Essays on Homer’s Iliad

 

 

ESSAY ONE 
HOMER’S SIMILES: NATURE AS CONFLICT

 

[This essay, which has been prepared by Ian Johnston of Malaspina University-College, Nanaimo, BC (now Vancouver Island University), Canada, is in the public domain and may be used by anyone, in whole or in part, without charge and without permission, provided the source is acknowledged; released August 2005. For the Table of Contents of the series of essays and an Introductory Comment outlining the purpose of the series, please use the following link: Essays on Homer’s Iliad. References to the text of the Iliad are to the online translation (by Ian Johnston) available here. The references in square brackets are to the Greek text. For comments and questions please contact Ian Johnston]

 

 

In the Iliad, there is little direct and extensive description of the natural scene where the battles take place, nothing to match the attention given to the armour, for example, or the generous treatment of this subject in the Odyssey (in the passages describing Calypso’s island or the world of Polyphemus, to cite two famous examples). However, what is going on in the battles is constantly linked to natural processes, so that throughout the poem there is a continuing sense that the ironic and fated condition of war is not an isolated phenomenon but intimately linked to nature itself and, beyond that, to the metaphysical order of the cosmos. The human conflict is thus an integral part of an all-inclusive pattern of forceful collisions.

 

One of the obvious and famous ways in which Homer insists upon this extension of conflict into all aspects of life is the Homeric simile, a long formal trope in which two aspects of experience are brought together for an extensive comparison. Typically, the simile begins by setting down a common natural or domestic experience from the present world of the reader and concludes by linking this phenomenon to the actions of the warriors on the battlefield (“Just as this always happens, that’s how those warriors acted then”).

 

Just as an all-consuming fire burns through huge forests
on a mountain top, and men far off can see its light,
so, as soldiers marched out, their glittering bronze
blazed through the sky to heaven, an amazing sight.
As many birds in flight—geese, cranes, and long-necked swans—
in an Asian meadow by the flowing river Caystrios,
fly here and there, proud of their strong wings, and call,
as they settle, the meadow resounding with the noise,
so the many groups of soldiers moved out then,
from ships and huts onto Scamander’s plain.      
Under men’s and horses’ feet the earth rang ominously.
Then they stood there, in that flowered meadow,
by the Scamander, an immense array,                                              
as numerous as leaves and flowers in springtime.                            
Like flies swarming around shepherds’ pens in spring, 
when pails fill up with milk, so the Achaeans,
a huge long-haired host, marched out onto that plain
against the Trojans, eager to destroy them. (2.534-551) [2.458 ff]

 

Just as in late summer rainstorms the dark earth
is all beaten down, when Zeus pours out his waters
with utmost violence, when he’s enraged with men
who have provoked him with their crooked judgments,
corrupting their assemblies and driving justice out,
not thinking of gods’ vengeance, so all the rivers 
crest in flood, their torrents carving many hillsides,
as they roar down from the mountains in a headlong rush
toward the purple sea, destroying the works of men—
that’s how, as they sped on, the Trojan horses screamed. (16.449-458) [16.385 ff]

 

Characteristically, the opening half invokes an image of antagonistic forces of nature, especially those of the sea against the shore, fire in the forests or fields, wind on the crops, or beasts of prey attacking domestic livestock or human beings, and in the second half the characteristics of these clashing natural forces are transferred onto the events of the war. In the process, the simile insists upon the fundamental similarity between what is now happening all around us and what those men did in the past. The shift in verb tenses stresses the link between what is now going on in nature (and what has always gone on) and the warfare so many years ago.

 

In this manner Homer’s style is constantly encouraging us to see the conflict at Troy as part of a ceaseless universal strife which has always governed natural events. The warriors are responding with an urge as deeply rooted as the migrating instincts of the birds, as common as the spring growth of leaves on the trees, and as familiar as the feeding of flies around the milk pails. In the timeless rhythms of nature, from the most majestic and powerful birds of the air to the buzzing farmyard pests, war has its place, and its presence here underscores its impersonal omnipotence, its irrefutable natural power. War is thus not a simple moral issue, some human error or sin, but rather an integral part of the irresistible, eternal, and mysterious natural order of things.

 

But the effect of these similes does not emerge merely from the comparison itself. The structure of the simile permits the details to accumulate and gather momentum without significant pause or interruption, so that the very power being invoked manifests itself in the energy of the lines. The formal introduction to the comparison interrupts the narrative action and holds it up momentarily against a backdrop of universal and timeless nature, and then, the simile gathers increasing momentum and finally delivers the full impact of the uncoiling sentence onto the key words describing the soldiers (as, for example, that verb screamed in the last example). The structure of the simile is the source of much of its poetic power.

 

But all similes are inherently ironic. For while they insist upon the similarities between two apparently different things, they also implicitly call attention to those differences. The effect of a simile depends upon an appropriate balance between these two contrasting tendencies. If the differences are too extreme (“heterogeneous ideas yoked by violence together,” as Dr Johnson says of the Metaphysical poets) the comparison is too strained to work. If, on the other hand, the comparison is too familiar and obvious, the simile has become inert and trite, what we call a cliché. A successful simile retains enough difference to be fresh and enough similarity to be apt and, in the process, pulls the reader in different directions.

 

Consider, for example, Homer’s most famous comparison, the “wine dark sea.” At once the metaphor suggests the rich attractiveness of the ocean, the fascination with the hidden emotional powers of nature. For the sea, like wine, benefits a man, tempts him, intoxicates him, and can overpower and kill him. On the other hand, the sea in many ways is not like wine at all. Wine is produced by human skill and has become an essential part of civilized life in homes and temples. It is an important part of those occasions where human beings celebrate among themselves. The sea, by contrast, follows its own whims and cannot be made a permanent and predictable part of anyone’s peaceful social existence. Its eternally bitter vintage arises from and works by some mysterious, ambiguous power uncontrolled by human beings. The complex paradox in this apparently simple metaphor simultaneously insists upon the similarity and the difference.

 

By calling attention to nature in this way, Homer’s style creates and sustains throughout the poem a constant ironic tension. While it places the war in a much wider context of universal and timeless natural processes, it also repeatedly reminds the reader that what is happening on the battlefield comes at the expense of some vital human alternatives.

 

                        As two men with measuring rods
quarrel over survey markers in a common field,
striving for a fair division in some narrow place,
that’s how the parapet kept these troops apart. (12.465-468) [12.421]

Just as a man tends a flourishing olive shoot,
in some lonely place with a rich source of water,
a lovely vigorous sapling stirred with the motion
of every breeze, so it bursts out in white blossoms—
but then a sudden stormy wind arising rips it
from its trench and lays it out prone on the earth—
that’s how Menelaus, son of Atreus, then cut down
Panthous’ son, Euphorbus of the fine ash spear. (17.68-75) [17.52 ff]

Just as at harvest time North Wind quickly dries
well-watered orchards, to the farmer’s great delight,
that’s how the whole plain then grew dry, as Hephaestus
burned up the dead. (21.416) [21.345]

 

What’s remarkable in such moments is how the comparison works both ways. Yes, the similarities are there, and we get continuing sense of warfare as part of the fabric of human life and nature. But the differences are loaded with ironic resonance.  For surveyors, farmers, and the north wind blowing through an orchard in summer all suggest human possibilities other than warfare, a civilization based on creative productivity, something very different from the world of the front-line warrior. War, in other words, may belong with the rhythms of nature, but it is not all there is to be said. The warriors’ ferocious acts may be part of the eternal forces of nature, but they bring little pleasure to gardeners, whose efforts, equally natural, foster other human qualities. Fields of glory can also be cattle pastures, but armies drive cattle from the fields, soak the earth with blood, and bury human beings in the ground. Spears have some obvious similarities with surveyors’ measuring rods, but the two implements have fundamentally different purposes.
Sometimes, a particular simile may push this ironic tension to the limit. Here, for example, is a description of the wound Agamemnon receives on the battlefield:

 

Just as a sharp spasm seizes women giving birth,
a piercing labour pain sent by the Eilithyiae,
Hera’s daughters, who control keen pangs of childbirth,
that’s how sharp pain sapped Agamemnon’s fighting strength. (11.307-310) [11.269]

 

Agamemnon has just slaughtered a series of young men, winning great glory for himself, manifesting the highest virtue of his warrior life, so the ironic implications of comparing the pain from his wound to the pain of childbirth is clear enough.

 

In this way, the double nature of the simile, while insisting that such conflicts are central to nature itself, is always helping us to recognize a world beyond the battlefield, to remind us of other human possibilities which these warriors cannot admit into their vision of experience. These peaceful alternatives are constantly there to remind us of the narrowness of this warrior ethic, the price one pays for the supreme glory of military triumph. This is not, one should add, a critical irony, one that undercuts and disenfranchises the human values manifested in the warrior life. It is much rather an impersonal and constant reminder of what warfare ignores, of the drastic limitations the endeavour places on human experience.

 

Hence, the Homeric similes and the shorter comparisons bring out war’s rightful place in the natural order. It is inextricably part of the world in all its beauty, ferocity, passion, and destructiveness. But at the same time it severely limits other creative human possibilities. In recognizing one, we cannot escape becoming aware of the other, so that the ironic sense of war developed here is complex, something we cannot easily sum up or neutralize with a pithy moral conclusion. All the qualities of war—its glory, beauty, butchery, courage, ugliness, and pain—are inherently part of a world uniting the destroyer and the destroyed. The mysterious powers of nature, the source of life, joy, creativity, and beauty, bring forth all things, including, paradoxically, the forces of human destructiveness. 

 

 

[For the Table of Contents of the series of essays and an Introductory Comment outlining the purpose of the series, please use the following link: Essays on Homer’s Iliad.]