BMCR 2008.07.58

Ancient Poetic Etymology. The Pelopids: Fathers and Sons. Palingenesia, Band 89

, Ancient poetic etymology : the Pelopids: fathers and sons. Palingenesia, Bd. 89. Stuttgart: Steiner, 2007. 257 pages ; 25 cm.. ISBN 9783515089395 €52.00.

This book comprises an Introduction, in which Evanthia Tsitsibakou-Vasalos summarizes its contents, and four chapters. Chapter 1 presents, compares and contrasts modern and ancient views on the semantics of proper names. Chapter 2 surveys techniques and patterns of ancient poetic etymology, primarily in Homer but also in archaic lyric poetry. Chapter 3, the longest in the book, discusses the significance of the name Pelops from Homer to Nonnus with emphasis on Pindar. Chapter 4 treats the names of the Tantalids and Pelopids. The book comprises a bibliography, an index of names and subjects, and an index locorum.

In Chapter 2 Tsitsibakou-Vasalos explains that ancient etymologizing exploited the similarity of sound between words, though she recognizes that ‘the boundaries between etymological and non-etymological alliteration are narrow and disputable’ (32). She lays emphasis on the ‘clustering of cognates’, arguing that ‘Homer breaks words into their constitutional parts, around which he weaves short narrative capsules’ (38). Name etymologizing is an integral part of the narrative (‘narrativization and contextualization of etymology’). The etymological components of a name can be ‘transferred’ from one name to the name of another, closely affiliated person (‘transference of etymology’); the same name can be ‘resignified’ in the course of a narrative (discussion of the names Achilles, Poseidon and others); and the meaning of names can be ‘reversed’ or ‘deformed’ (as in Paris, Dysparis).

The etymologizing patterns presented above are quite familiar. The originality of the chapter consists in new etymological insights. I mention a few of them: the potential significance for the course of the narrative of Patroclus’ healing of Eurypylus’ arrow-wound in Il. 11.828-32 (41-42); the fight between the son of Pelegon (Asteropaeus) and the son of Peleus (Achilles) in Il. 21.139-208 (58-59), though the reader is obliged to read the author’s article in BICS 44 (2000) 1-17 in order to get a clearer picture; the discussion of the intervention of Poseidon in Iliad 13 (69-80), though some etymological assumptions here are questionable; Achilles’ verbal attack on Agamemnon in Il. 1.223-28, interpreted as a concealed attack on the Tantalids and the Pelopids (81); and Hector killing ‘surrogates’ of the Pelopid family in Il. 5.703-9 (127), though the list of Achaean warriors includes also a surrogate of his own brother Helenos! But the chapter is also the weakest one in the book. One reason is that the Homeric text is used as a quarry for illustrating poetic etymologizing. Homeric passages are dropped in as examples without any preparatory discussion. Tsitsibakou-Vasalos accepts multiple etymologies for names (a perfectly valid principle); but the reader is rarely given in advance a list of surviving ancient etymologies of a name, and an account of their origin, significance and validity for the Homeric text. This practice creates at least two major and interrelated problems. First, the reader is told about the ‘essential feature’, ‘the inherent etymological quality’, the ‘innate and diacritical qualities’, etc. of a human or divine character but he / she is not given the expected information about these qualities: why they are ‘inherent’ or ‘essential’ and what their nature is. Second, Tsitsibakou-Vasalos accepts any etymology of any period of time as valid for elucidating Homeric names and the Homeric text. Despite the fact that in the conclusions of chapter 2 she admits that in etymologies registered in the corpora of philosophers, scholiasts and grammarians Homer ‘is transformed into a proto-allegorist or a stoic philosopher, who appears to espouse tenets of schools that flourished centuries after him’ (105), in the course of her presentation she indiscriminately applies allegorical etymologies to Homeric names.

Etymologies of Athene offer a good example. As usual, relevant information is given piecemeal and without any introduction. Initially (46) Athene’s ‘diacritical dynamis par excellence’ is said to be ‘intellectual activity’; but σοφία in the Iliadic passage cited (15.410-12) means something different: ‘carpenter’s skill’. Next Athene‘s ‘inherent etymological qualities’ are identified as αἴθω and νόος (47); no explanation is provided. Later the goddess is presented as the goddess of noos, phronesis and vision and she is given the name Athrene, meaning ‘one who mentally sees everything’; the name is etymologized from ἀθρέω and νόος (49; cf. 184 ‘the goddess of intellectual and menacing vision’). Finally (50-52) Athene appears as ‘the goddess of the shiny and bright aetherial expanses and of seeing’; Tsitsibakou-Vasalos provides here a triple etymology from αἰθήρ, αἴθω, ἀθρέω, and cites Cornutus’ etymology αἰθεροναία, ‘dwelling in the aether’. The passages cited in the footnotes make it clear that Tsitsibakou-Vasalos substitutes the image of Athene found in Homeric exegesis and allegoresis1 for the Iliadic Athene. Tsitsibakou-Vasalos lays particular emphasis on Athena-Athrene, to whom she assigns the task of controlling the vision and menos of Diomedes in Iliad 5 (49; cf. 53 on the anger of Achilles). Like αἰθεροναία, Ἀθρηνᾶ (no form Ἀθρήνε exists) is an etymology of Athena (not an epithet or appellation, as Tsitsibakou-Vasalos believes, 49, 61) found in Cornutus’ Theologia and Heraclitus’ Homeric Questions and originating with Chrysippus.2Tsitsibakou-Vasalos informs readers that Athrene is ‘unattested in Homer and the LSJ‘ (49) and concludes that ‘either Homer suppresses it or is a post-Homeric coinage’ (61).

The focus of Chapter 3 is on Pelops in Pindar, Olympian 1. According to Tsitsibakou-Vasalos’ reading, the name Pelops‘oscillates between brightness and darkness, far and near, on secular and divine levels’. The author derives the polarity ‘far-near’ from Plato’s Cratylus, 395c2-d3. The passage provides the only ancient etymology of the name. According to Plato it means ‘short-sighted’ ( τὸ ἐγγὺς μόνον ὁρῶν), the reason being that Pelops ‘did not foresee the long-term consequences’ ( οὐδὲν προϊδεῖν τῶν πόρρω) that the murder of Myrtilus would have for his entire genos. The etymology recognizes in the name the components πέλας and ὄψ. Tsitsibakou-Vasalos detects also an etymology kat’ antiphrasin derived from πόρρω (‘far off’), similar in meaning to τῆλε, Aeolic πήλυι. For the chromatic aspect of Pelops there is no ancient testimony. Most modern authorities (109-113) assume an association with πελιός, πελιδνός, πελλός (‘discolored’, ‘livid’, ‘dark’) and render the name as ‘dark-faced’ or similar, because of the hero’s oriental origin or other reason. Tsitsibakou-Vasalos assumes an association with both πελιός and πολιός, claiming that these adjectives ‘constitute the cornerstone of most modern etymological theories on Pelops‘ (114), and posits that Pindar ‘capitalizes on the immense potential of the sounds pel- / pol-‘ (152). Her survey of modern etymologies (108-111) does not, however, include views which derive the name from πολιός. Though πολιός may ultimately come from the same root, it means ‘white, whitish, grey’ (cf. 141-142) and indicates ‘dull white’ as opposed to ‘shining white’.3 Tsitsibakou-Vasalos conducts a section-by-section analysis of the hero’s poetic life in Olympian 1, arguing that the above-mentioned polarities (‘far-near’ and ‘dark-bright’) are inscribed in his name. Regardless of the truth of her claim about the chromatic ambiguity of Pelops (see further below), the language, imagery and metaphors supply evidence for the presence of these polarities in the Ode. Tsitsibakou-Vasalos extracts valuable linguistic information from the poem, showing how beneath the surface there is a semantic subtext organized on the basis of these oppositions.

A major problem in this chapter is the presumed ‘chromatic ambiguity’ of Pelops. Modern views recognize ‘darkness’ in the name; Tsitsibakou-Vasalos recognizes both ‘darkness’ and ‘brightness’. According to her theory, when the name appears in ‘capsules of brightness’ (as in Olympian 1.23-24 or 25-27), it manifests its ‘intrinsic connection’ with light and brightness (131) and an ‘inherent luminosity that originates from πολιός and the phaedimos ivory shoulder’ (132). A name cannot, however, have an ‘inherent’ connection with light at one point and an ‘inherent’ connection with darkness at another, though word clusters in a literary text might ‘suggest’ to a reader this or that thing. But why should the (ancient) reader be obliged to think of πολιός instead of πελιός in ‘clusters of brightness’? If it was an ancient practice (recognized by Tsitsibakou-Vasalos) to etymologize names kat’ antiphrasin, why not assume that in these cases contextual ‘brightness’ evokes the ‘darkness’ of the name? From a semantic viewpoint, a near-doublet of Pelops is Pelias, whose name was derived from πελιός (‘livid’), because of a facial bruise he received from a horse.4 When in Pythian 4 Pelias first sees the one-sandaled Jason, he asks about the woman that bore him from her πολιᾶς … γαστρός (98-99); and Jason replies that lawless Pelias usurped the throne of Iolkos because he gave in to his ‘white wits’ ( Πελίαν … λευκαῖς πιθήσαντα φρασίν, 109).5 In these cases the epithets πολιᾶς and λευκαῖς evoke kat’ antiphrasin the ‘darkness’ of Πελίας (to be noted that Pelias was the son of ‘cheese-white’ Τυρώ). Besides, in the only passage in Olympian 1 where Pelops combines with πολιός ( πολιᾶς ἁλὸς, 71) Tsitsibakou-Vasalosdetects not ‘brightness’ but ‘darkness’ (142). Consequently, the whole theory of metonomasia in the case of Pelops, even an allusive one (151-152), does not appear to have any foundation in the text.

Tsitsibakou-Vasalos assumes that ἀελίου in Olympian 1.5 is identifiable with Apollo, because by Pindar’s time ‘the sun had been identified with Apollo’ (153). It is true that there is evidence for this association in Aeschylus, but as a rule Pindar keeps Apollo and Helios distinct and here the identification is highly improbable, especially since there is no mention of Apollo.[6] Tsitsibakou-Vasalos takes the identification for granted and exploits etymologies of Apollo given by Chrysippus, Cornutus and Macrobius in order to compare and contrast the ‘bright’ but ‘remote’ and ‘lonely’ course of the sun with the equally ‘bright’ but ‘sociable’ Ὀλψμπία (etymologized from ὅλος and λάμπω). She furthermore argues that the ‘ambiguous’ name Pelops provides a synthesis of the contrasting qualities of Apollo-Helios and Olympia (153). In the chapter on Homer Tsitsibakou-Vasalos claims that Helios ‘was from early identified with Apollo’ (63) and detects heliacal associations of Apollo in various Homeric passages, adducing as evidence later etymologies of the name. Again, this is not Homer but Homeric allegoresis. According to Buffiere ‘all the scholiasts of Homer who engage in allegorical interpretations are not tired to repeat that Apollo and the sun are one’ (188).7

Chapter 4 discusses the etymologies of Tantalus and the Tantalids / Pelopids. Following the Platonic etymology of Tantalus ( Cra. 395d3-395e5) as an ‘utterly wretched’ person ( ταλάντατος) who was punished with the ‘balancing’ ( ταλαντεία) of a rock over his head, Tsitsibakou-Vasalos sees in him one who vacillates between the two opposite modes of τλάω : ‘daring’ (active) and ‘suffering’ (passive). Oenomaus is one who ‘lusts for wine’ ( οἶνος and μέμαα) and ‘eagerly fosters ( μέμαα) dark plots in his mind’ ( οἶνος, νόος). Atreus is ‘tough and cruel’ ( ἀτειρής), ‘fearless’ ( ἄτρεστος), and ‘beset with ἄτη ( ἀτηρός), as in Plato, Cra. 395b2-c2. Agamemnon in Plato, Cra. 395a2-b2 is ‘admirable’ ( ἀγαστός) for his ‘perseverance’ ( μονή, ἐπιμονή); Tsitsibakou-Vasalos builds on this etymology and notes also instances of distortion of the name into μένος. She also discusses the etymology from μέδω (‘rule’) and attributes some qualities of the king to family features. For Menelaus Tsitsibakou-Vasalos builds on the modern etymology of ‘the man who makes the folk stand fast’. Finally, as regards Orestes Tsitsibakou-Vasalos detects ‘mountainous’ associations ( ὄρος), as in Plato, Cra. 394e8-11, the notion of ‘vision’ ( ὁράω), and further meanings derived from similar-sounding words.

Ancient Poetic Etymology contains a lot of original material. Its strong point is the fact that it looks at names in context, as an integral part of (short or long) narratives. In her study, as in a number of similar studies that have appeared in the last decades, etymology becomes a tool for unlocking textual meaning instead of functioning as isolated word play. Her examination of ‘clusters of cognates’ in various poetic texts yields significant interpretations. Worthy of note is the genealogical character of etymologies for the Tantalids and Pelopids, where one member of the family appears to have ‘inherited’ etymological features of (all) the others. The application of Platonic etymologies to literary texts is consonant with recent re-thinking of the Cratylus. This practice, however, requires great caution, because of the inherent limitations of Cratylan etymologizing, and should be considered case by case.

The book has several weaknesses. There are first weaknesses of composition and organization: pages overburdened with material; verbose and repetitious writing (frequently without cross-references); occasional lack of clarity; introduction of ideas before they are properly discussed and belated introduction of valuable information; and axiomatic statements. The weaknesses of substance are of three kinds and are especially visible in chapter 2. The author applies to early texts later allegorical etymologies without any discrimination or qualification, causing readers to wonder if they are reading Homer or Cornutus. Second, there is talk of the ‘essence’ of divine or human characters and of ‘inherent, ‘innate’, and ‘diacritical’ qualities, which is not accompanied by definitions of such qualities, or by clarifications about their origin and nature or their validity for the world of Homer. It is true that in the conclusions of chapter 2 Tsitsibakou-Vasalos recognizes that later views distort or modernize archaic thought (105), but this does not prevent her from claiming that Homer may have known a goddess Athrene (a Stoic etymological construction) and suppressed the name. Last but not least, the author does not seem to have reflected sufficiently on the role of author, text, reader and oral poetry as regards ‘poetic etymology’. The image of the all-controlling mind of Homer she develops is remarkable for its exaggeration: through the semantic organization of the text Homer ‘pursues clarity’, ‘makes sure that his encoded messages are grasped’, and ‘manages to promote the unobstructed comprehension and enjoyment of his poems’ (57). Tsitsibakou-Vasalos does not specify what kind of ‘message’, ‘reader’ and ‘clarity’ she has in mind. These parameters emerge in the course of reading ‘Ancient Poetic Etymology’: in the passage where Pallas grabs Achilles by the hair, it is the ancient scholiast who ‘comprehends the message encoded’ and etymologizes the name of the goddess as ‘agile reason’ (53); and it is Cornutus who ‘appreciates’ in Ποσειδ‐άων the presumed etymological connection with αὔω (‘shout, roar’) and ἄημι (‘blow’) and ‘reestablishes’ it (79).


1. See Félix Buffière, Les mythes d’Homère et la pensée Grecque, Paris 1956, 279-89.

2. Ilaria Ramelli, Anneo Cornuto, Compendio di Teologia Greca, Milan 2003, 230-38, 360-63; Donald Russell and David Konstan (eds), Heraclitus: Homeric Problems, Atlanta 2003, 36-39.

3. Gerhard Reiter, Die griechischen Bezeichnungen der Farben Weiss, Grau und Braun, Innsbruck 1962, 54-63.

4. Michael Paschalis, Virgil’s Aeneid: Semantic relations and Proper Names, Oxford 1997, 110.

5. For the etymological significance of Pelias see W. B. Stanford, ‘Pelias and His Pallid Wits’, Studies in Honour of Gilbert Norwood, Phoenix Suppl. Vol. I, Toronto 1952, 42-45. Cf. however B. K. Braswell, A Commentary on the Fourth Pythian Ode of Pindar, Berlin / New York 1988, ad loc.

6. Ian Rutherford, Pindar’s Paeans. A Reading of the Fragments with a Survey of the Genre, Oxford 2001, 198, suggests a possible association of the Sun with Apollo in Paean 9, but in this case both are invoked.

7. Buffière (note 1 above), 188.