Richard has a doctorate in Comparative Literature and has taught Comparative Literature, English, and German
What are Homeric Epithets?
If you've read any Homeric poetry, like The Odyssey or The Iliad, you've surely encountered epithets, brief phrases describing a person or thing. For example, the phrase ''rosy-fingered dawn'' is often used by Homer. ''Rosy-fingered'' is the epithet describing the noun ''dawn.'' Using the epithet gives the poetry more style and a greater sense of rhythm. Since Homeric epics were probably originally performed orally, from memory, it is believed that the epithets also helped the reciter remember the story.
Epithets aren't just used in epics. They're used to describe historical figures, for example, like Peter the Great or Richard the Lion-Hearted. They're even present in pop culture: Batman is also known as The Dark Knight, for example. In The Iliad, epithets are used to describe major characters. Let's look at some examples. The exact phrasing of these epithets varies based on how the translator chose to convey the ancient Greek text in English. Check the edition you're using for the forms it uses.
Achilles is the great hero of the Greeks, and his epithets describe him as a fierce warrior. He is called ''swift-footed,'' for instance. Again, the exact phrasing of the epithets can vary based on the translation, so in some editions, you might see him similarly called, ''Achilles of the swift feet.'' This is a good example of how epithets work; Homer could have simply written ''Achilles was fast,'' but the more colorful phrase ''swift-footed Achilles'' adds a definite sense of style.
Elsewhere, Achilles' bravery is highlighted by epithets like ''lion-hearted.'' Achilles was a demigod, or half-man, half-god, and this status is signaled in other epithets, such as ''like to the gods.''
Patroclus was Achilles' dear friend and quite different from him. He showed great bravery by going up against Hector in battle, but the epithets applied to him in The Iliad refer to him as ''dear to Zeus,'' ''great-hearted,'' and simply ''gentle.'' For the structure of The Iliad as a whole, it's important that Patroclus is contrasted to the more ferocious Achilles: the swift-footed one's wrath is partly explained as rage at having lost such a good-hearted, noble friend.
Though it was the theft of Menelaus' wife Helen that led to the Trojan War, which is the setting for The Iliad, it was Menelaus' brother, Agamemnon, that led the Mycenaeans and other Greek forces into battle against the Trojans. The epithets that commonly describe him convey the sense that he was the commander of many troops: he's often called things like Agamemnon the ''wide-ruling'' or ''the lord marshal.''
Menelaus must have been quite good-looking looking. Throughout The Iliad, he's referred to by names like Menelaus the ''fair-haired,'' ''red-haired,'' and ''flaming-haired.'' Then again, to have the most beautiful woman in the world, Helen, as your wife, he probably needed to be a catch. After Paris ran off with Helen back to Troy, however, another side of Menelaus came out, as he battled together with his brother Agamemnon and other Greek heroes to retrieve Helen and punish the Trojans. For this reason, he's also known by epithets like ''master of the war-cry'' and ''spear-famed.''
Epithets are used in The Iliad to refer to both Greeks and Trojans. Hector is called things like ''man-killing,'' ''horse-taming,'' and Hector ''of the glinting helmet.'' Each of these epithets highlights Hector's prowess as a warrior. He's not called ''man-killing'' for any reason; he was known for slaying Greek heroes like Patroclus. He's the Trojan equivalent of Achilles, and his epithets show it.
Epithets of the Divine
Deities are also given epithets in The Iliad. For example, Athena is sometimes called the ''hope of soldiers,'' for her interventions on behalf of the Greeks. Near the epic's close, for instance, she tricks a fleeing Hector into stopping so that Achilles can slay him. Other names are associated with Athena; after slaying some mythological figure known as ''Pallas,'' for instance (the stories are murky and inconsistent about who precisely Pallas was), she gained the name for herself. She is also called ''gray-eyed,'' highlighting her associations with wisdom (and owls).
Other deities are given epithets that reference their powers. The sea god Poseidon is called ''earth-shaker,'' or ''earth-moving,'' because of his association with earthquakes, while Zeus, god of thunder (among other things), is called the '~cloud-gatherer'' or ''loud-thundering.'' These attributes become important reminders of the gods' powers since each takes a side; Poseidon with the Greeks, and Zeus with the Trojans.
Epithets and Character Relationships
Sometimes, characters are given simple epithets, as when Zeus is called ''mighty,'' or Patroclus is called ''gentle.'' Though basic, these epithets still serve to remind us of what these characters are like. Interestingly, even characters on opposing sides may share epithets. For instance, both Agamemnon and Hector are called the ''shepherd of the people.'' Though one fought for the Greeks and the other for the Trojans, this epithet suggests that both were major commanders.
Many of the epithets used in ''The Iliad'' describe characters' ancestry, such as when Achilles is called ''son of Peleus,'' Athena is called ''daughter of Zeus,'' and Patroclus is called ''son of Menoetius.'' For this same reason, some of them are shared epithets: the brothers Agamemnon and Menelaus, for instance, are both called ''son of Atreus.'' These kinds of epithets serve to help us keep the complicated relationships of mortal and divine characters straight.
Epithets are used throughout The Iliad to describe the qualities, traits, and histories of various characters. Both human and divine characters have epithets associated with them. These are used throughout the long epic poem to help listeners and readers follow along and keep the individual characters distinct, as well as to highlight the relationships between them. The epithets also serve to heighten the language of the poem and give it a distinct style.
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