Epithets In The Odyssey

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jilllessa | High School Teacher | (Level 2) Associate Educator

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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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julie_feng | (Level 1) Honors

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Epithets are descriptive terms or glorified nicknames that are repeated often with someone's name. The difference between an adjective and an epithet is that epithets are only decorative. Adjectives do a lot for the context of the scene and the character, but epithets are linked to the noun by long-established usage, rather than immediate context. 

One of the most common Homeric epithets is "rosy-fingered dawn" as a repetitive description of the time of day. Another common one is the "wine-dark sea." Most epithets have to do with specific characters, to emphasize their most prominent features as people. In the Odyssey, many common ones that show up include:

For Penelope: circumspect, wise, clever, cautious

For Athena: bright eyed, grey eyed, promachos (of war/fighting phalanxes), virgin, Pallas, hope of soldiers, whose shield is thunder, daughter of Zeus

For Odysseus: wise, clever, hotheaded, loved of Zeus/Athena, resourceful, much-enduring, much-pained, cunning, the great tactician

For Menelaus: red-haired/flame-haired, son of Atreus, war-like

For Nestor: sweet-spoken, charioteer

For Poseidon: earth-shaker

For Telemachus: poised, thoughtful

For Agamemnon: son of Atreus, wide-ruling, powerful

For Calypso: softly-braided, divinely-made, cunning, daughter of Atlas