Achilles binding the wound of Patroclus.
When I heard our reading group up north was going to discuss the Iliad, I groaned: it's long and bloody and I hadn't read it since I was an undergraduate, years and years ago. But then I remembered the great scenes: the old men admiring Helen, Hector's son crying in fear when he sees his father's flashing helmet, the death of Patroclus, the death of Hector, the rage of Achilles. Maddened, he kills in a fit of blood lust and throws the dead bodies into the river Scamandros, so many bodies that the river overflows with blood.
Yet as I read I was more interested in the metaphors that were doors into a parallel world of an agricultural, sheepherding, goat-herding, people who kept their eyes on nature. I had been taught that metaphor and simile amplified the main subject, but now I appreciated the metaphors in their own right. They signified life away from the blood-soaked battlefield where warriors fought for honor.
Here are some of Homer's metaphors and similes:
Think how a goatherd off on a mountain lookout
spots a storm cloud moving down the sea . . .
bearing down beneath the rush of the West Wind
and miles away he sees it building black as pitch,
blacker, whipping the whitecaps, full hurricane fury--
the herdsman shudders to see it, drives his flocks to a cave--
. . . like swarms of bees
pouring out of a rocky hollow, burst on endless burst.
bunched in clusters seething over the first spring blooms,
dark hoards swirling into the air, this way, that way . . .
. . . as the huge flocks on flocks of winging birds, geese or cranes
or swans with their long lancing necks--circling Asian marshes
round the Cayster outflow, wheeling in all directions,
glorying in their wings--keep landing, advancing . . ."
. . . as the swarms of flies seething over the shepherds' stalls
in the first spring days when the buckets flood with milk . . .
. . . as quick as a mother
flicks a fly from her baby sleeping softly . . .
. . . like flocks of sheep in a wealthy rancher's steadings,
thousands crowding to have their white milk drained,
bleating nonstop when they hear their crying lambs . . .
. . . like a lithe black poplar
shot up tall and strong in the spreading marshy flats,
the trunk trimmed but its head a shock of branches.
. . . as a garden poppy, burst into red bloom, bends,
drooping its head to one side, weighted down
by its full seeds and a sudden spring shower . . .
I've read as far as Book Six. Tonight, reading on, I'll look for the "as" and "like," not in order to escape the bloody battles but to see how most ancient Greeks lived--tending their children and animals, the swans, cranes and geese wheeling overhead, bees and flies swarming, udders swelling with fresh milk--Greeks who had the time to see a single red poppy droop its head.