Friday, March 02, 2007



I've been reading the twelfth book of Homer's Iliad, known as the Teichomachia (fight around the walls). The walls aren't those surrounding Troy, but the ones built by the Greeks to protect their ships on the beach.

A foot of snow fell here in St. Paul, Minnesota, last weekend, and close to the same amount yesterday. There are two similes involving snow in the Teichomachia. The longer of the two is at 12.278-289 (tr. Samuel Butler):
As the flakes that fall thick upon a winter's day, when Jove is minded to snow and to display these his arrows to mankind - he lulls the wind to rest, and snows hour after hour till he has buried the tops of the high mountains, the headlands that jut into the sea, the grassy plains, and the tilled fields of men; the snow lies deep upon the forelands, and havens of the grey sea, but the waves as they come rolling in stay it that it can come no further, though all else is wrapped as with a mantle so heavy are the heavens with snow - even thus thickly did the stones fall on one side and on the other, some thrown at the Trojans, and some by the Trojans at the Achaeans; and the whole wall was in an uproar.
The juxtaposition of a peaceful scene from nature with the violent actions of men is characteristic of Homer's similes.

A few lines further on, Sarpedon exhorts his comrade Glaucon to battle (12.322-328, tr. Samuel Butler):
My good friend, if, when we were once out of this fight, we could escape old age and death thenceforward and for ever, I should neither press forward myself nor bid you do so, but death in ten thousand shapes hangs ever over our heads, and no man can elude him; therefore let us go forward and either win glory for ourselves, or yield it to another.
Bryan Hainsworth in his commentary (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993) has a good note on Sarpedon's words:
The glorious death in battle is a notion easily abused, especially by arm-chair poets: dulce et decorum est pro patria mori (Horace, Carm. 3.2.13); 'Yet do their beating breasts demand the strife, / And thirst of glory quells the love of life' (Addison, The Campaign). Homer does not pretend that any form of death is 'sweet' and his heroes do not 'demand the strife'; they enter it from a sense that it is their duty, their μοῖρα. Sarpedon's present bid for fame is ennobled by his fatalism.

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