BMCR 2001.01.14

Epitheta Hominum apud Homerum

James H. Dee, Epitheta hominum apud Homerum = The epithetic phrases for the Homeric heroes : a repertory of descriptive expressions for the human characters of the Iliad and the Odyssey. Alpha-Omega. Reihe A, Lexika, Indizes, Konkordanzen zur klassischen Philologie, 212. Hildesheim/Zürich/New York: Olms-Weidmann, 2000. xxxiv, 610 pages ; 30 cm.. ISBN 348711108X $110.00.

1 Responses

The epithetic phrases for the Homeric heroes, all unique and shared descriptive expressions for the human characters of the Iliad and the Odyssey, are not easy to compile. Collegit, disposuit edidit: simple words for Dee’s massive tasks. Nearly anyone today can write some sort of analysis of the Homeric epics with or without bothering to learn Greek, but the planning, logic, and patience with pesky machines and “tedious or trivial repetitiousness” that are required for determining who is human—as opposed to divine, monstrous (Chimaera, Sirens), or “sufficiently anthropoid” (Centaurs)—and what is an epithet and how to display many kinds of information in small compass exceed the talents of your typical Ph.D. in Classics. To my mind, it is a miracle that in a world afflicted by Attention Deficit Disorder anyone would labor over, publish, distribute, or purchase six hundred pages dissecting descriptors in two lengthy, three thousand year old poems that barely ten thousand human beings can read in their eclectic, original idiolect, one never spoken by a single soul.

Dee’s devoted efforts have parallels and precedents. As you read this on a screen in some New or Old World Cybercity, a tiny band of doughty scholars supervised by Dr. William Beck and housed in a Spartan but well-libraried concrete high-rise of the University of Hamburg ( ipse vidi) labors on for us through the alphabet (struggling now with the letter tau) as they race the clock to finish the massive and indispensable Lexikon der frühgriechischen Epos (1955-) by their terminal date of 2009. For this dedication to antiquity we owe the German government and people thanks. An earlier, pre-computer generation had to hand Richard Cunliffe’s painstakingly accurate and inadequately appreciated Lexica of the Homeric dialect and proper names (1924, 1931), Augustus Gehring’s Index (1891), Carl Schmidt’s Parallel-Homer (1885), and Henry Dunbar’s and Guy Lushington Prendergast’s Concordances (1875, 1880). These still vital monuments have recently been supplemented by Joseph Tebben’s (Ohio-produced) Concordances (1994, 1998), Michael Kumpf’s Index of the Homeric Hapax Legomena (1984), Hans von Kamptz’s Homerische Personennamen (1982), and Dee’s own Epithetic Phrases for the Homeric Gods (1994, henceforth EDH). Most of these essential tools have been reprinted, or published with revisions, or first published, by the Olms Verlag of Hildesheim in their Alpha-Omega series. Scholars owe them great thanks for producing handsome and sturdy volumes. (Lest you fear that there is no Herculean task left to address, Dee has abandoned any intention of compiling Homeric Epitheta Rerum et Locorum. So, go for it!)

Dee notes that human epithets have received less attention than divine ones (for which see Karl Bruchmann’s and Jesse Carter’s Greek and Latin poets Supplementbände (1893, 1898) to W.R. Roscher’s truly Ausfuehrliches Lexikon der…Mythologie (with helpers like Ed. Meyer and G. Wissowa). He notes that EDH contains only 67 named individuals while this EHH has 695, that 18% of the gods there generated 70% of the pages, while here the “top” 16 names (those with five or more pages in the repertory) occupy only 43% of the pages. (18% of the names would require the presence of the top 125 heroes and would require considerably more pages.)

Five of the top sixteen heroes have names that begin with the letter alpha, three with the letter pi, if you desire to test your knowledge of Homer. (See the end of this review1, if you do not remember their names.) Before we return to serious exposition, an easy question. Name the hero whose name appears 450 times in the Iliad and never in the Odyssey. It is not fair to quiz even Homerists about the three names in the Iliad that are applied to five different minor characters apiece (see xiii n.5 for answers; Dee has an infectious sense of humor; see further on “colorless epithets”: xiv). But an Ion might remember.

Dee describes his work as “rather exotic.” He terms (xxix) the referent list of 200 individuals registered in the Index at huios as “clearly the culmen insaniae of this work.” (The formular huieis Achaion (53-12, Iliad, Odyssey) appears elsewhere, in the Repertory under the proper noun.) Fascinating facts include the numbers of “epithetized” (my neologism) characters who appear once: 251 in the Iliad, 104 in the Odyssey. He throws out the discovery that eight (I count seven) goddesses and three human males, but no human female, receive some form of the epithet deine/on/os 2, and stugeros is applied to three females3 but no males. Of course, most readers of BMCR know who these characters are, but for those who cannot afford Dee’s priceless volume, or even Supplement B, scroll down to instant answers 2 and 3 at the end of this review.

So, was ist ein Epithet? Dee wisely decides to be inclusive, so find herein epitheta ornantia, family relations, regional/ethnic labels, occupations, and flattering and insulting remarks (xvi). But he excludes some carefully discussed categories such as unfulfilled prayer-descriptions, implied referents, “pegless” descriptors, and partitive expressions, categories that take some explaining. Anyone who has ever laboriously constructed a logical set of pigeon-holes knows that the next pigeon flying our way won’t fit a one of them, so we sympathize with Dee’s decisions. There are 1269 epithets registered in his Index of which 236 are hapax legomena (xxix). EDH contained but 392 epithets.

Dee’s introduction carefully describes, in English, not Latin, some of the pitfalls that users should avoid. For instance, don’t expect every human or humanoid to appear in his compilation, because if a name has no epithet or epithetic phrase, e.g., Aiakos, s/he won’t appear (180 such examples out of 875 personal and group names; see Supplement A, p.53, culled from Cunliffe). In my rapid checking, Dee has reached a very high degree of accuracy with a very difficult manuscript.

The basic organization and some useful features deserve brief description. A catalogue of named and anonymous heroes and their epithets (pp.1-52) precedes the repertory of numbered heroes with numbered epithets. These epithets are divided into those uniquely attributed to one character (A) and those attributed to more than one person or to other things and/or groups (B, together on pp.55-474). Epithets occurring ten or more times are printed in bold face. The epithets for Anonymi are separated in an appendix (pp.433-74). The epithet lemmata tell one which other Homeric characters are described with the same word and how often. So atta, used to describe Eumaios 0-6 ( Iliad, Odyssey), at Repertory 230B5, also describes Phoenix 2-0 and no one else in the epics (p. 200). The hexameters are quoted in full with verse reference at the right margin. Dee calculates that only 20 items out of 4143 epithet entries in this volume occupy more than a page (cf. 9 of 597 epithets in EDH). The entire volume, unlike its predecessor has helpful running (inclusive) headers on every page indicating entry number, epithet number, (Greek) name of subject (with superscript number for shared names) and epithet, e.g., “Repertory 614B1 ( Skamandrios {1}: esthlos).” It takes time to become familiar with the system, but it is worth the while, if one researches any oral-poetic, metric, or literary element in Homer. Dee provides bonuses: an Index of iuncturae, phrases that appear in pairs or larger combinations. Dee notes that his iuncturae (often at line-end) are complex in their variety but happily denies that they possess any deep significance (xxii).

Dee also prints a Supplement B listing epithets shared by gods and humans (607-10). The occurrences of characters’ names themselves are numbered for Iliad and Odyssey : for the highest total, Odysseus: 123-601 (cf. Zeus: 454-223), down to the lowest, 0-0 for six identifiable characters without explicitly mentioned proper names (remember Ktesippos’ father Polytherses? cf. Ody. 20. 289, 307). Dee eschews analyzing his own products, but he does mention that epithets that are uniquely attributed and hapax legomena tend to occur in clusters, especially in invectives (Agamemnon, Paris, and Thersites, e.g., p. xv). Odysseus enjoys 172 epithets, Achilles 126 (of which twelve are uniquely his), and Zeus 61. Divine Zeus’s unique epithets are the most repeated (seven of 23 A epithets occur 10 or more times). Indeed, gods enjoy more 10-and-up A epithets than humans. If this sort of information bores you, read another monograph constructing Achilles’ character or deconstructing Penelope or reconstructing Homeric corselets.

In brief, Dee has provided ten or one hundred dissertation-writers with the foundations ( themeilia : no epithets) for examining Homeric oral traditional poetry on the level of diction, metrics, composition, characterization, psychology (shared epithets), gender and class descriptors, repetition, and originality. His work will serve scholars until Greek goes the way of Linear A, Gothic, and Tocharian. He has earned the profoundest gratitude of blind Homer, esteemed (twice tetimenos) Demodocus, and every student of Hellenic poetry. Thank you, for all of us, Professor Dee.


1. Agamemnon, Aias, Aineias, Akhaioi, and Akhilleus; Patroklos, Penelopeia, Priamos.

2. Athene, Gorgo, Thetis, Kalypso, Kirke, Kharybdis; with deinon Skylla; and Akhilleus, Odysseus, and Priamos; [also three male gods: Apollon, Ares, and Helios].

3. Helen, Eriphyle, Klytaimnestre