No-one who reads the Iliad can fail to notice Homer's extensive use of similes. Many are long and elaborate and often use only an initial correspondence before embarking on a long description that seems to have little to do with the narrative action to which they are supposed to relate. These similes serve to add colour and contrast to the poem. Comparisons of heroes to powerful elements in nature, be they animals, such as lions, or natural phenomena, such as storms, add to their glory. Undignified similes can serve to emphasise certain themes that are important within the work, for example describing Athena's protection of Menelaus as being like a mother brushing away flies from a child (4.130ff.), or Apollo's destruction of the Achaean wall as being like a child knocking down its sand-castle (15.360-6) stresses man's impotence in the face of the power of the gods.

The movement from an initial correspondence to a freer description of a scene that is not tied to the narrative enables Homer to include aspects of the world that would not normally be described in a poem about war. He creates an epic that is concerned with the whole world and not simply the Trojan War. The life external to the conflict that we see in the similes is in pointed contrast to that which we find outside them. Thus, when we are asked to compare scenes from battle to agricultural and domestic tasks and specialist trades, we are invited to see what the Homeric world was like before the present struggle, and what it is like elsewhere away from Troy. This is the life that the warriors left and this is what they wish to return to.

Oral Poetry

Following the work of the American scholar Milman Parry at the start of the twentieth century, it has become generally accepted that the Homeric epics are the products of a tradition of oral poetry. It is immediately noticeable on reading the poems that the major characters are regularly described with standard epithets that do not alter in different contexts. Thus, Achilles is described as 'swift-footed' even though he may be sitting down, or Odysseus is 'resourceful' even though he may not be demonstrating any particular mental prowess. Closer inspection of the texts reveals that the combination of a hero's name and his particular epithet recurs at the same point in each line that it is mentioned. Parry suggested that this was due to the poet requiring standard phrases to fit metrically at those points when he wished to describe that hero. If he were delivering the poem orally in front of an audience, it would be impossible for him to tell his story fluently and maintain the strict hexameter metre, if he were improvising his narration. The use of these stock epithets facilitated his task. Working outward from this starting-point, it can be seen that, in fact, much of the Iliad is made up from standard building blocks. Not only are the names and epithets of the heroes recurrent throughout the poem, but whole scenes are described using the same, or nearly the same, phrases. Where there is no repetition of whole scenes, there are word-groups that are also used elsewhere.

To suggest that these standard formulae were all invented by one man in order to enable him to tell his story more easily is not beyond the bounds of possibility, but it is much more likely that they are the result of an inherited oral tradition. Over generations, the episodes and scenes were told and retold by successive bards in a standard manner that became imbedded in their narration, due to their adherence to metrical needs and the prop that this afforded to their narrator. Thus, a particular scene or type of scene was always told in the same way, regardless of whether it was slightly at odds with the scenes surrounding it. If this was the case, then it goes a long way to explaining the inconsistencies that do occur in the Homeric poems.

It is still uncertain, however, whether the Iliad and the Odyssey themselves were orally composed and transmitted. Homer is believed to have lived at a time when literacy was beginning to enter Greece. Whether he actually wrote down the poems is unknown, but even if he did, they certainly seem to be derived from oral poetry and his techniques seem to be those of an oral poet.

Sample Questions

1. "A celebration of the glory war can bring to those of heroic character". Is this a fair description of the "Iliad"?

- Consider what heroic means. Does the poem pre-suppose what heroism is? If it does, then does it confirm or reject this concept? Does it then provide a new concept of heroism?

- Which of the characters in the poem could be described as 'heroic'?

- Are these characters portrayed as at ease with their predicament?

- Is the poem really concerned with glorifying war?

- Does the poem suggest
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