The epic simile dates back to at least the time of Homer. It’s named for its inclusion in his epics The Iliad and The Odyssey. Despite the fact that they originated in epic poems, epic similes can be used in different genres of poetry. These similes are also sometimes known as Homeric similes.
Explore Epic Simile
Epic Simile Definition
An epic simile is a comparison between two, usually unlike, things that use “like” or “as.” As with a normal simile, these comparisons suggest that one thing is “like” or “as” another, not that one thing is another. Usually, a simile is one or two lines. But epic similes can be much longer. As the below examples demonstrate, they can last for dozens of lines.
Epic Simile Examples
Paradise Lost by John Milton
Paradise Lost, published by Milton in 1667, is an epic poem like The Iliad and The Odyssey This means that it’s a long, narrative work of poetry. It details incredible events and actions. Specifically, Paradise Lost describes the biblical story of the “Fall of Man.” It includes details about the temptation of Adam and Eve by Satan and what happened after their expulsion from the Garden of Eden. It also features Satan as one of the primary characters. Consider these lines from Book I of Paradise Lost:
His legions—angel forms, who lay entranc’d
Thick as autumnal leaves that strow the brooks
In Vallombrosa, where th’ Etrurian shades
High over-arch’d embow’r; or scatter’d sedge
Afloat, when with fierce winds Orion arm’d
Hath vex’d the Red-Sea coast, whose waves o’erthrew
Busiris and his Memphian chivalry,
While with perfidious hatred they pursu’d
The sojourners of Goshen, who beheld
From the safe shore their floating carkases
And broken chariot-wheels: so thick bestrown,
Abject and lost, lay these, covering the flood,
Under amazement of their hideous change.
Here, Milton is comparing Satan’s army to scattered autumn leaves. It starts off with the line, “Thick as autumnal leaves,” and continues on to use words like “Afloat,” “scatter’d,” and “floating” that continue to relate back to the central simile.
Read more poetry by John Milton.
The Iliad by Homer
This well-loved and incredibly famous epic poem was first written down around the 8th century BC. It was shared, for an unknown period of time, orally. This means that no written record existed and that the poem was only relayed by word of mouth. The poem is set during the Trojan War and details the ten-year siege on the city of Troy. Consider the following lines:
Rank and file
streamed behind and rushed like swarms of bees
pouring out of a rocky hollow, burst on endless burst,
bunched in clusters seething over the first spring blooms,
dark hordes swirling into the air, this way, that way—
so the many armed platoons from the ships and tents
came marching on. close-file. along the deep wide beach
to crowd the meeting grounds, and Rurnor. Zeus’s crier,
like wildfire blazing among them, whipped them on.
The troops assembled. The meeting grounds shook.
The earth groaned and rumbled under the huge weight
as soldiers took positions-the whole place in uproar.
Nine heralds shouted out, trying to keep some order,
“Quiet, battalions;silence! Hear your royal kings!”
The men were forced to their seats, marshaled into ranks,
the shouting died away … silence.
In this short excerpt from The Iliad, readers can see how a simile might effectively convey a particular atmosphere or help to create a memorable example of imagery. Here, the men marching towards Troy from their ships and their various nations are compared to swarms of bees. This helps to define their number and the deep, living sound all those people would make as they move as one. The translation used above was completed by Richard Lattimore.
The Odyssey by Homer
Another wonderful example of an epic simile can be found in The Odyssey. In this literary work, the author (or authors, as some scholars believe) describe Odysseus’ journey home after the Trojan War. It takes another ten years and includes numerous detours and brushes with death. In a particularly famous passage, Odysseus and his crew encounter Scylla. Here are a few lines:
During this meditation a heavy surge
was taking him, in fact, straight on the rocks.
He had been flayed there, and his bones broken,
had not grey-eyed Athena instructed him:
he gripped a rock-ledge with both hands in passing
and held on, groaning, as the surge went by,
to keep clear of its breaking. Then the backwash
hit him, ripping him under and far out.
An octopus, when you drag one from his chamber,
comes up with suckers full of tiny stones:
Odysseus left the skin of his great hands
torn on that rock-ledge as the wave submerged him.
And now at last Odysseus would have perished,
battered inhumanly, but he had the gift
of self-possession from grey-eyed Athena.
So, when the backwash spewed him up again,
he swam out and along, and scanned the coast
for some landspit that made a breakwater.
In this excerpt, Odysseus is pulled from the rocks as an “octopus” might be dragged, by a fisherman, out of the sea. His snow as left torn “on that rock-ledge.” The translation used above was completed by Robert Fitzgerald.
Epic similes are an important literary technique that appears in a wide variety of poems. They can help create very effective examples of imagery and make a reader’s experience with a poem all the better. The more a reader feels like they can connect with a literary work, the more they’re going to enjoy it.
You can use an epic simile by comparing one thing to another using “like” or “as.” One of these two words is necessary for it to be a simile. It also needs to last for more than one of two lines. This means that related imagery may need to be used.
Related Literary Terms
- Extended Metaphor: a literary term that refers to a long metaphorical comparison that can last an entire poem.
- Imagery: refers to the elements of a poem that engage a reader’s senses. These are the important sights, sounds, feelings, and smells.
- Juxtaposition: a literary technique that places two unlike things next to one another
- Moral: the meaning or message conveyed through a story.
- Narrative Poem: contains all the elements of a story and are normally longer than average.