Epithet Examples in Literature

Ken Damerow, Joshua Wimmer
  • Author
    Ken Damerow

    Ken Damerow has taught at both the elementary and secondary levels in English, Math, Science, and Social Studies for over 34 years. He has a master's degree in Writing from Goddard College and a bachelor’s degree in English Education with a minor in Chemistry from Michigan State University. He also holds a professional teaching certificate from the State of Michigan and is certified to teach K-12.

  • Instructor
    Joshua Wimmer

    Joshua holds a master's degree in Latin and has taught a variety of Classical literature and language courses.

Learn about epithets in literature. View examples and characteristics of epithets in literature and learn about the different types of epithets in literature. Updated: 01/10/2022

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What is an Epithet in Literature?

What is an epithet? One can define epithet as a word or group of words used as shorthand to describe a person, place, or thing. A good epithet captures essential characteristics of what it is describing. Epithets can indicate positive characteristics but are often designed to communicate some perceived negative trait for the purpose of belittling, denigrating, discrediting, or even disgracing its subject.

What is an epithet in literature? The epithet literary definition is a common literary device. Famous examples come from Homer, the ancient Greek poet, who uses epithets throughout his epic poems, The Iliad and The Odyssey. For example, he describes the Mediterranean Sea as the wine-dark sea and Athena, goddess of wisdom, as grey-eyed. Grey-eyed Athena captures Athena's essential quality of seeing through falsehood, as any wise person or goddess would do. Wine-dark sea captures not only the color and texture of the surface of the sea but also the contrast between nature and civilized society, which is just one of Homer's important themes. The best epithets work on many levels, enhancing and deepening the dimensions of the subject, whereas the worst epithets usually reduce the subject to just one dimension in a negative manner.


The wine-dark waters of the Mediterranean Sea

Epithet; What is an epithet? Epithet literary definition; Define epithet; What does epithet mean; what is epithet in literature?


Grammatically, epithets can be adjectives, such as grey-eyed or wine-dark, or nouns, such as sail-road, which describes the sea in Beowulf, an Old English epic poem from the Middle Ages. Some linguists suggest that epithets should be considered pronouns because they are used in place of nouns.

The use of epithets in literature is important for readers beyond deep comprehension and enjoyment of a text because well-known authors have used them throughout literary history, and many epithets have taken on a common cultural meaning. They are alluded to again and again throughout the cultural lexicon of a society from the literary cannon to mass media. Nearly everyone knows what is meant by star-crossed lovers from Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet and that The King of Rock and Roll refers to Elvis Presley. These are the kinds of epithets that allow people from a common cultural background to communicate more creatively and efficiently.

Etymology and Usage

What does epithet mean? The etymology of the term comes from the ancient Greek word epitithenai, meaning to put on or to add. Thus, the meaning of the epithet is added to a subject much like an adjective adds to the basic meaning of a noun. Elvis Presley was a pioneer of American rock and roll, but the epithet The King adds a dimension that communicates his importance not only musically but also culturally. However, epithets can carry negative connotations, such as when racial epithets are unfortunately used to describe an individual of a particular race or even an entire race itself. A modern example from young adult literature is the use of the term muggle in a derogatory manner to describe non-magical folks in JK Rowling's Harry Potter series.

A kenning is a type of epithet first introduced in Old English and Norse poetry and is a compound word, usually hyphenated, formed from two nouns. For example, swan-road describes the ocean, iron-shower describes spears launched in battle, and sea-horse describes a ship.

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Characteristics of an Epithet

Readers can identify an epithet by noticing when an author describes a subject in such a way as to enhance or reduce its meaning to essential qualities. In Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince, the main character, Harry Potter, is described as The Chosen One because it is believed that he will save society from the evil Lord Voldemort. In Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Lord Voldemort uses the epithet Undesirable No. 1 to describe Harry because not only does Voldemort want to kill Harry, but he also fears Harry's power to destroy his sinister influence on society. These two examples show how epithets can be used positively or negatively.

What is the Purpose of Epithets?

In general, authors use epithets because they are a quick and efficient way to vividly describe essential qualities. Epithets remind readers quickly who or what is being discussed and which qualities are most important. Specifically, authors may use epithets for the following purposes.

  • To provide vivid description: The best epithets use imagery to paint a visual picture, such as untimely frost describing the death of Juliet in Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet.
  • To capture essential traits: Superman is The Man of Steel. Tony Stark is Iron Man.
  • To highlight a descriptive trait: A sobriquet is a descriptive nickname. Johnny on the Spot describes someone helpful. Twinkle-toes describes a great dancer. Red describes someone with red hair.
  • To fill out verse requirements in poetry: Parthenos, grey-eyed Athena, Athena Nike, Athena Ergane, and Athena Polias are all epithets for the ancient Greek goddess. Which of these epithets is used in any particular line of a Homer epic poem depends on the number of syllables needed to complete the line.

Epithet: Types

An epithet used continually throughout a literary work is called a stock epithet. Examples from Homer include rosy-fingered dawn to describe the break of day, each day, every day throughout the 500+ page epic poem. Homer also uses the epithet Earth-shaker to describe the ancient Greek god of the sea, Poseidon. There are many different types of epithets. A few of these types are discussed in the following.

Origin/Nationality

Some epithets describe what geographical region a person is from or their nationality. Richard of Bordeaux describes England's King Richard II. The Americanism Yankee denotes a citizen of the Northeastern United States. Don Quixote of La Mancha is one of the most famous epithets in literary history from the early 17th century novel by Cervantes.

Family Ties

Epithets may also be used to indicate genealogy, such as Homer using the epithet Agamemnon, Atreus's son to show the royal lineage of the Greek king. This is a special type of epithet called a patronymic, which indicates ancestral lineage through the father. The son of Zeus by Leto is an example from Homer. Jesus, son of David comes from the New Testament. Daughter of Zeus is yet another epithet for Athena.

Personal Attributes

Many epithets are created from a word or phrase that characterizes a person or thing. The Promised Land is a common description of Canaan, a region of the ancient Near East. The Dynamic Duo describes the comic book characters Batman and Robin. Catherine the Great describes Catherine II, ruler of Russia from 1762 to 1796.

Achievement or Ability

Shakespeare is known as The Bard. Michael Jackson is known as The King of Pop. The Beatles are known as The Fab Four. These types of epithets describe achievements or abilities. Antonomasia is the use of an epithet as a proper noun to designate a member of a class or as a stand-alone title in place of a proper noun. Examples of antonomasia are using Casanova for lover and using The Man in Black for the American folk singer Johnny Cash.

Occupation

Some epithets refer to a subject's job, such as That Man in the White House for President Franklin Roosevelt. The Piano Man refers to the American musician Billy Joel. The Philosopher describes Aristotle, the ancient Greek philosopher.


The Philosopher is an epithet for Aristotle, the ancient Greek lover of wisdom.

Epithet; What does epithet mean; what is epithet in literature? Epithet examples; stock epithet


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Frequently Asked Questions

How are epithets used?

Epithets are used in many ways, such as for providing vivid description, highlighting a descriptive nickname, or filling out verse requirements in poetry. Epithets can refer to origin/nationality, family ties, personal attributes, achievement or ability, occupation, etc. They can be used positively, such as Peter the Great, or negatively, such as Ivan the Terrible.

What is an example of an epithet?

We find examples of epithets in Homer's "Odyssey," translated by Robert Fagles: "Sing to me of the man, Muse, the man of twists and turns driven time and again off course once he had plundered the hallowed heights of Troy." This first line of the epic poem contains the following epithets: man of twists and turns, hallowed heights of Troy.

How do you identify an epithet?

Identify an epithet in literature by noticing how authors describe a subject. If authors use an adjective or group of words that captures some essential characteristic of that subject, then they have used an epithet.

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