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Similes in The Odyssey – Greek Literature


The ancient Greeks had a worldview that established a close relationship between the world of the gods and the world of mortals, typically expressed as a close relationship between the natural world and human activity. This was because it was felt the will of the gods was expressed through the processes of nature as a means of communicating to humans. If the kingdom suffered and crops failed, it was determined that the gods were somehow unhappy with the ruler. If things were going well, it was assumed that the gods were happy. At the same time, nature was seen to assert itself if things were somehow out of harmony with what should be. A base-born individual sitting on the throne would incur hardship upon the realm while a noble individual was known by the wealth and prosperity he brought with him. These ideas and values were passed along to the people through the stories and histories of their age

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These stories were carried to the people orally through the songs of the bards and were thus written in a way that would make it possible to remember the story. One of the primary ways that the poet Homer made his stories, such as the epic of The Odyssey, memorable was through the use of extended similes that reinforced these cultural beliefs. Through his use of extended similes, Homer reveals the fundamental connection between nature and man’s activities as seen in the violence associated with the suitors of Penelope.

Main Body

Homer emphasizes the violence of the age in his various portrayals of Penelope’s suitors. At no point are they ever compared with any of the noble creatures, or even anything considered remotely dangerous. For example, in Book 4, when Telemachus reports to King Menelaus what has been happening back at home, Menelaus erupts in a rage at what these suitors are compared with the character of Odysseus. The extended simile that emerges regarding these suitors appears in lines 374-379: “Weak as the doe that beds down her fawns / in a mighty lion’s den – her newborn sucklings – / then trails off to the mountain spurs and grassy bends / to graze her fill, but back the lion comes to his own lair / and the master deals both fawns a ghastly, bloody death, / just what Odysseus will deal that mob – ghastly death.” In this passage, the comparison is clear. The suitors are not only helpless compared to the strength and power of Odysseus, but they are the newborn weakling children of parents who are unable to protect them. They are even worse than this because the parent herself is nearly too weak to care for herself having just given birth to twins and thus will not come should she hear their need. Even worse than this, she has not even taken the care to ensure she leaves them in a safe place but has left them alone and helpless right on the lion’s doorstep as if in sacrifice. The natural response of the lion, perhaps only a single deadly sweep of his giant paw that brutally drives the life out of both fawns, is all the effort a man such as Odysseus would need to expend to overcome such base creatures as the suitors are thus revealed to be.

While the suitors are demonstrated to be weaklings compared to the nobility of Odysseus, Odysseus and his men are portrayed as the noblest of men in Homer’s choice of natural comparison for them. Upon Odysseus’ final return home, he discovers the suitors have overrun his home and are attempting to force his wife, who seems to have been faithful to her husband’s memory, into marriage with one of them. As he takes up the defense of his home, his stature is again compared to that of the suitors in a way that establishes him as noble and them as pests. One extended simile that brings out this difference in character appears in Book 22. Odysseus and his men are described as the attackers who “struck like eagles, crook-clawed, hook-beaked” (316) while the suitors are given only the status of unnamed birds “that skim across the flatland cringing under the clouds” (318). Although Odysseus is bold and challenging, screaming out of the sky like an eagle, the suitors cringe under the clouds in hiding, attempting to escape Odysseus’ anger by simply escaping his attention. However, Odysseus is such a strong defender of his home that he and his men “plunge in fury, rip their lives out – hopeless, / never a chance of flight or rescue” (319-320). The violence of the scene is emphasized with the last few lines of the simile as Homer emphasizes the “grisly screams” that “broke from skulls cracked open – / the whole floor awash with blood” (323-324). As in the depiction of the suitors earlier in the story, the comparison between the character of Odysseus and that of the suitors is seen in terms of a slaughter rather than a competition among men.

With the suitors dead, Homer still uses violent natural similes to emphasize the fitness of Odysseus as ruler as compared to the others in his ability to provide for his household. This is not given in terms of the prosaic bringing home of treasure or a bountiful hunt. Instead, Homer chooses to again use extended simile to describe the scene of the dead suitors in terms that remind the listener that Odysseus had provided his family with enough wealth to retain their position in society even after all his years of absence and the plague of the suitors within the court. In the extended simile that describes the battleground courtyard following Odysseus’ fight with the suitors, the hero is portrayed as a noble fisherman who hauls in such a prodigious catch that his house will eat well for some time to come. Describing the bodies littering the ground, Homer says there were “great hauls of them down and out like fish that fishermen / drag from the churning gray surf in looped and coiling nets / and fling ashore on a sweeping hook of beach – some noble catch – / heaped on the sand, twitching, lusting for fresh salt sea” (Book 22, 409-412). Within this description, there is also a suggestion of the noble provider in terms of children as well in the imagery of the fish ‘lusting’ for the sea. This entire passage reminds the listener that the court of Odysseus was only just beginning to feel the strain of the suitors that would not leave Penelope alone, meaning that Odysseus was a great provider as compared to the suitors who did nothing but drain the resources of the kingdom they hoped to win.


Through his use of extended simile and nature imagery, Homer is able to convey a strong sense of violence and dominance associated with Odysseus as compared to the weakness and baseness of the suitors that invade his court. This is done first as he conveys the extreme base nature of the suitors in his comparison of them to the most helpless and weak creatures on earth – newly born fawns hidden within the den of a hungry lion – and includes the violence that would ensue when the lion returns home. He emphasizes the difference between Odysseus as lord and these base suitors as he conveys the high degree to which Odysseus is the protector of his home, as a fierce eagle compared to smaller birds that have no choice but to hide in the clouds. Finally, Homer conveys a strong sense of violence even as he illustrates the degree to which Odysseus is the provider for his home as the dead suitors are described in terms that make them sound as if they are part of a tremendous catch of fish that will feed his people. Better than any other catch, it is described as a noble catch even as the floors are described to be flowing in blood.

Works Cited

Homer. The Odyssey.

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