The 16th-century English writer Samuel Johnson wrote, "A simile, to be perfect, must both illustrate and ennoble the subject." However, Homer's similes emphasize the ceremonial nature of the epic and the universal significance of the story by using references from everyday areas of human life. So striking is his use of epic similes that they are often referred to as Homeric similes. An epic simile is a formal, sustained comparison of two subjects that elaborates the secondary subject so vividly that it temporarily eclipses the primary subject.
In Book 4 of "The Odyssey," the suitors who have been occupying Odysseus’ house during his absence learn of Telemachus’ voyage, and they prepare an ambush for his return. A servant overhears their plans and tells them to Penelope. She becomes so sick with worry about the fate of her son that her mind turns wildly until she exhausts herself: "Like a lioness caught in the toils with huntsmen hemming her in on every side she thought and thought till she sank into a slumber, and lay on her bed bereft of thought and motion." Homer is comparing Penelope's frenetic thoughts to those of a lion surrounded by hunters.
After festivities at the palace of Alcinous in Book 9, Odysseus tells the story of how he blinded the Cyclops. Homer compares the sound that the pierced eye made to the sound of cooling a new-made weapon in water: "As a blacksmith plunges an axe or hatchet into cold water to temper it -- for it is this that gives strength to the iron -- and it makes a great hiss as he does so, even thus did the Cyclops' eye hiss round the beam of olive wood." Here, Homer can show off his mixed-bag knowledge of trades.
After 10 years of wandering, Odysseus is eager to leave the court of Alcinous and return home to Ithaca. In Book 13, Homer compares him to a farmer who has been working all day: "As one who has been all day ploughing a fallow field with a couple of oxen keeps thinking about his supper and is glad when night comes that he may go and get it, for it is all his legs can do to carry him, even so did Ulysses rejoice when the sun went down." Even though Odysseus (also known as Ulysses) is a great hero, Homer shows that the king of Ithaca can have the same feelings as a humble farmer.
In Book 21, Penelope brings out Odysseus' bow and challenges each of the suitors to shoot an arrow between two axes. Little do they know that Odysseus is among them in disguise. After the suitors have failed, he takes up his own bow: "Ulysses, when he had taken it up and examined it all over, strung it as easily as a skilled bard strings a new peg of his lyre and makes the twisted gut fast at both ends." Of course, being familiar with his own weapon, he wins the challenge. Here Homer compares Odysseus' skill with the bow to a musician stringing a lyre, an ancient stringed instrument similar to a harp.
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- Project Gutenberg: Homer's Odyssey
- A Glossary of Literary Terms, Ninth Edition; M. H. Abrams
- Lives of the Poets: Pope; Samuel L. Johnson
- Digital Vision./Digital Vision/Getty Images