Sunday, September 25, 2011

Swallows and Axes: Dissimilarity within the Homeric Simile

Cliff Swallow on UH Campus (Photo by R. Armstrong)
The simile, as you know, is a formal comparison: A is like B.  In high school, you were probably drilled on the distinction between simile and metaphor, which hinges upon the presence of comparative adverbs: like, as, just as, so, etc. A lot hangs on the notion of similarity, or the poet's assertion that in some surprising way these very different things are actually like one another.  But in Homeric similes, I would argue a lot springs from the dissimilarity as well.

For example, there are two similes that arise at one of the most critical moments in the Odyssey: the blinding of the Cyclops (9.429-441 in Fagles' translation).  One simile likens the Greeks' boring of an olive wood stake into Polyphemus' eye to the work of a shipwright working his drill on a beam; the other likens the sizzling sound the stake makes as it burns its way into the eyeball to the sound made when a blacksmith drops a glowing ax or adze he is forging into the cooling water. Of course, the likeness of these similes is horrifically obvious: the deliberate drilling into the eye, the relentless and mechanical movement of the stake are chillingly conveyed.  Also, the hiss of the burning eyeball is brought out frightfully well. We might say the two similes have a truly disgusting clarity.

But these are two common, workmanlike activities that are quite dissimilar from the panicky effort Odysseus makes to save his men. The shipwright and the blacksmith are just doing their jobs, working with tools upon inanimate matter; Odysseus and his crew are in one of the most dire and extraordinary situations of their lives, something unusual even for warrior/adventurers of the Trojan War generation.  So are these, as Homer's critics argued even in antiquity, ultimately incongruous and inappropriate similes?

Two things come to mind here.  First, the plane of the comparison is indeed the day to day, whereas the narrative moment is mythological, far away, extraordinary.  Such homely analogies give us a sense of the audience for this poetry, for whom the simile is a key indicator of a reality closer to their world.  Scholars have discussed the cognitive power of such similes, and how they support the rapid visualization of a remote past.  We hear very little of "Homer's" audience within the Homeric poems; not much is done to map explicitly the distance from the generation of the Trojan War to the audience's own time--even less in the Odyssey than in the Iliad.  The simile draws the past into the sensuous immediacy of the present, and does so in a manner that doesn't date all that quickly.  They are apolitical, seemingly universal comparisons. Even now, when these technologies are no longer every day sights, we still understand readily what the comparisons are driving at.

Second, in this particular case, the emotional distance is a striking contrast to the sensuous immediacy of the comparison.  The shipwright and the blacksmith are firmly in control of their worlds; they are not in a panic, they are not fighting for their lives.  And of course, for a warlike and seafaring people, it will not escape notice that a shipwright and a blacksmith also both make implements of war: namely, the black ships and pitiless iron that bring war around the world.  They represent the military-industrial complex of the audience's own time, a link to the world of Homeric warriors that occupies their historical fantasies. 

Odysseus and his men deploy an elementary form of technology, the fire-hardened olive stake, against the primeval "cannibal" Polyphemus in a stripped-down conflict of civilization over savagery. The emotional distance of the similes seems to bring alive the detached and workmanlike attitude towards the technology of death and maiming.  Just as one makes a drill to bore into boards, one makes a weapon to bore into enemies. This is what our abstract and cunning minds do for us, the humans. This is why we are so dangerous to ourselves and others. We coolly turn bodily harm into a craft. All this is conveyed in a split second, through the deployment of vivid similes whose dissimilitude is as poignant as their queasy similarity.

Or take another instance of a fancy double simile: when Odysseus finally strings the bow, he handles it like a fine musical instrument and plucks the string; it resounds "like the cry of a swallow," or as Fagles translates it, "it sang out clear and sharp as a swallow's cry" (21.458).  This seems like a pleasing image: a humming string that sounds like birdsong.  But two problems immediately arise here. First, there is a wicked irony in likening the bow to the lyre, which the Greek text plays out extensively.  Odysseus is said to handle the bow, "like an expert skilled at lyre and song," where the "song" (aoidê) in Greek recalls the figure of the bard or singer (aoidos) we have encountered throughout. The bowstring "sings out beautifully" with the verb related to aoidê: aeidô (this verb is the second word in the Iliad). Odysseus is about to "entertain" his guests with an instrument of death.  The convivial setting, which by now we all know so well, is about to turn nasty, as it had in the Cyclops' cave.

The bow becomes a wonderfully ambivalent symbol here, linking dreadful and lovely things together. Yet the comparison is rooted in a real physical and linguistic similarity: a bow string and a lyre string have the same name (neurê), just as archery and lyre playing are both associated with the same god: Apollo. This particular bow is a beloved object with its own epic story behind it (see the beginning of book 21), one which ties Odysseus to the famous bowmen Eurytus and Herakles, and the ill-fated Iphitus, who gave it to him.  You might recall the last encounter in the Underworld is with the "image" (eidolon) of Herakles, menacing the dead souls with his bow (11.690ff, Fagles).

The moment Odysseus strings the bow, he steps at long last back into the frame of heroic epic. No longer a shadow of himself or an impostor, he will now act as the man he truly is: father of Telemachus, husband of Penelope, King of Ithaca, and master of the bow and the house.  He goes back to "singing" his own story, plucking it out on the bow/lyre; but this is an action, not just a story like those he recounts to the Phaeacians.  And this part of the story is death to the suitors, but oh so very entertaining for us; it is the story we have been waiting to hear for many books now. This is an ambivalence we can truly relish: the bow song of doom for the suitors.

But let's go back to the sound of the bow string, which resounds "like the voice of a swallow."  Anyone who knows his birds will immediately realize this is a very inapposite comparison; I think this explains Fagles' attempt to clarify it by overtranslating the passage as: "it sang out as clear and sharp as a swallow's cry." Before him, Robert Fitzgerald had rendered this "the taut gut vibrating hummed and sang / a swallow's note" (374), and Alexander Pope had gone so far as, "From his essaying hand the string, let fly / Twang'd short and sharp like the shrill swallow's cry." But there is nothing in any swallow species' vocalization that would resemble the twang of a bow string. The translators' repeated likening of swallow twittering to humming and twanging constitutes a bogus factoid easily disproved by two minutes of birding at your nearby overpass or barn. (European swallows do not sound that different from North American ones.)

So is this, then, a gratuitous and ill-placed comparison?  Not if you consider that the swallow is a migratory species whose annual appearance signals the arrival of Spring, the time of rebirth and renewal.  We might alter slightly an English expression and say that the "swallows have come home to roost" on Ithaca. Now the King has returned and life will resume; a lovely natural image this time, for what will be a very bloody Spring cleaning.
--Richard Armstrong

Works Cited

Fagles, Robert. The Odyssey. New York: Penguin Books, 1996.
Fitzgerald, Robert, trans. Homer: The Odyssey. Garden City, NY: The International Collectors Library, 1961.


  1. I love, love, love this post Richard, both what you write at the end about the significance of the swallow, and what you point out earlier about the neurê (lyre string/bow string): "The moment Odysseus strings the bow, he steps at long last back into the frame of heroic epic." At the moment I am trying to write myself about the connection between theme (as defined by Albert Lord with reference to oral composition) and poetics, and your discussion here is a very nice example of the way that the poet can embark upon a new theme by way of a simile. In this case, with the string of the bow, as you say, Odysseus becomes a warrior and initiates warfare, and a particular type of warfare at that, an ambush (of the suitors, with him and Telemakhos as the two ambushers). The bow as a weapon seems particularly connected to the theme of ambush - hence in the night mission/ambush of Iliad 10 Odysseus takes a bow with him, but never actually uses it!). This transition to a new theme by way of a simile can happen on both a macro level (as here) as well as a micro one. The brief passage I have been writing about is the one where Odysseus tells the story of his encounter with the Kikkones, their first stop after Troy. The diction of the passage and the simile, compressed as it is, is utterly Iliadic, as Odysseus and his men try out the tactics of Iliad style battle on the Kikkones and fail. After this, its all lokhos (ambush) all the time for Odysseus and his men.

  2. Thanks! The lore of the bow is certainly threaded throughout, as when he brags about his skills to the Phaeacians. It is certainly odd that the last encounter in the first katabasis is with Herakles' eidolon, threatening the souls of the dead with his bow (they cry out like birds!). As well as ambush, the story of the this particular bow, the bow of Eurytus, is also associated with guest friendship and its violation. Very rich symbol! --Richard

  3. Oh I totally agree. Once you start examining the wider significance of any one little detail, you are astonished at the resonance that you find within the tradition as a whole. This is why Homeric poetry never gets old for me. =)

  4. I always think it's not just a story, it's a matrix!

  5. Ask the classicists time! Another swallow image is evoked by Fagles' note to 19.585-90: that in Latin renderings of the Aedon/nightingale myth, Philomela, later transformed by Zeus into a swallow, communicates the horror of what happened to her by weaving a tapestry. When Penelope the weaver swings out of the simile in 19.591, she describes her "wavering heart" as "shuttling, back and forth"--an indication that Homer too was aware of that version of the myth, a connection stressed by Fagles translation, or just a coincidence?

  6. While I personally am certain that Homer (although I personally don't believe in a historical Homer so maybe I should say the Homeric tradition) knew the myth, in the Greek the idea of "shuttling" is just not there as far as I can see. The verb _ornumi_ (here in the passive) just means to be stirred up or excited. But your question reminds me that this particular comparison to Procne doesn't make sense unless you understand that Penelope, like Procne, is lamenting (as she herself describes further in the passage). Lament is what links tenor and vehicle here. Procne the nightingale is the prototypical lamenter in Greek myth. Cf. Sophocles' Electra: "No, like the nightingale, slayer of her offspring, I will wail without ceasing, and cry aloud to all here at the doors of my father." Electra shares with Penelope and Procne an extraordinary capacity for lament, and the experience of pain and sorrow that lament brings with it. For more on Penelope as a nightingale I highly recommend the following:

    Levaniouk, O. “Penelope and the Pênelops.” In Carlisle and Levaniouk 1999: 95-136. [Carlisle, M., and O. Levaniouk, eds. Nine Essays on Homer. Lanham, Md.: Rowman & Littlefield, 1999.]

    Nagy, G. "The Homeric Nightingale and the Poetics of Variation in the Art of the Troubadour." [A chapter in Poetry as Performance: Homer and Beyond. Cambridge, 1996."

    Incidentally, the only word _in Greek_ that links tenor and vehicle is the Greek word _pukinos_ (dense, closely packed, frequent) which describes both the frequency of Penelope's sobs as well as the density of the foliage in the tree in which the nightingale laments. I have an article about this word, and I discuss this passage there together with a difficult simile in Iliad 10, where _pukinos_ is also featured, and another one in Iliad 18.314–323 (where the word _pukinos_ is used in a simile of the woods in which both a hunter and lion lurk as well as the frequency of Achilles' sobs). I'd happily share it with anyone interested.

    So I am afraid that Fagles seems to have muddled the connection here between Penelope and Procne, but then again maybe he did it on purpose for just the reason you suggest.