An Examination of Similes in the Iliad - and how Homer's Use of Them Affected the
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 things were
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 vigor. 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
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 favorable 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 to help 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, that 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 eliteness of these thoroughbreds.
Shortly after Agamemnon dons his armor. On this armor 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 instill fear
in ones enemy. The snake, as a notoriously evil incarnation, resembling a
rainbow seems foreign. The secret lies in the rest of the armor, that it is
liberally covered in gold brings home the idea of the splendor and decadence of
this armor, as wonderful as might be found on a god in heaven. The idea of a
king possessing the gall to flaunt this frivolous armor in a situation that
calls for something more practical, goes to show the ineptitude of the king of
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 defenses are
brought out to be as long-standing and strong as one of natures 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
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 rejoin 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 armor, 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 honor 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 favoring 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 honor for their duties, and Homer has
done just that.