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The Iliad

The Iliad


by Homer

Human Work and the Natural World

Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory

It's no shocker that, in a poem filled with so much epic battling, Homer would want to start comparing aspects of war with something else. The guy had to get creative and change it up... otherwise he would have burnt out.

But it's what Homer compared battle to that's particularly interesting.

Lions and Waterfalls and Handicrafts, Oh My!

Often, in the Iliad, the poet will describe something—usually part of a battle—by a long, drawn-out simile. (For more details on the so-called "Homeric simile," see our section on "Writing Style.") In these similes, acts of warfare are typically compared either to peacetime human activities, such as handicrafts or tending sheep, or to elements of the natural world, such as waterfalls or lions.

Even though there is always some obvious connection between these two images, scholars have wondered if anything is going on at a deeper level. Are these scenes of peacetime and nature meant to contrast with the violence of war? Or are they to suggest that war is itself either a human activity like any other, or simply a part of nature?

These questions are compounded by the famous Shield of Achilleus passage, which is usually interpreted as an image of the world as the Ancient Greeks understood it. This shield also depicts a mixture of human activities and nature, as well as peace and violence:

On it he wrought in all their beauty two cities of mortal men.

And there were marriages in one, and festivals. […]

But around the other city were lying two forces of armed men

shining in their war gear. (18.490-491, 509-510)

In this way, what seem like poetic flourishes or a flight of descriptive fancy actually point to the philosophical heart of the poem.

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