Homeric epithets

15/03/2015  •  270 words

I have been reacquainting myself with Homer over the past couple of months. First I read the Iliad, then I read a sort of travelogue of Homer’s Mediterranean that I picked up for £3 in Waterstones. I followed that up with the Odyssey a couple of weeks back.

I knew the Odyssey fairly well, having studied it as a set text at school. I’d never read the Iliad before. I was slightly apprehensive about approaching it because I’d been told that it is quite dull (and parts of it, like the famously detailed Catalogue of Ships, are). But my overwhelming reaction to it was surprise – surprise at how engaging a story it is, and surprise at how artful the storytelling is.

One of the most distinctive features of Homer’s writing (and other epic poetry in the oral tradition) is the use of epithets to describe characters, objects and natural phenomena. Using epithets would help the bard to keep to the required metre, but their use is as much decorative as it is functional. There is an art and a style to how consistent traits are assigned to characters whose behaviour is at times inconsistent. There is an attention to detail and liveliness of description about it. Contemporary literature lets us down badly – let’s have more epithets in our novels.

To show my appreciation for Homer’s epithets, here is a list of ten of my favourites.

  1. The god-like Odysseus (or any other hero)
  2. The ox-eyed Hera
  3. The softly-braided nymph Calypso
  4. The war-like Menelaus
  5. The cloud-gatherer Zeus
  6. The great-hearted Odysseus
  7. The swift-footed Achilles
  8. The lovely-haired Helen (or any other desirable woman)
  9. Rosy-fingered Dawn
  10. The wine-dark sea (lit. wine-faced)