Around 470 BC a man was buried at Paestum, now in modern Italy, then still part of Greece. His coffin-like tomb, discovered in the late 1960s, had scenes painted on its inside: a symposium and, on the inside of the lid, a young man mid-dive, leaping from a height into the sea. Diving here is a metaphor for death: boldly, athletically, the man leaps from known to unknown, captured at the point of transition, inevitably falling but momentarily still airborne.

We hang difficult concepts on metaphors, which, like coat hangers, give form to otherwise shapeless ideas. The choice of metaphor, though, radically affects the way we understand the concepts themselves. Rather than being an ornamental extra, metaphor is structural and integral, a basic building block of thought which shapes our engagement with the world. George Lakoff and Mark Johnson investigate this phenomenon in their book Metaphors We Live By. The common equation of time with money, for example (spend some time at home, invest time in a relationship) encourages the commodification of time, while the discussion of argument as conflict (shoot down an argument, an indefensible claim) imbues political discourse with martial values. In cognitive linguistics, metaphor is referred to in terms of SOURCE and TARGET domains: here the SOURCE domain of money helps to shape an idea of the TARGET domain of time.

Visiting the tomb at Paestum I found that, although I could appreciate the metaphor at work in the painting, I could do so only as an observer ab extra, too removed from that ancient thought-world to participate properly. Instead I found I had a modern set of metaphors ready to conceptualise the leap from life to not-life: images electrical, mechanical, materialistic; literal comparisons based on a modern understanding of dying, lacking the imaginative ‘leap’ of the Paestum Greeks. My conceptual frames for human life were those of synapses and neural pathways as on-off switches and wired circuitry, with learnt software interacting with biological hardware. Just as with the ‘time = money’ metaphor, the idea that ‘death = hardware failure’ leaves traces in language. This relationship is symbiotic, reciprocal: we think of computers as ‘dying’ when they cease to function. ‘Phone is dead, contact me on Facebook’: human death functions as SOURCE to explain the TARGET of computer failure, and vice versa. The concepts, I think, are now intertwined.

Metaphor is always grounded in context, in that it uses the known and near-at-hand to explain the unknown: in this sense my recourse to electrical metaphors was equivalent to the Greeks’ choice of diving. But I wondered too whether it might be a hallmark of modern metaphor-making to seek out literal, factually accurate comparisons.

Might it be that, as Lakoff and Johnson argue, this choice of a very literal SOURCE has subtle implications for the way we interact with the TARGET, death, and, by extension, life? It is now hard to hold death in our heads in the terms of the Paestum diver, to entertain the ‘leap’ it depicts, a flight of body and soul or body-as-soul from the space of daily life into submarine space. But might that metaphor not yield a different set of rules for engagement with the world above the surface? I wondered whether an ancient world governed by sustainability and cyclicality might have be a product of this view of death not as a final hardware failure but as a continuation, a submersion, a leap into the unknown.


A few weeks after visiting Paestum I was walking with a friend in Brecon’s waterfall country. We traced a path from dappled woods down a gorge’s steep sides to the level of the river, and there took off our boots and began walking upstream. Every so often we would come to a waterfall, where the river poured like molten lead into deep pools in which my friend was determined to swim. I hung back, wrestling a fear of the depth, the sheer muscle of the water. But when I’d seen him hurl himself into the third or fourth pool up the gorge, I’d had enough, and, thinking how opposite my timidity was to the Paestum diver’s athleticism, I edged myself into the water.

Determined to make the most of my late-found bravado, I stuck my head under and pushed into the boiling mass. Fingers of fast flowing water curled around my shoulders, and great shoves in the chest pushed me down and to the cold fringes of the pool. We found that, swimming at a reasonable pace, you could almost overcome the relentless pushing-away before you were flung into orbit again. All the while I was tense, electric, anticipating the snag or crack of a submerged boulder, the tug of a buried current, or (when primal panic took hold) the slither or sting of something scaly. After my brief stint I stood in the sun, shivering, and looked down into the sweet-tasting darkness. Standing there, everything was sensible, rational, knowable; swimming in there, everything was alien, unpredictable, felt but not explicable. For the next few minutes I tried to hold on to that sense of otherness, but it trickled away, evaporating in the sun.


 What was it that was valuable about that experience below the surface? I suppose I felt something that the Paestum diver would have recognised, and could afterwards appreciate why submersion was – for the Paestum Greeks – a productive metaphor for dying. No doubt electrical-circuitry metaphors for brain activity are closer to medical truth than these images of submersion, just as my rationality, returning as I drip-dried on the bank, was a surer assessment of what was actually a timid swim in a safe stretch of water. Death is, from a biological perspective, literally a switching-off, a hardware failure, ‘brain death’ defined by the same cessation of electrical activity that signals the end of a laptop’s life. But there is danger in pursuing the ‘real’ in isolation, at the expense of imaginative metaphor, for, as Lakoff and Johnson argue, our choice of metaphor begins to affect our engagement with the world, inviting us to treat humans like circuitry, as systems of inputs and outputs, motivated by upgrades and acquisition.

paestum 2

Metaphor, crucially, uses the unreal to enrich the real. This requires proper distance between the SOURCE and the TARGET domains, and a relationship between the two that is in itself Greek: mythos, a state of mind that is arguably absent from modern thought, existed outside the boundaries of pragmatic logos, to deal with things which were neither true nor false but beyond these binary extremes. Metaphor is fundamentally a lie – to say X is Y when it is not is a blatant untruth – and for it to be productive it must be approached with something like mythos. Water, for example, doesn’t have limbs or muscles, but entertaining the image tells more about the sensations felt in the pool that otherwise can’t be verbalised. The knotty shove of the current, the slack laziness of the still water: little linguistic untruths that contribute to a bigger, more truthful picture. Similarly, death is not literally a process of plunging through the sea’s surface, but thinking of it as such allows us entry to an otherwise unwieldy concept.

In the year that followed I became increasingly fixated on the Paestum diver, and soon found that others too had adopted it as a symbol of pre-modern metaphor making. In Max Ernst’s 1919 surrealist painting Aquis Submersus an anonymous diver hovers in a half-real landscape. Yves Klein’s ‘Saut Dans le Vide repeats exactly the chest-forward bravery of its Greek antecedent – albeit facilitated by a waiting crashmat and emerging photomontage techniques. Leni Riefenstahl’s Olympische Spiele, a film tangled in its 1936 context, features at its climax a superlative visual essay on the diver in flight. Reifenstahl shared with the Völkisch movement, now tainted by nationalism and elitism, an aspiration to revive a German sense of myth and magic. The fact that the Paestum diver has been persistently present throughout the 20th century, however, does not indicate that the metaphor that I have been chasing here has survived intact. For these avant-gardists and radicals, I think, the figure launching into the void stood for something that their work could help to reinstate, rather than something culturally current.

The metaphor of the diver is one of many that have become foreign to us because of our privileging of truth and the literal over the imagined and the mysterious. It is an unfortunate byproduct of the Enlightenment that the universe gets smaller, it sheds all its spatial extensions: the heavenly envelope; the underworld; the Paestum diver’s death-below-the-surface. The multitude on another shore, the sparrow flitting through the mead hall, the three-day prison: all these metaphors are under siege, persecuted as untruths, driven out of the collective consciousness. I recently came across a passage by Susan Sontag that sums up, better than I was able to, why this purging of the unreal should be a cause for concern:

There are certain ages which do not need truth as much as they need a deepening sense of reality, a widening of the imagination. I, for one, do not doubt that the sane view of the world is the true one. But is that is always what is wanted, truth? The need for truth is not constant; no more than the need for repose. The truth is balance, but the opposite of truth, which is unbalance, may not be a lie.

 Maybe metaphor, our most instinctive way of being, is due for a renaissance.