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The Odyssey, an epic poem by Homer that details Odysseus’ quest for homecoming after the Trojan War, is a work that has remained relevant for thousands of years because of its ability to examine and discuss many different important aspects of being human. The hero of the narrative experiences heartbreak, fear, and eventually victory as he completes this decade-long journey. While Homer employs numerous literary forms to tell this famous story, he uses few epic similes. Therefore, the appearance of this form is unquestionably worth investigating and the importance of the books that do feature these comparisons is automatically highlighted. Books V and XXIII give the reader a special opportunity to delve into their relevance and analyze this form and its many affordances because they feature epic similes that call upon each other.

In Book V, Odysseus arrives on the island of Scheria, which is his last stop before finally returning to his home in Ithaca. The moment that he sees the coast of the home of the Phaeacians comes after an awful storm that destroys his ship and nearly kills him. When he finally sees land it is impossible to ignore the feelings of joy he is experiencing when it is stated:

And as welcome as the show of life again in a father

is to his children, when he has lain sick, suffering strong pains,

and wasting long away, and the hateful death spirit has brushed him,

but then, and it is welcome, the gods set him free of his sickness,

so welcome appeared land and forest now to Odysseus,

and he swam, pressing on, to set foot on the mainland. (Homer V. 394- 399)

Even though he does not yet know whether the inhabitants of this island will be friendly or not, his delight in simply surviving his shipwreck and being able to escape the sea is so absolute that it is likened to children seeing their father recover after a long sickness. This arrival on land is almost a homecoming in and of itself for Odysseus. It becomes clear that his landing at this strange place is not just pleasing to him, but that it makes him feel as if he has seen a loved one be “set… free” from a horrible sickness (Homer V.97). The repetition of the word “welcome” throughout the simile is seen in both the description of the way the children feel and how Odysseus himself feels, which reveals Odysseus’ genuine emotional and physical vulnerability. The hero being compared to a child allows the reader to identify with the strong feelings of fear and hopelessness that he experienced while his ship was destroyed in the storm but also illuminates just how comforting this sighting of the earth is after his experience at sea. Children’s emotions are often considered to be pure and true, making Odysseus’ ability to closely relate to such an intimate moment exceptionally heartwarming.

Furthermore, this comparison elicits strong feelings of joy, hope, and relief particularly because the reader is acutely aware of Odysseus’ longing for home. The entire epic revolves around this sense of longing. Approaching this moment in a way that mirrors a family reunion is no mere coincidence. This part of his journey is a turning point for Odysseus after many years of suffering and this direct comparison allows the reader, and perhaps Odysseus himself, to picture the protagonist’s reunion with his family members. The foreshadowing of this future event does not serve to remind Odysseus or the reader that he still has a long way to go to return home, but rather it highlights the relevance of this arrival in Scheria.

This joyous occasion is remembered and expanded on much later in the story when Odysseus finally returns home to Ithaca and his family. Upon returning home, Odysseus kills the suitors that had taken over his dwelling while he was away and reveals himself to his wife Penelope by passing a test she sets before him. Penelope’s realization that the gods have finally allowed her husband to be brought back to her is outlined in yet another epic simile:

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And as when the land appears welcome to men who are swimming,

After Poseidon has smashed their strong-built ship on the open

water, pounding it with the weight of the wind and the heavy

seas, and only a few escape the gray water landward

by swimming, with a thick scarf of salt coated upon them,

and gladly they set foot on the shore, escaping the evil;

so welcome was her husband to her as she looked upon him,

and she could not let him go from the embrace of her white arms. (Homer XXIII. 233- 240)

This realization of Odysseus’ homecoming is especially joyous in part because it directly recalls Odysseus himself, both in a narrative sense and the actual form of the simile. The first six lines of this comparison are an explicit reference to the hero’s arrival at Scheria. This allows the reader to not only identify with Penelope’s elation but with Odysseus’ as well. These lines also evoke strong feelings of sympathy for both of these characters. Although Oddyseus’ suffering has been discussed and explained at great length throughout the epic, Penelope’s pain, while not ignored, has not necessarily been given the same consideration until this point in the story. Homer’s decision to relay her feelings of relief in this manner allows the reader to reflect on the harrowing journey that had to take place for this reunion to come about, thus being able to efficiently explain Penelope’s feelings in depth using just a few short lines. This comparison is so effective because this floodgate of emotions is not at all unfamiliar to the reader.

Moreover, these moments are direct inverses of one another. In Book V, Odysseus’ feelings about surviving the shipwreck and finally seeing land are revealed by outlining a father’s reunion with his children. In Book XXIII, Penelope’s feelings about being reunited with Odysseus are revealed by outlining her husband’s survival of a shipwreck. While it is important to note that each of the similes focuses on different ways a family can reunite, neither seems to outweigh the other. The relationship between a father and his children is just as important to a man as the relationship between a husband and wife, albeit in a different way. This reversal of these equal moments and the way that they are used to describe one another affords the idea that the intermediate events that allow progress to be made toward a homecoming are just as important as the homecoming itself. This affordance is further supported by the reuse of the repetition of the word “welcome” in both similes, which allows these two instances to reveal the same amount of emotion and vulnerability.

The epic similes in Books V and XXIII allow Homer to reveal the importance and effectiveness of employing this very specific literary form. By studying these epic similes and noting the foreshadowing of Odysseus’ arrival in Ithaca in Book V and then later reflecting on Odysseus’ arrival in Scheria in Book XXIII, the author of this epic poem can assert that the action of returning home is not constrained to just one particular instance when the homecoming physically takes place, but rather through emphasizing other aspects of the story that play important roles in ensuring that this longing for home will be fulfilled.

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