopsus answered:
‘Ten thousands they are in number, but a bushel in measure, one is left over which you can’t put into the measure’.
So he spoke, and the number of the measure was discovered to be true. Then did the sleep of death closed over Calchas”.
(Strabo, 14.462 = Hesiod fr. 278 M-W).
Enumeration, the ability to grasp the full detail of what is before you (i.e.: to see the wood and the trees) was considered a most powerful quality, for it was a gateway to Truth. Before the alphabet was invented, this was a central challenge of epic poetry.
Epic poetry was a genre specifically dedicated to the declamation of deeds of war. Here’s an example of the oral poet’s concern with performing a true account:
“Tell me now Muses […] who were the leaders and the lords of the Danaans; the multitude I could not tell nor could I name, not if I had ten tongues and ten mouths, and a voice unbreakable, and a breast of bronze within, unless the Olympian Muses, […], should bring to my mind how many came […]”.
(Homer, Iliad 2.484-492).
It was essential for the epic poet to be seen to speak the truth even though he could not possibly recount of every man and every action. The only way to achieve this was by enlisting the help of the Muses.
The audience was not supposed to be hearing a story about the past. Rather, they were supposed to be transported into the middle of the action by the vividness of the narrator’s truthful account, experiencing it as if it were reality.
The 888,246 poppies outside the a Tower of London, on Remembrance Day, do just that. They speak the truth in a way that any number of words, in any language, could never achieve.
As we contemplate a sea of blood, we “see” the souls of each of the 888,246 Commonwealth soldiers who perished during the First World War.
Memorable, Touching, True.
Andrew Ford, in his fascinating “Homer, the poetry of the past” (Cornell University, 1992) writes of the structure, history and purpose of epic poetry. In his book he addresses in detail the topics of enumeration and vividness.