Homeric Metaphors


            Homer was the first, and arguably the greatest, user of similes and metaphors to aid in the creation of vivid imagery in the minds of the audience.  Ancient Greek culture, as reflected by Homer, placed great value in the achievement of glory through great physical feats such as slaying an arch-enemy in war or being the greatest competitor at a certain sport.  This emphasis on the corporeal qualities of man highlights the prominence of the tangible in Greek culture.  The importance of the physical aided in the evocation of the primal nature in man that was manifested in Homer’s epics on war and struggle.  That very essence of man derived from the close relationship of the Greeks to nature and all of its raw power in beasts, the expansive and unpredictable sea, the weather and the land.  Homer tapped into this Greek knowledge of and relationship to nature in order to create his most powerful and lucid literary comparisons.  The innate power of his metaphorical style has been perpetuated in the long epic tradition due to the eternally complex relationship between man and nature.

            Similes comparing men to various beasts are frequently used in both The Iliad and the Odyssey.  One of the most common comparisons is that of men to wolves.  Following is one of the eminent examples of this:


                                                                        As ravenous wolves come swooping down on lambs or kids

                                                                        to snatch them away from right amidst their flock – all lost

                                                                        when a careless shepherd leaves them straggling down the hills

                                                                        and quickly spotting a chance the wolf pack picks them off,

                                                                        no heart for the fight – so the Achaeans mauled the Trojans.[1]


The comparison of men to wolves immediately implies the aggressive and predatory nature of unbridled men.  They are not restrained by moral or ethical considerations, but instead rage like Achilles when given the chance to assault their foes.  The fear that this unrestrained behavior invokes in the victim is instinctual, and it is comprised of sheer terror and a sense of infinite helplessness in the face of exposure to so brutal an enemy.  It is also a fear that can be vividly related to members of the audience, all of which have witnessed the quotidian natural contests between vicious predator and helpless prey.

            John Milton, a seventeenth century English poet, masterfully renders the Homeric metaphorical style in Paradise Lost.  In this epic struggle between Heaven and Hell, man and Satan, and man against himself, Milton taps into the power offered by the comparison of events to nature.  For example, the entrance of Satan into the world is portrayed as such:


                                                                                                        “…As when a prowling Wolf,

                                                                        Whom hunger drives to seek new haunt for prey,

                                                                        Watching where Shepherds pen thir Flocks at eve

                                                                        In hurdl’d Cotes amid the field secure,

                                                                        Leaps o’er the fence with ease into the Fold:

                                                                        …So clomb this first grand Thief into God’s Fold…”[2]


Here Milton compares the arch-fiend, Satan, to a wolf that is thirsting for the blood of a helpless victim.  The reader knows the ultimate result of Satan’s encounter with Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, but is rendered helpless as he follows along this most tragic of human stories.  Like Homer’s Achaeans mauling the Trojans, Milton’s Satan waits for the moment at which his prey is most unassuming, whereupon he easily enters the fold to destroy man’s innocence and virtue.

            One of the more interesting aspects of these passages is the role played by the shepherd.  In Homer’s passage, the wolf strikes at the sheep when a “careless shepherd leaves them straggling down the hills.”  One could argue that the careless shepherd in this instance is the gods who side with the Trojans.  At some point, even Thetis and Apollo cannot save the Trojans from destruction wrought by both mortal and divine wrath.  As Athena says in The Odyssey, “the great leveler, Death: not even the gods / can defend a man, not even one they love, that day / when fate takes hold and lays him out at last.”[3]  In Milton’s passage, as is implied in Homer’s, the flock initially rests in a “field secure.”  Man is watched over by an omnipotent, all-loving God.  But God gave his subjects free will in order that they may choose freely to worship Him rather than by necessity.  Ultimately, it is precisely this free will that not only enables Satan to rebel and subsequently climb into “God’s Fold” on earth, but also serves as the mechanism whereby man betrays God and opens the gate of his heart for Satan to jump in.  In contrast with inescapable fate, it is individual agency that allows Milton’s wolf to enter into the fold of man.  Despite this difference, Milton is able to utilize the tradition of Homeric metaphors to deftly depict the event which lies at the foundation of Paradise Lost.




[1] Homer, The Iliad [Trans. Robert Fagles], (New York: Penguin, 1990), p. 424 lines 415-19.

[2] John Milton, Paradise Lost [ed. Merritt Hughes], (New York: The Odyssey press), p. 116 lines 183-92.

[3] Homer, The Odyssey [Trans. Robert Fagles], (New York: Penguin, 1997), p. 115 lines 269-71.