What’s in an Epithet? New thoughts.

Although epithets are all around us, my favourite place is the ‘Eternal City’, my first conscious awareness of epithets was in 2014 with the now replaced Open University module A219 Exploring the Classical World. Although I had a general interest in all things classical it was the first time I had directly engaged with Homer and the epics and what an experience it was. My imagination was fired by the rose fingers of dawn, strong greaved Achaeans, god-like Achilles, wine-dark sea etc. etc… Being new to studying classical studies and Homer specifically, it was a time of learning and acceptance. Learning all things classical and acceptance of the reasons for epithets in oral poetry composition: they act as a familiar anchor for the audience to places, names and imagery, they act as an aide memoire for the poet to locate the narrative, they contribute to the poem’s ‘form’ that is maintaining the dactylic hexameter metre.

Having recently read two books Emily Wilson’s translation of The Odyssey and Adam Nicolson, The Mighty Dead – Why Homer Matters I strongly believe that the choice of epithet and the context had a greater significance to the Homeric audience which I hope to demonstrate through two of the more well-known epithets.

ἦμος δ᾽ ἠριγένεια φάνη ῥοδοδάκτυλος Ἠώς,
emos d’erigeneia phane rhododaktulos eos
But when early-born rosy-fingered Dawn appeared…

Appearing twenty-two times in the Odyssey, this epithet was one I found most memorable and appealing as it triggered memories of stunning red skies in the peace of early morning. In the first translation I read, Lattimore, it was translated without variation as “But when early-born rosy-fingered Dawn appeared” which, I suspect, contributed to my acceptance that the reason for its inclusion was, as already discussed, for structural and reference point reasons. Wilson, however, varies the epithet according to the context. In the introduction she explains that she deliberately interprets the texts to suit the scene so used the repetition of the epithet to explore the multiple connotations of the epithet. Her variations and interpretations are as follows:

The early Dawn was born; her fingers bloomed.
When newborn Dawn appeared with rosy fingers…
When rosy-fingered Dawn came bright and early…
Soon Dawn was born, her fingers bright with roses.
When Dawn appeared, her fingers bright with flowers…
When early Dawn appeared and touched the sky with blossom…
When rosy-fingered Dawn took up Orion,
When vernal Dawn first touched the sky with flowers…
Soon Dawn appeared and touched the sky with roses.
When early Dawn shone forth with rosy fingers…
But when the rosy hands of Dawn appeared…
Early the Dawn appeared, pink fingers blooming…
When early Dawn revealed her rose-red hands…
Then when rose-fingered Dawn came, bright and early…
Then the roses of Dawn’s fingers appeared again…
When Dawn came, born early, with her fingertips like petals…
When rose-fingered Dawn appeared…
Then Dawn was born again; her fingers bloomed…
When rosy-fingered Dawn, the early-born appeared…
When newborn Dawn appeared with hands of flowers…

Without dismissing the traditionally accepted the reasons for the epithet, different interpretations hint at performance style. Just as Wilson interprets the translation to suit the scene then it is easy to imagine the performer could have used inflection to signal the tone of the upcoming story. Another epithet, swift-footed, to describe Achilles even when he is sulking in his tent has always perplexed me. It can be that this quality can be associated with Achilles no matter the context, but equally it is possible to interpret swift-footed as a parody reflecting Achilles’ inaction or possibly underscoring Agamemnon’s poor leadership and man-management. This would naturally have been communicated by vocal tone. Unfortunately, we will never know how it was performed but, using Wilson’s different interpretations of a standard phrase, it does serve as a reminder that performed words can influence an audience’s expectations of an upcoming scene.

Although we will never know how the epic was performed, the visual memory triggered by the epithet will have emotionally engaged the audience. I am reminded of the saying “Red sky at night shepherd’s delight, red sky in the morning shepherd’s warning”.

The term sailor can be substituted for shepherd so has meaning for agrarian and nautical cultures alike and that a red sky in the morning heralded unsettled or stormy weather. Although it is a saying, there is some truth as approaching weather fronts can give different cloud conditions to receding weather fronts. Still in use today, I heard it on the BBC weather report two days ago, its origins are harder to pin down. The earliest reference is in Matthew Chapter 16 the Sadducees and Pharisees have come to Jesus to tempt him into giving them a sign. He says: When it is evening, ye say: “It will be fair weather: for the sky is red”. And in the morning, “It will be foul weather to day: for the sky is red and lowring”. Hesiod, writing at the same time as Homer, advises “But when Orion and Sirius are  come into midheaven, and rosy-fingered Dawn sees Arcturus, then cut off all the grape-clusters, Perses, and bring them home. Show them to the sun ten days and ten nights: then cover them over for five, and on the sixth day draw off into vessels the gifts of joyful Dionysus.” (Works and Days 610). As rain during grape harvest is disastrous, diluting the sugars and leaving the grapes susceptible to rot, there appears a belief that rosy dawn and the potential for bad weather can be connected. So, when livelihoods and actual lives depend on understanding and reading nature’s signs and signals it would follow that the potential significance of a red sky in the morning would trigger a visual memory of the liklihood of impending danger with the audience.

οἶνοψ πόντος
oînops póntos
Wine-dark sea

This epithet, along with rosy fingered dawn, is probably one of the most memorable appearing five times in the Iliad and twelve times in the Odyssey. With a literal translation of ‘wine-faced sea’ or ‘wine-eyed sea’ the traditional translation is ‘wine-dark sea’. This is based on Homer’s only other use of oinos where it seems to refer to the reddish colour for oxen and that, while the ancient Greeks could distinguish between dark-red and dark blue, the language had not developed to enable distinctions to be made on different shades of colour. Again, the theory that an epithet is a structural and anchoring device remains. However, like the use of rose fingered dawn, the audience perception and reception of ‘wine-faced sea’ should be considered.

Homer is inconceivable without sailing and the sea, but his audience is more likely to understand agriculture than sea travel. In his book, The Mighty Dead, Why Homer Matters, Adam Nicolson points out Homer half-buries ancestral memories of the Greeks who were not Mediterranean but from the vast, landlocked Steppes of Eurasia. Whilst their heritage be traced linguistically and through material culture, Homer underlines this heritage with horse related epithets: breaker of horses, horse-breaker, horse taming which he uses to describe not only the Trojans but individuals on both sides. Regarding the Trojan War and not mentioned by Homer, according to myth Odysseus, king of the island Ithaka and the master mariner, employs agricultural scenarios, not nautical, which would resonate with an agricultural audience. When Odysseus received the summons from Agamemnon, he pretended to be mad by yoking an ox and donkey to the same plough and, having ploughed a furrow sowed it with salt instead of seed. Although the deception was uncovered it is a scene that a knowledgeable agrarian audience would have known to be ridiculous. Having killed the suitors Tiresias says he has not returned home. To do so Odysseus must make another journey, with an oar, this time across land to where the oar is recognised as a fan to winnow corn. This, to the audience, would resonate to a shared cultural ancestry – again not nautical. It should also be noted that several of the kingdoms, according to Homer, who sent ships to Troy were completely landlocked so the inhabitants would not be seafarers but people of the land. So, whilst the Odyssey is a tale of seafaring adventures in the myth of Odysseus it is mythically framed by scenarios that , with a Eurasian heritage, are identifiable to an agricultural audience.

 Within that context, taking a literal translation of wine-faced or wine eyed, it is possible to see a parallel with the Homeric audience’s lived experience to appreciate an unknown experience, sea travel. The face and eyes have always been a measure of the qualities of the person. Two-faced springs to mind with its roots from the god Janus. In 4th century BCE Athens Demosthenes wrote, “Moreover, since the face is the most conspicuous of the parts that are seen, and of the face itself the eyes, even more in these did the god reveal the goodwill that he had toward you. For he not only furnished you with eyes adequate to perform the necessary functions but, although the virtue of some men is not recognized even from their actions, of your character he has placed in a clear light the fine qualities through the evidence of your glance, displaying it as gentle and kind toward those who look at you, dignified and serious toward those who converse with you, manly and proper to all men.” (Erotic Essay 61.13). There are many further references that confirm that expressions are a window onto a person’s emotional state and the ‘message’ being sent to the viewer.  Just as a human face signals the qualities and interaction with the individual then wine which, as agricultural workers, they would have experienced is the metaphorical human and its face is the effect and influence it has on the partaker. This concept draws many parallels between drinking wine and a rough sea voyage: lack of control, unsteadiness on feet and a feeling of nausea. This may explain the imagery in this startling Boeotean vase in the Ashmolean from the 4th Century BCE.

The scene if from the Odyssey Book 5 where Odysseus is leaving Calypso (who is on the reverse side), has built a raft and is spotted by Poseidon who sends a storm. Although it is an example of Kabeiric ware and therefore follows a comical style with a naked Odysseus, it can also be interpreted as a a drunk and undisciplined Odysseus losing control and not being able to stand on two feet. Boreas, the unpredictable and gusting north wind is blowing and the waves are high. Crucially, the wooden raft is replaced by Amphorae making an unmistakeable connection with wine. So, the audience calling on their sensory memory of the effects of drinking wine are able to appreciate the sensations of a sea voyage.

These interpretations do not preclude the traditional view that epithets are anchor points and structural devices to establish the Dactylic Hexameter, they can be that as well, but I feel the epithets chosen and the context in which they are used are not chosen randomly when viewed through audience reception and they have both an individual and cultural significance.

3 comments

    • Thank you so much for the comment, Epithets seem to be getting a life of their own in my mind in so far as I am begining to believe these two are just the thin end of the wedge with the majority having a deeper meaning to the audience.
      I do like that vase though!!

      Like

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