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Biomedical and Electrical Engineer with interests in information theory, evolution, genetics, abstract mathematics, microbiology, big history, IndieWeb, mnemonics, and the entertainment industry including: finance, distribution, representation






Expanding Ekphrasis to the Broader Field of Mnemotechny: or How the Shield of Achilles Relates to a Towel, Car, and Water Buffalo

3 min read

If Lynne Kelly's thesis about the methods of memory used by indigenous peoples is correct, and I strongly believe it is, then the concept of ekphrasis as illustrated in the description of the Shield of Achilles in Homer's Iliad (Book 18, lines 478–608) is far more useful than we may have previously known. I strongly suspect that Achilles' Shield is an early sung version of a memory palace to which were once attached other (now lost) memories from Bronze Age Greece.

The word ekphrasis, or ecphrasis, comes from the Greek for the description of a work of art produced as a rhetorical exercise, often used in the adjectival form ekphrastic.—Wikipedia

While many may consider this example of Homer's to be the first instance of ekphrasis within literature (primarily because it specifically depicts an artwork, which is part of the more formal definition of the word), I would posit that even earlier descriptions in the Iliad itself which go into great detail about individuals and their methods of death are also included in a broader conception of ekphrasis. This larger ekphrasis subsumes all of these descriptions in an tradition of orality as being portions of ancient memory palaces within a broader field of mnemotechny. I imagine that these graphic, bloody, and larger-than-life depictions of death not only encoded the names and ideas of the original people/ancestors, but they were also quite likely to have had additional layers of memory encoded (or attached) to them as well. Here I'm suggesting that while an actual shield may or may not have originally existed that even once the physical shield or other object is gone or lost that the remembered story of the shield still provides a memory palace to which other ideas can be attached.

(I'll remind the forgetful reader than mnemotechny grows out of the ancient art of rhetoric as envisioned in Rhetorica ad Herennium, and thus the use of ekphrasis as a rhetorical device implicitly subsumes the idea of memory, though most modern readers may not have that association.)

Later versions of ekphrasis in post-literate history may have been more about the arts themselves and related references and commentary (example: Keats' Ode on a Grecian Urn), but I have a strong feeling that this idea's original incarnation was more closely related to early memory methods at the border of oral and literate societies.

In other words, ancient performers, poets, etc. may have created their own memory palaces by which they were able to remember long stories like the Iliad, but what is to say that these stories themselves weren't in turn memory palaces to the listeners themselves? I myself have previously used the plot and portions of the movie Fletch as a meta memory palace in just this way. As the result of ritualistic semi-annual re-watchings of classic and engaging movies like this, I can dramatically expand my collection of memory palaces. The best part is that while my exterior physical location may change, classics movies will always stay the same. And in a different framing, my memories of portions of history may also help me recall a plethora of famous movie quotes as well.

Can I borrow your towel? My car just hit a water buffalo.—Irwin M. Fletcher

@aaronpk @MissSteno Since I know you're a fan of linguistics (and the vowel r), I'll note that I've done some research into the history of stenography and found some interesting overlap with linguistics and ancient memory techniques:


@kingkool68 That might buy you some street cred, but it's a much higher bar than the "traditional" definition(s). ;)

Of course, if you want to go all-in, then you'll want audio too:


@cswordpress @redcrew @andrea_r @miklb @JJJ is awesome! It provides simple html so people can cut/paste their thread. Here's an example on my site from a conference last year:


@kristenhare A growing group of journalists are joining the IndieWeb movement to better own their work and data within their own personal archives as well as using tools like Ben's to archive their work on larger institutional repositories. There's a stub page on the group's wiki dedicated to ideas like this for journalists at

Coincident with these particular sites disappearing, there's now also news today that Peter Thiel may purchase Gawker in a bid to make it disappear from the internet, which makes these tools all the more relevant to the thousands who wrote for that outlet over the past decade.

For journalists and technologists who are deeply committed to these ideas, I'd recommend visiting the Reynolds Journalism Institute. They just finished a two day conference entitled "Dodging the Memory Hole" at the Internet Archive last week focused on saving/archiving digital news in various forms. ( Naturally most of the conference was streamed and is available on YouTube (as well as archived.) Keep your eyes peeled for next year's conference which typically occurs in November.


@jayrosen_nyu, @jeffjarvis and students may appreciate the live stream from Internet Archive: Dodging the Memory Hole 2017

Naturally the whole conference will be archived.


Day 2 of Dodging the Memory Hole 2017 is streaming live now:

The schedule and details can be found here:


@ChrisAldrich As an example of Noter Live's functionality, I was able to cut and paste my Tweet stream/storm from last year's conference at UCLA and post it in its entirety in just a few minutes:


I'm curating a list of people talking about Dodging The Memory Hole here:
Tweet to add yourself.


Wish I was @internetarchive for Dodging the Memory Hole 2017
It's streaming live now:


.@chronotope & @pressfwd may appreciate this conference
Dodging the Memory Hole 2017


@mattscomments I suspect there will be some folks at who bring it up:


That last sentence defining the blockchain is fantastic.

If you hadn't heard of it yet, I attended a conference last year at UCLA entitled Dodging the Memory Hole, which I suspect is right up your alley. I know they're gearing up for another installment later this year at the Internet Archive in San Francisco. I suspect you'll find lots of friends there, and they're still accepting talks.


Did @ifttt really turn off @twitter recipe that allowed one to add twits to a list automatically?