Swift-footed Achilles is Sitting

I’m listening to an audio lecture on the Iliad, and I’m intrigued by the Homeric use of epithets, such as “man-killing Hector” and “bright-eyed Athena.” Many characters have several epithets — Aphrodite is sometimes “laughter-loving,” other times “daughter of Zeus,” also “goddess of love.” Sometimes an epithet is used in a way that seems illogical, such as a reference to “swift-footed Achilles” while he’s sitting.

One respected theory about these epithets is that they’re not intended so much as figurative descriptions, but rather serve principally as metrical aids. At a given point in the narrative, a certain epithet may seem more fitting — lion-hearted Achilles raised shield and sword — but if the particular verse has room for three syllables instead of four (Homeric poetry doesn’t quite work that way, but the general principle stil applies), then swift-footed Achilles stands, shield and sword raised. According to this theory, the oral poets who first recited Homeric verse, and above all else had to get the meter right, found the metrical aids that these epithets provided invaluable.

Words associated with a character but not serving as adjectives, rather functioning to integrate the character into the structure of verse. Interesting stuff.


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