Epic Similes in The Iliad

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  • 0:03 What Is a Simile?
  • 1:25 Similes vs. Epic Similes
  • 1:58 Author's Purpose
  • 6:14 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Brittany Cross

Brittany teaches middle school Language Arts and has a master's degree for designing secondary reading curriculum.

Similes are a type of figurative language used to share descriptions through comparisons. We'll review similes and dig deeper into a technique known as the epic simile. This lesson will specifically examine how the epic simile contributes to Homer's classic, 'The Iliad'.

What Is a Simile?

Take a moment to compare the following sentences describing a hero:

'The hero was brave, but also frightened.'

'The hero, though brave as a lion guarding his cubs, was shaking like a leaf in the wind as the opposing army approached.'

The first sentence, while informative, is rather dull because it's so straightforward. The second example, however, demonstrates how a writer can use similes to craft a sentence with deeper meaning. The basic definition of a simile is a comparison of two similar things using the words 'like' or 'as.' Because similes are a type of figurative language, they're not meant to be taken literally. Rather, a simile should illustrate a vivid image in the mind of the reader instead of stating a characteristic or description outright.

When we look at the second sentence, we can see how the two similes used give the writer the ability to say many things about the hero at once and in a more creative way. Based on the comparisons, the hero is clearly courageous and willing to protect his fellow soldiers and whoever they are fighting for. Additionally, it's clear to the audience that the hero is afraid of going into battle. By incorporating similes the author is able to make a far more powerful statement about the soldier.

Similes vs. Epic Similes

Epic similes are just like regular similes, with one additional element: they're extended in length. Like epic poems, which are long narrative poems that tell a story, epic similes are long comparisons drawn out over several lines to portray descriptions relevant to the plot, characters, or theme. The benefit of using epic similes in writing or language is that it allows for more descriptive language which creates a more powerful representation of important ideas.

Author's Purpose

While the author of The Iliad isn't conclusively known, credit is most commonly given to Homer, a blind Greek poet who's said to be the original composer of the nearly 16,000 lines that make this a classic heroic tale. So why would Homer choose to incorporate epic similes in his description of a ten-year war between the Greeks and Trojans? First and foremost, recall that epic poetry began in the oral tradition of storytelling. Oral tradition was a common form of after dinner entertainment during the long, dark winter months. Thus, when amusement and engagement are key ingredients, the ability to be a notable storyteller is similar to being a chef adding rich flavors and savory spices to an everyday dish.

In an epic poem such as The Iliad, epic similes can have many functions including:

  • Creating imagery for literary elements, such as setting, characters, and conflicts
  • Drawing attention to important themes
  • Connecting the reader to the story by using well-known objects for comparisons

Let's take a look at some specific excerpts. In Book II, Agamemnon and his army have left Greece and are preparing to battle the Trojans. As Agamemnon prepares to tell the men about a dream he had, we see a comparison between the men in Agamemnon's army and bees:

'They swarmed like bees that sally from some hollow cave and flit in countless throng among the spring flowers, bunched in knots and clusters; even so did the mighty multitude pour from ships and tents to the assembly, and range themselves upon the wide-watered shore.'

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