Lesson 13: Epithets in Homer

This week, we have been looking at one of the very distinctive features of Homer’s poetry. In almost every line of the Iliad and Odyssey, you can find an epithet – and adjective which is frequently associated with particular individuals, places or objects. We looked at some of the epithets associated with Achilles – swift-footed, divine – and some of those associated with other characters – Agamemnon of the loud word cry, Apollo of the silver bow, white-armed Hera, Zeus delighting in thunder.

Some of you volunteered epithets you had made for yourself or your friends – devourer of books, flaming-haired, of the heavy feet, loving to create…

We then talked about why Homer uses these epithets so much. You noted that they had the effect of embedding the idea of a character in our minds, and that they added vivid characterisation. This would be especially important in spoken poetry, where there isn’t a chance to read at your own pace and look back at parts you might have missed.

Another reason why they are used so much in Homer’s poems is because they are useful for the process of improvisation the singer would have to do when singing a fresh version of a myth to an audience. The sorts of poets who went around in ancient Greece singing about tales from the Trojan War were called “bards” and are depicted on vases as using an instrument called a “lyre”, which is like a miniature harp.

They remembered vast amounts of poetry, but they also improvised and added to stories, and to do this in such a way that it fitted into the metre (Homeric epic was composed in a metre called “dactylic hexameter), having ready made phrases, and a selection of epithets which were usually associated with a character, made them easy to slot in as the poet was singing.

We will look more closely at some of the other features of epic poetry, as well as some of the important themes in the Iliad, in the coming week!