Part III. Paratopic Space: Similes and Visual Imagery

In this part of the book I examine the Homeric simile, which constitutes both a defining feature of Homeric epic and a hallmark of a mature stage in the development of oral song-making. Similes have been studied either from a taxonomic point of view, [1] or with respect to their diction, [2] or from a purely literary perspective. [3] Recently, in one of the most thorough and innovative analyses of Homeric similes, Elizabeth Minchin has begun to examine the simile within the complex network created by image and memory. [4] By adopting a cognitive approach, Minchin is able to place the simile in a much wider context that transcends the limits of literary aestheticism, exploring “how a storyteller who is performing before a listening audience works with the resources of memory to generate this kind of comparative material, which draws on both imagery and language.” [5] One of the strongest conclusions reached in her study of similes is their pictureability, which unites them with respect to storyteller, audience, and song itself, thus making a moment recognizable and memorable. The results of Minchin’s analysis can be applied to further investigations concerning one of the most powerful and effective mechanisms used in memory recall: space. My purpose is to bring to the fore this rather neglected aspect of imagery and memory, which is paramount not only in the light of cognitive approaches to the Homeric simile but also in its complex and often problematic connection to the Iliadic story-world.
The term paratopic space (from Greek παρά ‘next to, beyond’ + τόπος ‘place’) has been coined to denote space that exists “next to” and “beyond” story space. By combining two of the three syntactical uses of the preposition παρά when it takes the accusative (meaning either “beside, next to, near” or “past, beyond”), the term paratopic suggests that the space of the simile is a τόπος that exists next to or in parallel with the space of the main narrative, or story space, to which it is often attached, but also beyond, over, and above the regular story space. In fact, the Greek term that comes closer to the meaning of “simile” is not παρομοίωσις ‘assimilation’ but παραβολή ‘illustration, analogy’, the first part of which points to the meaning of “beside, next to, side by side,” and the second indicates a movement, a dynamic delineation of space. Among the wealth of ancient rhetorical theories on simile and comparison, [6] various discussions illuminate the relevant terminology and offer valuable insights into the particular kind of comparison that constitutes the simile: in particular by Aristotle, the author of the Rhetorica ad Herennium, the author of On Style, and Trypho in his handbook On Tropes (Περὶ τρόπων).
Aristotle mainly explores two forms of comparison, παραβολή and εἰκών. According to his approach, παραβολή is a subcategory of the manufactured example, which is in itself one of the two divisions of παράδειγμα (the other being the actual or historical example). Let us consider the following passage from Rhetoric 2 (1393b4–8):
παραβολὴ δὲ τὰ Σωκρατικά, οἷον εἴ τις λέγοι ὅτι οὐ δεῖ κληρωτοὺς ἄρχειν· ὅμοιον γὰρ ὥσπερ ἂν εἴ τις τοὺς ἀθλητὰς κληροίη μὴ οἳ δύνανται ἀγωνίζεσθαι ἀλλ’ οἳ ἂν λάχωσιν, ἢ τῶν πλωτήρων ὅντινα δεῖ κυβερνᾶν κληρώσειεν, ὡς δέον τὸν λαχόντα ἀλλὰ μὴ τὸν ἐπιστάμενον.
The illustrative parallel is the sort of argument Socrates used: e.g. “Public officials ought not to be selected by lot. That is like using the lot to select athletes, instead of choosing those who are fit for the contest; or using the lot to select a steersman from among a ship’s crew, as if we ought to take the man on whom the lot falls, and not the man who knows most about it.” [7]
The important observation here is that the παραβολή is a form of comparison made to serve another purpose and not required on its own account, a point made explicitly in Aristotle’s Topics (156b25–27). [8] Although the illustrative parallel is employed to persuade or prove, it is fair to say that its core aspect is analogy based on knowledge, even knowledge of potential and recognizable situations, devoid of any historical element.
As for the εἰκών, or stylistic comparison, which Aristotle treats in considerable detail in Rhetoric 3, he observes that the elements of one of its subdivisions, namely the “successful or popular similes” (εὐδοκιμοῦσαι εἰκόνες) and “proportional metaphor” (ἡ ἀνάλογον μεταφορά), are alike in that they always involve two relations: [9] in expressions like “a shield is the drinking-bowl of Ares” (ἡ ἀσπὶς … ἐστι φιάλη Ἄρεως) and “a bow is a chordless lyre” (τὸ τόξον φόρμιγξ ἄχορδος), the only difference between successful simile and proportional metaphor is the presence or absence of a term of comparison (e.g. ὡς or ὥσπερ). [10] Aristotle, therefore, treats similes as the most refined type of εἰκών, which shares with proportional metaphor the aspect of analogy. In both the illustrative parallel and the successful simile, analogy is created through the comparison not of subjects but of situations. Public officials are not compared with athletes or steersmen, but the process of selecting public officials is presented as like that of competing athletes or choosing a steersman from among the ship’s crew. Situational analogy of this sort presupposes implicit second-level comparisons: the governing of a city resembles either a race or contest between rival athletes, or the piloting of a ship, which needs experience and skill. Likewise for successful similes: the comparison is not simple, for neither is the shield compared to a drinking-bowl nor the bow to a lyre; the shield is like the drinking-bowl of the god of war, for whom the shield is what a drinking-bowl is to a man participating in a symposium; along the same lines, the bow is like a lyre deprived of its chords, that is, one that produces not sonorous sounds but the grim twang of death. Thus situational analogy evokes a whole nexus of associations that activates more than a single set of relations. [11] In this type of comparison, every part of the situational analogy has to be in a one-to-one relation with the corresponding comparandum: public officials and athletes, city and athletic contests, shield and drinking-bowl, warrior and Ares. In fact, it is the direct analogy between the multiple constituent parts of the simile that creates the nexus of associations that I have called situational analogy. We should bear this point in mind, for it will be directly applicable to the Homeric simile.
In the Rhetorica ad Herennium we come across a detailed examination of comparison (4.45.59–4.48.61). The anonymous author of this treatise distinguishes four types of comparison (by contrast, by negation, by concision, and by detailed comparison), the last two of which are relevant to my discussion. In this context, conciseness is used as a method of elucidation, while detailed comparison aims at creating vividness. What matters here is that the former refers “both to the condensing of separate descriptions of subject and comparison into one and to the consequent brevity of the comparison itself,” [12] whereas the latter “achieves its purpose of vividness through the extensive embellishment of both of its parts and that method of presentation is per conlationem [‘by detailed parallel’] because … all the corresponding items of the subject and comparative parts are expressed and correlated.” [13] Although in his view, very much unlike Aristotle’s, no type of comparison is correlated with metaphor, the author of the Rhetorica ad Herennium makes two important points: brevity in comparisons enhances clarity, and vividness presupposes extensive correspondence between the various comparative parts of the simile. When combined with Aristotle’s insights, these two observations allow us to reconsider certain aspects of the Homeric simile: the situational analogy we encounter there (expressed in the form of condensed visual snapshots, with correspondence and correlation of all constituent elements of the two parts of the simile) asks for an interpretation. First, however, I would bring into the picture some other aspects of ancient discussions of simile and comparison.
The auctor incertus of the treatise On Style goes a step further than Aristotle, distinguishing between two types of literary comparison, εἰκασία and παραβολή. Whereas the former is brief and can be employed freely in prose, the latter is long (or longer) and constitutes a poetic figure (89–90):
(89) Ἐπὰν μέντοι εἰκασίαν ποιῶμεν τὴν μεταφοράν, ὡς προλέλεκται, στοχαστέον τοῦ συντόμου, καὶ τοῦ μηδὲν πλέον τοῦ ὥσπερ προτιθέναι, ἐπεί τοι ἀντ’ εἰκασίας παραβολὴ ἔσται ποιητική, οἷον τὸ τοῦ Ξενοφῶντος· ὥσπερ δὲ κύων γενναῖος ἀπρονοήτως ἐπὶ κάπρον φέρεται, καὶ ὥσπερ ἵππος λυθεὶς διὰ πεδίου γαυριῶν καὶ ἀπολακτίζων· ταῦτα γὰρ οὐκ εἰκασίαις ἔτι ἔοικεν, ἀλλὰ παραβολαῖς ποιητικαῖς. (90) Τὰς δὲ παραβολὰς ταύτας οὔτε ῥᾳδίως ἐν τοῖς πεζοῖς λόγοις τιθέναι δεῖ, οὔτε ἄνευ πλείστης φυλακῆς. καὶ περὶ μεταφορᾶς μὲν <τοσαῦτα> ὡς τύπῳ εἰπεῖν.
(89) When we turn a metaphor into a simile in the way I described, we must aim at conciseness, and do no more than prefix “like,” or else we shall have a poetic comparison instead of a simile. Take, for example, “like a gallant hound which recklessly charges a boar” (from Xenophon) and “like a horse let loose, kicking and proudly prancing over the plain.” Such descriptions no longer seem similes but poetic comparisons, (90) and poetic comparisons should not be used freely in prose nor without the greatest caution. This concludes my outline on the subject of metaphor. [14]
Although this description of εἰκασία and παραβολή is included in the discussion of “grand” style (μεγαλοπρεπὴς χαρακτήρ), it is also applicable to “elegant” style (γλαφυρὸς χαρακτήρ), while παραβολή also pertains to “plain” style (ἰσχνὸς χαρακτήρ) and εἰκασία to “forceful” style (δεινὸς χαρακτήρ). [15] The main point made by the author of On Style, despite reasonable objections concerning his omitting any discussion of εἰκασία from the plain style and treating παραβολή as unsuitable for the forceful style, is that he has brought into the picture the features of length and poetic suitability of the παραβολή. [16] In fact, some of his arguments, like the one that “the comparison owes its vividness to the fact that all the accompanying circumstances are mentioned and nothing is omitted” (209 τὸ γὰρ ἐναργὲς ἔχει ἐκ τοῦ πάντα εἰρῆσθαι τὰ συμβαίνοντα, καὶ μὴ παραλελεῖφθαι μηδέν), [17] draw on specific Homeric examples of extended similes, [18] which silently shows that the author set out to discuss not the single feature of simile but two distinct types of literary comparison, εἰκασία and παραβολή. [19]
In Trypho’s On Tropes, [20] the main term for “comparison,” ὁμοίωσις, is subdivided into εἰκών, which pertains to the comparison of objects that share visible or physical similarities; [21] παράδειγμα, which involves events that have taken place in the past; [22] and παραβολή, [23] which highlights vividness and action in the comparison of similar objects. [24] In this light, let us consider the following definition of παραβολή ‘simile’:
παραβολὴ δέ ἐστι λόγος δι’ ὁμοίων καὶ γινωσκομένων εἰς ὄψιν ἄγειν πειρώμενος τὸ νοούμενον.
The simile is speech that attempts to make visible by means of similar and known things what exists in the mind.
Rhetorica anonyma “περὶ ποιητικῶν τρόπων” 3.212.19
The very language of this definition shows that the simile aims at helping listeners or readers to “visualize” mental images by means of what is familiar, and therefore easily retrieved by the mind’s eye, as well as what is pictureable. While testifying to one of the principal functions of the simile, the expressions εἰς ὄψιν ἄγειν ‘lead into one’s sight’ [25] and δι’ ὁμοίων καὶ γινωσκομένων ‘by means of similar and known things’ accentuate the importance of visual representation through what is identifiable and common to human experience. To return briefly to the term paratopic space, I suggest that the delineation of simile space in parallel with but also beyond that of ordinary story space is based on these two elements of the definition of the simile, that is, “visualization of mental images” and “familiarity or knowledge.” As we will now see, it is the kind of “knowledge” employed in such mental representations that plays a crucial role in creating the paratopic space of the simile. In this light, let us see how ancient rhetorical theory distinguished between two kinds of such “literary” knowledge:
Τί διαφέρει τὸ παράδειγμα παραβολῆς; ὅτι τὸ μὲν παράδειγμα ἀπὸ προγεγονότων πραγμάτων παραλαμβάνεται· ἡ δὲ παραβολὴ ἐξ ἀορίστων καὶ ἐνδεχομένων γενέσθαι· παραβολὴ γάρ ἐστι πράγματος οἵου γενέσθαι ἀπομνημόνευσις εἰς ὁμοίωσιν τοῦ ζητουμένου.
What is the difference between example and simile? That the example comes from things which have happened before, whereas the simile [comes from things] which are indefinite and can happen; for the simile refers to a thing which is memorized so as to resemble what is sought.
Rhetorica anonyma “Prolegomena in artem rhetoricam” 6.34.26 (emphasis added)
Unlike the “example” or παράδειγμα, which refers to things that have happened before, the simile is based on “indefinite things and things that can happen.” In other words, whereas in the example “knowledge” and familiarity are the result of past action, in the simile they stem from both its timeless aspect and its “potentiality.” This is because the simile employs memorization (ἀπομνημόνευσις) of things that “look like” what is to be represented. In other words, the “past time” of the “example” gives way to the spatialization of experience, to the visual representation through memory of an indefinite “body” of possibilities. In this mental world of space, the subject, which in the example is the prevailing entity, is replaced by, or at least reshaped into, a site of experience. [26] The spatialization of the subject within the realm of the simile was advocated by the ancient grammarian Trypho:
παραβολή ἐστι λόγος διὰ παραθέσεως ὁμοίου πράγματος τὸ ὑποκείμενον μετ’ ἐνεργείας παριστάνων, οἷον κινήθη δ’ ἀγορή, ὡς κύματα μακρὰ θαλάσσης / πόντου Ἰκαρίοιο· γίνονται δὲ αἱ παραβολαὶ τετραχῶς, ἤτοι πάθους πάθει ἢ διαθέσεως διαθέσει ἢ φύσεως φύσει ἢ πράξεως πράξει. πάθους μὲν οὖν πάθει, ὡς δ’ ὅταν ἀσπασίως· διαθέσως δὲ διαθέσει, ὡς δ’ ὅτε τίς τε δράκοντα ἰδὼν παλίνορσος ἀπέστη, … / ὣς αὖθις καθ’ ὅμιλον ἔδυ Τρώων ἀγερώχων. φύσεως δὲ φύσει, οἷον οἵη περ φύλλων γενεή, τοιήδε καὶ ἀνδρῶν. πράξεως δὲ πράξει, οἱ δ’ ὡς ἀμητῆρες ἐναντίοι ἀλλήλοισι.
The simile is speech that refers to a similar thing and represents the subject while performing some activity, like “the assembly moved, like the long waves of the Icarian sea”; similes function in four ways, i.e. [similes] of feelings by feeling or [similes] of representation by representation or [similes] of nature by nature or [similes] of action by action. So, [similes] of feeling by feeling: “as when dearly”; [similes] of representation by representation: “as a man who has come on a snake in the mountain valley suddenly steps back … / lost himself again in the host of the haughty Trojans”; [similes] of nature by nature, like “as is the generation of leaves, so is that of humanity”; [similes] of action by action “and the men, like two lines of reapers who, facing each other.”
Trypho On Tropes (ed. L. Spengel) 3.201.17–26 (emphasis added)
One of Trypho’s most important observations concerns the presentation of the subject within the simile as “performing some activity.” The very formulation of the term “activity” (ἐνέργειά ἐστι φράσις ὑπ’ ὄψιν ἄγουσα τὸ νοούμενον, οἷον μυρίοι, οὐκ ἄνδρεσσιν ἐοικότες, ἀλλὰ Γίγασιν· ἔχονται δὲ τῆς ἐνεργείας καὶ αἱ τοῦ Ὁμήρου παραβολαί) [27] suggests that Trypho is here describing a type of illustrative comparison based on the subject’s performing some action, and that this kind of situational comparison based on extended analogy “brings thoughts before the mind’s eye.” [28] Trypho therefore suggests that Homeric similes (αἱ τοῦ Ὁμήρου παραβολαί), which are marked by this type of illustrative comparison, enhance the “imaging” of mental pictures by presenting the audience with vivid visualizations of νοούμενα. But what else can these νοούμενα be than the narrative scenes or events that the storyteller decides to present by means of extended similes?
In spite of some differences, ancient accounts of simile create a functional framework that can be summarized as follows: similes like those we encounter in Homer (extended similes) refer to a situational analogy, featuring illustrative comparisons of scenes where all the corresponding items of the subject and comparative parts are expressed and correlated. Illustrative comparison takes the form of brief and elliptical narrative snapshots whose compressed form is balanced by extensive correspondence between the various comparative parts of the simile, through vivid presentation of a subject or subjects in the performance of some activity. This last observation, though not developed further by ancient grammarians, opens a window of interpretive opportunity, since situational analogy based on a subject’s (or subjects’) activity that is not temporally bound (unlike the “example” or παράδειγμα, which presupposes historical precedence) has by definition to be located somewhere. This “somewhere” in the case of Homeric similes is a locus independent of the spatial coordinates of the main narrative, a place that works as a background onto which, by means of illustrative comparison, the storyteller deposits the images of the narrative he desires to recall. The situational aspect of the brief and yet extended narrative snapshots that the storyteller presents through the similes is based on a body of indefinite possibilities that takes “past sites of experience and elaborate[s] them into spaces of sensual immediacy. The spatialization of each past site engenders a global work of metonymic creation: expansions of space compensate the shrinking of temporal possibility.” [29]
Homeric similes do not “invent” a new story-world that is simply different from that of the narrative, but are characterized by a complex combination of density and gradual zooming in on details. The very form of the alleged “extended” simile suggests a reconsideration and reappraisal of spatial coordinates. On the one hand, the use of the term “extended” for Homeric similes is valid only from the viewpoint of and in comparison to the short simile, in which tenor and vehicle are expressed with the utmost density and are bound together by a single tertium comparationis. [30] The so-called nuclear simile consists of a target domain or tenor, a similarity marker (e.g. “like” or “as”), and the base domain or vehicle. [31] On the other hand, Homeric similes are a compressed type of imagery, containing a narrative snapshot whose compactness does not hinder its ability to shrink or expand minutiae at the right spot and for the right reason. [32] The dual spatial nature of the Homeric simile tends to defy characterization of its size or extent. This flexibility of the epic simile as presented in Homer lies at the very heart of a “spatial turn” that I have decided to explore under the two headings of “Simile Space and Narrative Space” (chapter 5) and “The Cognitive Aspect of the Homeric Simile” (chapter 6).


[ back ] 1. See D. Lee 1964; Scott 1974; Moulton 1977.
[ back ] 2. Shipp 1972.
[ back ] 3. Fränkel 1921; Bowra 1952:266–280; Coffey 1957; Edwards 1987:102–110; Nimis 1987:23–95; Petegorsky 1982:9–74; Edwards 1991:24–41; Scott 2009. This brief list does not include studies of individual similes or groups of similes.
[ back ] 4. Minchin 2001:132–160.
[ back ] 5. Minchin 2001:133.
[ back ] 6. See McCall 1969.
[ back ] 7. The translation by Roberts (ed. Ross) is used for all passages from Aristotle’s Rhetoric.
[ back ] 8. καὶ τὸ ὡς ἐν παραβολῇ προτείνειν· τὸ γὰρ δι’ ἄλλο προτεινόμενον καὶ μὴ δι’ αὑτὸ χρήσιμον τιθέασι μᾶλλον (“Formulate your premiss as though it were a mere illustration: for people admit the more readily a proposition made to serve some other purpose, and not required on its own account”; translation by W. A. Pickard-Cambridge, cited in McCall 1969:28).
[ back ] 9. Aristotle Rhetoric 1412b34–1413a3.
[ back ] 10. See Jürgensen 1968:53–54.
[ back ] 11. See McCall 1969:45.
[ back ] 12. McCall 1969:72.
[ back ] 13. McCall 1969:73. The italics are mine.
[ back ] 14. Translation by Innes 1995, Loeb Classical Library.
[ back ] 15. See McCall 1969:150–155.
[ back ] 16. In this respect, there is partial overlap with the observations in the Rhetorica ad Herennium (see above).
[ back ] 17. See McCall 1969:152–153.
[ back ] 18. 209 οἷον “ὡς δ’ ὅτ’ ἀνὴρ ὀχετηγὸς” [Iliad XXI 257] καὶ πᾶσα αὕτη ἡ παραβολή (“an instance is the Homeric simile which begins ‘as when a man draws off water by a runnel.’”) See McCall 1969:152–153.
[ back ] 19. Neither On Literary Composition by Dionysius of Halicarnassus nor On the Sublime by Pseudo-Longinus are of any help, the former due to its apparent lack of interest in illustrative comparison (there is only a single mention, in chapter 11, echoing pre-Aristotelian views on εἰκών); the latter because of a famous lacuna in chapter 37, exactly where the unknown author was about to explore our two key terms of comparison, εἰκασία and παραβολή.
[ back ] 20. 200.4–6 Ὁμοίωσίς ἐστι ῥῆσις, καθ’ ἣν ἕτερον ἑτέρῳ παραβάλλομεν, εἴδη δὲ αὐτῆς εἰσι τρία, εἰκών, παράδειγμα, παραβολή.
[ back ] 21. 200.6–8 εἰκών ἐστι λόγος ἐναργῶς ἐξομοιοῦν πειρώμενος διὰ τοῦ παραλαμβανομένου, πρὸς ὃ παραλαμβάνεται.
[ back ] 22. 200.21–23 παράδειγμά ἐστι τοῦ προγεγονότος πράγματος παρένθεσις καθ’ ὁμοιότητα τῶν ὑποκειμένων πρὸς παραίνεσιν προτροπῆς ἢ ἀποτροπῆς ἕνεκεν.
[ back ] 23. 201.12–13 παραβολή ἐστι λόγος διὰ παραθέσεως ὁμοίου πράγματος τὸ ὑποκείμενον μετ’ ἐνεργείας παριστάνων.
[ back ] 24. See McCall 1969:256.
[ back ] 25. Cf. the expression εἰς ὄψιν τινὸς ἥκειν ‘come into view’, with various verbs of motion (μολεῖν, ἐλθεῖν, περᾶν).
[ back ] 26. See West-Pavlov 2009:104, who discusses such spatial issues in Kristeva’s work.
[ back ] 27. On Tropes 199.22–25.
[ back ] 28. On Aristotle’s use of ἐνέργεια, see Jürgensen 1968:41.
[ back ] 29. West-Pavlov 2009:103 on Kristeva.
[ back ] 30. On the applicability of the terms “tenor” and “vehicle” to the Homeric simile, see Silk 1974:14–15.
[ back ] 31. Or source domain, see Minchin 2001:133 with bibliography.
[ back ] 32. This point has been emphasized by Muellner 1990.