The Odyssey by Homer

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Epithets In The Odyssey

What are the epithets in books 1-4 in the Odyssey?

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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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julie_feng | Student

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