Analysis of similes In the Iliad book


In the Iliad, Homer finds a great tool in the simile.  Just by opening the book in a random place the reader is undoubtedly faced with one, or within a few pages.  Homer seems to use everyday activities, at least for the audience, his fellow Greeks, in these similes nearly exclusively.  When one is confronted with a situation that is familiar, one is more likely to put aside contemplating the topic and simply inject those known feelings.  This would definitely be an effective tactic when used upon the people of Homer’s day. From the heroic efforts in the Iliad itself it is clear that the populace of his time were highly emotional creatures, and higher brain activity seems to be in short, and in Odysseus’ case, valuable, order.

It is also wise to remember that history is written by the winners.  In the Iliad, there seems to be relatively little storyline from the Trojan’s side.  We are regaled with story upon story of the Greeks, their heroes, and their exploits, while the Trojan’s are conspicuously quiet, sans Hector of course. It could almost be assumed that throughout time most of the knowledge of the battle from the Trojan side had been lost.

Considering the ability to affect feelings with similes, and the one-sided view of history, Homer could be using similes to guide the reader in the direction of his personal views, as happens with modern day political “spin”.  These views that Homer might be trying to get across might be trying to favor Troy.  It could easily be imagined that throughout time, only great thingswere heard about the Greeks mettle in war, and that Homer is attempting to balance the scales a bit by romanticizing the Trojan peoples, especially Hector, and bringing to light the lesser-heard tales of Greek stupidity.

Shortly into Book Two, Agamemnon gives the speech to his assembly about his plan to rally the troops with reverse psychology.  Agamemnon shall announce he is giving up on taking Troy, whereupon the individual army captains will then “prevent their doing so.”  When the announcement is made, King Agamemnon is startled to see the ranks, not surprisingly, take advantage of the chance to leave and make for the ships with vigour. Homer describes the scene as “bees that sally from some hollow cave and flit in countless throng among the spring flowers, bunched in knots and clusters…”  This simile is tainted with dark words like “from a hollow cave” and “bunched in knots”, giving the “bees” an ominous tone. The Greek ranks are painted as a throng of weak-kneed wimps with their constitution sapped, obviously not the case as they go on to win the war, but it suffices to cast the Lycians in a negative light.

A short, but emotionally appealing, simile is found after the Greek warriors have changed their mind about leaving and return to the Scamander: “They stood as thick upon the flower-bespangled field as leaves that bloom in summer.”  This scene assumes quite a juxtaposition.  A flower-bespangled battlefield?  This is perhaps an attempt to show the absurdity of the Greek army, changing positions from fleeing to brazenness as flowers are to the field of death.

Near the beginning of Book Three a group of elders of Troy, not fighting material, but skilled orators, are found resting on the tower “like cicadas that chirrup delicately from the boughs of some high tree in a wood.”  The cicadas song and the “tree in a wood” cast memories of repose and relaxation, rest and peace, which are then injected into the “delicate” elders.  Another attempt of Homer to cast the Trojans in a favourable light.

Later in the same book Ptolemaeus is Homer’s vehicle for putting down the Greeks again.  Upon seeing shirkers of the front line of battle he likens them to “frightened fawns who, when they can no longer scud over the plain huddle together.”  Undoubtedly, the men of Homer’s time hunted to survive, and relished the sight of the frightened fawns grouped together.  But does not one also feel pity for them?  This is a wonderful simile that brings home the nervous twitchiness that would denote a person scared to death in such a situation.

Later in Book Five there is a great dichotomy of similes.  First, Hera comes down “flying like turtledoves in eagerness tohelp the Argives.” followed by a scene surrounding Diomedes where his men are “fighting like lions or wild boars.”  Both of these have their own respective importance.  There is probably no more revered avian for peace and beauty than the turtledove, and applying this to Hera shows where her intentions lie.  While lions and boars are notoriously vicious creatures, sure to raise a hackle or two on a Greek reader, and when exercised on Diomedes it brings their ferocity home.  The interesting thing here is the contrast between the two.  This is another example of how the Greeks are made to look like animals.

In Book Ten Nestor comments on a set of horses that Odysseus is ushering, won by Diomedes through killing some Trojans, which they are “like sunbeams.”  A very short, and odd, description for horses.  One is reminded of Apollo and his kinship with his chariot, often referred to as racing across the heavens.  The thought of golden horses gliding straight and true, unwavering, is most definitely an image depicting the politeness of these thoroughbreds.

Shortly after Agamemnon dons his armour.  On this armour fit for a king were “serpents of Cyanus” that appeared “like the rainbows which were set in heaven.”  Quite an interesting description of something that is supposed to instil fear in ones enemy.  The snake, as a notoriously evil incarnation, resembling a rainbow seems foreign.  The secret lies in the rest of the armour, that it is liberally covered in gold brings home the idea of the splendour and decadence of this armour, as wonderful as might be found on a god in heaven.  The idea of a king possessing the gall to flaunt this frivolous armour in a situation that calls for something more practical, goes to show the ineptitude of the king of the Acheans.

In Book Twelve we have Polypoetes and Leonteus, defending the gate of the wall to the Greek ships from the invasion of the Trojans. These two imposing characters “stood before the gates like two high oak trees upon the mountains, that tower from their wide-spreading roots, and year after year battle with wind and rain.”  This simile lends to the characters of the two, Polypoetes and Leonteus, along with the resolve of the Greeks at that time.  The defences are brought out to be as long-standing and strong as one of nature’s most formidable creations, as any Greek would know from the evidence of their existence in such an inhospitable condition as the mountains.

Going back, Book Three starts with: “the Trojans advanced as a flight of wild fowl or cranes that scream overhead when rain and winter drive them over the flowing waters of Ocean.”  The cranes bring to mind large, pure, graceful characteristics, qualities befitting an efficient army troop.  The screaming of the cranes would duly apply to the army, being that a scream would be terrifying, dissuading the enemy.  The choice of simile here is important.  Homer is letting the Trojan army achieve the appearance of gracefulness, while the Greek army is consistently portrayed as predatory animals.

In Book Four Ajax duels with Simoeisius.  Ajax runs Simoeisius through with a spear and “he fell as a poplar that has grown straight and tall in a meadow by some stream and is cut down by a wainwright with his gleaming axe.”  The image of a well grown tree with great nourishment from the stream and the pastoral setting acquainted with Simoeisius is consistent with Homer’s beautifying the Trojan tradition.  Ajax is consistently portrayed as a giant, and with his great spear it is no stretch to align him with the strength of the lumberjack with his axe, giving him an air of respect and reverence to him that extends beyond his battlefield prowess.

Near the end of Book Five Diomedes is greeted by a rush from Hector’s forces.  His reaction is described as like that of “a man crossing a wide plain, dismayed to find himself on the brink of some great river rolling swiftly to the sea.”  Up until this point Diomedes had been a potent force for the Greeks.  His newfound humility brought upon by the unsurpassable “river” of Hector’s troops.  It is enough to convince us that Hector’s army is menacing in this facet alone, but to imagine that mass of fighting spirit would be enough to purge its enemies like the rapids swallows an unexperienced kayaker is all the more frightening.

At the end of Book Six we find Paris catching up to Hector, to re-join the battle.  Paris takes off “as a horse, stabled and fed, breaks loose and gallops gloriously over the plain to the place where he is wont to bathe in the fair-flowing river- he holds his head high, and his mane streams upon his shoulders as he exults in his strength and flies like the wind to the haunts and feeding ground of the mares- even so went forth Paris from high Pergamus, gleaming like sunlight in his armour, and he laughed aloud as he sped swiftly on his way.”  Obviously Paris is just as much a show off as Agamemnon, and definitely more vain.  This simile is packed with phrases that exalt strength, beauty and gracefulness, but little reference to battle prowess, thus presenting Paris as nothing more than a figure-head.  The notable laughing at the end is something that is singularly Trojan.  Not once is a Greek found laughing, more evidence that Homer has glamorized the Trojan lifestyle.

The method I used for examining these examples is exceptionally difficult.  First, I examined the way the similes were used and the effect they achieved, and at the same time, and the same space, attempted to prove that Homer tried to bring the Trojans a sense of honour they didn’t receive in battle.  Homer’s similes proved to have been generally bipolar, good or bad, and he applied them liberally where needed.  The goal of Homer’s trade, as a poet, was to stir people, and the easier the better.  What better way than to appeal to ones already experienced emotions?  To make a person feel like their everyday actions somehow partook in a greater story is what is accomplished by using the similes that Homer used.  These similes brought the story down to earth, and everyday life into the story.

There is evidence for Homer favouring the Trojans, at least literarily, in this poem. His consistent use of beauty and grace with the Trojans contrasted with the viciousness portrayed in the Greeks is clear.  Homer might have given other Trojan warriors besides Hector moments of aristea also if their exploits had not have been lost through time.  Anyone, especially a poet, would feel indebted to the dead to give them some honour for their duties, and Homer has done just that.

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