THE HOMERIC SIMILE IN COMPARATIVE PERSPECTIVES: Oral Traditions from Saudi Arabia to Indonesia

Jonathan L. Ready

OUP (2018) h/b 336pp £70.00 (ISBN 9780198802556)

R. has already established his reputation as a specialist in the study of Homeric similes with innovative theoretical approaches with his 2014 book Character, Narrator, and Simile in the Iliad. Now he tops it with this new monograph which not only draws on his expertise in the Homeric simile, but also deploys an impressive range of comparative material from across the world, from Central Asia, India, Indonesia, the former Yugoslavia and Saudi Arabia (and occasionally using illustrative evidence from China, Africa and jazz, too). Similes as the focus of comparison when crossing genres and traditions seem to work extremely well.

However, this book is not a compendium of exotic similes (though there are a fair number of gems used as examples), but as the title makes it clear, it is about deepening our understanding of Homer through comparative perspectives, and it certainly succeeds in doing so. Its strength is in its theoretical framework built up with the analysis of a wide range of comparative material, which is then applied to Homeric examples. 

After the Introduction, which sets out the methods and purposes of comparison and introduces the sources to be used as comparative material, the main part of the book is divided into two parts, entitled ‘Part I: The Modern Material’ and ‘Part II: Application to the Homeric Epics’. 

Part I consists of three chapters. Chapter 1, ‘Formal Points of Contact with Homeric Similes’ compares data from Bosniac epic, Kyrgys epic, South Sumatran epic and Najdi lyric poems from Saudi Arabia with Homeric data and shows that Homeric similes resemble similes in modern oral poetries from different parts of the world in length, duration and arrangement. However, more subtle points of differences also come to light, such as that Homeric poets place a long vehicle portion (i.e. the descriptive part) of similes before the relevant tenor (i.e. the subject to be compared) more often than modern oral poets do. 

Chapter 2, ‘The Spectrum of Distribution’, is by far the longest chapter (72 pages) and the theoretical heart of the book, introducing Ready’s model underlying his study of similes. Instead of the problematical dichotomy of ‘innovation’ and ‘tradition’, he opts for a different set of terms to describe the elements that an oral performer uses, i.e. elements unique to his performances (idiolectal), elements shared among performers in his region (dialectal) and elements shared among performers in different regions (pan-traditional). A spectrum of distribution thus emerges from these terms which the author uses to analyse which elements are unique to a performer and which are shared. 

Chapter 3, ‘Similes in Five Modern Oral Poetries’ shows that an oral poet can deploy idiolectal, dialectal, and pan-traditional similes and demonstrate his competence by moving across this ‘spectrum of distribution’. 

Part II applies Part I’s findings to similes in the Homeric epics, consisting of Chapter 4, ‘Two Preliminary Points’, Chapter 5, ‘Shared Similes in the Homeric Epics’ and Chapter 6, ‘Idiolectal Similes in the Homeric Epics’. Ready painstakingly catalogues shared similes with repeated themes such as birds, wild fire, celestial phenomena, insects, rivers, trees, wind, waves and lions, and idiolectal similes. His refined method of identifying shared elements can be illustrated by the following example, where he compares the simile describing the rapidity of the Phaiakians’ ship at Od. 13. 81-3

‘And the ship, as on the plain four stallions yoked together
all rush forward at once at the strokes of the whip,
and bounding high swiftly make their way…’ 

with Il. 23. 500-1, which describes Diomedes whipping his horses as they pull his chariot: 

‘And he lashed them always with the whipstroke from the shoulder.
And his horses bounding high swiftly made their way.’

From this he concludes that ‘The verses in the Odyssey’s vehicle portion qualify as shared. I infer that the Odyssey poet was not the only one to depict a charioteer whipping his horses in a vehicle portion.’

As R. puts it, ‘Taken together, Chapters 5 and 6 show the Iliad poet and the Odyssey poet operating much as modern oral poets do. They move around on the figurative spectrum of distribution and thereby reveal their competence. A display of skill involves not just standing apart from other poets but standing with them, too.’ This conclusion compels us to rethink the frequent assumption that the Homeric simile is where we can find the poet’s innovation, and that innovation is what sets great poets apart. 

This book will prove a stimulating read for any Homerists and those interested in comparative approaches to literature.

Naoko Yamagata 

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