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Epithets in Homer

A characteristic of Homer's style is the use of recurring epithets, as in "rosy-fingered dawn" or "swift-footed Achilles." These epithets were metric stop-gaps as well as mnemonic devices for the aoidos (singer) — both, signs of the deep oral tradition that preceded the written codification of the Iliad and Odyssey.

Moreover, epithets in epic poetry from various Indo-European traditions may be traced to a common tradition going much deeper into prehistory. For example, the phrase approximating "everlasting glory" or "undying fame" can be found in the Homeric Greek kleos aphthiton and the Sanskrit śrávo ákşitam. They "were, in terms of historical linguistics, equivalent in phonology, accentuation, and quantity (syllable length). In other words, they are descendants from a fragment of poetic diction (reconstructable as Proto-Indo-European *klewos ņdhgwhitom) which was handed down in parallel over many centuries, in continually diverging forms, by generations of singers whose ultimate ancestors shared an archetypal repertoire of poetic formulae and narrative themes.

A name plus an epithet constitute a formula which exactly fits the metric structure of the verse. The use of formulas is characteristic of ancient epic poetry.

Homer used epithets not merely to complete rhythm patterns. Epithets deepen the meaning of each noun that they modify. Epithets can inform the reader about the character’s origin, parentage, appearance or state, skill-set, position, or heroic quality. Bryan Hainsworth, in The Iliad: A Commentary, compares Homer’s epithets to an author using “a simile to sharpen a scene in a narrative.” At the same time, he distinguishes between Homer’s two different types of epithets: the special and the generic. Special epithets are used exclusively for a particular character, while generic epithets are used repeatedly for a class of characters. Yet this distinction is not always clear; thus, the epithet “master of the war-cry” is used predominantly with Menelaus, yet on occasion also to describe Diomedes.

List of epithets in Homer

  • Abantes
    • great-hearted
    • very helpfull
  • Achaeans
    • flowing-haired
    • bronzed-armored
    • strong-greaved
    • glancing-eyed
    • far-famed
  • Achilles
    • son of Peleus
    • swift-footed (podas ôkus)
    • god-like (dios)
    • shepherd of the people
    • leader of men
  • Aeneas
    • lord of men
    • godlike
    • son of Anchises
    • counselor of the Trojans
    • lord of the Trojans
    • high-hearted
    • likes
  • Agamemnon
    • son of Atreus
    • wide-ruling
    • lord of men
    • godlike
    • powerful
    • skilled breaker of horses
    • shepherd of the people
    • brilliant
  • Agenor
    • high-hearted
  • Aias/Ajax
    • "Great" Aias
    • swift
    • gigantic
    • high-hearted
  • Andromache
    • daughter of Eetion
    • white-armed
  • Antilochus
    • son of Nestor
  • Aphrodite
    • laughing
    • daughter of Zeus
  • Apollo
    • distant deadly Archer
    • god of the silver bow
    • rouser of armies
    • son of Zeus
  • Ares
    • curse of men
    • sacker of cities
    • of the glinting helmet
    • manslaughtering
    • women raping
  • Athena
    • Pallas
    • gray-eyed
    • hope of soldiers
  • Atreus
    • breaker of horses
  • Ariadne
    • lovely-haired
  • Artemis
    • the archer-goddess
    • of the golden distaff
  • Dawn
    • with her rose-red fingers ("rosy-fingered")
  • Demeter
    • fair-haired
  • Diomedes
    • god-like
    • high-spirited
    • son of Tydeus
    • great spearman
    • horse tamer
    • master of the war cry
    • the powerful
  • Hector
    • tall
    • horse tamer
    • shepherd of the people
    • son of Priam
    • of the glinting helmet
    • brilliant
    • man-killing
  • Helen
    • long-dressed
    • lovely haired
    • daughter of a noble house
  • Hera
    • ox-eyed lady
    • goddess of the white arms
  • Hephaestus
    • the famous craftsman
    • the famous lame god
  • Hermes
    • messenger
    • son of Zeus
    • giant-killer
    • the strong one
  • Iris
    • wind-footed
  • Kronos
    • devious-devising
    • all-powerful
  • Menelaus
    • red-haired king
    • master of the war-cry
    • fair-haired
    • son of Atreus
    • war-like
    • spear-famed
  • Naubolos
    • great-hearted
  • Nestor
    • godlike
    • splendid
    • Gerenian charioteer
    • son of Neleus
    • Pylos born king
    • sweet spoken
    • high-hearted
  • Odysseus
    • brilliant
    • sacker of cities
    • god-like
    • resourceful
    • noble
    • tried
    • wise
    • loved of Zeus
    • great glory of the Aecheans
    • great-hearted
    • master mariner
    • mastermind of war
  • Onchestos
    • the sacred
  • Pandaros
    • Lykaeon's splendid son
    • the strong and blameless son of Lykaon
    • godlike
  • Patroclus
    • son of Menoitius
    • horseman
  • Paris
    • Alexandros
    • godlike
    • son of Priam
  • Polites
    • son of Priam
  • Polyphemos
    • godlike
  • Sarpedon
    • leader of the Lycians
  • Sea
    • wine-dark
  • Thetis
    • lovely-haired
    • silver-footed
  • Thersites
    • of the endless speech
  • Trojans
    • breakers of horses
  • Tydeus
    • driver of horses
    • high-hearted
  • Zeus
    • mighty
    • son of Kronos
    • wide-seeing
    • the cloud-gatherer
    • father of gods and men
    • master of the bright lightning

Source

V.J. Howe, "Epithets in Homer." Available online at http://www.angelfire.com/art/archictecture/articles/008.htm. (Retrieved October 16, 2007.)

Notes

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