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Iliad Essay, Research Paper
An Examination of Similes in the Iliad – and how homers use of them
affected the story
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 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 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
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 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 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 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
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.
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