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Miles Gomez
Miles Gomez

Epic Similes In The Odyssey Book 5



Rather than trying to settle this problem, I will use the customary book divisions as guides while not insisting that they authoritatively define the beginning and end points of basic narrative units comprising each of the epics. My assumption is that both poems are built from a collection of tales, each of which centers on an individual narrative that tells its story in its own way.29 In other words, I will use the traditional book numbers as shorthand to identify a particular segment of the narrative while not attempting to justify the precise beginning and ending of that segment. Often adding twenty more lines (or even fifty) to the preceding book or taking twenty lines off the beginning of the book will not appreciably affect the discussion. I will treat the book divisions as suggestions that a unit is beginning somewhere in that area.




Epic Similes In The Odyssey Book 5



I will argue later that book 5 is a carefully constructed book in many ways, including the placement, subject, and extension of the similes. There are 21 similes in the 909 lines of book 5, or an average of one simile in every 43 lines; in book 6 there are 4 similes in 509 lines, or a comparable average of one simile every 127 lines. (If the length of the similes is calculated, 5.8 percent of lines in book 5 are similes vs. 1.7 percent in book 6.) In addition, in the initial 236 lines of the Glaucus-Diomedes scene there are no similes. On this evidence alone there seems a difference in the design of the two books; but the establishment of this difference is not dependent on book 5 ending at line 909, or at book 6.37, or later at 6.66, or at 6.72.30 I feel that the contrast in the density of similes reflects a shift in the subject and theme of the two books. Book 5, the aristeia of Diomedes, is centered on his attacks on Aphrodite and Ares; book 6 is one where warriors refuse to fight and instead turn to broader considerations of family and friends:31 Diomedes refuses to fight Glaucus, and Hector leaves the battle to visit his mother, sister-in-law, and wife. The book then closes with the return of Hector and Paris to battle. Thus the division between these two books signals a significant change in subject and style, and that change can be analyzed without insisting on the authenticity of the division at precisely 5.909.


Third, neither the simileme nor its components are necessarily attached to repeated phrases; no one of the motifs listed on the chart is expressed through a limited set of formulae. There are four similes centered on the oak tree, all extended. In two (12.132 and 14.414) the oak is introduced in different phrases, neither of which is parallel to formulae in other parts of the Homeric poems. However, in the other two passages (13.389 and 16.482) the oak is included as part of a repeated three-line unit. The opening line of this repeated simile reveals alternative species of trees: "He fell as when an oak falls, or a poplar, or a tall pine." As a result the simileme offers different expressions to specify the oak tree; two of these expressions appear only once in the two epics, while the other two seem formulaic. Further, at 4.482 the poplar is introduced with a different word from that at 13.389 and 16.482, as is the pine at 5.560. The same is true for the words for leaves and shoots in the longer similes at 4.482, 13.178, and 17.53; yet the short similes at 18.56, 18.437, and Ody. 14.175 are identical in the choice of word, occur at the same position in the line, and are clearly formulaic. Likewise, there is little repetition of formulae in the element of the craftsmen, their cutting tools, their act of cutting, the mountain peak, or the intended use for the fallen tree. While the simileme depends for its existence on being expressed in specific words, the choice of those words is a separate act.


By choosing insects for the first of many similes describing the army in book 2, the poet prepares his audience, well aware of the traditional possibilities in the insect simileme, to focus on the fighting spirit of the Greeks. Yet at the same time, when he rigorously suppresses the available warlike elements to create a spring scene of untroubled bees, he counts on that same audience to realize that he has eliminated the aggressive element of the simileme in order to present the least ready army in the Iliad. The disorder and uncertainty in its movements are made clear in their random clustering (82 and 89) and their lack of direction (90).14


Second, in book 15 when the Trojans are on the verge of burning the Greek ships, thus fulfilling the plan of Zeus and putting crucial pressure on Achilles (592ff.), there is a cluster of six similes, two of which are short comparisons:


The similes in book 2 consistently support the pervasive irony of the strong-but-weak army directed by the powerful-yet-inept commande