Study Guide

The Iliad Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory

By Homer

Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory


When and how characters eat is extremely important to the symbolic texture of the Iliad. As you may have noticed, eating is a major social occasion for the Achaian warriors (this is maybe not so surprising). There are certain important rules of hospitality that govern eating. For example, when Odysseus, Phoinix, and Aias come to Achilleus's hut, as a sign of hospitality, he first cooks and serves them food and then asks them what their business is.

In light of this, it becomes extremely important when, after Patroklos's death, Achilleus refuses to eat breakfast with the other warriors, but instead wants to get to the battle as quickly as possible. On the one hand, this represents his alienation from the other warriors; on the other hand, some scholars have interpreted it as him symbolically acting in solidarity with his dead friend, who, naturally, cannot eat.

The symbolism of eating remains prominent during Achilleus's murderous rampage against the Trojans. When he tells Hektor that he wishes he were angry enough to "hack [his] meat away and eat it raw," this symbolizes his loss of humanity. (Cannibalism is generally considered anti-social.) Conversely, when Achilleus rejoins humanity through his connection with Priam, this moment is emphasized by the meal they share together – along with the speech Achilleus makes about the necessity of eating, even when one is in grief.

Human Work and the Natural World

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