“The Iliad”, an epic tale told by the famous Greek author Homer, is focused primarily on the Trojan War between the Greeks, or Argives, and the Trojans. This war was filled with bloody battles and a massive loss of life. Homer tells stories about a duration of time during this fighting, and not the entire war. He uses his story-telling abilities to focus the audience on the garish and sometimes mundane drudgery of war. Due to his removal from the actual time of these battles, his stories may be embellished or not completely accurate descriptions of what did or did not happen. Overall, however, the Iliad is believed to be mostly true.
Homer was born, most likely, in the 8th Century B.C. He is widely believed to be the best and most popular of the Ionian poets. His birthplace is not known beyond a doubt. Some have even said that he may have been blind. This idea has its share of critics though, since Homer details specific landscape scenes all throughout his works, and most of his writing is focused on the vision of the scene in which he describes.
Homer relies heavily on descriptions to get his points across to the audience. In Homer’s time, stories were told orally. Therefore, as a good writer, he attempted to write eloquently to convey to the audience the overall feeling of his stories. William Shakespeare did the same thing in his writing. Shakespeare knew that his work was going to be performed, and that his audience was predominantly illiterate. He knew that if he created a quality story and told it in an interesting way, he would gain greater popularity by allowing those who didn’t understand to be entertained anyway. Homer used this to his advantage in his time also through the use of elaborate descriptions of battles and scenes, and with similes and metaphors.
The similes and metaphors of The Iliad, in my opinion, are the real attention-grabbing parts of the story. Homer’s descriptions using similes are mostly very detailed and often rather grotesque. The similes in his writing serve to make the audience imagine exactly what is happening in the story. For example:
“They swarmed forth like wasps from a roadside nest” (p.421, 305-308)
Homer could simply say that the army moved forward and swarmed the opposing lines, but by the use of his simile, the audience gets a perfect example of what Homer is trying to convey to us.
Along with similes and metaphors providing us with a better understanding of what is happening in the story, they also tell us about the world in which Homer lived in, which was Greece in the 8th Century B.C. Most of the clues as to ancient Greek life come as no surprise. It is not surprising to find that the Greeks recognized the Moon during this period:
” the massive shield flashing far and wide like a full round moon” (p. 500, 422)
Nor is it shocking to hear of lions in Greece at this time:
“like a great bearded lion the dogs and field hands drive back” (p.446, 126-127)
However, even though these similes sometimes may seem unimportant or even redundant, every situation they are used in is different. A lion may be just another lion, but no two conflicts that they describe are exactly alike. Homer uses this thought to convey the energy, and even at times beauty, of his fighting scenes.
The one main theme of the plot to The Iliad is its raging battle. So, most of the similes throughout the book are about warfare. Battles are compared to things such as animals, weather, or even fire. In consideration, these three things are actually connected by their inherent naturalness. Animals, weather, and fire are all parts of what we refer to as “nature”. By evaluating Homer’s similes with “nature” included, we today can see what ancient Greek “nature” may have been like.
First of all, most of the similes from The Iliad are comparing something to an animal. Several animals that are mentioned throughout the book are, for example: deer, lions, sheep, dogs, wolves, and hawks. The special thing about this is that each animal is always given a dominant or submissive quality. For example:
“As ravenous wolves come swooping down on lambsso the Achaeans mauled the Trojans.” (p. 424, 415).
This passage shows the dominance and inherent aggressiveness of the wolf, while making the lamb to be a submissive, a victim of the wolves’ aggression. This simile shows how the fighting was going at that time for the two sides. The Achaeans were the aggressive wolves and the Trojans were the victimized lambs.
These animal-focused similes also show the ferocity with which the two sides battled when fighting each other. Many of Homer’s similes describe the merciless blood-lust shown by the armies. For example:
“Hungry as wolves that rend and bolt raw flesh” (p. 417, 188).
This describes the fierce destruction by Achilles’ warriors of the opposing forces in blunt, raw terms.
Along with many similes being about nature’s animals, many others involve nature’s weather. Dust storms, hurricanes, tornadoes, lightning, thunder, and others are all used to describe some aspect of the fighting. Once again, these references show the ferocity with which the armies battled. For example:
“But now, wild as a black cyclone twisting out of a cloudbank, building up from the day’s heat, blasts and towers- so brazen Ares looked to Tydeus’ son Diomedes.” (p.192, 997-1000) and,
“As gale-winds swirl and shatter under the shrilling gusts on days when drifts of dust lie piled thick on the roads and winds whip up the dirt in a dense whirling cloud- so the battle broke” (p. 352, 388-391)
Fire was also used by Homer to describe the intensity of The Iliad’s battles. These were not used as much as the references to animals in the book, but fire did prove to be a major description of the fighting, as in this excerpt:
“Achilles now like inhuman fire raging on through the mountain gorges splinter-dry, setting ablaze big stands of timberstorming on with brandished spear” (p.519, 553-559).
Along with the fighting and nature, Homer’s similes also show us the societal norms in ancient Greek culture when it comes to differences between the sexes. Men were described in grand God-like terms, while women were given praise for being nurturing and caring. As a man was supposed to be rather stoic, so a woman was supposed to show emotion. Examples of this are:
“Tlepolemus tall and staunchhis strong fate was driving him now against Sarpedon, a man like a god.” (p. 184-185, 722-724),
This describes the two men as god-like and sizeable in stature, and:
“And so Briseis returnedbut when she saw Patroclus lying torn by bronze, she flung herself on his body she sobbed like a goddess in her grief” (p. 497, 333-335).
The second example shows the expectancy of women to lose control of their emotions and display their inner feelings. When Briseis sobs heavily, she is even said to be “like a goddess”. Men would most likely not be called “like a God” if they were to sob and throw themselves on the body of a loved-one.
The question remains; however, does this difference in the expected nature of men and women make women seem submissive to the stronger, less emotional males? On one hand, lack of emotion in Homer’s Greece was probably seen as being strong, or above pain and sorrow. Thus, males would be seen as stronger, more dominant. However, by today’s standards it is known that emotions are inescapable and must be dealt with. If the ancient Greeks did know this, then females may have a socially accepted dominance over men, but they probably did not.
Finally, another important reference-type used in Homer’s similes in The Iliad deal with occupations and activities in ancient Greece’s day-to-day life. Many similes have some occupation or action in them, which the Greeks performed. For example:
“the ranks pulled closer, tight as a mason packs a good stone wall” (p. 419, 250-251)
This excerpt shows that the ancient Greeks had masons, or men to do the building of structures. Homer also makes references to other known ancient occupations, such as farmers and priests. Nurses and poets are also talked about in The Iliad. If analyzed, it can be seen that once again in ancient Greek culture, women are expected to be the nurturers and men the laborers. Women were most often nurses, housewives, maids, or even teachers. Men were usually masons, farmers, professional warriors, or craftsmen of some sort.
In conclusion, many inferences can be made pertaining to the common, everyday life in ancient Greece through Homer’s similes in The Iliad. They describe the landscape, animals, weather, societal roles, and occupations. Along with helping the audience to visualize the scenes in The Iliad, these similes also shed light onto the world in which Homer lived.