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The Odyssey

by Homer

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Epithets In The Odyssey

What are the epithets in books 1–4 of The Odyssey?

Books one through four of the Odyssey contain many epithets. However, given the language barrier, most readers will be working with a translation rather than with the original Greek, which introduces a great deal of variation in terms of the epithets they might find. In the Fagles translation, examples of epithets used include "sparkling-eyed Athena" and "bright-eyed Pallas," "Zeus who marshalls the thunderheads," "self-possessed Telemachus" and "cool-headed Telemachus," as well as "Nestor the noble charioteer," just to name a few.

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An epithet is a word or phrase that describes a chief trait of a person or thing. Homer uses epithets frequently in the Odyssey. This repetition of what come to be stock phrases create a sense of rhythm in the poem. They also work as memory devices, revealing the connection with the oral tradition from which Homer's stories spring.

One epithet frequently used in the first four chapters is "rosy fingered dawn." This captures a characteristic trait of dawn: the sunrise often does look rosy as the world gradually lights up and the sun pokes up through the horizon. This becomes, too, a phrase that helps mark the passage of time.

Another epithet used from early on is "wine dark sea." This points to the centrality of the sea to the poem. Many critics have raised questions about calling the sea "wine" colored, as the Mediterranean is typically a striking blue, but the phrase is meant to be figurative and points to the mysteries and dangers of the water, as well as the way it can change to wine toned as the sun sets.

The poem opens with the young man Telemachus ready to embark, with Athena's help, on a voyage to find his father. An epithet used to describe him is "thoughtful" Telemachus. This indicates that he has not yet achieved the status of a hero that would earn him a warrior epithet. It describes the way he has watched and taken in the wrongs perpetrated by Penelope's suitors.

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The tricky thing about answering a question such as this one is to recognize that, ultimately, Homer wrote in Ancient Greek. Therefore, unless you are working with the original Homeric text, you'll be working with one of a wide range of translations, and this is something which you need to take into account. No two translations are going to be identical, and this creates a wide range of variation in terms of the epithets you might find. Be aware, for this answer, I will be drawing from the Penguin Classics edition of the Odyssey, translated by Robert Fagles (New York: Penguin Books, 1996), paperback edition.

In any case, epithets did represent an important part of Greek epic literature, simply given its mnemonic basis. Epic poems such as the Odyssey had their origin in the oral tradition, and epithets serve a critical function within this storytelling form. Thus, you should not be surprised to find numerous examples of epithets running across this poem.

For example, there is Athena, who is referred to with epithets such as "sparkling-eyed Athena" (book 1, p. 79) and "bright-eyed Pallas" (book 2, p. 105). Then there is Zeus, who is referred to with epithets such as "Zeus who marshalls the thunderheads" (p. 79) or "farseeing Zeus" (p. 98). We see in book 3 a more complex use of epithets, by which Athena is referred to in reference to Zeus (who himself is attached with an epithet): "Athena, daughter of Zeus whose shield is storm and thunder" (p. 108).

Of course, also note that epithets are not solely invoked in reference to the gods. Telemachus is referred to with such epithets as "heedful Telemachus" (p. 87), "cool-headed Telemachus" (p. 90) and "self-possessed Telemachus" (p. 103), to name a few. You can also point towards Nestor, who is referred to as "Nestor the noble charioteer" (pp. 110, 115) and "Nestor, breaker of horses" (p. 108).

The Odyssey has innumerable epithets. They can be found in these first four books and across the entire length of the work in question.

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Homer wrote the Odyssey in a poetical meter called dactylic hexameter. This means that there are six metrical units, or feet, in each line. Homer uses the various colorful epithets to fit in with the meter's rhythm. So, for example, when he refers to Odyssey as "a man of many schemes" or "much enduring," he isn't simply making reference to Odysseus's character; he's also paying close attention to how the lines of the poem should be read. This is of particular importance in a poem that was meant to be recited aloud in public performances.

Indeed, the use of a stock collection of epithets allowed poets, many of them illiterate, to improvise in the telling of the great epics. These epithets were extremely useful in this regard, as they could easily be adapted to fit into any line. But the line is the most important factor in determining what those adaptations are. For in the Odyssey, the choice of epithet is dictated by the somewhat rigid meter in which the poem is written.

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Epithets are word or phrases of description that are repeated time and again within a work of literature.  These words or phrases are a common feature of oral poetry because they help the teller remember the words and they help the reader identify the characters and their main characteristics.  Thus in the Odyssey books 1 - 4 you will find several epithets including "bright eyed Athena"  "sensible" Telemachus, "rosy fingered dawn" and "wise" Penelope.  These examples are from the Penguin Classics translation: if you are reading a different translation, they may appear in a slightly different form.

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