Homeric Epithets: Definition & Examples

Instructor: Lucy Barnhouse
Homer's ''Iliad'' and ''Odyssey'' have shaped the literary imagination of generations. Throughout these vast works, people, places, and things are characterized with distinctive compound adjectives, known as Homeric epithets. This lesson examines their nature and function.

Homeric Epithets: Form and Function

The epic poems of Homer were first sung, even before they were written down two millennia ago. The fact that they were meant to be experienced through hearing meant that repeated words, or combinations of words, were a way of holding listeners' attention and creating consistent characterization. Epithets are simply words characteristically attached to people (or things!) as descriptors. Homeric epithets are used strategically. The naming of important people, places, and things in the poems thus becomes a motif, providing familiarity for listeners and readers experiencing a vast poetic narrative. In English, they are commonly formed through combining adjectives.

Character and Epithet

The Iliad and The Odyssey are epics with large casts of characters. Homeric epithets help the reader keep track of who they are. For the most important characters, these epithets express their relationships to others, as well as their individual traits.

Hector, his helmet, and his family
Hector and Andromache

When Hector, prince of Troy, is first introduced in Book 2 of The Iliad, he is described as 'bright-helmeted.' This epithet is often repeated, emphasizing Hector's skill as a warrior and how conspicuous he is as a leader, both to the Trojans and to the enemy Greeks. It's an epithet that, significantly, he shares with Ares, the god of war. In one of the most famous extended episodes in The Iliad, Hector's bright helmet is a centerpiece. In Book 6, Hector comes from the battle to spend time with his wife and son. But Hector's son Astyanax, who is not yet a toddler, is terrified by his father's helmet. It's a poignant episode, showing the dark side of Hector's most characteristic attribute. Hector is also sometimes known as 'tamer of horses.'

Hector's arch-rival among the Greeks, Achilles, also gets multiple adjectives. The first lines of The Iliad tell us of the anger that, at first, keeps him in his tent and later takes him to slaughter the armies of the Trojans. Achilles is, unusually, a protagonist who stubbornly does nothing for most of the poem. His heroic epithets - swift-footed Achilles, lion-hearted Achilles - remind readers of all the qualities he's refusing to use on behalf of his fellow Greeks.

Important items and places also get their own epithets, as do the gods. Here are some of the poems' other typical epithets:

Gods

  • wide-seeing Zeus
  • white-armed Hera
  • bright-eyed Athena
  • earth-shaking Poseidon

Warriors

  • much-enduring Odysseus
  • great-hearted Patroclus
  • wide-ruling Agamemnon
  • red-haired Menelaus
  • Diomedes, master of the war cry
  • Aeneas, counselor of the Trojans

Places and Things

  • wine-dark sea
  • death-dealing spear
  • many-towered Troy
  • sea-cleaving ships

If you don't see these precise words while reading Homer, don't worry - you're still seeing Homeric epithets. There are many different ways Homeric Greek can be rendered into English. A translator might choose to translate 'wide-ruling Agamemnon,' for instance, as 'Agamemnon, lord of many lands.'

Translation and Interpretation

How translators of Homer choose to translate the epithets in The Iliad and The Odyssey provides insight into how they see the poems. In turn, this influences how readers see the characters. Odysseus, the much-enduring, is an important character in The Iliad, but he is central to The Odyssey, where he gets even more epithets.

The most complex, arguably, is the Greek polútropos (poll-OO-tro-poss). This is the first word used to describe him in the poem's first line. From the 18th century to the present, translators have chosen a variety of ways to introduce him to readers:

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