My colleague Charles Turner recently sent me a draft paper on similes and sociology. It was thought-provoking, and made me think once more about the differences between similes and metaphors. The form of a metaphor – A is B – and the form of a simile – A is like B – look pretty similar, but I agree with Charles that the difference between them ‘is not trivial’. A quick look at how Homer uses these can help to confirm this.
Homer does not use many metaphors in either the Iliad or the Odyssey, and the ones they do use are all simple and embedded in recurrent phrases (‘winged words’, ‘shepherd of the people’, etc.). Indeed, in the whole of the Iliad there is only one extended metaphor, where Odysseus elaborates a metaphor for battle:
“in which the bronze strews most straw on the ground, though the harvest is scantiest, whenever Zeus inclines his balance.” (19.221 ff – Murray / Wyatt translation).
By this metaphor battle is strewing straw on the ground and harvesting little grain.
In contrast there are hundreds of similes, although these are not evenly distributed through the poem. Homer’s similes are of two kinds. The first kind are brief and simple, and these are scarce (like the metaphors) – for example, an attack is ‘like a dark tempest’s blast’. The second kind – extended similes – are much more common and also ‘Homeric’ in that I think a significant aspect of Homer’s style comes from their frequent use. The extended similes tell little stories that are small digressions from the main narrative – they take you away and then bring you back to the story quite quickly. An example, from a very famous scene in the Iliad; the death of Patroklus (16:818 ff.):
“Hector on this, seeing him to be wounded and giving ground, forced his way through the ranks, and when close up with him struck him in the lower part of the belly with a spear, driving the bronze point right through it, so that he fell heavily to the ground to the great grief of the Achaeans. As when a lion has fought some fierce wild-boar and worsted him – the two fight furiously upon the mountains over some little fountain at which they would both drink, and the lion has beaten the boar till he can hardly breathe – even so did Hector son of Priam take the life of the brave son of Menoetius who had killed so many, striking him from close at hand, and vaunting over him the while.” (Samuel Butler’s 1898 translation, my italics to indicate the extended simile)
All the extended similes in the Iliad are scenes from nature or country life (lions attacking sheep, rain falling, wheat being winnowed, dams breaking, etc.) W A Camps likens these extended similes to the ‘incidental details – flowers and small animals and distant views of common human activities – that appear in medieval and renaissance paintings without apparent relevance to the principal subject’ (1980: 68-9).
I think that there is a kind of spatial aspect to metaphors and similes, where metaphors take the reader / hearer deeper into the object that is having a metaphor applied to it, and similes take the reader / hearer away from the object that is having the simile applied to it. The metaphor re-inscribes the object it is applied to, changing (perhaps subtly, perhaps considerably) our understanding of the character or physicality of that object. For example, the metaphor of the coat (or shirt, or garment) of stones to refer to being stoned to death. Here is Hektor rebuking Paris (Iliad 3:56-7):
“But the Trojans are great cowards; otherwise by now you would be wearing a stone garment, in return for all the misery you have caused” (Verity’s 2011 translation)
The metaphor draws us further into what being stoned to death entails: the body covered by stones intensifies our understanding of the action, deepens our understanding of the thing.
The simile, on the other hand, makes us think about other things that have a family resemblance* to the object or character, and whilst our understanding of the object may also subtly change, so does our understanding of the other members in the family resemblance group. Another usage of an image of stones, this time in simile form (Iliad 16:213 ff.):
“With these words he stirred up the spirit of every man, and the ranks drew closer together once he had spoken. As when a man builds the walls of a high-roofed house with close-fitting stones to keep out the force of the winds: so tightly did the helmets and shields fit together; shield pressed on shield, and helmet on helmet, and man on man.” (Mitchell’s 2011 translation)
Here the simile tells us about how tightly packed the soldiers were, but also takes us to other places; the house, the wind that is a powerful force of nature that can threaten human’s creations, the work of masons, close-fitting things.
I think I am trying to say that similes are more equitable than metaphors. A metaphor draws us into the object, intensifying and concentrating that object. When Achilles addresses his Myrmidons, and self-describes himself thus:
“Brutal son of Peleus – your mother nursed you on gall! Merciless, iron man.” (Fagles 1990 translation of Il 16: 210)
we learn more about Achilles, deepening our understanding of his character. However, we are not learning more about iron or gall. In contrast, a simile draws our attention to the external conceptual connections between objects, taking us from one thing to another (or sometimes many more things) and allowing us to draw inferences or conclusions about all of these things: the stones are close fitting as are the helmets. Similes are certainly more escapable – there is less compulsion attached to them. Perhaps this is why Homer uses them more than metaphors?
*I am using this term in the Wittgensteinian sense. Wittgenstein thought that some concepts in our language were ‘family-resemblance concepts’ (Wittgenstein 1993) in that they could not fall into simple ‘true-false’ bipolar distinctions (like a colour being described as red or not red, one or the other) and were really amalgamations of a constellation of meanings. In other writing (Erickson 2015) I have used this approach to understand ‘science’, seeing it as a family-resemblance concept that is used in a number of different ways in different contexts, but with some general (at times vague) connection across these sites.
Camps, W.A. 1980. An introduction to Homer. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
Erickson, M. 2015. Science, culture and society: understanding science in the twenty-first century. 2nd edition. Cambridge: Polity.
Wittgenstein, L. 1993. Philosophical Occasions. Indianapolis: Hackett.
S. Butler. 1898. The Iliad of Homer, rendered into English prose, for the use of those who cannot read the original, by S. Butler. London: Longmans & Co.
R. Fagles. 1991. The Iliad. London: Penguin.
S. Mitchell. 2011. The Iliad. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson.
A.T. Murray, and W.F. Wyatt. 1999. Iliad. Cambridge, Mass.
A. Verity. 2011. The Iliad. Oxford: Oxford University Press.