BMCR 2020.04.53

Toward the characterization of Helen in Homer: appellatives, periphrastic denominations, and noun-epithet formulas

, Toward the characterization of Helen in Homer: appellatives, periphrastic denominations, and noun-epithet formulas. Trends in classics. Supplementary volumes, 87. Berlin; Boston: De Gruyter, 2019. xii, 183 p.. ISBN 9783110626025. €79,95.


The main goal of this monograph is to thoroughly analyse Helen’s epithets in the Homeric poems. Edmunds has previously published an extensive and substantive study about the myth of Helen portrayed as an abducted wife.[1] In that book, correspondences of Helen’s myth with other cultures and even its repeated appearances in the Western literary tradition are displayed. For its part, Toward the Characterization of Helen in Homer aims to focus not just on noun-epithets, but on appellatives –the ways in which other characters, the narrator and even Helen calls herself– and periphrastic denominations, in order to bring up which aspects of Helen’s persona can be distilled from them. The narrator’s voice is the main vehicle for characterization within the narrative. He is a trustworthy source of information who is perceived as an inspired authority, given the fact that he has more knowledge than the characters.

In the introduction, the author states the importance of an in-depth study of Homeric epithets of Helen and how they contribute to her characterization. We must bear in mind that Helen was a well-known character and even when she is not referred to with an epithet, that does not mean that she is being portrayed in a neutral way. Edmunds distributes Helen’s epithets in a range from disapprobation to praise. In between these, the ethnic epithet “Argive” and familial appellatives are placed.

It seems unavoidable to go back to Milman Parry’s work when talking about Homeric epithets. Parry’s view is discussed briefly and plenty of references about the scholarship on metrically equivalent noun-epithet formulas are compiled, concluding that the contextual meaning of those epithets is undeniable nowadays. Edmunds’ purpose is to demonstrate that a system, in Parry’s sense, can be sketched out. The quantitative survey combines Iliad and Odyssey references that account for nineteen different epithets. Those epithets included –and the very few excluded– are briefly explained. Three main categories can be distinguished: kinship epithets, beauty epithets, and pejorative epithets. Ἀργείη and δῖα γυναίκωνdo not fall into any of these categories.

A revision of Parry’s paradigm about the presence of Helen and her epithets in the second half of the hexameter puts her at the same level as some other chief characters. But Ἑλένη in the first half of the hexameter is an impossible formula due to the metrical shape (∪∪−). An epithet—frequently Ἀργείη which only appears in that first half—could be a “tool” to fix the formula. The author questions the existence and value of “distinctive epithets”, since in Parry’s terms, Helen’s epithets must be considered “generic” because they are not used only of her. Furthermore, Helen does not have a whole line dedicated to her name and appellatives in vocative, which Parry stated as compulsory for any principal Homeric hero. Edmunds replies with a discussion about tradition and formulae in Homer. But what seems more interesting is that even if the epithets are used for other women, that does not suggest there must be an equivalence between them and Helen.

Subsequently, the epithets are divided into eleven chapters, plus some reflections on kinship and beauty epithets. In the first chapter, appellatives and periphrastic denominations in the domestic sphere are analysed, proving that being a wife is Helen’s fundamental identity at Troy.

When it comes to epithets of opprobrium, four sources for blaming Helen can be recognized: Helen herself, Helen’s Trojan in-laws, Achilles and Aphrodite. In addition to analysing the appearance of each epithet, Edmunds deals with their semantic field and clarifies assumptions about Helen’s self-reproach, which might reflect regret but not guilt. Moreover, the ethnic “Argive” – the most used epithet in the poems– reminds us that she is Achaean. She has been stolen, and the epithet’s meaning can extend to Greece as a whole, at least in the Iliad. The author is able to contextualise occurrences that indicate that the character is being perceived as a prize. The same reasoning can be applied to the instances when Helen’s name appears unmodified.

On the other hand, δῖα γυναίκων, a laudatory denomination that Helen shares with Penelope, comes always from the narrator’s point of view. This epithet, along with τανύπεπλος, are used when Helen appears in a public setting. Other epithets that refer to Helen’s beauty through the narrator’s eyes, for instance ἠΰκομος, express a public dimension as well. However, the almost equivalent καλλίκομος is reserved for private contexts, since it points out a certain sex-appeal. On the other hand, kinship epithets are only used by the narrator because he is the only one who knows that Zeus is her father.

The synchronic approach that has been used throughout the monograph is tested and supplemented by a diachronic justification. Parallels from Hesiod are put to good use to prove the specific meaning of some epithets in Homer. Furthermore, the author adequately concludes that Helen’s epithets only have a function at the narrator’s level. Thus, the narrator must have consciously drawn on those laudatory and authoritative epithets to make a contrast with the negative vision of some characters towards her. At the end, the book includes four appendixes: “Helen’s Epithets in Homer in Order of Occurrence”, “The Name of Helen without Epithets”, “The ‘On account of’ motif”, and “Helen’s epithets in lyric”.

The monograph is well produced and has very few typos (for example, p. 26 “he mischief” > “the mischief”; p. 98 “LfgrE” > “LfgrE”), most of them concerning breathings (p. 22 ἔπομαι > ἕπομαι; p. 27 óκρυοέσση > ὀκρυοέσση, p. 30 ῤιγέω > ῥιγέω; ῤιγόω > ῥιγόω). It is also worth noticing that the same sentence is quoted twice in p. 21, note 28 and p. 25, note 47 (López Gregoris 1966: 22: “Helena conoce cuál es su status como esposa de cualquier varón, status que no cambia aunque cambie el marido”).

All things considered, one could say that Edmunds’ work is meant to be consulted as a manual rather than read as an essay. The conclusions at the end of each chapter are properly synthesized and very enlightening. I would like to stress that this monograph must be taken into account and seen as a refined and specialized inquiry that is based on a broader research about Helen (see footnote 1). Overall, this book functions as a reference handbook that could be really useful both to consult specific instances of Helen’s designations in the Iliad and Odyssey, and to scholars involved in Helen’s reception within the epics in a broader sense. Researchers interested in characterization from a linguistic analysis perspective might also find this book profitable.


[1] Edmunds, Lowell. Stealing Helen: The Myth of the Abducted Wife in Comparative Perspective. Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2015. In the fourth part, (“Hypostases of Helen”), Edmunds introduces some considerations about her epithets in “7.2 The Discovery of the Personality of Helen” (pp. 193-195).