dictionary of Homeric likenesses
When Luke writes about the shepherds who keep watch at night it should be
understood that he is addressing 'leaders of the people', by whatever name
they go. Shepherds as metaphor for kings is a universal figure of speech
all over the Middle East and the 'not sleeping at night' is probably
understood everywhere. Certainly Agamemnon found sleeping (Il 2.23-) is a
severe criticism of him. So Luke is addressing his audience in a
'semi-hidden' way, telling them he has something to offer for managing
their flocks. Just so Homer is addressing 'kings' among his audience. Here
is an incomplete overview of the likenesses(1) used by him.
- All animal picture is human metaphor, taking its meaning from the
most important attribute(s): the lion from its being the
strongest hunter, the dog from its slavish but also brave
nature, the eagle from its soaring highest of all, and its
keen vision, young animals are 'easy prey', etc. See also the
- the singer is like a beggar, because he comes to sing a song in
exchange for a meal. The 'song' can of course also be a
pitiful life's story, true or not, such as habitually told by
- the treatment of a beggar is a sharp measure of justice
- birds of prey and carrion-eaters: they sit safely just outside or
hover above the battlefield: it is a feast to them (as it is to the
public: 'a prey for the dogs and a feast for the birds').
- prophetic birds: mostly birds of prey.
The eagle, highest-flying, is therefore bird of Zeus.
Its characteristic action: soaring high -
surveying all - seeing a target - pouncing down unstoppably to get
- songbirds: singers or mythical figures whose fate it is always to
tell their (sorrowful) tale in this way. Self-ref?
- geese: flocks of wild geese, prey for hunters (they gather in the
'Asian meadow' in Lydia). Domesticated geese:they hang about the
house, good for nothing, eating themselves fat. Their only purpose
is to be killed for a meal.
- Odysseus' allegory of the nine birds Il 2.308: eight birds and one
mother-bird killed by a snake - ref. Agamemnon's council, always
eight people, plus Achilles who sees himself as a mother bird
feeding its young in Il 9.323
- low but dangerous animal, known for hiding in bushes and suddenly
attacking furiously. Odysseus was once wounded by a boar coming from
its nest in the bush, and hides in just such a nest after landing on
the island of the Phaeacians. Here Odysseus takes the shape of one of
the 'monsters' that Artemis gathers around her.
- night, death, mourning. Note
the metaphor of 'gold turning black' (Il 18.548) for the effect that
the Iliad is supposed to have on its audience (see ploughing).
- bow and arrow
- fighting at a distance, with bow and arrow, carries a hint of
cowardice (Paris, Pandaros). The poet stresses (with some irony)
that part of doing battle is "encouraging others to fight". This can
also be an important role of poetry. For Homer the exile 'fighting
at a distance' thus takes on a special meaning.
- the lyre (phorminx, kithara) is like a bow, because of its strings
(a bow can make a sound as well Od 21.404-11) and because, in the
experience of a poet, he shoots words like arrows, 'feathered
(usually winged) words' into the hearts of the people. The
god that connects them both is Apollo: the healer, or
prophet, also punisher by death or disease. The effect of being
pierced by a poetical arrow is 'a pleasurable pain': they weep and
they love it, they go home 'refreshed'. See e.g. the Contest for
Odysseus' Bow, between him and the suitors (--> the public)
- Apollo is called 'Silver Bow'; Achilles' lyre has a silver
crossbar. I suspect Homer had one, too.
- ref. Pandaros' arrow, 'bearer of black pains' Il 4.104-
- bread: food for mortals, or for common people as opposed to
- Patroclus heaps up the bread, Achilles cuts the meat - a level up
in the men-gods hierarchy
- gold - silver - bronze - iron symbolizes decline in the course of
history acc. to Hesiod.
- living in the Iron Age, 'bronze' means 'of the past, of previous
generations'. Since in the past they were Better Men, it also has a
ring of heroic nobility. This in contrast with Iron, which is
thoroughly unromantic and of 'today'
- in Greece, in Homer's past, kings used to have chariot cavalry. In
historic times, the Lydians were still famous for this type of
warfare. (as in Sappho's poem: the Lydian chariots vs. the Greek
heavy infantry). But in Greece there was never a possibility to have
huge chariot-battles like they had in the Middle-East. More likely,
the chariots in Mycenean times were a kind of quick-reaction force,
to protect the rich kingdoms in the plains from attacks by cattle
- (?) in Homer's time, an army of foot soldiers would be led by a
commander on horseback. He had a therapon with him to hold the horse
in case of trouble or when dismounting to join the fighting (and to
have it ready in case of defeat).
- A city and the men dwelling in it, led by their king, are like a
team of horses drawing a chariot, steered by a king. In Homer, the
horses are led by a charioteer and commanded by a king. This seems
to indicate that the 'king' of the city need not be the actual
leader of the army. The Diomedes-Aeneas-Pandaros episode (Il 5.166-)
looks like it might be a discussion of this.
- (depas) a thing that holds wine, a measure (portion) of
pleasurable drink / intoxication. Listening to a singer also brings
a sort of intoxication. The Iliad is described as wine (the Thracian
wine that Od. offers to Polyphemus), or a mixing-bowl, or indeed a
beaker ('Nestor's cup', also in the famous inscription). Il 11.624,
1.471, 1.584, 3.3, 9.203, 15.86, 16.225, 23.219- , 24.101,
- battle: to know "the steps of Ares' dance"; but otherwise dancing
is quite an unheroic activity ('heroes of the dance-floor')
- in simile's: victim, prey for the hunter
and the monster-deer he caught (Od 10.168-), 'συνέδησα πόδας δεινοῖο
πελώρου' (binding the fearful monster's feet, presumably to keep it
from running), then he gathers
the men, with sweet words approaching each man: "Men, we may be
suffering, but we shall not go down to Hades before our Day of Fate
comes", and invites them to a meal.
- soldiers are 'the king's dogs', just as any servant can be called
someone's dog. This a development of the shepherd and sheep
metaphor: the shepherd may have dogs to help him protect and control
- Helen and Hera are called 'dog-eyed', the precise meaning is
unclear. LSJ says "shameless one", but Helen is not at all shameless.
- Achilles and Hector are compared to dogs because of their
- Scylla is related to 'puppy' acc. to Homer (Od 12.86). This young
hero - young dog comparison is also present in the tale of Odysseus'
dog Argos (swift, like Achilles). In the palace, Odysseus will go
into 'heroic mode' again: one last wag of Argos' tail.
- Aphrodite's robe: the Charites made it.
- Athena made her own clothes, and Hera's Il 14.178
- Hector's clothes: women made them Il 22.510
- bird of Zeus. ref: Eagle crossing the sea, to the east. In the
mouth of a leader of war, this word means: "God has told me to cross
the sea and conquer that land".
- see prophetic birds
- east, west
- sunrise, youth, things beginning -- sunset, old age, things
- 'burnt faces'? probably, because they live where the sun comes close
- but also: bright eyes
possibly: the ones looking upon the αἰθήρ (αἴθε = 'I wish') i.e. they
do not have their feet on the ground. Zeus, unfortunately, is the one
who occupies the Aither (Il 2.412)
- The helmet with horsehair plume: the 'heroic' helmet - this hero
is like a horse, the most noble animal.
- Odysseus' boar's tusk helmet (Il 10.260-): a fitting helmet for a
thoroughly unheroic episode.
The horse: the animal that is much stronger and faster and more beautiful than the one who commands it.
All it should do is obey, and be silent.
- The aristocratic animal par excellence and thus, a
likeness of the noble warrior. Kings have horses. Surely Achaean warriors loved to hear
themselves described as "Achilles' horses".
- In this light, the epithet 'horse-taming' of the Trojans has a
slightly ironical taste
- Achilles' speaking horse: it is Hera who gives it voice (Il
19.407). Ref. also Il 1.55- where Hera makes Achilles himself talk.
- The Trojan Horse: a wooden horse, i.e. a horse that does not run,
but wins the war by metis (cleverness,
trick) and patience.
- hundred-arm (Briareus)
The picture of a hundred arms, fifty heads is easily linked to advanced
phalanx-like fighting where a squadron of men has to act like a single
being. See also what
Hesiod says about Briareus (Th 149-, 617-, 714-, 734-, 817). It may be
significant, however, that the Hundredarm is the actual fighting force
behind Zeus' power (Il 1.402-) in Homer as well as in Hesiod.
- it is like war: going out with a party of armed men, to kill
something and bring back a trophy and some honor. If successful,
they get to eat meat. Sometimes it is a more serious matter and the
hunted is a dangerous plague.
- The role of hunter and hunted can be reversed: so Odysseus, while
on a boarhunt, can be seriously wounded by the beast emerging from
its lair. In Phaeacea he sleeps in just such a lair before he is
confronted by Nausicaa and her maidens.
- also: Artemis huntress of 'wild beasts': she hunts by making noise
(Keladeine). She doesn't kill them, she gathers them around her, and
they obey her. Ref: Kirke and esp. Nausicaa. It is the behavior of a
young maiden of marriageable age: she is both powerful and
vulnerable but not to be abused, she is sacred to Artemis. It is not
Aphrodite (lust) that makes her do this, it is the goddess of fertility.
- symbolizes harshness (grey iron) and energy (because it is
created by fire; someone's menos can be like iron),
for instance Achilles.
- Il 4.141- , a Carian or Maeonian woman 'staining the ivory red':
obvious sexual connotations. Ivory is the color of a maiden's
thighs, especially when it is 'sawn', parted for the first time.
Ivory is strongly associated with female, e.g. Od 8.404 (sword and
ivory scabbard), Od 18.196 (Penelope's complexion whiter than -,
esp. Od 19.562-: the two gates of dreams, probably meaning female
(ivory) and male (horn).
- Note Nestor's exhortation to Patroclus, that he should fight to
'become a light to the Achaeans' and the very Homeric irony of its
fulfillment in bk 23
- main actor in many simile's, a picture of the Hero in all his forms
- A plant, food for horses, which grows on rich land, presumably fertile flood-plains.
Once you have tasted it, you forget all about homecoming or rowing and
you just want to stay there.
- Life is a meal: for common people, the portions are given out by
the head of their household; for these, by their king or commander;
for kings, by the gods.
- the size/quality of a portion is of course proportional to its
honour and status. The 'equal meal' is thus a (new?) political
- The feast-meal (dais) is an important social event, and Homeric
poetry is firmly associated with it.
- A battle is a meal, for the dogs and birds, and for Achilles Il
19.xxx (Odysseus here wants to feed the army before the battle: this
is to Achilles like feeding your dogs before the hunt. Hungry dogs
are more fierce, but may be unwilling to give up the prey).
- Self-reflectively, the Iliad itself is a meal since it 'kills many men',
assigning them their portions and also presenting them to us, the
public, during a large public meal.
- Homeric heroes are never seen eating anything but meat. In this
society, meat is only eaten after a sacrifice to the gods. see
- medicine (pharmakon)
- Odysseus' deadly medicine which he puts on the tip of his arrows (Od
1.261): is this a reference to 'ink' he used for writing?
- Helen's clever medicine which banishes all negative feelings. This
must be a comment on the cleverness of the 'Helen' myth. see Helen
pharmakos: the scapegoat-sacrifice. This sacrifice is performed to heal a
community. Homer is quite aware of it, see Patroclus, Thersites, Achilles himself.
small pictures, possibly: Il 1.313, where they purify themselves and the 'dirt' goes into the sea,
and Od 4.244- where Odysseus may be posing as a scapegoat.
- mix with
- in Greek: (often) to have sex with. Remember the complaint of
Patroclus' ghost to Achilles: (literally translated) 'they will not
let me mix across the river'. (Il 23.73 οὐδέ μέ πω μίσγεσθαι ὑπὲρ
- It is a simple, humorous riddle. The context of male-female
relations (Circe) gives it away. 'What grows that has black roots and a white
flower, and is hard to uproot?'
- Polyphemus Od 9.428; Skylla Od 12.87; Hephaistos Il 18.410; Aias,
Hector, Achilles, a deer and Kirke's other animals, a snake
- a half-horse. E.g. a nothos (bastard son) is like a mule
among horses. They are better at ploughing than oxen (Il 10.351-).
- see black. 'To obey night'
is to go to retire, to stop working or fighting
- 'he came like night' (Apollo)
- see rowing. It probably had a wide range of metaphorical uses.
- a measure of value ('worth nine oxen')
- a symbol of strength
- 'phoenix' appears in many meanings in Homer, but not connected to
writing although the alphabet was called 'phoenician letters'. If it
is true that Homer and his Homeridae had a project of
writing down the poems, 'Phoenix' might well have been a nickname
- Achilles' homeland. He threatens to go there after refusing
Odysseus' proposals during the embassy to Achilles. The word is
connected to phthisis: wasting away, wane (as of the moon),
recalling Euchēnor (Il 13.663-) who had the choice between getting
killed in Troy or wasting away (phthisthai) of a terrible disease at
home. (the disease is shame of course, for not joining)
- A greedy animal that will destroy your garden in its drive to get
more food. Thus we have a swineherd in ironical contrast with a
- Writing. As in boustrophedon - 'as the ox turns', i.e. writing
alternatively right-to-left and left-to-right. Note that Odysseus is
polutropos, 'of many turns'
- rain, snow
- Always a symbol of Zeus' anger.
- Iris, the rainbow. The messenger of Zeus, one might say 'goddess of
epiphany' (Il 24.173). Zeus never talks directly to humans, but always
sends her (or Hermes) with a message. This does not absolve us from
the duty of being critical about received epiphanies: there is an
example of Zeus sending an Evil Dream where one would have expected
Iris, there is also the case of Iris being sent by Hera (il 18.182).
- A leader of sheep but not the shepherd. See e.g. Od 9.432
- As the singer calls himself Ὅμηρος (hostage), the song he sings can
be called an ἄποινα, a ransom.
- Great kings have great rivers (and their plains), small kings have
small ones, like the Meles river, but they all must have a water
source. Rivers are very much life-giving entities so it is not not
strange when people are described as children of some river. In the
metaphorical world the river then stands for the people living there.
- 'from an oak or from a rock' appears in Hesiod as well as in
Homer, (Il 22.126, Od 19.163) with frustratingly unclear meaning.
- 'your heart is like a rock' - Skylla lives in a rock, untouchable
- symbol of hardness
- What the Ionians have to do: when they found that they could not
conquer the Asian mainland, they had to choose the sea and trade. This they
actually did and it served them well, but Homer wrote in the time when
they still had to make that choice. This is behind e.g. the picture of
the Lotus-eaters, but also behind the riddle-prophecy of Od 11.121-
where Odysseus has to go until he meets with people who know nothing
of the sea.
- War, to the ancients, is 'running'. Homer notes with some ironical
detachment its habit of running 'this way and that (ἔνθα καὶ ἔνθα)'.
First, you run forward, then you throw your spear, then you run back,
in the old-fashioned way of fighting. Also you may run in pursuit or
to escape, like Achilles and Hector. The rhetorical point of the Iliad
is: "stay". Don't run, not for attack nor to flee, (make sure you can) stay.
- sacrifice, hecatomb
- the typical description of an animal sacrifice and consequent meal
is a whole collection of self-reflective likenesses: the death of the
animal, the lighting of the fire, the carving of the meat, piercing
it with skewers (like spears), roasting it, the wine etc. Il 9.211,
- a sacrifice of a hundred oxen, a hecatomb, is a way to describe a
major battle or indeed the Iliad itself (100 oxen for 9)
- A symbol of Justice: Zeus' scales, or an old woman spinster weighing
her wool: if the scale is not balanced, there is an injustice
somewhere. The party whose side goes down, is having too much ('μηδὲν
ἄγαν', nothing in excess).
A mass of people for instance in assembly can be like the sea, moved this way and that
by the winds (Il 2.209-)
- "ἰδὼν ἐπὶ οἴνοπα πόντον", looking out across the wine-dark sea. It is really unclear what
Homer means by this. Its colour?
- shepherd and sheep
- A likeness used everywhere to symbolize the relation
between a king and his people. He protects them and makes the herd
thrive, but make no mistake: they are there for his sake,
they are his property, not the other way around. The good shepherd for
instance does not sleep at night but keeps watch.
Protection. Telamonian Aias has an enormous shield because he is a shield
to the Achaeans.
Normally in a battle one would want to look as frightening and imposing as possible. The horsehair
plume on the helmet serves that function. On the shield they would often have frightening pictures
like Agamemnon's Gorgon's head (Il 11.36). The amazing scenes depicted on Achilles' new shield
depict the most frightening of all: life itself.
- Noble, but not as noble as gold. cf. Apollo's silver bow.
- sit, stand
- An army can be seated when it is at peace. When it stands up, this means war (stasis).
- being alive but not knowing what is going on.
- smoke, mist, cloud
- that, which prevents us from seeing clearly. The gods may cause it, or lift it as they will.
- a symbol of both death and immortality. Death because it is deadly, immortal
because it can shed its skin and live on in a new skin.
- Achilles is the snake! Il 12.200-
- main phallus symbol because of its shape and flesh-penetrating
action (they can be 'craving for flesh' Il 21.70). Size is
proportional to status in the manliness-hierarchy (Hector 11,
Achilles 22 feet, the spear 'that no one can wield but he').
e.g: Athena raising her spear against Zeus Il 8.424;
Paris and Menelaos fighting 'with large spears' about Helen
Il 3.254; sexual connotations in Il 18.207 where Achilles doesn't
want to be the second; duels described as courtship in
Achilles-Hector and in Il 13.289 (Meriones).
- two kinds of spear exist: the light throwing spear and the heavy
one for thrusting as in hoplite fighting. (Achilles throws and
misses, Hector throws and misses, Achilles thrusts and wins, spear
- δοῦρε δύω (two spears). Likeness? One for throwing away, one for keeping with
you? Note that Hector dies for lack of a second spear. Or does it have a manliness
connotation here as well: he has a spear and he is a real man?
- Il 22.30 λαμπρότατος μὲν ὅ γ' ἐστί, κακὸν δέ τε σῆμα τέτυκται,
Achilles is like Orion's hound, the dog-star, 'though brightest of all,
he is a sign of evil'. I wonder sometimes if the 'new star' of
Bethlehem, the one that the 3 wise men follow, is a Hellenistic
metaphor based on this one (except the evil part of course).
- A god who sees and hears everything. It is not wise to steal his cattle.
- The Achaeans' main weapon is the spear. The sword comes only second. It is also an
obvious manhood symbol though not as much as the spear.
Penelope's weaving of a shroud for Laertes, and her undoing it again - I suspect it may be
a self-reflective picture of the composing of the Odyssey.
- three and four
- ref. our 'three times lucky': a fourth is one too many. Cp. the
theme "3 times..and the fourth.." used in Patroclus' death or
Hector's attack on the wall (a.o)
- thunder and lightning
- a thing to be feared in those days: 'anger from the sky' -> the
wrath of all-seeing Zeus, Justice made visible
- Athena and Hera thundering Il 11.45
- A city wall (ἕρκος) or the towers attached to that (πύργος), the ultimate defense of a town.
Aias is called that
- They loved treasure, mostly for its symbolic and honour-conferring properties
A family is like a tree, an obvious likeness, especially for aristocratic families for whom
this was a very important piece of knowledge. By extension, any man is like a tree
or born from a tree (see e.g. Il 6.144- Men are like the leaves of trees).
Like a tree in the sense that he may be the father of a large progeny. A tree cut off from
its roots is therefore
an image of isolation, exile. (cf. Achilles' sceptre Il 1.233, Antilochos' "stump that has not
rotted in the rain" (Il 23.326-) or Odysseus' bed Od 23.177-)
- the traditional prize for winning a competition
- see Il 18.372-: Hephaistos creating 20 tripods with wheels so they may "go by themselves to the
assemblies of men" and presumably win prizes as rhapsodes. Only their ears still needed to be fixed.
- wall and gate
- In a siege, the breach of a wall or the penetration of a gate is an obvious image of rape.
The instrument of a master or king to maintain his discipline among his slaves / subjects. A nice picture
is in the night raid, the Doloneia, where Odysseus uses his bow to lead the horses because he forgot
to take the whip (Il 10.498-)
- The moods, desires and excitements of a crowd of people or even a whole population
can be like the winds, blowing this way
or that. Ref. also Odysseus' "bag of the winds" in (Od 10.19-)
metaphor for the effect that the singing of the Iliad had on its
audience. E.g. Achilles to Patroclus: 'more strongly mix the wine' (Il
9.203) or the wine that Maron gave to Odysseus (Od 9.196-) which he
used to subdue the cyclops. It is a courage-enhancing drink (Il 8.228-)
just as the wine served (and drunk) by Nestor (Il 11.624-)
it seems possible the Ancient Greeks had a drinking problem. Several topics in the poems seem
to indicate that:
- "fight 100 or 200 Trojans each" (Agamemnon's speech Il 8.232-)
- Nestor's cup Il 11.632-
- Call an assembly at sunset, when everybody is loaded with wine (Od 3.137-)
- Most of all: the story of Scylla and Charybdis (e.g. Od 12.55-) which seems to
describe the Achaean predicament as a choice between puppy-dog heroism (costing
6 out of 20 of every crew) like Achilles, or drunkenness (slurping it up and vomiting
it out three times a day).
- winnowing shovel:
- (?) the
instrument used for separating the good from the bad (Od 11.128). You carry it on
- Every wife is a man's prize, he won her beating the competition and she represents
his honour and manhood. This from a male p.o.v. Homer, however, is careful to present us these females
such as Helen, Andromache, Nausikaa and especially Penelope as real human beings who have to
struggle to survive and do well just as much as their men do.
- a man (e.g. Achilles) can also be mentally wounded
- a wound can also be a perfect excuse for no longer taking part
in the fighting, as many Achaean heroes on day 3
- Apollo healing wounds e.g. Il 16.523