Homeric Nēpios

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1. The Problem

Homeric Greek nēpios, at first glance, does not present obvious semantic problems. LSJ [1] give as a first meaning “infant, child,” citing

and the frequently used phrase nēpia tekna (“nēpios children,” ΙI 136, etc.). Chantraine concurs, giving as a first meaning of nēpios “tout jeune.” [
5] Various Homeric passage may be cited in which nēpios seems to mean simply “child,” for instance, where Telemachos contrasts his past and present states:

…ἐγὼ δ᾽ ἔτι νήπιος ἦα;
νῦν δ᾽ ὅτε δὴ μέγας εἰμὶ καὶ ἄλλων μῦθον ἀκούων
πυνθάνομαι, καὶ δή μοι ἀέξεται ἔνδοθι θυμός…

…when I was still nēpios?
But now, when I am grown big, and by listening to others
can learn the truth, and the anger rises within me…

ii 313–315

Metaphorically, according to LSJ, the basic meaning “child” is applied to “the understanding,” and nēpios comes to mean “childish, silly.” The following Homeric passages are cited:

νήπιóς εἰς, ὦ ξεῖν᾽, ἢ τηλόθεν εἰλήλουθας…

You are nēpios, O stranger, or else you have come from far away…
[not to know that you are on the island of Ithake] {1|2}

xiii 237

ὧς φάτο λισσόμενος μέγα νήπιος…

So he spoke, supplicating, greatly nēpios
[for he did not know he was asking for his own death]

XVI 46

… τοὶ δὲ–μέγα νήπιοι!–οὐκ ἐπίθοντο.

… but they were greatly nēpios and would not listen …
[of Odysseus’s men who would not leave the land of the Kikones]

ix 44

LSJ add “without foresight, blind,” citing XXII 445. Here Andromache is called nēpios because she ordered a bath to be prepared for Hektor, not knowing that he was already dead. Chantraine adds to his basic definition (“tout jeune”) “sot, sans raison.” [
6] Frisk simply lists a variety of possible translations of nēpios, but by placing the meaning “child” at the beginning of his list, and those meaning “foolish” toward the end, he too implies that the basic meaning is “child” and that other meanings are derivative. [7]

The word child in modern English refers to either age or descent. Greek pais (“child”) has a similar semantic range. Teukros, having shot his bow, retreats behind the shield of Ajax pais hōs hupo mētera (“like a child behind its mother,” VIII 271). On the other hand, Achilles is Thetidos pais (“Thetis’s child,” IV 512, etc.), Hektor is Priamoio pais (“Priam’s child,” III 314, etc.), and so forth. The words teknon and tekos mean “child” in the sense of “offspring.” Athene, for example, is called Dios tekos, (“Zeus’s child,” II 157, etc.).

Both pais and teknon may be used figuratively. In the first of the two following examples, Nestor is encouraging the sentinels guarding the Greek camp; in the second, the herald Idaios stops the fight between Aias and Hektor:

οὕτω νῦν, φίλα τέκνα, φυλάσσετε …

Continue to keep your watch this way, beloved children …

X 192 {2|3}

μηκέτι, παῖδε φίλω, πολεμίζετε μηδὲ μάχεσθον·

Stop the fight, dear children, nor go on with this battle.

VII 279

By addressing adults with the term “children,” the speaker is expressing his own “fatherly” concern for them.

The verbal derivative of pais, paizō, is used of Nausicaa and her companions playing or dancing on the beach (vi 106, vii 291). It also describes the activity within Odysseus’s halls at xxiii 147 (where Lattimore translates it “celebrating”). In the Homeric Hymns, also, paizō means “dancing” or similar, but perhaps unstructured, playing. In later Greek, it may mean skilled dancing or the “playing” of an instrument. In none of these figurative uses do we see disapproval or censure, which is clearly implied by the word nēpios in, for example:

αὐτῶν γὰρ σφετέρησιν ἀτασθαλίῃσιν ὄλοντο,
νήπιοι, οἳ κατὰ βοῦς Ὑπερίονος Ἠελίοι

… they were destroyed by their own recklessness,
nēpioi, who devoured the oxen of Helios, the Sun God …

i 7–9

Thus, if nēpios means “child,” it means “child” in some other sense than pais or teknon.

In English, the adjective childlike is used in a positive sense, while childish is not. It is not, in itself, surprising that words meaning “child” should have both positive and negative associations in Homeric Greek. In fact, despite the connotations of paizō, the most usual characterization of children in Homer emphasizes their weakness. [8] Diomedes taunts Paris, who has wounded him, with the following words:

οὐκ ἀλέγω, ὡς εἴ με γυνὴ βάλοι ἢ πάϊς ἄφρων·

I care no more than if a witless child or a woman had struck me …

XI 389 {3|4}

And Odysseus says of the Greeks:

ὥς τε γὰρ ἢ παῖδες νεαροὶ χῆραί τε γυναῖκες
ἀλλήλοισιν ὀδύρονται οἶκόνδε νέεσθαι

For as if they were young children or widowed women
they cry out and complain to each other about going homeward.

II 289–290

In both these passages, children are grouped with women to form a class of those who are ineffectual. [
9] To compare a warrior to a woman is an insult. For example, Hektor taunts Diomedes:

Τυδεΐδη, περὶ μέν σε τίον Δαναοὶ ταχύπωλοι
ἕδρῃ τε κρέασίν τε ἰδὲ πλείοις δεπάεσσι·
νῦν δέ σ᾽ ἀτιμήσουσι· γυναικὸς ἄρ᾽ ἀντὶ τέτυξο.

Son of Tydeus, beyond others the fast-mounted Danaans honoured you
with pride of place, the choice meats and the filled wine cups.
But now they will disgrace you, who are no better than a woman.

VIII 161–163

The mealtime honors the Greeks bestow on Diomedes are precisely those that distinguish a warrior (cf. XII 310–321), and he is distinguished, especially from the women and children. When Hektor calls Diomedes a woman, he is calling him “not a warrior.” Similarly, in the passages cited above (XI 389 and II 289–290), men are called “like women and children” because they are behaving in an unwarriorlike fashion.

The epithet nēpios, however, does not present a contrast to warriorlike behavior. When Patroklos begged Achilles to allow him to lead the Myrmidons into battle, he made a bad mistake:

ὣς φάτο λισσόμενος μέγα νήπιος· ἦ γὰρ ἔμελλεν
οἷ αὐτῷ θάνατόν τε κακὸν καὶ κῆρα λιτέσθαι.

So he spoke supplicating, greatly nēpios: this was
his own death and evil destruction he was entreating.

XVI 46–47

But certainly he was not behaving in a way that would place him in the class of women and children as opposed to the class of warriors. {4|5} Nor is his mistake due to any apparent childish qualities such as weakness of reason or carelessness of signs.

Another context of nēpios, suggests that the word, in itself may not mean “child” at all. When the steward of Menelaos hesitates to offer hospitality to Telemachos and Peisistratos, Menelaos rebukes him thus:

οὐ μὲν νήπιος ἦσθα, Βοηθοΐδη ᾽Ετεωνεῦ,
τὸ πρίν᾽‧ ἀτὰρ μὲν νῦν γε πάϊς ὣς νήπια βάζεις.

Eteoneus, son of Boethoos, you were never
nēpios before, but now you are babbling nēpios things,
[or “speaking nēpios words”] as a child would do.

iv 31–32

Although there is no definitive reason to reject the derivation of nēpios from the root *āp– it would be easier to accept if we could find another derivative of this root in Greek with some semantic {8|9} relationship to nēpios. One candidate is haptō (“to fasten,” “join”), but there is general agreement that the spiritus asper renders this an impossibility. [
20] The only other evident possibility is ēpios (“gentle,” “kind”), the derivation of which from this root is not likely to be rejected on phonological grounds. [21] Its semantic connections with apiscor and, indeed, with nēpios would have to be made clear. The following chapters suggest the possibility of a semantic connection, in Homeric diction, between ēpios and nēpios. {9|10}


[ back ] 1. LSJ = Liddell, Scott, Jones, et al., A Greek-English Lexicon9 (Oxford 1940) and Supplement (1968).

[ back ] 2. I have used Monro, D.B. and Allen, T.W., eds. Homeri Opera (lliadis) 3rd ed. (Oxford 1920) and Stanford, W.B., ed. The Odyssey of Homer 2nd ed. (London 1959).

[ back ] 3. In general, I use Lattimore’s translations (see bibliography), reserving the right to make changes where it seems necessary for emphasis. The most common change is that key words, such as nēpios are not translated.

[ back ] 4. Books of the Iliad are designated by upper-case Roman numerals and those of the Odyssey by lower-case Roman numerals.

[ back ] 5. Chantraine 1974, s.v. nēpios.

[ back ] 6. ibid.

[ back ] 7. Frisk 1970. s.v. nēpios. Frisk’s list runs as follows: “noch unmündig, jung, schwach, kindisch, unverständig, töricht.”

[ back ] 8. For a useful summary of Homeric evidence concerning childhood, see Denoël 1928.

[ back ] 9. For more on women and children as a class distinct from the class of warriors, see the first section of Chapter Three.

[ back ] 10. This is not to say that nēpios is semantically equivalent to infans.

[ back ] 11. Working backward in time through the Greek language: in the New Testament, nēpios usually means “child,” “infant” and is a substantive. The word is not very common in the prose of the classical period. Aristotle uses it substantively to mean “infant,” as does Plato, except where he is quoting a proverb (e.g. Symp. 222b7). Similarly in Herodotus, where nēpios is both an adjective and a substantive, it means simply “infant” except in quotations of oracles, where it has the sense LSJ calls “metaphorical.” In Euripides, nēpios usually means “child.” In Sophocles and Aeschylus, however, and in Pindar and the Presocratics, the so-called metaphorical sense predominates.

[ back ] 12. Of 76 occurrences of nēpios in the Iliad and Odyssey, once it modifies “words” (not expressed), once biē (“strength”), 35 times it is used of adults, and 39 times of children, of which the phrase nēpia tekna accounts for 14.

[ back ] 13. The principal suggestions are °Osthoff and Brugman 1881 derive nēpios from a root pu- (cf. Sanskrit pu- nā- ti “reinigen,” “aufklaren”). Thus *nē- pw- io- s > nēpios. °Specht 1928: nēpios < + *ap- (cf. *apel-, root meaning “Kraft, Stärke”). °Rozwadowski, summarized in Lacroix 1937.261, connects nēpios and ēpios with Latin pius. Thus ēpios < ē + *pwiios “avec le meme ē- initial que dans ēbaios à côté de baios. °Lacroix 1937 also connects ēpios and nēpios, i.e. nēpios < *ne- ēpios, the root of which the author wants to connect with ēpuō. But we have Doric āpuo and not Doric *āpios. A stronger objection in Beekes 1969.106: “There is … no trace of Greek *ne- from PIE *ne-.

[ back ] 14. Beekes 1969.98–113.

[ back ] 15. Puhvel 1953.25.

[ back ] 16. Pisani 1939: *ne- apios > nēpios (but see final comment in note 12).

[ back ] 17. cf. Chantraine 1974 s.v. nēpios: “le sens ‘qui ne sait pas parler’ ne s’appuie sur aucune tradition ancienne.”

[ back ] 18. Beekes’s reservation about the derivation from the root *ap- is that there seems to be reasonable evidence for both ǝ1 and ǝ2.

[ back ] 19. The papyrus reading is ΝΑΠΙΑ. Usener (Teubner 1887) and Baily (OCT 1926) read ἡ αἰτία. The context is a letter to a child; the text runs: εὖ γὰρ ἴσθι, ἡ αἰτία [or νάπια] ὅτι καὶ ἐγω καὶ ο[ἱ] λοιποὶ πάντες σε μέγα φιλοῦμεν, ὅτι τούτοις πείθῃ πάντα … The disputed reading might also be a proper name.

[ back ] 20. See, e.g., Meillet 1929.276.

[ back ] 21. See Lacroix 1937.261. But the formation of the negative nēpios must be far older than he imagines—i.e. both nēpios and ēpios must have existed independently since before the disappearance of the laryngeal.