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What Is a Homeric Simile?

By Mark Wollacott
Updated May 23, 2024
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A Homeric simile is a longer version of a normal simile. It is a direct comparison of two things including characters, actions and nature. Being longer, the Homeric simile may compare one person or action with more than one thing, or may stretch out the comparison. It was first used by Homer in poems such as the “Iliad” and the “Odyssey.” It is also called the epic simile and has been used since by poets such as Virgil and Dante Alighieri.

Similes are comparisons of two things. It is a figure of speech used often in literature to add ornamentation to the more direct sentences of everyday speech. The simile links the target with what it is being compared to using words such as “as,” “like” and “than.” Examples include “She sang like the screeching brakes of a bike” or “His leg snapped like a matchstick.”

Each Homeric simile begins with an initial comparison. This is then drawn out into secondary comparisons, which add deeper meanings. The overall Homeric simile tends to last around four to six lines of verse. These similes tend to compare a human character or an action to something natural. This natural element can be an animal such as a lion or eagle, or it can be a phenomenon like a storm or a waterfall or it can be something more godly.

The Homeric simile should not be confused with a metaphor. A metaphor is a direct substitution of one thing for another. Epic similes directly compare two things next to one another. They are used as ornamentation in poetry and to draw attention to the person or action being described. Virgil, in his “Aeneid,” gives a good example of a Homeric simile:


“Just as often when in a great crowd a riot has arisen
and the common throng rages in their souls;
and now torches and stones fly, and frenzy supplies the arms;
then, if by chance they have seen some man
important in loyalty and services, they are silent and stand with ears raised;
that man rules their minds with words and calms their hearts.”

Homer and Dante used more subtle similes than Virgil. Virgil’s, such as this comparison of Neptune to an orator, is direct and lacking in subtlety. Homer used his similes to enhance profound moments and to add depth. One example in the “Iliad” is where he compares Menalaos to a wild beast. The analogy brings about specific imaginations in the mind of the reader/listener so he or she imagines Menalaos literally as a wild beast hunting for Paris.

The function of the Homeric simile is to inject lyrical artifices into the poem when the poet is describing something prosaic. The effect is also to use symbolism to add a deeper meaning to that person or action. He also used it to highlight special characters. For example, Homer used epic similes to introduce and re-introduce Agamemnon each time he entered the fray.

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Discussion Comments

By Wolverival — On Dec 05, 2014

I'm writing a paper on similes and metaphors, but rather than using example from older poets, I'd like to stick with those of the more recent past. But I am stuck on finding examples of epic similes. I was thinking perhaps "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" utilizes them, but are they really the same thing? If not, does anyone know some more recent poets who have used epic similes?

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