Essay: The Iliad by Homer

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  • Subject area(s): English literature essays
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  • Published on: January 13, 2020
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  • The Iliad by Homer
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These two similes from Homer’s epic poem The Iliad describe the killing of Sarepdon at the hands of Patroklos using two vehicles: a pine tree, and a bull. In the first simile, Homer chooses to depict the physical fall of Sarepdon in terms his audience would understand: carpenters, axes, and the cutting down of a majestic pine tree for ship-timber. Homer’s language works to emphasize the height of the tree, describing it as “towering”, and located in the mountains. The tree’s height juxtaposed with the descriptions of the carpenters’ “whetted” axes as they “hew” it down must be a very familiar scenario to Homer’s audience. This simile makes the reader feel as if the felling of the pine tree is a necessary evil; the carpenters must cut down the tree for a purpose, just as Patroklos must cut down Sarpedon for the sake of war, fate, and kleos. The necessity, however, does not lessen the reader’s sense of loss and sorrow for the fallen tree and the fallen warrior.
In the first simile, Homer uses the word “hewn” to describe the carpenters’ method of cutting down the pine tree. This word connotes a labored cutting, a tug of war between the carpenter and the tree before the eventual defeat of the tree. His wording implies that, though Patroklos wins in the end, the fight was not an easy one. Homer’s word choice is especially interesting when considered alongside his repeated emphasis on the tree’s height. It makes the reader wonder how this “towering” tree in the mountains could be defeated by the carpenters, smaller creatures in comparison. In that light, how could Sarpedon, a son of Zeus, be defeated by Patroklos? The answer seems to lie in the purpose of the carpenters: the tree is necessary in building a ship, and will be used as “ship-timber”. In other words, the tree’s death serves a pre-determined purpose, and is the result of careful planning. Similarly, Sarpedon’s death serves a purpose: the progress of the war, as well as the result of Zeus’ and the rest of the gods’ machinations throughout the Iliad. However, there is definitely a difference in the purpose of the carpenters and the purpose of Patroklos: while the tree’s death will serve several people who will use the ship, Patroklos fights solely for kleos and the thrill of war, which slightly explains the presence of the second simile.
In the second simile, Homer uses a more brutal method to describe Sarepdon’s murder. He likens Sarepdon to a “blazing and haughty bull” standing amongst cattle when a lion (Patroklos) comes amongst the herd and kills him. This simile is especially interesting because it is drastically different from the previous simile, the necessary evil of felling a majestic tree. Words such as “blazing”, “destroy”, “bellowing” and “hooked claws” really highlight the animalistic nature of Sarepdon’s killing, and also shatter the peaceful, familiar tree-felling simile from just two lines before. Unlike the tree-felling scene, this simile emphasizes the animalistic instinct to destroy one’s enemy. It also completely reverses the power dynamic from the first simile; the tree is taller and more majestic than the carpenters and must be laboriously hewn down, but the lion interrupts the peaceful shambling herd and easily overpowers the bull until it is left “bellowing under the hooked claws of the lion”.
The first simile alludes to the fact that killing Sarpedon wasn’t easy for Patroklos, and perhaps leaves Sarpedon’s kleos intact even though he lost the battle. In other words, though the tree was eventually cut down, it had to be “hewn” down, and its death was not in vain. However, the second simile almost insults Sarpedon, describing him as a “blazing” and “haughty” bull hiding cowardly within a “shambling” herd of cattle. In the end, however, the prideful bull was very easily killed, caught in the claws of the lion. This simile leaves very little kleos for Sarepdon. The tree simile describes Sarepdon’s physical descent to the ground, and the lion-bull simile describes him as he lays on the ground. Perhaps Homer believes that one situation has more kleos than the other.

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