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
New Approaches to the Homeric Formula