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Many authors employ the device of the simile, but Homer fully adopts the concept, immersing many provoking, multi-layered similes into even the most ordinary of battle scenes in the Iliad. This technique both breaks up the ponderous pace of warfare and allows insight to the frequently volatile emotions of the characters.
A specific simile, found in Book Sixteen (lines 259-65), is set amongst rather dramatic action: Patroklus, in Achilleus’s armor, rouses the Myrmidons as they head towards the battle. It is clear that the battalion is eager to fight (“In heart and fury” the Myrmidons “stream from their ships” (XVI, 268)), and Patroklus asks them to “remember your furious valour” (XVI, 270). Homer, however, offers the reader more than mere nouns, as he translates the sentiment of the Myrmidons into an elaborate visual simile. The basic premise of the comparison is to equate the fury of the aggravated wasps to the fury of the battle-hungry Myrmidons. This simile, however, runs far deeper than this surface association; as with many of Homer’s similes, when studied more carefully, suspiciously familiar characters emerge.
The wasps of the passage, as explicitly relayed to the reader, are the Myrmidons, a faction of the Greek army. Uncovering the identity of the “little boys” (XVI, 260) proves more taxing. Homer lays the foundation for the character when he describes the boys as thoughtless, ignorant, and casually hedonistic. It is line 262, however, that casts the boys as expressions of Paris himself: “silly boys, they do something that hurts many people [emphasis added].” Thus the parallels begin to rapidly surface in the reader’s mind: Paris’s provocation of the enemy, his maddeningly cavalier self-indulgence, and his complete ignorance of the dire consequences of his action. It then follows that the man, presented as an innocent passer-by who “stirs [the wasps] unintentionally” (XVI, 264) represents the Trojan army. Troy, unlike the Greek nations, is truly forced into the war. In the very same way, the man is left to deal with the painful outcome of the boys’ play.
The effect of this simile on the narrative is rather remarkable. Throughout the Iliad Homer relentlessly challenges the reader’s allegiance to each army, and one is bound to question where justice lies amongst his perpetual juggling of sympathies. In the presented simile, Homer takes the startling stance of declaring both parties innocent, and places all of the fault cleanly on one man’s shoulders: Paris. Although readers now understand the motivation of the Greeks (as the poking of the stick efficiently translates into the robbery of a wife), their pity lies with the blameless Trojans, an attitude that will deepen with the upcoming death of Sarpedon, and will then abruptly wane, in typical Homeric fashion, with the death of Hektor.
This simile can, however, be viewed from another angle. The comparison to wasps – especially in a poem riddled with associations between men and lions, boars, and wolves – is an interesting one. The Myrmidons, as presented, are mere wasps. They aren’t a great asset to the Greek army. What is most important, as becomes clear through the simile, is their enthusiastic spirit: they are eager to fight, and their will to battle is infectious. The reader is soon presented with the lucid visual of the cloud of wasps “streaming” (XVI, 259) out of their nests which so perfectly parallels the crowd of the Myrmidons pouring from their tents. Thus Homer communicates the innate spirit of mass warfare itself: individuals cease to exist in this swarm; they draw their power from the mob, propelled by a community filled with of ambitious, furious spirit.
The final notable quality of this excerpt is the delicate insight it provides on the perspective of the gods. Using wasps as a point of comparison, one recalls scenes of Zeus sitting atop Olympos, from which the humans in fact do resemble insects. Several pages later, the reader finds Zeus looking down on the battle, watching the warriors “forever swarm over [Sarpedon’s] dead body, as flies” (XVI, 641). These two descriptions reinforce the notion that the gods are, in general, truly apathetic about the fate of humans. The perspectives of the humans and the gods clash: the human’s lives are saturated with the overwhelming importance of this war and the potential honor, victory, and death, while the gods look upon it as an amusing diversion. The clashing perspectives of the humans and the gods allow the reader to better appreciate the parallel inner battle of Achilles: that perhaps the war should not completely consume one’s life.
Using similes, Homer manages to incorporate striking images, persuasive techniques, unifying themes, and relevant undertones into his epic tale. It is the arresting lines of comparison, and all of their intricate suggestions, that truly compel one to respect Homer for the remarkable beauty contained within his poetry.
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