Animal Archetypes in Homer’s The Iliad

Abhishek VR
3 min readDec 11, 2020

· Here, we use the word ‘archetype’ in the sense of a set of behaviours a person assumes, associated with a mythical character, animal, or even an abstract idea. Examples of archetypes include the hero, the trickster, the villain, the damsel in distress, etc.

· The word ‘berserk’ can be traced to the Old Norse ‘berserkr’, meaning ‘bear-shirt’. Warriors wore a bearskin and were believed to acquire the brutal strength and courage of the bear. In this case, the bear provides an archetype that the warriors hoped to receive through contact (sympathetic association, to use James Frazer’s terminology) with its skin.

· Homer’s poem ‘The Iliad’ contains some illustrative examples of animal archetypes being assumed by certain characters, spawning metaphors that run through the rest of the story.

· For example, King Agamemnon, at the start of Book X “[flings] the skin of a huge tawny lion over his shoulders — a skin that [reaches] his feet — and [takes] his spear in his hand.” Thereafter, in Book XI, we see instances where Agamemnon’s fury on the battlefield is described as being like that of a lion:

— “Meanwhile, the Trojans kept on flying over the middle of the plain like a herd of cows maddened with fright when a lion has attacked them in the dead of night — he springs on one of them, seizes her neck in the grip of his strong teeth and then laps up her blood and gorges himself upon her entrails — even so did King Agamemnon son of Atreus pursue the foe, ever slaughtering the hindmost as they fled pell-mell before him.”

— “King Agamemnon caught it [the spear] from his hand and drew it towards him with the fury of a lion…”

— We later see Agamemnon fleeing from Hector, one of the Trojans, thus: “… and as a huntsman hounds his dogs against a lion or wild boar, even so did Hector, peer of Mars, hound the proud Trojans against the Achaeans.” We recall that in the previous book, it’s Ulysses who dons a helmet “thickly studded with boar’s teeth” — hence, the mention of the boar is accounted for.

· One more example: Dolon of the Trojans agrees to infiltrate the Danaan camp and spy on them. He wears the skin of a grey wolf and a cap of ferret skin: he is described as a good runner (as is a wolf) and his mission is to spy on the enemy — ferret out information, in other words. The choice of animal metaphors is consistent with the archetypes represented by the costumes worn by the warriors.

· There is (at least) one instance of an inconsistency, though: when Ulysses and Diomed (also wearing a lion-skin) discover Dolon and give chase, a different animal metaphor is adopted: “The others (Ulysses and Diomed) gave chase at once, and as a couple of well-trained hounds press forward after a doe or hare that runs screaming in front of them, even so did the son of Tydeus and Ulysses pursue Dolon and cut him off from his own people.” We see here that the exposure of the spy, Dolon, indicates an obvious failure of his mission, a rupture reflected in the abrupt switch of metaphor.

· The symbolic importance of the shirt in determining one’s archetype is seen even in the Qur’an, in the story of Joseph, where his shirt indicates to his grief-stricken father the fact that he is still alive. Joseph’s shirt, incidentally, is mentioned several times serving crucial and symbolic roles.

Further, in many cultures, a man is required to strip his torso bare when approaching God in the temple and during religious rituals. We sense that the believer is to come to God utterly devoid of any sheltering archetype.