BMCR 2004.12.02

Analogia e polarità in similitudine. Paragoni iliadici e odissiaci a confronto. Supplementi di Lexis, 21

, Analogia e polarità in similitudine : paragoni iliadici e odissiaci a confronto. Supplementi di lexis ; 21. Amsterdam: A.M. Hakkert, 2003. 140 pages ; 24 cm.. ISBN 902561180X. €32.00.

In her study of the Homeric similes, Simonetta Nannini argues that the authors of Iliad and Odyssey differ considerably in their modes of thought and composition, as well as in the way in which they relate to the epic tradition of which they both partake. N.’s approach is inspiring and innovative, but her book cannot carry the full weight of her conclusions, attractive though these are.

The similes of the Iliad and the Odyssey by their nature invite a personal response, and accordingly, scholarly interpretations of Homeric similes have always been characterised by a degree of subjectivity. This is perhaps most apparent in the ongoing controversy over the tertium comparationis : do the similes center upon a single point of comparison, or do they display multiple correspondences between tenor and vehicle?1 Subjectivity also crops up in attempts to group or categorise similes in order to arrive at general conclusions concerning the Homeric simile. Such groupings serve their purpose in a particular argumentative or descriptive context but inevitably fall short of providing an adequate tool with which to find out what individual similes in their context ‘do’ for poet and audience.2

N.’s study of the Homeric similes recognises and confronts the challenges posed by the material head-on. She avoids delving into familiar controversies, paying little attention e.g. to the extent to which the similes interact with their larger context, or what degree of control over this context we may assume in their author. N. is not primarily interested in formal or linguistic features of individual similes, or in the relative chronology between simile-types. Instead, she posits a clear demonstrandum : the Iliad and the Odyssey were composed by two different poets. Arguing this thesis, N. approaches the simile not as a literary device with a narratological/rhetorical function, but as an expression of a mode of thought, in which reality is perceived in terms of analogy and polarity. The three chapters of her book each investigate a group of similes: similes with an ‘external observer’, similes that explore conceptual polarities, and similes ‘with a reversal’. Rather than provide yet another subjective reading of the similes, N. claims to reveal fundamentally different cognitive processes underlying, and presupposed in, the composition of the two epics.

Chapter One (7-47) examines similes with an ‘external observer/spectator’. N. contends that such similes are a unique feature of the Iliad, where they typically take the form of pastoral comparisons in which the figure of the shepherd/goatherd cannot be identified with a character in the simile’s direct context. This figure is ‘external’ to the simile in the sense that it ‘inserts itself between tenor and vehicle’. In the analyses of Iliadic similes that follow, N. demonstrates that the shepherds in all cases assume a role of ‘observer’, to which she assigns a number of different communicative functions: controlling the audience’s pathos, distantiation of the audience from the heroic world, comment on the action of the main narrative, metapoetic comment etc.

For example, the presence of the shepherd and the thief in Il. 3.10ff.3 cannot be equated with a point of view in the main narrative. The cloud of dust thrown up by the advancing army (tenor) corresponds to the mist on the mountains (vehicle) — but what about the thief who profits from the weather and the shepherd who watches with apprehension? Their singularity makes them a locus for authorial comment on the narrative’s main action: shepherd and thief illustrate ‘the continuous alternation between winners and losers in the natural course of events’.

N. identifies this technique in a number of non-pastoral similes as well (16.414ff., 15.580ff., 15.679ff. and 16.384ff.) and analyses the ‘Doppelvergleiche’ in books 11-16 (e.g. Il. 13.491ff., 15.623ff.) as a modification of it in which the observer is, in the course of the comparison, assimilated to one of the characters in the main narrative. Thus, she discerns a development within the Iliad : the simple ‘external figure’ similes of Books 3-8 are followed by a more sophisticated version of the same simile type in Books 11-16, one that displays a more thorough compositional relation between the simile and its immediate context.4

In Chapter Two (49-91) N. discusses two groups of similes, the first of which (again exclusively Iliadic) includes comparisons based on conceptual antitheses from the domains of sense perception and states of mind (e.g. clamour/silence, fear/courage etc.). In a brief overview of scholarship, she traces a development from a rhetorical approach to an approach that regards antithetical similes and simile pairs as expressive of a mode of thought. N.’s own contribution is to argue that this mode of thought — perceiving reality in terms of analogies and polarities — is typical for the Iliad poet. Her discussion of ‘antithetical’ similes also produces a number of observations that do not directly pertain to this thesis.5

The second group of similes discussed in Chapter Two includes comparisons between heroes and women or children. Most space is devoted to similes with a mother figure, including not only human mothers but also lionesses. N. observes that Iliadic women/mother/children similes predominantly illustrate the contrast between words and action: an exclusive, conceptual contrast expressed in antithetical terms. By contrast, the Odyssean mother similes thematise the complementary contrast between cooperative and competitive values.

Chapter Three (93-120) discusses similes ‘with a reversal’. Here, N. takes her cue from Podlecki’s observation that a number of Odyssean similes ‘remind the audience of an important theme in the poem, but with a slightly different focus or point of view’. N. first demonstrates that a similar technique can be discerned in a group of Iliadic similes prefiguring the fall and sack of Troy, and, most strikingly, in the simile that compares Priam to an exiled homicide (24.477ff.). Then, she discusses Od. 8.523ff.,6 arguing that the comparison between Odysseus and a weeping woman alludes to the persistent questioning of the hero’s identity throughout the poem, to the problematic relationship between Odysseus and Penelope, and to the revised conception of heroism articulated in the Odyssey. N. contends that similes ‘with a reversal’ are more typical of the Odyssey than of the Iliad.

The discussions of individual similes are typically introduced with a summary of the narrative situation and a quotation of the simile in translation, followed by a more or less thorough contextualisation (other similes, thematics, characterisation). Textual and exegetical problems are discussed (with frequent reference to the scholia as well as to modern commentators), even where they are not directly relevant to N.’s own argumentation. At points, N. touches upon broader issues such as the cognitive processes involved in the oral composition and aural reception of similes. Often, these discussions close with a glance at the reception of Homeric simile themes by Apollonius Rhodius and Vergil.

N.’s general Conclusion (121-7) summarises the results of each of the preceding chapters and relates them to the question announced in the Introduction: can an analysis of analogies and polarities in the Homeric similes provide a sound criterion to describe fundamental differences between Iliad and Odyssey ? N.’s answer is affirmative, and breaks down into two arguments. The first is one of distribution: several Iliadic simile types (similes with an ‘external observer’; similes based on a conceptual antithesis, as opposed to a complementary contrast) are conspicuously absent from the Odyssey. The second argument is qualitative: the Odyssey poet handles analogies and polarities in a different way than the Iliad poet. N. concludes that the Iliadic simile evolved as a multi-purpose articulation of an antithetical thought-pattern, and is essentially experimental. By contrast, the Odyssean simile is fully integrated with the poem’s thematics, modes of characterisation and narratological peculiarities: the Odyssey poet is working with an already well-defined narrative instrument. Both epics undoubtedly make use of a common repertoire of simile themes and tenor-vehicle correspondences. However, the divergent ways in which these traditional elements are handled in the final, transmitted versions of the poems indicate that the poet of the Odyssey did not see the world in the same terms as the poet of the Iliad.

How conclusive are these claims? The argument from distribution appears quite convincing, especially insofar as it follows from the discussion of ‘external observer’ similes in Chapter One. This is a relatively coherent group of similes, for which N.’s explanation works well: one of the chapter’s main assets is its consistent refutation of the various ad hoc interpretations of modern commentators. On the other hand, the group of ‘antithetical’ similes of Chapter Two is defined exclusively on the basis of conceptual analysis. Surely, to define a group on such a high level of abstraction and then declare it peculiar to the Iliad poet’s frame of mind is begging the question. More attention for such features as conjunctions, word-placement and thematic interaction with the larger context might have suggested a more complicated dialogue between Iliadic and Odyssean material.

As for the qualitative argument N. herself acknowledges the danger of subjectivity in assessing the degree to which the similes’ communicative function can be assigned to different world-views, but she fails to steer clear of it. This is a problem not only in the formulation of her conclusions,7 but also in the presentation of her material. N.’s approach to the difference between the Iliad‘s handling of ‘mother’ similes and that of the Odyssey in terms of the contrast between cooperative and competitive values reduces a potentially interesting observation to an interpretive commonplace. The introduction to chapter Three seems to promise a systematic exploration of Podlecki’s observation that similes with a ‘slightly different focus or point of view’ from that of the main narrative are typical of the Odyssey. Instead, after the introductory discussion of two Iliadic similes we are presented with a lengthy summary of the themes that Od. 8.523ff. alludes to, which amounts to little more than a recital of accepted truths about the Odyssey, with a number of other Odyssean similes appended.

N.’s study has the appearance of subsuming three relatively self-contained investigations (the first of which seems the most successful) under a broad thesis that is in itself quite plausible but insufficiently differentiated to do justice to the material on which it is based. The book contains many interesting observations and points of view, but problems of methodology detract from the strength of its conclusions. To some extent however, the book’s merits transcend the conclusiveness of its argument: N.’s cautious and conscientious scholarship makes for instructive and profitable reading.


1. The thesis that Homeric similes have a single point of comparison has recently been revived by H. Erbse, ‘Beobachtungen über die Gleichnisse der Ilias Homers’, Hermes 128 (2000) 251-74 (= H.E., Studien zur griechischen Dichtung, Stuttgart 2003, 136-53).

2. Hermann Fränkel ( Die homerischen Gleichnisse, Göttingen 1921, reissued 1977), interested in defining the ‘nature’ of the simile and in tracing its development within the epic tradition, groups the similes of both epics according to their themes (‘elementary forces’, ‘trees’ etc.); W.C. Scott ( The Oral Nature of the Homeric Simile, Leiden 1974), whose aim is to elucidate the compositional choices made by the poet in the act of performance, lists comprehensive categories of narrative situations in which similes occur (‘actions of divine beings’, ‘general scenes of the army’ etc.). D.J.N. Lee, in a study resembling the book under review only in its title ( The Similes of the Iliad and the Odyssey Compared, Melbourne 1964), provisionally distinguishes between ‘simple or Internal similes’ and ‘long or Full similes’ in order to argue for the latter’s lateness.

3. Il. 3.10ff. ‘Even as when the South Wind sheddeth a mist over the peaks of a mountain, a mist that the shepherd loveth not, but that to the robber is better than night, and a man can see only so far as he casteth a stone; even in such wise rose the dense dust-cloud from beneath their feet as they went; and full swiftly did they speed across the plain.’ (All translations by A.T. Murray, Loeb edn.)

4. A critical note: N.’s claim that this group is exclusively Iliadic is upheld at the cost of dismissing one Iliadic (Il. 20.403ff. ‘And as he breathed forth his spirit he gave a bellowing cry, even as a bull that is dragged belloweth, when young men drag him about the altar of the lord of Helice; for in such doth the Shaker of Earth delight; even so bellowed Hippodamas, as his lordly spirit left his bones.’) and two Odyssean instances as irrelevant. On Od. 6.102ff. (‘And even as Artemis, the archer, roves over the mountains, along the ridges of lofty Taygetus or Erymanthus, joying in the pursuit of boars and swift deer, and with her sport the nymphs, the daughters of Zeus who bears the aegis, and Leto is glad at heart — high above them all Artemis holds her head and brows, and easily may she be known, though all are fair — so amid her handmaidens shone the maid unwed.’), N. comments (p. 39): “the gaze of Leto is simply that of an endeared mother, and does not contribute in any way to the effect of the simile”, and goes on to imply that the parenthesis might be an interpolation (by referring to Megaclides’ athetesis). N.’s interpretation could be challenged by allowing the simile to interact with a slightly larger context: the gaze of Leto has its counterpart in Odysseus’ praise of Nausicaa (Od. 6.149-61), and so the simile contributes to the impression that Odysseus’ words are particularly well-chosen. The second Odyssean instance dismissed by N. as irrelevant is a simile that emphatically presents external observers, Od. 22.302ff. (‘And even as vultures of crooked talons and curved beaks come forth from the mountains and dart upon smaller birds, which scour the plain, flying low beneath the clouds, and the vultures pounce upon them and slay them, and they have no defence or way of escape, and men rejoice at the chase; even so did those others set upon the wooers and smite them left and right through the hall.’); N. claims that this instance is atypical in that it provides an analogue to the emotions of the participants in the slaughter of the suitors. Nevertheless, the interpretation of the spectators to the hunt as a locus for authorial comment is defensible: their joy may function as an authorisation of the deeds witnessed and the heroes’ rejoicing in them.

5. E.g., on the basis of her analysis of Il. 12.278ff. (‘as flakes of snow…’) and the two poppy similes (14.499ff. and 8.306f.), N. concludes that short similes (type ‘as a lion’) evolved as condensed/abbreviated modifications of longer ones (type ‘as when a lion… and…’), rather than the longer similes as ‘extended’ versions of original brief ones. Long similes are therefore not in themselves an innovative feature of the epics as we have them. N. further distinguishes between ‘primary/conventional’ and ‘additional/contextual’ material within similes, and observes that long and short similes with the same vehicle and the same opposition between tenor and vehicle can display the same contextually motivated analogies and polarities.

6. Od. 8.523ff. ‘And as a woman wails and flings herself about her dear husband, who has fallen in front of his city and his people, seeking to ward off from his city and his children the pitiless day; and as she beholds him dying and gasping for breath, she clings to him and shrieks aloud, while the foe behind her smite her back and shoulders with their spears, and lead her away to captivity to bear toil and woe, while with most pitiful grief her cheeks are wasted: even so did Odysseus let fall pitiful tears from beneath his brows.’

7. E.g., N.’s formulation of the differences between the two poets’ world views is rather impressionistic (p. 125): “in the Iliad, reality is composed of similarities and differences, while in the Odyssey a fine net of similes captures reality”.