Homeric Similes in The Iliad

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‘‘Achilleus the lion-hearted who breaks men in battle’’(192). As the strongest and most important character in the poem, Achilles’ return to the Trojan war towards the last books of Homer’s Iliad symbolizes the reappearance of his heroic greatness. Book 21 ends with Apollo distracting Achilles from killing more Trojans, while book 22 begins with Achilles chasing the God of light for preventing him from acquiring more honor on the battlefield. The hero then runs towards the walls of Troy, while Hector is waiting for him outside the city’s enclosures. As he is running, Priam - king of Troy and father of Hector - discerns Achilles, comparing him to a bright star.

The aged Priam was the first of all whose eyes saw him as he swept across the flat land in full shining, like that star which comes in the autumn and whose conspicuous brightness far outshines the stars that are numbered in the night’s darkening, the star they give the name of Orion’s Dog, which is brightest, among the stars, and yet is wrought as a sign of evil and brings on the great fever for unfortunate mortals. (458.25-31)

Detailed, complex, epic poetic comparisons are the motors of Homer’s poetry. The tenor of this simile is Achilles, and the vehicle is Orion’s Dog (also known as Sirius), which is a specific star. In this epic simile, Homer draws a parallel between Achilles & Orion’s Dog star, and in so doing illustrates Achilles’s distinctiveness and the importance of this specific moment.

To begin with, Homer’s comparison of Achilles to a bright star highlights his strength as the greatest warrior of the Achaean army. Indeed, Achilles is depicted ‘‘[sweeping] across the flat land in full shining, like that star’’ (458). Achilles’s uniqueness is hinted with the demonstrative determiner ‘that’ which metaphorically distinguishes him once again from other stars - reflecting other warriors. Stars are the most distant things humans can perceive with naked eyes, thus comparing Peleus’ son to a star creates a physical, emotional and even conceptual distance to Achilles, elevating him as an almost supernatural creature placed far from the ground. Hence, the intensity of the star’s brightness is paralleled to Achilles’s strength, outperforming the rest of the army ‘‘conspicuous brightness / far outshines the stars that are numbered in the night’s darkening’’ (458). The association ‘conspicuous brightness’ (458) gives Achilles an almost divine attribute, which is enhanced by the lexical field of light ‘shining’, ’star’(x4), ‘brightness’, ‘ conspicuous’, ‘outshines’, ‘brightest’ (458). This divinity reminds the reader of Achilles’s godlike nature that Priam directly acknowledges in book 24 ‘‘Achilleus like the gods’’(510), explains his surpassing strength that will allow him to slay the greatest of Trojans by the end of book 22. Throughout the entire simile, Homer emphasizes how Achilles ‘outshines’ (458) all the other stars, highlighting his superiority as an Achaean and his distinctiveness as a human being like a star in the ‘night’s darkening’ (458), like a mortal beyond the sky’s limit. However, while the brightness of the star places Achilles in a ‘divine’ position, this strength could also be seen as a threat.

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Secondly, through the use of this epic simile, Homer specifically confers a threatening, dangerous and tragic side to Achilles’s unique character. The specific star Achilles is compared to is ‘‘the star they give the name of Orion’s Dog’’ (458) and is also known as Sirius, the sky’s brightest one. During Antiquity the heliacal rising of Sirius coincided with a period of boiling weather, and later on the Ancient Greeks thought this ‘heat wave’ originated from the extra radiations coming from this star, calling those hot days ‘dog burning days’. These ‘dog days’ were dangerous because the scorching heat brought fever and infections. In his simile, Homer associates Sirius with ‘‘a sign of evil’’ (458), implying that the rise of Orion’s Dog brought a detrimental influence to human beings. Just like the star, Achilles’ rise to battle outside the walls of Troy foreshadows the prejudice and danger he will bring to human lives. He will, by analogy ‘‘[bring] on the great fever for unfortunate mortals’’. The fever draws back to the danger of the star’s heat, but implicitly entails sickness or death caused by Achilles. The brightness of the star is a sign of disaster because it foreshadows the fated blow of the spear that will kill Hector. The simile ends with the words ‘unfortunate mortals’, which means that some unlucky humans - referring to Hector - will be struck by Achilles’s power, fevered by Sirius’ heat.

Next, this Homeric simile comparing Achilles to an almost deathly star has an ironic effect. The ending of the simile ‘unfortunate mortals’ (458) is ironic and contradictory because of all men, Achilles will be the most unfortunate of mortals. Indeed, the myth says his mother Thetis dipped his infant body in the Styx river to give him immortality, except for his heel, making Achilles mortal only on a single part of his body. Although Homer does not depict Achilles’s death, his end will hit him on his mortal heel as a consequence of his own actions, making him himself one of these ‘unfortunate mortals’. Achilles’s heel is his weakness in spite of his powerful allure, leading to his downfall. This simile draws to the theme of men and mortality. Popular belief could imagine stars are immortal. Stars are born, live, and eventually die - the most massive stars even explode. This highlights the irony of the simile, because as unique and bright the star Achilles is compared to could be, his life will come to an end too - brutally. It also draws attention to the question of sealed fate.

Then, many parts of this analogy are signs to the readers indicating and questioning the importance of this expected moment. When Achilles is portrayed ‘‘[sweeping] across the flat land in full shining, like that star’’ (458), the verb ‘‘sweeping’' to describe his mobility suggests a forceful and rapid movement brushing the ‘‘flat land’’ just as a shooting star brushes the sky. A shooting star is a symbol of an upcoming big change and that one will reach his destiny. Homer may have used this particular simile at this particular time to foreshadow the immediate upcoming of Achilles’s fate. What is paradoxical in this situation is that Achilles decides to ‘‘[sweep]’’ (458) as a shooting star, meaning he decides to fight, knowing he is sealing his fate. However, is he lucid? Is his fate already sealed? Did he control his fate by rejoining the war? The complexity of this moment draws us to question fate and free will in the Iliad.

Another sign that could point out the predictability of this specific moment at that specific part of the plot is the presence of the temporal guideline ‘‘like that star which comes on in the autumn’’ (458). Orion’s Dog star Sirius is not always there: it appears at a specific time and is a consequence of the constant motion of orbits, which is why we consider it as an expected star. In the Iliad, it is Achilles’s grief for his beloved friend Patroclus that causes the former to join combat and kill Hector. Just like the heliacal rise of Sirius, Achilles’s appearance at the gates of Troy is foreseen as Trojans are awaiting the appearance of this anticipated star. At this point, the simile evaluates on the poem’s action since this moment seems fated to happen. The fact that the moment is expected for both the tenor and the vehicle, the distance between the galaxy - world of the simile - and the action of the poem is brought together, omitting any possibility of physical distance. Additionally, the poetry behind this simile helps to beat the time and demonstrates a certain poetic dramatization of time, facilitating the anticipation behind the action.

Finally, the specificity of the simile also illustrates Achilles’s distinctiveness. The distance between the tenor - Achilles - and the vehicle - the bright star - is great. Nonetheless, Homer narrows down the range of images that could be drawn by the readers’ different experiences through specified visualization. Indeed, with the number of details that Homer provides (‘’Priam’’, ‘‘that star’’, ‘‘autumn’’), the reader’s imagination is cut down. For example, the use of the proper names ‘‘Orion’s Dog’’ suggests the unique star Homer wanted to compare Achilles to. Thus, there could be no variation according to one reader or another’s independent experiences: instead of leaving the imagery free to interpretation, Homer holds a solid grasp on it. In that simile, the author limits the numerous worlds of spatial and mental images, he subsequently accentuates the tenor’s distinctiveness while leaving significant traces on the course of events.

As the simile unfolds, the reader can better visualize the unique and distinctive colors of Achilles - both as a great warrior sealed to tragicness and a symbol of change. This specific analogy between Sirius and Achilles warns the reader of the momentousness of the situation and, in a way, foretells how the tale will evolve. Specified visualization, poetic dramatization of time, anticipation of action, analysis of characters through graphic portrayals, and even irony are typical functions used in this specific comparison, and in epic similes as a whole throughout the Iliad. These detailed comparisons are boundlessly creative and particularly specific at the same time, which are ways for Homer to follow the engagement of his readers and listeners. By anachronism, they allow the reader to plunge into the vehicle’s world to better understand the tenor. Because of their length, these similes can touch upon many themes of the Iliad connecting the story to its audience’s personal points of view. It allows them to question the fundamental beliefs of Greek mythology, and re-orient them to adapt our modern world. To give an instance, the question of fate and free-will is entailed in the simile we have analyzed, and leads us to wonder: To what extent has the conflict between fate and free-will evolved between Greek mythology and today?

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