Similes are perhaps a universal feature of poetry and colourful discourse. It is reasonable to expect that they occurred in Indo-European poetry. Certainly they are common enough in the literatures that concern us. A very few are common to several traditions, and may perhaps represent remnants of a shared heritage. A further series is shared by Greek and Indic (mainly the epics), and these might be Graeco-Aryan. Finally I note two similes in Sappho that are paralleled in Celtic and Germanic.
The great majority of similes are short, with the term of comparison not elaborated by more than a single clause. The long simile that is such a familiar ornament of the Homeric poems, where the picture is developed by successive clauses and a whole situation is sketched, is very rare elsewhere. In The East Face of Helicon (218 f.) I was able to cite a bare handful of Near Eastern examples. In the Indo-European literatures apart from Greek (and Latin) the only example I have noted is Beowulf2444-62.67
Perhaps the most international of similes are the comparisons of a multitude to grains of sand or the stars of the sky. Both of these are found in Homer and in Near Eastern literatures.68 In the Mahabharata (3. 121. 9) King Gaya's wealth is said to have been 'as countless as are the grains of sand on
66 As explicitly in 2. 761, and with indirect questions in 2. 484-7, Hes. Th. 114 f., Bacchyl. 15. 47. For the question technique cf. also Pind. Ol. 13. 18-22, Pyth. 4. 70 f., Isth. 5. 39-42, 7. 1-15.
67 Durante (1976), 119 f., considers the long simile to be a Greek innovation. On similes in the Indian epics see Brockington (1998), 99-102 (Mahabharata), 361-3 (Ramayana).
earth and stars in the sky and drops in the rain'. In the Armenian oral epic armies are described as being as numerous as the stars in heaven, or as more uncountable than the sand of the sea, the stars in the sky, and the grass on the ground. In Irish saga it is related that the slain Fomori on the Mag Tuired were as numerous as the stars of heaven, the sands of the sea, the snowflakes, the dewdrops on a lawn, (etc.). When Cri Chulainn fought on the Mag Muirthemne, 'as many as the sands of the sea, and the stars of heaven, and the dew of May, and snowflakes and hailstones . . . were their cloven heads and cloven skulls and severed hands and their red bones'.69
'Swift as (or swifter than) thought' appears to be a more distinctively Indo-European idea.70 It is common in the Rigveda: manojava- or manojavas- or manojuv- 'thought-swift' is a recurrent epithet of the gods' cars or of the animals that draw them (1. 85. 4, 117. 15, 119. 1, etc.); the Asvins' car is 'swifter than a mortal's thought' (1. 118. 1, cf. 117. 2, 183. 1; 10. 39. 12). Thought (manas-) is called the swiftest among things that fly (6. 9. 5). In the Iliad (15. 80-3) the speed of Hera's journey from Ida to Olympus is conveyed by saying that it was 'as when a much-travelled man darts about in imagination from one place to another, thinking "I should like to be there, or there".' The Phaeacian ships are 'swift as a wing or a thought' (Od. 7. 36), and Apollo can travel 'like a thought'.71 An Irish warrior 'made a direct run at him ... as an arrow from a bow, or as the swiftness of a man's thought'.72 In the Welsh story of Culhwch and Olwen (330) there appear two servants of Gwenhwyfar, Ysgyrdaf and Ysgudydd, whose 'feet were as swift on their errand as their thought'. In Snorri's Gylfaginning (46) Thor's servant Thialfi, the fastest of runners, challenges the inhabitants of Utgard in Giantland to a race, and finds himself far outrun by a small person called Hugi, 'Thought'; the king, Utgarda-Loki, explains afterwards that it was his own thought, which Thialfi had no hope of matching in fleetness.
Another simile for speed is 'quick as/quicker than a blink'. In one Vedic passage (RV 8. 73. 2) the Asvins are invited nimisas cij javayasa rathena yatam, 'come on your car that is swifter even than a blink'. Similarly in the Ramayana (4. 66. 21), 'in no more time than it takes to wink an eye, I shall rush swiftly across the self-supporting sky'. The expression was perhaps felt to be too homely for Greek epic, but it appears in Sophocles' Inachus, fr. 269c. 24 nplv ¡ivaai, 'before having time to blink', and in Euripides' Bacchae, 746 f.
69 Sassountsy David 7, 101, 270, 314; Cath Maige Tuired 742-6 Gray; Aided Con Chulainn, trs. J. Carey in Koch-Carey (2000), 137. Further examples in Togail bruidne Da Derga 860, 986, 1092 Knott; Aislinge Meic Con Glinne pp. 9 f. Meyer.
70 Cf. Durante (1976), 121, who, however, notes only the Vedic and Greek material.
71 Hymn. Ap. 186, 448. Cf. also Hymn. Herm. 43-6; [Hes.] Scut. 222; Theognidea 985.
72 Acallam na Senorach, trs. Dooley-Roe (1999), 170.
ddooov ... rf oe ^wd^ai Aefiapa aoiAeiois Kopais, 'quicker than you could close the lids of your kingly eyes'. A number of parallels from Old and Middle High German are collected by Grimm (1883-8), 791 f., cf. 1534. Sanasar in the Armenian oral epic rides to his mother's house and arrives 'in the wink of an eye' (Sassountsy David 57).
In Greek epic good-looking men and women are often described as looking like gods or goddesses.73 So they are in the Indian epics. Samtanu begot 'eight sons who resembled immortals'; Bhimasena is 'like the offspring of a god'; the Pandavas had 'sons like children of gods'.74 Damayanti is 'a woman with the form of a goddess'; Sita is like a goddess, or like a daughter of the gods.75 When Telemachus, and later his father and grandfather, come out of the bath 'like the immortals in bodily appearance', this is strikingly paralleled in the Ramayana, where 'after bathing . .. Rama resembled the blessed lord Rudra after his bath'.76 It is not surprising that similes of this type are absent from literatures such as the Celtic and Germanic, produced in Christian times.
Another formula for female beauty appears in the pseudo-Hesiodic Catalogue of Women, where a woman is described as Ke'An fiaeeooi oeArfv-qs, 'like the moon's beams'. So in the Ramayana we read of women 'with a face like the moon'.77 A woman's necklace can a'so shine like the moon (3. 50. 31), which recalls how, when Aphrodite went to seduce Anchises, 'it shone like the moon' about her breasts, upon which elaborate gold necklaces reposed (Hymn. Aphr. 88-90). In Armenian oral epic too we find 'a maiden lovely as the moon' (Sassountsy David 94).
The palaces of Menelaus and Alcinous in the Odyssey are built with bronze, gold, and silver, and shine with 'a splendour like that of the sun or moon'. Likewise the assembly hall built for the Paandavas, which had gold pillars and gem-encrusted walls, was 'radiant and divine; it had a superb colour like the fire, or the sun, or the moon'.78 One may doubt whether any such opulent edifices were known even by repute in Graeco-Aryan antiquity, in the second half of the third millennium. Yet it is imaginable that the simile could have been applied at that period to some chieftain's hall that blazed in the night with torches, gold cups and ornaments, bronze weapons, and so forth.
No such doubt on cultural-historical grounds need attach to the simile used of one who stands out from a crowd 'like a bull among the herd'; it is
73 For Near Eastern parallels see West (1997), 242 f.
74 MBh. 1. 92. 43, 139. 23, 213. 82; cf. 3. 73. 25, 112. 1; 4. 67. 8; 8. 21. 7.
75 MBh. 3. 65. 36; Rm. 5. 28. 2, 22. 42; cf. 2. 86. 20.
77 [Hes.] fr. 23a. 8, 252. 4; Rm. 3. 50. 2; 5. 12. 50, 13. 27. The male hero Rama is praised in the same terms, 5. 29. 5, al., which a Greek hero would probably not have appreciated.
78 Od. 4. 45; 7. 84; MBh. 2. 3. 20 f., cf. 11. 12. For neo-Assyrian and neo-Babylonian parallels see West (1997), 251 f., 419 f.
one that would have occurred naturally to the earliest pastoralists. It is found already in the Rigveda (9. 110. 9), of Soma: 'as in greatness, Clarified One, (you are) above these two worlds and all beings, you stand forth outstanding like a bull in the herd'. The reader of Homer will recall the picture of Agamemnon in Il. 2. 480-3:
As a bull in the herd stands out far above all, for he is conspicuous among the gathering of the cows, that is how Zeus made Atreus' son that day, conspicuous and outstanding among the many warriors.
Another simile from the animal world, shared by Indians and Greeks, is perhaps much less ancient. Duryodhana, denouncing Vidura, says 'like a snake we took you into our embrace' (MBh. 2. 57. 3). The same image is found in the Ramayana (2. 7. 23): 'he is like a viper, child, whom you have taken to your bosom and lovingly mothered'. In Greek it appears in the Theognidea (601 f.), though not quite in the true form:
¿ppe deoiaiv t ¿xdpt Kai dvdpainoiaiv aniaTe,
0vxpov os ¿v KoXnwi noiKiXov eixes ofiiv. To hell with you, whom gods abhor and men can't trust, who held in your bosom a cold and cunning snake.
Sintenis plausibly proposed reading 0vxpov ov . .. elxov, so that the sense becomes 'whom I held in my bosom as a cold and cunning snake'. This brings the verse into line with the logical sense and with the Aesopic fable of a man who found a viper that was nearly dead with cold and warmed it in his bosom; once revived, it bit him and he died.79 Now, it seems quite possible that a version of the fable, like many other animal fables, came to India from the west at a comparatively late date. A form of it appears in the Pancatantra (2 st. 17, trs. P. Olivelle): 'Yet a bad man inspires no confidence, because of his evil disposition, like a snake asleep in one's own bosom.' If so, the fable, rather than a common Graeco-Aryan tradition, may have been the source of the image in the Indian epics.
When Penelope is at last persuaded that it is Odysseus who stands before her, she is overcome by tears;
and as when the land is welcome when it comes into view of swimmers whose sturdy ship Poseidon has smashed in the sea ... and gladly they make land and escape hardship, so welcome was her husband to her as she looked on him.
79 Aesop. Fab. 176 Perry; Babrius 143.
Again the Indian epic supplies a parallel: 'Like a tired swimmer in water when he reaches the land, Yuyudhaana became comforted on obtaining the sight of Dhananjaya (Arjuna)'.80
In my two remaining examples a simile in Sappho finds a parallel in the north-west. In a song about a friend who has married a Lydian and left her circle, Sappho says (fr. 96. 6-9), 'and now she shines among the women of Lydia, as after sunset the rose-fingered moon, surpassing all the stars'. In an Irish narrative we read: 'such was that warrior that, as the moon in her great fifteenth surpasses the stars of heaven, that warrior, in his form and shape, surpassed the sons of kings and chieftains of this world.'81
In a wedding song Sappho anticipates that the girls participating in the all-night celebration will 'see less sleep than the melodious bird', that is, than the nightingale, which had the reputation of never sleeping. In an Eddic poem King Frodi sets two doughty slave-women to work at a magic mill that grinds out whatever the grinder wants. He demands that they work non-stop, saying 'You'll sleep no longer than the cuckoo above the hall'. Snorri writes that the watchman of the gods, Heimdallr, 'needs less sleep than a bird'.82 What we have in these passages is not, I imagine, a traditional poetic simile, but an ancient popular saying based on the observation that some birds seem to insist on singing when all good folk are in bed.
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