Epithets in Mythology: Definition & Examples

Instructor: Aida Vega Felgueroso

Aida has taught Spanish at the University in Italy. Spanish is her mother tongue and she has a master's degree in Spanish Language and Literature.

In this lesson we will observe a rhetorical figure often found in epics and mythology: the epithet. Thus, it will be easier to understand the texts of the ancient Greeks.

Epithets, the Art of Description

Swift-footed Achilles, Ox-eyed Hera, Lovely-haired Ariadne. When we read these descriptions we immediately get an idea about a character, and we learn how Achilles, Hera, or Ariadne are thought of schematically.

This is achieved thanks to the epic or mythological epithet. Nowadays, the word epithet has a negative connotation, used for defamation (such as an ethnic slur). But in the time of Homer and the Greek classics an epithet was a different thing. In classical Greek or European medieval literature, an epithet is a descriptive term (word or phrase) accompanying or occurring in place of a name. This term indicates the qualities of a character, usually a hero or a god.

The epithets are repeated continuously in these literary works. Whenever we find the name Achilles, for example, this is accompanied by one of its epithets (Swift-footed, Son of Peleus, Lion-hearted, etc.).

This is due to the functions of the epithet in the literature. Let's look at those functions.

Swift-footed Achilles.
achilles

A Memory Aid

Until the sixteenth century, the transmission of literary works was done orally. Most of the people were illiterate, and the exisiting books were manuscripts and very expensive. There was no concept of individual reading as we understand it today.

The poets of ancient Greece and the medieval jugglers and troubadours recited the works by heart. They were placed in a public square, or in the hall of a castle, and they recited and represented the most famous poems of the time.

In order to do this, performers had to have a substantial memory. In addition, to aid memory, there were various tricks:

  • The works were mostly written in verse. It is easier to remember a verse than a prose text, because rhythm and rhyme helps with memorization.
  • The epithet assisted with memory. The reciters knew that with the name of one of the heroes or gods there was always an epithet. Epithets could vary, and characters had more than one, but there was always a limited list. This, of course, was very helpful to the reciters.

Troubadours reciting poems.
reciters

A Characterization of the Hero

Another function of the epithet is to characterize the hero. The epithet gives us a description of the character. It is a very schematic description, but it is also very graphic, because many of the epithets are metaphors. In this way, we know a fundamental characteristic of the hero and, in addition, thanks to repetition, we always associate with him.

If we read Agamemnon the shepherd of the people, we get a quick description of Agamemnon. We picture him as a mighty king, a leader followed by his men. And all of this with only a brief phrase that accompanies his name!

Agamemnon, shepherd of the people.
agamemnon

The Rhyme and Rhythm of the Text

The epithet also serves to keep the rhythm and rhythm of the poem because it consists of repeated short sentences. Epic poetry is often based on stereotyped formulas, so the name of the hero along with his epithet forms half of a verse already prepared to be used in poetic composition.

A copy of the Iliad, 16th Century.
iliad

Some Epithets in Mythology

Let's look at some of the most common epithets in mythology. Keep in mind that the most important characters usually have more than one epithet. The poet, at any moment, would choose the one that best suited each verse.

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