What Does the Image of a Predator Mean in the Iliad
Both vicious and highly intelligent at once, wolves and leopards are often compared to the most venerated hunters and warriors of Homeric poetry. Though the role of predator and prey are switched in each of these pregnant pauses, the skill and intuition of both the Greek and Trojan armies is highlighted in similes from Books 16 and 21 of Homer’s Iliad, in which combatants are likened to these ferocious animals. The simile in book 16 portrays a pack of wolves waiting for just the right moment to pounce on straying lambs, slowly picking them off one by one without the notice of their shepherd. In the simile from book 21, there is no wolf conniving a way to its meal; instead, a leopard faces down her opponent, her mind unwavering as she prepares to fight until the death of either the hunter or herself. Upon closer examination of the two similes, however, the similarity between the two animals begins to break down, suggesting a turn of events in the Trojan War, as the predator quickly becomes the prey and the Greeks begin to lose their battle.
The ferocity of the two armies is perhaps nowhere more evident than in the pregnant pauses in which men are compared to ruthless animals, implying a lack of remorse for those they have killed and a strong intent to do so again. In book 16, Greek leaders stage an aggressive attack on Trojan warriors, brutally and quite forcefully sending their swords and spears through the bodies of their enemies, leaving behind piles of flesh and blood. The violent action is then interrupted in a sort of suspension of narrative time, depicting the way in which the Greeks are fighting to be as ferocious as an animal who might hunt its prey: Wolves will unerringly pick off lambs or kids That have become separated from the flock Through the shepherd’s lack of attention, The predators making swift havoc Of the defenseless young animals (Iliad, 16.374-378). The diction within this passage elicits a feeling of barbarity and offers insight into the wicked minds of those in battle. Just as wolves hunt lambs, Greek soldiers “unerringly” pursue their targets, relentlessly “pick[ing] off” the Trojans like vultures at rotting meat. The analogy of weak lambs to the Trojan forces evokes sympathy and perhaps even a sense of duty to protect them. Like lambs, the soldiers are defenseless to the attacks of the stronger Greek army, who are taking advantage of their “shepherd’s” – Priam’s – absence and inadequacy as their leader. Yet this is how life is meant to be in both battle and in the wild: the strong overpower the weak, the hunter devours its prey. The wolves make “swift havoc” of the lambs, reflecting the despair of the Trojans who are aware of the danger surrounding them, but who can do little to nothing to protect themselves. Instead, the Greeks continue to bombard their targets with all their might, hoping to gain an advantage and eventually win the war.
In much the same way, the simile in book 21 compares the armies to savage animals and merciless hunters. But while the simile in book 16 highlights the strength and weakness of the Greek and Trojan armies, respectively, Book 21 uses this pair of man and animal to exemplify the resilience and determination of the Trojans against Greek leaders. Preparing for battle against Achilles, Agenor summons all the courage he can muster: A leopard steps out from the deep bush In full sight of a hunter, completely unafraid. Even if she hears the hounds baying, She will not turn and run, and even if The human is lucky enough to strike first And hit her with his spear, she will not give up, But will fight on with the spear in her body Until she is killed – or gets her claws in him (Iliad, 21.594-601). Comparing Agenor to a leopard, Homer uses vivid imagery to paint a picture of the impending battle between two of the strongest forces of the Greek and Trojan armies. Invoking visual and auditory imagery of “hounds baying” as the leopard “steps out from the deep bush”, the bravery of Agenor is highlighted as he faces what appears to be his imminent death. Despite the overwhelming power of Achilles and the hunter, Agenor and the leopard he is compared to are determined to fight with all the strength they have, regardless of the outcome. The animalistic nature of both the Greek and Trojan soldiers is emphasized in both similes as the wolves relentlessly attack the lambs, just like the leopard and hunter are relentless in their battle against each other. In the same way as the simile in book 16, this willingness to accept their fate incites a maternal instinct in the audience to protect the vulnerable lambs and the powerful, yet seemingly disadvantaged leopard. But while the parallels between the two similes might seem obvious at first, it is the subtle differences between the two that make them so important.
Though at least one army is likened to a ferocious animal in the similes, it is crucial to take note that only the Trojans appear as animals in Book 21. Preying on the vulnerable lambs, the wolves of the Book 16 are quickly paralleled to the Greek leaders and their troops who “had their way with the Trojans,” highlighting the inhumane nature of both the Achaeans and their enemy (16.379). In the second simile, however, the source of conflict is not between two animals but between a mighty leopard and a threatening hunter. Where at first it seems that the battle is balanced between the man and ferocious animal, a more detailed look at the differences between the two emphasizes the circumstances of the fight, and the leopard no longer looks like the clear winner but a conquerable opponent. This contrast of human versus animal underlines Agenor and Achilles’ dissimilarities in the war, both personally and in respect to their entire army. Represented by the hunter, Achilles is demonstrated to be of far higher intelligence and strength than that of his animal counterpart, Agenor. Like the baying hounds to the hunter, Achilles has the entirety of the Greek army by his side, therefore coupling his intelligence with strength in numbers to give him a significant advantage during battle. Unlike the barbarity seen in book 16 by the Greeks ruthlessly attacking the defenseless Trojans, this change from animal versus animal to animal versus human highlights the turn of events in the Trojan War as the Greeks slowly begin to lose the war, the Trojans gaining more and more strength.
But it is not just the dissimilarity between man and animal that continues the contrast between the similes, as it is imperative that one also take notice of the gender distinction employed by Homer. When carful attention is paid to the secondary details surrounding a simile, subtle nuances in the diction suddenly appear more readily and can lead to a deeper analysis of the events which it is describing. Much like the imagery from book 16, the simile in book 21 evokes a feeling of pity for both the lambs and leopard respectively. However, it is not until we read deeper into the meaning of Homer’s words that we start to get a sense of why the audience feels this way. In addition to intelligence, the hunter has an advantage that could be seen as even greater: gender. Utilizing connotations of strength and dominance, Homer assigns the hunter with a male gender, emphasizing the likelihood of Achilles winning the battle. Similarly, the distinction of the leopard being female is representative of the Trojans’ gentler nature and vulnerability during battle. And while both similes incite compassion within the audience, the combination of intelligence and gender disadvantages in book 21 calls for greater sympathy and eventual support for Agenor and the Trojans in the war.
And yet it is still not enough to simply mention the differences between the similes – careful attention must be paid to what these differences implicate for both the Trojan War and the Iliad as a whole. While both wolves and leopards are fearless hunters in their territories, it is the metaphor of the wolves as Greeks and the leopard as Trojans that separates the two. This essential difference between the wolves and lambs in book 16 and the leopard and hunter in book 21 highlights the change in direction of the Trojan War. Though at the start the Greeks were considered to be the more dominant force, after years of battle, the Trojans begin to gain an edge, building confidence and control as the Greeks desire willpower in battle declines. Initially, the Greeks are compared to wolves who prey upon the weak lambs. This signifies their strength and also the weakness of the Trojans, who can do nothing to protect themselves from being taken one by one to their death and ultimate loss in the war. Just like the lambs in the simile, the Trojans have a poor leader who cannot dedicate enough attention to his flock in order to keep them safe. However, over time, the roles swap and the Trojans become comparable opponents to the Greeks, refusing to give in, fighting on even “with the spear in her body until she is killed.”
Through his exemplary use of diction, imagery, and connotation within both the primary and secondary details of the similes, Homer not only highlights the characteristics of those fighting, but also helps to explain the history and outcome of the war. By comparing the warriors to ruthless hunters and animals, both weak and strong, the audience is given a glimpse into the action of the time as well as the emotions of those involved. When at first it seems the Greeks will undoubtedly win the war against the Trojans, their unwavering determination pays off, as they eventually become equitable opponents in battle. It is Homer’s praiseworthy manipulation of language to convey messages subliminally that makes his writing not only relevant but meaningful for both readers of his time and present day audiences.
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