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Paper #2 - Does Greek Pain Have Teeth?

Pura Nieto Hernández

Brown University

Since pain is a private, subjective, and poorly delineated experience, its conceptualization across languages is complex.  Subjects experiencing pain have trouble describing it in language that is comprehensible to others, as recent literature in medicine and cognitive linguistics attests. Not surprisingly, metonymic and metaphorical language abounds in this domain, since it facilitates the communication of what pain is (SEMINO 2010).  In contemporary English, for example, terms such as burning, piercing or biting are commonly used to describe pain.  We also speak of it as a monster or attacking enemy that is killing us and we can today “wage a war against cancer,” “kill the infection” or “contain the attack of the epidemic.”  This constellation of images all respond to the conceptual metaphor Physical states are independent entities (BOURKE 2014: 479).  In the case of the particular entities that cause the physical/emotional state of pain, they are also malevolent agents: vicious, cruel, torturing.  They can act of their own volition and escape human control.  Conceptual metaphors are embedded, like the speakers who use them, in a time and place; they change as the worldly experience of speakers change.  It is important then to consider the time and social environment in which they develop and exist in a language and society.

            This paper examines the conceptualization of pain in the language of archaic Greek poetry.  More precisely, it concentrates on the terms for the target domain pain whose non-figurative uses are related to the source domains bite, eat, devour.  The terms ὀδύνη and ὠδίς, both of them in all likelihood arising from *h1ed - to 'eat' (cf. ὀδούς), are the starting point.  Is pain considered an entity able to bite, or to eat the flesh?  Is it capable of consuming or devouring the speakers?  Can it be killed?  Are these terms used differently for physical and emotional pain that affects not the flesh but the heart or soul?  The independence and agency of this entity is clear in the famous simile for Agamemnon’s wound in Iliad 11.268-272:

ὀξεῖαι δ’ ὀδύναι δῦνον μένος Ἀτρεΐδαο.
ὡς δ’ ὅτ’ ἂν ὠδίνουσαν ἔχῃ βέλος ὀξὺ γυναῖκα

δριμύ, τό τε προϊεῖσι μογοστόκοι Εἰλείθυιαι        (270)
Ἥρης θυγατέρες πικρὰς ὠδῖνας ἔχουσαι,
ὣς ὀξεῖ’ ὀδύναι δῦνον μένος Ἀτρεΐδαο.

The use of δύω in this passage, apart from producing an apophony (-δῠναι/δνον, operative despite the different quantity), literally enters Agamemnon.  The close occurrence of ὀδύναι and ὠδῖνες continues the sound-play which becomes also etymological.  The striking contrast between commander and laboring woman has attracted intense critical attention (MIRTO 2011), but my point here is that the image produced by the adjective ὀξεῖαι for Agamemnon’s ὀδύναι (used in Homer only here and in Il. 16. 528) anticipates the sharp and bitter shaft that takes hold of the woman: ὀξύς perfectly suits βέλος.  We see here a sort of contamination: the pain can be sharp as a shaft.  The source domain bite is close to the effect produced by a piercing instrument: teeth can also pierce and penetrate the flesh. This type of interference occurs in all languages (HOLMES 2007).      

            This paper concludes by considering other Greek terms that fall in the source domain bite, such as those connected to the root of βιβρώσκω (θυμοβόρος, γυιοβόρος) and δάκνω (δάκε δὲ φρένας Ἕκτορι μῦθος, Il. 5.493, cf. Hes. Th. 567; δακέθυμος, θυμοδακής).  

Session/Panel Title

Metaphor in Early Greek Poetry

Session/Paper Number

12.2

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