EPITHETS IN HOMER                           8

Page References are to the penguin edition of Martin Hammond's ' Iliad”. Underlined page numbers refer to the Penguin edition of E.V.Rieu's 'Odyssey'.

Epithets are a characteristic of oral poetry and Epic style. Proper names of people and places, ordinary nouns (such as 'ships', 'sea' 'sheep' 'oil' 'cities') have an adjective or adjectival phrase which precedes or follows each.



When describing a person, it may indicate

a)      Origin I Home e.g. p.83 'spearmen who lived on the fertile soil of Larisa'

b)      Patronymic e.g. p.51 'Achilles son of Peleus'.

c)      Appearance/State e.g. p.89 'white-armed Andromache; 'fair-haired Menelaus'.

d)      Skill/Art eg. p.103 ‘resourceful Odysseus’; p.54 'swift-footed Achilles' .

e)      Position e.g. p.99 'Agamemnon, king of men'; p.189 'sacred herald'.

f)        Heroic quality / General e.g. p.387 ‘godlike Epeios’; p.2O3 'strong Diomedes’

* List attached showing epithets used for gods and goddesses and main characters. *


A. Characterisation. Epithets identify individuals and give the audience an opportunity to recognise their favourites.

B. Realism.  They appeal to the experience of the audience because of their familiarity with known folk-heroes, places, skills, objects, etc.

C. Colour and vividness in the narrative. They make it possible to visualise what is mentioned. In a long narrative, such as an epic poem, variation and detail must be introduced often to avoid tediousness, especially when there is one main theme -fighting.

D. Formula is made by combination of name plus epithet.

a) This acts as a mnemonic for the bard (aoidos) who is using oral tradition in telling folk tales learnt by heart, though he may also be able to improvise in order to construct a connected narrative while using these blocks of material which fit exactly into the rigid metrical structure. A formula may fill a whole line or a half of one.

b) This formula is a traditional and conventional element in epic - entirely appropriate to the heroic subject-matter and therefore a recognisable quality of the song for the audience.

c) Type (f) - the general epithet which is purely ornamental - will often thus be used without specific relevance to the context and even Types (c) and (d) will be used without particular appropriateness or even to the extent of being contradictory: e.g. p.117  'Aphrodite, smiling goddess'- when she is actually wounded and weeping

d) The frequent repetition of the formulae has something of the same effect as rhyme might have in more modern verse: they are obviously rhythmical, keep up the momentum of the verse and endow the narrative with a kind of poetic quality.

Epithets may therefore be A. Ornamental B. Particular.


These stimulate the imagination, as poetry should, and assist visual recognition as well as providing colour and detail. N.B. Similes have the same effect and there are more of these in the 'Iliad' than in the 'Odyssey'. (This may be explained partly by the fact that there is more variety of action and direct speech in the 'Odyssey', whereas the 'Iliad' needs the stimulus provided by a simile.)

Epithets are useful to the narrative of both poems. e.g. long-shadowed spear, dear life, yearlings never touched by the goad, fertile land, broad streets, sounding sea, swift horses, black/benched/beaked/balanced ships, useless burden.

These examples can be found throughout and, while they add poetic effect (Ornamental type),they do not necessarily have any particular importance in the context.

There are also blocks of lines which recur like the half-line formulae of epithet plus noun. These usually describe common actions such as harnessing horses, offering a sacrifice, etc.

It has been suggested that the use of such formulae indicates less skill on the part of the poet / bard. This is not entirely the case. It does indicate a different method of composing a poem and one which is appropriate to the age of oral poetry and long, ballad-type poems.

It is clear from internal evidence that bards were much respected and thought to be divinely inspired. cf. Demodocus Od. VIII 487 ff. 'Homer' must have drawn on a long tradition of oral poetry and folk-tales, but his choice of central theme and the relation of the parts to the whole the wonderful craftsmanship following the artistic inspiration is a masterpiece.

The Homeric poems influenced all later epic and other poetry too, became the first flowering of Western literature and the basic element in the education of following generations. What is more, they provided religious and moral precepts in a developing society. The shadowy figure of Homer was revered by all later scholars,  as if he was one of the gods about whom he wrote.


Epithets for Gods and Goddesses

References to page in Hammond (Iliad) and Rieu (Odyssey - underlined)

Aidoneus  - lord of the dead 335; mighty l72

Aphrodite- smiling goddess 117; Kypris 116; golden 131, 408; daughter of Zeus 248

Apollo - son of Zeus 142; loved of Zeus 53; god of the silver bow 143; the unshorn 335; rouser of armies 336; the lord who shoots from afar 52

Ares - curse of men 109; brazen 128; monstrous 127; sacker of cities 337; of the glinting helmet 335; raging 127

Artemis - the archer-goddess 335; of the golden distaff 335

Athene -the bright-eyed 68, 105;  Atrytone 68; daughter of Zeus who holds the aegis 68; Tritogeneia 107

Dawn - tender 61 fresh 122   rosy-fingered 374; in her yellow robe 153; early-born 61

Hephaistos - the famous craftsman 318; great 353; the famous lame god 320

Hera - ox-eyed queen 318; white-armed 64; of the golden throne queenly goddess 125; daughter of the great Kronos 125; of Argos 129

Hermes - messenger 89; son of Zeus 131; Giant-killer 89; kindly 334; greatest of gods in his mind's subtlety 334; the strong one 335

Iris -swift-footed 162; storm-swift 162; swift 259

Persephone -daughter of Zeus 171; dread 177 august 172

Poseidon - earth-shaker 157; dark-haired god powerful lord 225; encircler of the earth 334

Thetis - lovely-haired 319; silver-footed 318 .

Zeus -son of Kronos 319; wide-seeing 62; the father 162; the cloud - gatherer 62; who holds the aegis 125; father of gods and men 25; master of the bright lightening 334; the father of men and gods 257

Epithets for men and women

Achilles -swift-footed 53; godlike 53; shepherd of the people 273; son of Peleus 273; leader of men 132

Agamemnon - wide-ruling; lord of men 74; godlike 101; glorious son of Atreus 53

Aias  - proud 299; royal son of Telamon 147; huge 90; glorious 140; loved of Zeus 137

Aineias - leader of the Trojans 114; lord of men 116; great-hearted 121; son of Anchises 337; counsellor of the Trojans 336

Andromache - daughter of great-hearted Eetion white-armed 138

Alexandros/Paris - Priam's son 141; godlike 141

Antilochus - Nestor's splendid son 186;

Ariadne - lovely~haired 323

Diomedes -godlike great hearted 133; Tydeus' son 158; great spearman 202; strong 203; the horse-tamer 126; master of the war cry 188

Hector - tamer of horses 410; huge 196; shepherd of the people 366; Priam's son of the glinting helmet 141; glorious 252

Helen - long-dressed 90; lovely-haired 150; Argive 168; daughter of a noble house 136; daughter of Zeus who holds the aegis 94

Idomeneus -renowned 135;

Kastor - horse-breaker 90

Menelaus - master of the war-cry 87; glorious 238; excellent 239; fair-haired 91; warrior 91; red-haired 73; son of Atreus

Nestor – godlike 206; Gerenian horseman 155; huge 206; son of Neleus  Pylos-born King  sweet spoken

Odysseus  Zeus' equal in his mind's resource 68; son of Laertes 122; resourceful 181; nimble-witted 93; famous spearman 273; godlike 89; sacker of cities 71; much-enduring 155; gallant 105; stalwart 92; loved of Zeus 193; famed 204; hardy 187; royal 189; great glory of the Achaians 194

Pandaros - Lykaeon's splendid son 111

Patroklos - brave son of Menoitius 279; horseman 273; great-hearted 299; hero 309; poor 308; his kindness, gentle 330

Penelope - wise 324; queen 324; flawless 356; richly-dowered 358; prudent 85; Ikarius' daughter 182; constant 358.

Polydeukes - boxer 90;

Sarpedon - leader of the Lycians 122; lord 283; godlike 287:

Thersites - loose-tongued 69;

Teiresias - Theban 175 Prince 175

V.J. Howe