Homeric Imagery and the Human Emotions of Odysseus and Penelope

James V. Morrison

Centre College

Many scholars have examined how Homer’s similes illuminate the figures of Odysseus and Penelope: these include lion similes (Magrath CJ 77 [1982] 205-212), reverse sex-similes (Foley Arethusa 11 [1978] 7-26), and the “barking spirit” of Odysseus (Rose TAPA  109 [1979] 215-230; see also Moulton Similes in the Homeric Poems 1975).  This paper seeks to build upon such work in two ways.  First, I would like to consider series of comparisons, including similes, metaphors, and dreams attached to Penelope and Odysseus in books 19 and 23.  In book 19 Penelope is subject to at least four comparisons: she is said to be similar to a goddess (19.54), a golden age king (19.108-114), the natural world (19.204-209), and a bird (19.518-531). A parallel for juxtaposed comparisons occurs earlier in the epic when the singer Demodocus describes Odysseus at Troy as like the war god Ares, yet this is followed by the poet Homer likening him to a woman in a defeated city who, having lost her husband, is led off to slavery (8.516-531).  In both cases, Homer’s comparisons trace out a range of different registers in a single episode, drawing connections, e.g., between Penelope and the divine, heroic, human, animal, and inanimate realms.   

Second, I will argue that Homer employs these series of comparisons in order to explore the emotional states of Odysseus and Penelope.  A great deal of characterization in the Odyssey is built upon “characterization-by-comparison”: Menelaus, Agamemnon, Achilles, and Odysseus’ crew are foils to Odysseus; Penelope is contrasted explicitly and implicitly with Nausicaa, Circe, Calypso, and Clytemnestra (see, e.g., Taplin Ramus 17 [1988] 1-31).  Homer introduces local series of comparisons, however, for a somewhat different purpose, namely, to depict the emotional state of his main characters and to define them in terms of their humanity (esp. 23.187, 23.226, 23.281-4, 23.333-337).

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