Antara & Solomon and wild similes & metaphors

A word about my favorite pre-Islamic Arabian hero, Antara. He was Galahad, Lochinvar and Launcelot rolled into one, except he went one better and was a poet warrior. His father, Shaddad, was a Bedouin tribal chieftain and his mother, Zabiba, was an Abyssinian slave. Since his mother was a slave, Antara’s father refused to acknowledge him and he grew up as a slave in the ‘Abs tribe. Eventually his prowess as a warrior forced his father to acknowledge him and to give him the hand of the beautiful ‘Abla in marriage. All very Chaucerian, with much ado about courtly love and gentillesse and that sort of thing.


Anyhow, one of Antara’s poems is among the Muallaqāt which are a group of seven pre-Islamic Arabic qasida (odes). The authors are among the most famous poets of the 6th century. The name means The Hanged Poems, and according to legend these poems were embroidered on cloth in letters of gold and were hung up on the Ka’aba at Mecca.

All of them are really really really difficult in Arabic – even native Arabic speakers can’t always make sense of them in Arabic, and I certainly can’t, but here’s Antara’s poem in Arabic and English if you’re interested.


The reason I’m waffling on about Antara’s poem is because I’ve been thinking about the similes & metaphors you seem to find in these ancient texts. Here’s a bit about Abla from Antara:


It was as though the musk bag of a merchant in his case of perfumes preceded her teeth toward you from her mouth.

Or as if it is an old wine-skin, from Azri’at, preserved long, such as the kings of Rome preserve;


Or her mouth is as an ungrazed meadow, whose herbage the rain has guaranteed, in which there is but little dung; and which is not marked with the feet of animals.


The first pure showers of every rain-cloud rained upon it, and left every puddle in it bright and round like a dirham;


I love the similes/metaphors he uses, they are so odd – no-one would ever ever come up with ones like that today. Now, check this out from the Song of Solomon (the King James Version, of course – can’t vouch for the poetic value of any other version). 

Behold, thou art fair, my love; behold, thou art fair; thou hast dove’s; eyes within thy locks: thy hair is as a flock of goats, that appear from mount Gilead.

Thy teeth are like a flock of sheep that are even shorn, which came up from the washing; whereof every one bear twins, and none is barren among them.


Thy lips are like a thread of scarlet, and thy speech is comely: thy temples are like a piece of a pomegranate within thy locks.


Thy neck is like the tower of David builded for an armory, whereon there hang a thousand bucklers, all shields of mighty men.


Aren’t they just the same type of similes/metaphors?? Wild and out there. If we were still doing that today, we’d have to say things like: Your eyes are like an Olympic swimming pool built at Athens and your throat is like the east wing of the Guggenheim Museum. Or something

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Nic Sebastian

Nic is the author of Forever Will End On Thursday and Dark And Like A Web. She founded the now-archived Whale Sound site and is co-founder of The Poetry Storehouse. Nic blogs at Very Like A Whale and Voice Alpha.

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