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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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