Jasper Griffin and Homer’s simile-world
It seems to be of the essence of the Homeric hero to re-collect, even if unwittingly, the images of the cosmos that fashioned him, carrying them to where they stand out most clearly–the dangerous limit of death. Jasper Griffin’s intimate grasp of the Iliad seems to know instinctively that it takes a simile to make its hero appear.
“While the hero lives he is god-like and loved by the gods. In his martial rage, the high point and zenith of his existence, he is compared to a lion, a wild boar, a storm, a river in flood, a raging forest fire, a bright star from a dark cloud; his armour blazes like the sun, his eyes flash fire, his breast is filled with irresistible fury, his limbs are light and active. Encouraged by the gods, he leaps at his enemy with a terrifying cry.”
Arising at a shimmering distance from the heat of the immediate action, such images–“a river in flood, a raging forest fire, a bright star from a dark cloud”–appear as their own reason for being, independent and fresh. The simile-world in which the heroic deed reverberates schools us in a love whose dimensions are cosmic; including not only such pure manifestations of untamable nature, but also the rich and fine textures of labor and craft, and with them intimate details from “unheroic” life. Griffin’s epic catalog of similes (besides sparkling with its own delightfulness) illustrates precisely this.
“Many of the similes are obviously heroic, derived from lions, wild boars, serpents, storms, floods, forest fires; others are drawn from trees, clouds, stars, the quiet sea. Many human activities appear, some of them decidedly practical. There are agricultural tasks of irrigation, ploughing, reaping, threshing and treading out the corn; and such special trades as the smith cooling hot iron, woodcutters at work, the potter’s wheel, tanners stretching out an ox-hide, a carpenter boring a beam, an artist gilding a statue, a woman weighing out wool. We see a little girl crying and pulling at her mother’s skirt, women quarreling in the street, a widow lamenting over her husband’s body, a father recovering from an illness. There are “undignified” similes, as when the slow retreat of Ajax, assailed by a host of Trojans, is compared to the slow exit of a donkey from a cornfield under the feeble blows of small boys, or Athena warding off an arrow from Menelaus is compared to a mother brushing away a fly from a sleeping child, or Odysseus tossing and turning in impatient anger is compared to a blood-pudding seething over a fire (Iliad, xi, 558; iv, 130; Odyssey, xx, 25).”