Adeline Grand-Clement-What Are We Talking About When We Talk About Synaesthesia?

Example of synaesthesia by JotDee.


Today’s sharing from the blue House of HYGEIA is an excerpt from Adeline Grand-Clement’s article, ‘Sensorium, Sensescapes, Synaesthesia, Multisensoriality: A New Way of Approaching Religious Experience in Antiquity?‘ From the  Brill collective study: SENSORIVM: The Senses in Roman Polytheism, Series: Religions in the Graeco-Roman World, Volume: 195.  Publication 2021. Volume Editors: Antón Alvar Nuño, Jaime Alvar Ezquerra, and Greg Woolf.

SENSORIVM: The Senses in Roman Polytheism explores how a range of cults and rituals were perceived and experienced by participants through one or more senses.

In our excerpt, Adeline Grand-Clement explores the definition and meaning of the word ‘Synaesthesia‘.



1.1 The Merging of the Senses

First of all, let me stress the profound gulf between our contemporary ways of perceiving and sensing the world and those of ancient peoples. In the Greek way of thinking, light, smells, and sounds were conceived of as concrete fluids emanating from things and coming into contact with the human body. Studies examining the ancient perception of colour have revealed the great permeability of sensorial data. For instance, the Greeks highly prized what they called poikilia, that is to say an elaborated combination of colours, forms, and materials that provided pleasure by stimulating all the senses. The ancient experience of colour had, therefore, a very close relationship with the other senses: touch, smell, taste, and hearing. If philosophers such as Aristotle drew a distinction between the five senses and identified a hierarchy among them, other literary texts, especially examples of archaic Greek poetry, insisted on their merging.

The interconnection between the senses is also clear from the lexicon. Take, for example, the semantics of certain colour words, which extend beyond the chromatic field. Chlôros, for example, signifies yellow-green but also fresh, moist. Argos, meanwhile, means white, light, and swift. In Homeric poems, the dazzling light reflected from bronze armour is closely linked to the sound it produces on the battlefield. We also find puzzling expressions in some Greek literary works, such as references to the lily-like (leirioeis) voice of the cicadas, the pale-green (chlôros) song of the nightingale, the sweet-honey-like (meligèrus) voice of the Sirens, or the many-coloured (poikilos) hymn. All these images, which are also to be found later on in Latin poetry, were seen in the 19th century as a manifestation of the deficiency of visual perception on the part of Homer and Archaic Greek people.

Once this idea had been abandoned, such images were instead interpreted as being mere poetic metaphors, based on the transfer of sensory input from one sensory field to another. Sensory overlaps of this sort were described by philologists as examples of “synaesthesia”. The degree of attention paid to the notion of synaesthesia has increased notably in recent classical scholarship, due to the rise of sensory studies. Significantly, the first volume of the new collection “The Senses in Antiquity” was entitled Synaesthesia. In their helpful introduction, the editors (Shane Butler and Alex Purves) consider the various meanings – both modern and ancient – that have been assigned to the term “synaesthesia”, to which we shall return below. However, such reflection on the meaning of the term is, unfortunately, rare in other studies, with the word frequently being used as a label without any clear definition of its meaning. Classicists should, thus, ask themselves: What exactly do we mean by “synaesthesia”? And might this notion be of real value for a historian of ancient religions?


1.2 Two Current Definitions of Synaesthesia: Neurosciences / Literature

The word first appeared in modern European languages during the 19th century and has so far been used principally to designate two different types of phenomena. First, neuroscientists describe as “synaesthesia” a neurological condition that affects individuals who regularly perceive one kind of sensory stimulus simultaneously as another. That is to say that the stimulation of one sensory modality is accompanied immediately by a perception in one or more other modalities: for instance, when hearing a sound, a synaesthete might immediately see a colour. Neuroscientists are still trying to track the origin of this atypical mode of perception in the brain, and some have recently advocated for a deeper analysis of the role played by education and memory.

Second, the word “synaesthesia” is used in the fields of philology and literature to designate an “intersensory metaphor”, that is a metaphor in which a term relating to one kind of sense-impression is used to describe sense-impressions of another kind. In this case, synaesthesia refers to a way of describing the world, rather than to a way of experiencing the world. We find many synaesthesic images in the work of the French poet Baudelaire – who was, it is worth noting, greatly influenced by Archaic Greek poetry. One of his most famous poems, Correspondances (1857), deals with the interplay between the senses. It is only necessary to quote a few lines to gain a sense of his use of such images:

There are odours succulent as young flesh,
Sweet as flutes, and green as any grass […]

Baudelaire evokes through metaphors a state of intense pleasure and full enjoyment of life, in which fragrances are perceived as a skin that can be touched, as a sound that can be heard, or as a colour that can be seen.

Let us return to our ancient texts and to the merging of sensations that can be found within them. Are either of these two meanings of “synaesthesia” relevant for us? My answer will be negative. Not all Greek poets and writers were synaesthetes, in the neuroscientific meaning of the term. Nor do I think that they typically wrote like Baudelaire, for the sensory overlaps that we find in Greek literature were not mere literary metaphors. Indeed, there is a significant difference between ancient and modern poetry. Despite being transmitted to us as written texts, the Greek poems were originally part of the setting of a performance: they were sung and heard during collective gatherings, not read silently by isolated individuals.

The meetings were themselves parts of social rituals and were characterised by a specific sensory atmosphere (think, for instance, of the banquets, or of the festivals at which hymns were performed and accompanied by dances). Greek poets, “the masters of truth” as Marcel Detienne called them, were supposed to be inspired by the Muses and played an active role in the communication with the divine. The words that they used to express ideas, to convey values, or to arouse feelings, were not chosen at random. The poetic formulae deeply influenced the shaping of a collective memory within Greek societies. The intersensory expressions and terms used by the poets should, therefore, be read as the testimony of a specific organisation of the sensory experience: they both reflected and shaped a common way of sensing the world. Consequently, I think that the Greek documentary evidence involves a third kind of synaesthesia, similar to that which David Howes calls “cultural synaesthesia”.


1.3 “Cultural Synaesthesia”: A Tool for the Historian

The anthropologist David Howes uses the notion of “cultural synaesthesia” to refer to certain idiomatic intersensory crossings and overlaps identified by ethnographers in their fieldwork, crossings and overlaps which are not individual-specific phenomena but, rather, convey a common way of sensing the world. Howes gives some significant examples of “cultural synaesthesia”. In Melanesia, especially in the Trobriand Islands, people speak of “hearing a smell”. This does not signify that they are all poets like Baudelaire and nor is the expression a rhetorical device. Rather, this language refers to a prominent feature of communication and social interaction in Melanesian society. Indeed, Melanesian people conceive of a conversation between two individuals as a face-to-face involving two bodies characterised by their own olfactory ranges. Both speakers, seeking to strengthen the power of their bodily presence and of their words, may use odoriferous substances (oil, for example). Smell is, therefore, strongly connected with the flow of the speech. The research led by David Howes stresses the great variability of cultural configurations and the necessity of connecting verbal expressions involving the senses with social practices. This is, I think, an interesting point for those of us working on ancient religion.

I also want to show that this third meaning of synaesthesia might be related to the etymology of the word. Indeed, the noun synaesthesis and the verb synaisthanomai existed in Greek, although they are very rarely used in our surviving texts. These terms referred both to the shared experience of a group in certain collective gatherings, and to the whole range of simultaneous perceptions that constitute an individual’s encounter with the world and that might lead to a state of full consciousness.

The second part of the meaning therefore has much to do with “poly-sensoriality” and “multi-sensoriality”, which refer to the effective combination of different sensorial effects. But there is a subtle difference: synaesthesis alludes to such a combination as it is consciously perceived and interpreted by an individual or a group, against a specific cultural background. Actually, the same combination of sensory stimuli (polysensoriality) does not necessarily affect people in the same ways: their response (synaesthesis) is conditioned by their social and cultural background. Synaesthesis therefore implies an arrangement of the multisensorial information that produces meaning: this is precisely what David Howes had in mind when he shaped the notion of “cultural synaesthesia”.

Another interesting part of his research lies in the focus placed upon the means of transmission of the “techniques of the senses used by people to apprehend and make sense of the world around them”. In that respect, ritual performances played a significant role, since they were part of this educational process of training the senses. Keeping this in mind, we should track the “synaesthesic” expressions that we find in ancient texts in order to determine whether they reflect the specificity of some ritual setting in terms of a sensory arrangement …/…

For the full article


the complete book

The present collection brings together papers from an international group of researchers all inspired by ‘the sensory turn’. Focusing on a wide range of ritual traditions from around the ancient Roman world, they explore the many ways in which smell and taste, sight and sound, separately and together, involved participants in religious performance. Music, incense, images and colors, contrasts of light and dark played as great a role as belief or observance in generating religious experience. Together they contribute to an original understanding of the Roman sensory universe, and add an embodied perspective to the notion of Lived Ancient Religion.


Adeline Grand-Clement: Agrégée d’Histoire. Maîtresse de conférence habilitée en histoire grecque à l’Université de Toulouse 2. Membre permanente de l’équipe PLH-ERASME. Membre associée du laboratoire ANHIMA (Anthropologie et Histoire des Mondes Anciens, Paris, UMR 8210). Professeure associée du Département des littératures de l’Université Laval (Québec). Membre Junior de l’Institut Universitaire de France (2016-2021).



More about Adeline Grand Clement: / More about Synesthesia:
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