Featured Image: Grainy Sunset by Jan Hapke
When we read the Iliad at New College Franklin, I like to spend time with my students on Homer’s similes. What we find in them is not just a way of sharing information, but a mode of inhabiting the world.
Inhabiting the World
A simile can simply be the artistic flourish of an author. It can work as an explanatory device. In Homer similes can enrich one’s experience of the world.
A world (just like a story) is not merely a series of people or objects placed in proximity to each other; rather, it is the inter-relation of the whole. In other words, a world is the whole world and not just a collection.
It is the difference between working in an office cubicle and sharing the hearth. Cubicles serve to divide and to keep one on task. The unity of cubicle-life is largely numeric. At the hearth-side, on the other hand, we meet each other face to face; we break bread, tell tales, and delight in the unity of fellowship. At the hearth-side, we remember that we are
human and all that our humanity entails.
Through simile, the mind transcends a compartmentalization of things. It remembers, and even recreates the unity of communion.
When we associate a lion with human strength, we do more than say, “look, both are strong.” We recognize the grandeur of embodied power and see that power reflected in two beings who offset and inform one another. The awesome potential of man is reflected in that of a lion because they participate in the same reality.
In creating a poetic link between man and lion, we recognize that both man and lion do indeed inhabit the same cosmos and share a real, if mysterious, kinship with one another.
This is why the act of simile is ultimately not just an intellectual act, but a means of living in a world in which all things are interconnected, in which all things bear the mark of their one Maker. When we compare man and lion, we sense not only the awful and nature of creaturehood, but in doing so, we apprehend something of the creative, playful, and terrible mind of our God.
From Binders Full of Evidence by Susan Woodward;
Image by a freshman from Webster Schroeder High School, NY
We can look at two similes in Book XI of the Iliad in order to get a better sense of their power. In class this year, we reflected on these similes by moving back and forth between them and their context in the narrative.
Ajax, the Donkey
In Book XI of the Iliad, the battle begins to turn against the the Greeks. Although they have started to pull back to their ships, the Giant Ajax, Swift of Foot, is reluctant. Still, he recognizes that he must join his fellows on the defensive. Homer offers this simile:
a donkey, stubborn and hard to move, goes into a cornfield
in despite of boys, and many sticks have been broken upon him,
but he gets in and goes on eating the deep grain, and the children
beat him with sticks, but their strength is infantile; yet at last
by hard work they drive him out when he is glutted with eating;
so the high-hearted Trojans and companions in arms gathered
from far places kept after great Aias.¹
Ajax, just previously depicted as a lion, a carnivorous terror, is now a donkey, a beast of burden. His is not the only transformation. Trojans, previously compared to grown farmers and guard-dogs, are reduced to children who break their switches on the stubborn creature’s back.
It is as if, now that Ajax is in retreat, Homer is yet unwilling to attribute greater dominance to the Trojans than that of children, lest we fail to see the power and reluctance of the great warrior. The donkey discovers in the simile an almost heroic indifference in its slow and certain retreat. There is both humor and dignity in the image.
Further, donkeys are known for their sure foot-work, a quality repeatedly attributed to Ajax, even moments before. Donkeys are closer to the ground than horses and less likely to spook. They often traverse difficult terrain on which other beasts of burden would be less certain.
Homer is not simply poking fun at the situation, but revealing the plodding work of battle in which will is set against will, and in which the might of one is set against the inferior and ineffectual force of many.
The Work of the Harvest
Earlier in Book XI, Homer crafts a very different simile in order to explore the nature of our common humanity. Set during the opening stage of a battle, its focus is not on the eventual fall of Troy or even an individual act of heroism. It instead explores the unity of the overall action. Homer does this through a use of communal, pastoral imagery:
And the men, like two lines of reapers who, facing each other,
drive their course all down the field of wheat or of barley
for a man blessed in substance, and the cut swathes drop showering,
so Trojans and Achaians driving in against one another
cut men down, nor did either side think of disastrous panic.²
It is an image which is characterized by equity, abundance, and melancholy, but also joy and beauty. Set in the fields of one “blessed in substance” the mowers range through the rich harvest as it showers to the ground. The battle is thus depicted in the context of rhythmic, day-long labor, labor from which men shrink not, despite the toil.
It is not uncommon during a harvest for folks from numerous farms to band together, often for days on end, in order to share the burden of toil. At such times, there is hardly a moment for food or drink, or even rest. The Book of Ruth describes just such a season. It is a time of enormous effort, during which people push-on to stay ahead of the weather.
Such moments are also notable their unity and comaraderie. The harvest is a time when, if one should lift up his head for a moment, he would see the face of his neighbor marked by the same signs of effort and concentration. It is a moment in which one stands under the same sun as the person beside him and delights in the presence of another who is such as himself.
In war too, men may look up for a moment and find in the faces of those around him, even those of enemies, a reflection of their common humanity. In such moments, we delight in the embodied life we have been given; we recognize how much we depend on each other, how much we suffer from one another, and that we share a common lot of sorrow and joy.
Homer’s remarkable image not only situates this war in the context of communal labor, but also communal hope. The harvest is that time of year when one gathers in the fruit of long toil, of prayer, patience, and need. It is not insignificant that the corollary of the image of the harvest are the warriors who now fall like grain to the ground. Many of these men were themselves farmers before the war, and like the grain, they embodied the hope and abundance of their own communities.
It is worth noting that it is likely these men indeed fall to the ground upon fields which once yielded such harvests for Troy, but which in the nine years of battle have lain fallow.
In the overall simplicity of this image, Homer radically re-characterizes Greek and Trojan forces. He depicts them as if living together and working together within a single community as co-laborers and thus co-sufferers.
The only aspect of the image which preserves Greek/Trojan opposition is the merely physical opposition of the reapers who stand on either side of the field. In doing so, the laborers take on the aspect of a people working together in an occupation of peacetime.
In this simile, Greeks and Trojans are bound together in a single image, in the human activity of farming. In doing so, war and suffering are depicted as man’s common lot. In doing so, Homer enlarges the scale of his epic, encompassing not only the whole of the battle field, but something far larger.
This small moment in the Homeric epic helps illuminate the poem and our consciousness with a sense of something greater than war.
Merely a War Story?
Homeric simile and imagery help readers grasp that the Iliad is much more than a chronicle of war.
If the Iliad were merely a war story, it would be a rather dull and abstract narrative. It would give details of stratagem and battles, but little else. Instead, it is the story of men who happen to be at war, and so it is ultimately a story about being human.
Man does not cease being human because he is at war. He is not suddenly abstracted from his humanity, even when he loses touch with himself. Indeed, the presence of simile in the Iliad serves to explore the dehumanizing nature of war, in part by permeating the battle with and interpreting it through the truly human.
Thus Homer presents us, not with a simple history of the Troy, but with a rich trove of analogies, images, descriptions, and similes that draw from every corner of the cosmos. He draws upon nature, geography, weather, history, genealogy, war craft, farming and manufacturing, politics, theology, psychology, anatomy, ethics, cultic practice, and more.
The result is a story–a hearth-side act–which speaks of something much greater than war. It is, as the author tells us, the story of the anger of Achilles and all that results from that rage. It is the story of what it means to be mortal in a world full of violence, insult, and sacrilege, while at the same time in a world of beauty, love, respect, and glory.
This is the meaning of the shield of Achilles which Hephaestus forges just before the final confrontation between Achilles and Hector. Hephaestus, a maimed artist (much like the blind author of the epic), forges an image of glory which shines forth with depictions of rural and urban life, with the joys of marriage and harvest, as well as the pain of injustice and violence. Thus Achilles bears into battle an image which depicts human life and joy as inextricably bound together with death and suffering. This image stands not only in contrast to the violence of war, but is literary borne into the battle.
The shield is itself an image of the work of poetic creation. Poetry forges or weaves together the cosmos. Poetic creation presents us with images of the whole that can be ever carried with us, wherever we go. The presence of poetry reminds us of the grandeur human life. This image, like all good art, is therefore ultimately cruciform in nature, unifying in its terrible totality.
¹ Homer, and Richmond Lattimore. The Iliad of Homer. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1961, Book 11, L.556-564.
² Homer, and Richmond Lattimore. The Iliad of Homer. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1961, Book 11, l.66-71