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The Odyssey: Figures of Speech and the Use of Imagery

Updated on October 7, 2015

Dawn and Metaphor

When tender Dawn had brushed the sky with her rose-tinted hands… (61)

When Dawn came and with her crimson streamers lit the sky… (143)

But as soon as Dawn had flecked the morning sky with red… (203)

…only a little time was left before Dawn was on her golden throne (243)

Dawn with her roses would have caught them at their tears… (347)

The Odyssey Does Indeed use Metaphors

It is frequently said, when critics speak of Homer, that he is “singularly lacking in metaphors” (Whitman, 103). In contrast, there is a multitude of metaphor in Homer. Equally important, Homer utilizes simile, personification, synecdoche, hyperbole, litotes, and apostrophe. Metaphor combines with other figures of speech, painting brightly colored brush strokes of imagery in Homer’s “The Odyssey.”

The very introduction of “The Odyssey” is a figure of speech with apostrophe as the orator addresses the Muse. “The hero of the tale which I beg the Muse to help me tell… I pray the divine Muse to unfold to us” (25). This introduction merges with the tone of the following paragraphs blending with the narrative. The address of the Muse is literary apostrophe where we expect an answer from that which can not, "I pray the divine Muse to unfold to us."

To understand the greatly underestimated status of metaphor in “The Odyssey” one must consider the mind frame of the ancient Greeks. The ancient Greeks were people of myth. In the thinking of the Greeks, every unexplainable happening merged into the tale of a god. In this way, the real life tales of the heroes of the Greeks became the mythology of the people.

Additional backing to the metaphorical status of the gods appears through the personification of the dawn. In “The Odyssey” the dawn becomes personified. The dawn averts to a god no less than thirty times. In contrast, the dawn is without personification nine times. This suggests the knowledge of metaphor to the creator of “The Odyssey.” If the references to the dawn were not metaphor than the orator would be showing his disrespect for the god by not acknowledging her. In the life of a Greek it was always better to give a god credit for something she had not done than to offend her by ignorance of her existence.

Not so obvious, the personification of dawn creates massive imagery. Most, if not all, Greeks had an image of the god, Dawn. A lifetime of story telling shaped the Greek thought process in story telling. Each god was a multitude of imagery for the individual Greek mind just as a Christian today would think of a cross or crucifix at the idea of Christ.

The Greeks did not literally see the rosey tipped fingers of a woman-god named Dawn. They see the glory of a morning sky filled with color. They do not understand the beauty before them, thus the panorama of color wisps from the hand or brush of a god. Therefore, all reference to a god is metaphor.

A god as a metaphor for the sky portrays or demonstrates the image of a colorful morning. With the quantity of this reference one might think it stale. However, each picture is painted slightly different from the next. Thus, metaphor builds imagery without overburdening the reader. Other examples of this use of metaphor occurs with all of the major actions of the earth, moon, sun and stars. For instance, in the beginning of The Odyssey when speaking of Poseidon's voyage to the Ethiopia and talking about the Ethiopians, "...half of whom live where the Sun goes down, and half where he rises."

"With that, it [the god Athena at the bedside of Penelope] slipped past the bolt by the jamb of the door and was lost in the wind outside. But Icarius’ daughter, waking with a start, drew a warm sense of comfort from the vividness of this dream that had flown to her through the early night (86)."

A Greek goddess

Digital design by Christine Patrice Gebera based on a Greek pottery design of a Goddess giving a ribbon to a warrior.
Digital design by Christine Patrice Gebera based on a Greek pottery design of a Goddess giving a ribbon to a warrior.

Gods as Metaphor

A good example of the use of gods as metaphor presents itself in book IV. The goddess Pallas Athena graces Penelope with her form. Athena alters herself as Penelope’s friend, the daughter of Icarus. Is one to take this visitation, as well as those elsewhere, as literal? No! As one sees for oneself, this is the waking dream of a human being. The speaker acknowledges this fact while telling the tale. These experience, though, were a regular part of Greek life and the Greek perception of the natural state.

So the gallant Odysseus...

So the gallant Odysseus crept out from under the bushes, after breaking off with his great hand a leafy bow from the thicket to conceal his naked manhood. Then he advanced on them like a mountain lion who sallies out, defying wind and rain in the pride of his power, with fire in his eyes, to hunt the oxen or the sheep, to stalk the roaming dear, or to be forced by hunger to besiege the very walls of homestead and attack the pens. The same urgent need now consumed Odysseus… (105).

The use of simile...

The use of simile creates a vast, intricate web of imagery. One reads a literal image, than a picture of a thing of seemingly unrelated relevance. Third, the comparison expands into enormous proportions. Though there seems to be no similarity between the image and the comparison this develops through atmosphere. Since the development of the image given deviates from the literal meaning intended, a repetition of the first presentation brings one full circle to the meaning.

A dramatic example of this style of imagery appears in the approach of Odysseus to the princess Nausicaa in book VI. This simile strongly portrays a sensual, if somewhat mammalian, image. One might think Odysseus about to consume the Princess Nausicaa.

This paragraph retains much of its original intentions even though in translation. And as a part of oral tradition one has to assume that simile is added to more and less dependent on the skill of the story teller. The story, here, is reminiscent of a ghost story by firelight tradition of modern day.

A Greek Musician and Minstrel

Odysseus broke down as the famous minstrel sang...

Odysseus broke down as the famous minstrel sang this lay, and his cheeks were wet with the tears that ran down from his eyes. He wept as a woman weeps when she throws her arms round the body of her beloved husband, fallen in battle before his city and his comrades, fighting to save his hometown and his children from disaster. She has found him gasping in the throes of death; she clings to him and lifts her voice in lamentation. But the enemy come up and belabor her back and shoulders with spears, as they lead her off into slavery and life of miserable toil, with her cheeks wasted by her pitiful grief. Equally pitiful were the tears that now welled up in Odysseus’ eyes… (136).

Another example of striking imagery

Another example of striking imagery developed through the use of simile is in book VIII. To truly appreciate the imagery within this sketch one must again remember the mind of the Greek. Proud could he be who died in battle and blessed was she who stood infinitely by the side of her wedded love. Always defend home and family, for blood is thicker than water.

Here the hyperbolic response is because the minstrel is singing the tale of Odysseus, himself. His tales have reached each new land, and even his home, even though he himself could not. Had he the ability to travel a tongue - home he would have been.

Odysseus' gall rose within him...

Odysseus’ gall rose within him… The thought made him snarl with repressed fury, like a bitch that snarls and shows fight as she takes her stand above her helpless puppies when a stranger comes by. So did Odysseus growl to himself in sheer revolt at these licentious ways (305).

Use of a dog in simile...

Further example of the simile development lies at the beginning to Book XX. This is shortly before the climax of the story when Odysseus nearly slaughters the suitors’ mistresses. The quality of imagery is a very real representation of a social example in a Greek home where dogs are a regular part of life.

She ensconced us in our places...

When we came up to her she ensconced us in our places and covered each man with a skin, thus committing us to what might have been a very painful ambuscade; for the vile smell of the sea-fed brutes was particularly trying, and I should like to know who would choose a monster of the deep for a bed-fellow. However, the goddess herself thought of a Sovran remedy and came to our rescue with some ambrosia, which she applied to each mans’ nostrils. It was sweet-smelling stuff and killed the stench of the seals (76).

The Use of Synecdoche

In addition to simile and metaphor, “The Odyssey” contains a barrage of synecdoche. Quite often, the use of synecdoche enhances a tonal quality. A fear of death might arise from the statement, “Think of the Gods! Have you no fear that they may requite these iniquities on your heads?” (39). Synecdoche also emphasizes a viewpoint; "And we came to the land of Cyclopes, a fierce, uncivilized people, who never lift a hang to plant or plough but put their trust in Providence” (142).

Hyperbole and litotes likewise effect the atmosphere. Exaggeration or understatement for effect creates a comically ironic situation. These instances disperse themselves throughout, “The Odyssey.” Death lets his “gentle darts” fly (57, 91). In peril of his life Odysseus finds it “no easy matter” to swim (96). The very heights of the heavens have “set no limit” to the misery of Odysseus (301). Of course, these examples are even more prevalent written in Greek as some of this type of example are lost in translation.

A bonanza of imagery flows throughout “The Odyssey.” When discussing imagery one most often thinks of the visual image. Yet, there are many aspects of imagery. Imagery of smell is used in a very humorous light as Odysseus awaits Nestor. One can imagining the stench of a dead seal, even the stench of a dead seal in noonday heat.

Pear, pomegranate, apples and grapes...

A Greek at Feast - Picture by Christine Patrice Gebera - digital recreation of an ancient Greek Mural.
A Greek at Feast - Picture by Christine Patrice Gebera - digital recreation of an ancient Greek Mural.

Pear and pomegranate...

… the pear and the pomegranate, the apple with its glossy burden, the sweet fig and the luxuriant olive… apple after apple, cluster on cluster of grapes, and fig upon fig… grapes are drying in the sun… (115)

Taste and Greek Culture

Another comparable image is that of taste. Nearly every human being can appreciate the image of taste. Odysseus is fond of sweet-wine and grapes, of bread and goats-cheese. This emphasizes the importance of food production in Greek society. One can judge the success of a culture by the availability of food, by the production of the food, and by the the ability to store food (such as wine) to be available at another time. Discussions of food in Odysseus is to say, "Here are a people who are successful." This imagery also brings continual light that Odysseus could have stopped at any point and remained in one of the many peaceful and successful societies he had come across. Instead he continues on with his family.

They were banqueting then under the high roof...

They were banqueting then under the high roof of the great hall these neighbors and clansmen of the illustrious Menelaus, and sitting in festive mood, while a minstrel in the company sang divinely to the lyre… (64)

Music and Greek Culture

Music intertwined into the lives of the ancient Greeks. Many of the western instruments of today have their origins in the primitive instruments of ancient Greece. Therefore, one of the images suited to the theme of The Odyssey is that of musical instruments and the sound of music. Most of the festive gatherings in “The Odyssey” contain the image of musical sound as the accompaniment of gatherings. This music can be a fearful siren's call; show the folly of those in a festive gathering who should not be at "play" such as the suitors of Odysseus' wife; or show emphasis on the success of a society that has the resources for entertainment.

Brutality as a way of life...

Picture by Christine Patrice Gebera - design based on an antiquarian pottery depiction.
Picture by Christine Patrice Gebera - design based on an antiquarian pottery depiction.

To this the cruel brute made easy no reply.

To this the cruel brute made no reply. Instead, he jumped up, and reaching out towards my men, seized a couple and dashed their heads against the floor as though they had been puppies. Their brains ran out on the ground and soaked the earth. Limb by limb he tore them to pieces to make his meal, which he devoured like a mountain lion, never pausing till entrails and flesh, marrow and bones, were all consumed… (147)

The Dissonant Image in The Odyssey

One image that can not be ignored, gore. Violence is as much a part of the life in ancient Greece as it is to the mountain lion. We find extreme examples of simile in the violent images. In a society that had daily sacrifice gore is life; death is life. Here, one finds extreme dissonance as a modern reader. Reading the next passage one is disgusted and shocked that the example of ease with which the men are torn apart is compared to puppies as though it is an easy thing both physically as psychologically to tear apart men or that the speaker is willing to compare this act to the bashing of puppies. This is such a shocking image that Shakespeare later uses a similar example in Macbeth when Macbeth's wife makes a speech where she discusses bashing the brains of her future baby against the rocks to encourage Macbeth to kill King Duncan.

Metaphor and Figurative Language

As with many poetic narratives “the Odyssey” is a poem of metaphor and figurative language. “From the Iliad to the latest murder mystery, nearly any work of fiction may be studied as an extended figure of speech… “ (1, Embler). “The gods are, factually, a kind of imagery, and their uses parallel, in a way, the continuous play of figurative language of the action” (238 Whitman).

With the study of “The Odyssey” one may see that development of imagery is the Homeric style. Through simile, metaphor, apostrophe, personification, hyperbole, and litotes comes the development of imagery. Images of taste, smell, sound, and picturesque beauty present themselves as sharply as reality in “The Odyssey.” Images arrive that are not merely splattering on a blank canvas, but the well-developed unique style that was likely added to by each story teller of its original oral tradition until its writing by Homer.


Works Cited

Rieu, E.V. Home: The Odyssey. Baltimore: Penguin Books, 1960.

Whitman, Cedric H. Homer and the Heroic Tradition. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1958.

Ember, Weller. Metaphor and Meaning. Florida: Everwtt Edwards, Inc., 1966.

© 2013 Christine Patrice Gebera

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      Christine Patrice Gebera 2 years ago from New York

      Thank you, Joyeshm.

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      JOYESH MAZUMDAR 2 years ago from INDIA

      good one!

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      AJ 3 years ago from Pennsylvania

      Thorough examination of Homer's Odyssey CPGebera! Interesting and informative! Shared!