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“Even the Epithets are Necessary”: Ancient Approaches to ‘Illogical’ Homeric Epithets

William Beck

University of Pennsylvania

Modern readers of Homer tend to interpret epithets on a sliding scale of significance.

Even the most rigid Parryists are willing to assign semantic significance to certain contextually-appropriate epithets, and even the most subjective reader would be hard-pressed to maintain the

unique significance of each of the 407 uses of δῖος in the Homeric poems. For all we have

learned about Homeric epithets since Parry’s discoveries nearly a century ago, our confidence in

our ability to interpret individual epithets has only diminished.

Unaware of the orally-derived nature of the Homeric poems and the formular system that

aided their composition, ancient critics had no need for such a sliding scale of significance in

their evaluation of epithets. If it is the modern tendency not to assume semantic significance, the

ancient practice was precisely the opposite: committed to proving Homer’s perfection, the

Alexandrian critics sought to explain the contextual significance of every epithet, even—and

especially—the most apparently incongruous. Homer “has nothing excessive: even the epithets

are necessary” (schol. Od. 6.116); “he tends to employ epithets with precision” (schol. Il. 1.242).

 In this paper I examine the various ways in which ancient critics interpreted Homeric

epithets, especially those notable for their apparent incongruity, so-called ‘illogical’ epithets

(Düntzer 1872; Parry 1971; Combellack 1965, 1982). Why does the narrator describe villainous

characters with positive epithets? Why is a poor shepherd called a “leader of men”? And why are

the “slowest” horses described as “swift-footed”? These and similar questions about illogical

uses of epithets provided the stimulus for Parry’s investigation into Homer’s formulaic language,

and their very illogicality provided apparent confirmation of his theory (Parry 1971:118-72).

Though Parry’s answer to the problem of illogical epithets transformed our understanding of the

Homeric epithet, it is remarkable how little the grammar of the debate about their meaning has

changed since antiquity.

In the first part of the paper, I survey the strategies by which ancient critics rescued

epithets from the charge of unsuitability. Apparently incongruous epithets can be accounted for by reason of irony (ἐν εἰρωνείαι). They can refer to a noun’s essence (οὐ τότε ἀλλὰ φύσει) and,

vice versa, they can be particularizing (πρός τι). When they occur in a speech, they can be

rhetorical (3.352b, 9.356, al.) or they can be instances of embedded focalization (τοῦ ποιητοῦ). If

all else fails, an epithet’s definition can be revised to suit its context (1.7b, 3.16, al.), the normal

construal of a passage can be changed, (3.352b) or the text can simply be altered to circumvent

the problem (11.123, 11.138b, al.).

Based on the surviving evidence, one gets the initial impression that ancient readers of

Homer regarded every epithet as though it had been carefully chosen to suit its context. Both the

phrasing and the frequency of these scholia, however, implicitly suggest a contentious debate

regarding the meaningfulness of the Homeric epithet. Thus, in the second part of the paper, I

attempt to reconstruct the position of dissenting critics, whose views can be gleaned principally

from the arguments of their rivals. For these critics, epithets are, as their name suggests,

‘additional’ (ἐπί-θετα), and therefore extraneous to, the meaning. ‘Illogical’ epithets, then, must

neither be ‘solved’ nor excised, for they are simply instances of poetic ornamentation (ποιητικὸς

κόσµος); they are not meaningful contributions to the narrative and should be interpreted

accordingly. They are considered extraneous (παρέλκει), irrelevant (περισσός), pleonastic (ἀπὸ

τοῦ πλεονάζοντος), or, significantly, expressing an essential idea (ποιητικὴ περίφρασις). Indeed,

epithets are so rarely regarded as meaningful signifiers that, when they are contextually

appropriate, they are—remarkably—said to be used “not in the manner of an epithet” (οὐ κατὰ

τὸ ἐπίθετον). Viewed holistically, the Homeric scholia convey a complex picture of ancient

scholarly thought on Homeric epithets, preserving the outlines of a debate that has yet to be


Session/Panel Title:

New Approaches to the Homeric Formula

Session/Paper Number


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