Epithets in the Iliad: Titles of Major Characters in the Epic Poem
The epithets in the Iliad are replete with that are usually titles that praise a character or reveal their unique characteristics. Since the Iliad is a poem and meant to be recited, many scholars believe that epithets help the narrator to remember the name and events of the characters.
Discover in this article the epithets of various characters like Achilleus, Hektor and Agamemnon.
What Are Epithets in the Iliad?
Epithets in the Iliad are phrases that express a feature or a quality of a character in the epic poem. It is Homer’s way of giving more insight into the characters. The epithets enhance the poetic feeling and the rhythm of the Iliad while revealing more about the characters.
Epithets in the Iliad
Epithets are illustrated in different ways in the Iliad, for example, Achilleus is referred to as “swift-foot” due to his speed and agility while Hektor is known as “man-killing” as a result of his exploits on the battlefield. Here are the iconic epithets in the Iliad:
Achilles Epithets in the Iliad
As already discovered, one of Achilleus’ epithets is “swift-footed” to describe his athleticism. Being quick to attack or defend is a very important aspect of combat for the slightest miscalculation could result in death.
Achilleus is known as the greatest Greek warrior whose presence raised the morale of his soldiers while striking fear in the hearts of the Trojans. His dexterity with weapons ensures that he kills his enemies even before they know it.
The exact wording of the epithet depends on the translation. In books, the epithet is translated as “Achilleus of the swift feet” but the meaning remains the same. Another epithet of Achilleus is “lion-hearted” which captures the bravery and fearlessness of the Greek epic hero.
His fearlessness made him face a thousand foes and empowered by his invincibility, he was able to conquer them all. His courage pitted him against the most powerful Trojan warrior, Hektor, who he killed without breaking a sweat.
Another one in the list of epithets of the epic hero is “like to the gods” which refers to Achilleus’ god-like status (demigod). He was born of the nymph Thetis and Peleus the King of the Myrmidons in Thessaly. According to some versions of the myth, his mother attempted to make him immortal by dipping in the infernal river Styx. Achilles became invincible except for the part that his mother held while plunging him into the river.
Epithets of Hector
Hector is called “man-killing” or “man-killer” depending on the translation and it depicts his ability to route the Greek warriors. As a “man-killer”, Hektor kills some top officials in the Greek army including Patroclus and Protesilaus the king of Phylake.
As the greatest Trojan warrior, this name evokes confidence and heightens morale in the camp. He is also known as the “horse tamer” not for his ability to tame horses but his capacity to tame the “wild” Greeks.
The firstborn son of Priam is called “shepherd of the people” for his role as the commander and protector of the Trojan army while his epithet “of the glinting helmet” reflects his warrior status. True to his epithets, Hector’s leadership skills are unquestionable as he gives everything on the battlefield including his life. His epithet “tall” shows his ranking in the Trojan army and how his subordinates perceive him.
The Homeric epithet for the nymph and mother of Achilleus is silver-footed and though the meaning is not clear, it is believed to indicate her shape-shifting ability. The nymph is known to change shapes either to escape capture or to deceive her victims. When Peleus attempts to marry her, the nymph keeps eluding him until a friend advised him to hold her tightly. Peleus finally succeeds and their marriage is witnessed by all the deities.
Epithets of Agamemnon
Agamemnon is the Greek general who commands the Achaean troops after Paris kidnaps Helen the wife of Menelaus. Therefore, as the commander, he is given the epithet “shepherd of the people.”
His ability to rally the troops to mount attacks and counteroffensives is indicative of his epithet “lord marshal” while his feats on the battlefront earned him the nickname “powerful”. The Greek army commander is also known as brilliant, probably, for how he won the war and “powerful” for his strength and power.
Epithets of Athena
Athena epithets in the Odyssey appear to be similar to hers in the Iliad. The nickname of Athena, the goddess of war, is the “hope of soldiers” as she frequently comes to the aid of the Greek warriors. She encourages and counsels Achilleus and deflects an arrow meant for Menelaus, the King of Sparta and husband of Helen. She is referred to as the “tireless one” indicating her industry in ensuring that the Greeks won the war.
Other epithets include bright-eyed which shows her alertness in protecting the kings and generals of the Greek army. Nonetheless, she is also referred to as the “daughter of Zeus” and “whose shield is thunder” probably to reflect her relationship with the king of the gods. As the goddess of war, she is compared to her predecessor, Pallas, the Titan god of warcraft, thus she is nicknamed “Pallas”.
Epithets of Ajax the Great
Ajax, the Greek warrior and cousin of Achilleus is known as “gigantic” which probably indicates his stature and the shield he wields. Homer also calls him “swift” and “mighty” and it is not surprising that the greatest warrior of Troy could not defeat the Telamonian Ajax. He is second to Achilleus in terms of power and swiftness. No one can defeat and that is why he is tricked into committing suicide.
She is a slave girl and a war prize of Achilleus who sees her as a monument to his success at the war front. Homer names her “fair-cheeked” and “fair-haired” to describe her beauty and elegance. Her beauty certainly catches the eye of her captor who treats her as a wife instead of a slave. Thus, when Agamemnon takes Achilleus’ slave girl, the pain and shame become unbearable, forcing him to withdraw from the war.
This article has discussed the use of epithets in Homer’s Iliad and given some examples of epithets the poet used to describe some of his major characters. Here is a summary of all that this article has covered:
- Homer uses epithets to describe and give more information about the characters in the poem.
- Epithets also add rhythm and beauty to the epic poem while aiding the poet to remember the major characters and events in the poetic piece.
- The protagonist in the Iliad, Achilleus, is referred to as “shepherd of the people”, “swift-footed” and “like to the gods” to reflect his role in the ranks of the Greek army.
- Homer does not only use epithets for mortals as deities such as Athena are nicknamed “daughter of Zeus” while Thetis is called “silver-footed”.
- The slave girl of Achilleus is called “fair-cheeked” and “fair-haired” to show her beauty which catches the eye of the epic hero, Achilleus, who treats her as his wife.
Epithets are still in use today as many prominent people have either adopted or were given specific names and titles by their admirers.