Imagery in The Iliad

Instructor: Lucy Barnhouse
Homer's ''Iliad'' is not only a classic of world literature, but a text beloved by readers for millennia. Its vivid imagery contextualizes the war it describes, and has influenced literature in many traditions.

The Iliad and its Imagery

The Iliad is an epic poem with a limited subject and a vast thematic scope. At its most basic level, it's about the final stages of a drawn-out war between two long-vanished civilizations. But people have been reading and rereading it for millennia because it's also about much more than that. Throughout The Iliad, imagery, that is, poetic descriptions and metaphors, not only reminds the readers of what's at stake in the plot, but enriches our understandings of the characters and of the world they inhabit.

Homer's images are carefully selected, so that their repetition gives the poem's audience a strong sense of place. The physical world of The Iliad is evoked through core images: a hard-fought strip of sand, the tents of the Greeks, their black ships, and the rooms and battlements of besieged Troy. The imagery of The Iliad also evokes the poem's themes.

Nature

Some of the most famous imagery of The Iliad is applied to nature, such as Homer's descriptions of the rosy-fingered dawn and the wine-dark sea. These beauties provide a poignant contrast to the brutality of war. In the famous catalogue of the ships (Book 2), descriptions of nature are used to distinguish the diverse homelands from which the Greek warriors come. This gives readers a sense of the sheer scale of the war, and of its context. It reminds us that these men are, first and foremost, not soldiers, but men who remember chalky cliffs, 'dove-haunted Thisbe,' and 'Histiaea rich in vines.'

As the battles grow ever bloodier, the imagery of The Iliad becomes homier, recalling women spinning wool and young men guarding sheep. Through imagery, Homer recalls deer glimpsed in lush forests and snow on peaceful pastures. The armies, meanwhile, become forces of nature, destructive and inevitable as fire in drought. At first glance, this imagery - so far distant from the fast-paced, violent events of the battlefield - may seem like a distraction from the narrative. But it really provides more ways of understanding it.

While the plot of The Iliad is action-packed, the poem also takes time to reflect on the pasts of its characters, and on the futures that some of them will be deprived of. The men of the two armies, locked in bloody combat, are all trying to do what's best for their communities. The results are largely destructive. In the eventful Book 6, an extended image is used to lament this futility: 'Very like leaves upon this earth are the generations of men - old leaves, cast on the ground by wind, young leaves the greening forest bears when spring comes in. So mortals pass; one generation flowers even as another dies away.' (Fitzgerald translation)

Community

The idea of community is at the heart of The Iliad. When we first meet Helen, the queen whose abduction started the war, she is weaving pictures of Trojans - the foreigners who have died and are dying in the war fought over her - into her tapestry. The pictures she creates are not of gods, nor heroes, nor even her own people, but of Trojans. This image is presented in passing, but it helps to undermine any tendency the reader might have to view the two armies as fundamentally dissimilar groups.

There are individual and collective enmities among the Greeks and Trojans, but Homer suggests that these are not the most important thing about the combat between them. Even and especially in the brutal fight over Patroclus' body, what's emphasized is not the antagonisms of Trojan and Greek warriors, but the solidarity of the men in the respective armies. This solidarity is expressed through images: linked shields forming a wall, or a line of spears.

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