Ankle and Ankle Epithets in Archaic Greek Verse

5. καλλίσφυρος, τανίσφυρος and εὔσφυρος in Hesiod

The Hesiodic poems provide a wealth of examples of the use of καλλίσφυρος and τανίσφυρος. These epithets appear both in the Theogony and in the Shield of Heracles, as well as in the fragments, which even in their damaged condition contain revealing uses of the words. And, in addition to these two epithets, another one, εὔσφυρος, appears frequently in Hesiod. This word does not appear in Homer or in the Homeric Hymns. But the common root of σφυρόν establishes an obvious connection between it and the other two epithets. If a consideration of the use of εὔσφυρος provides evidence that its significance is analogous to that of καλλίσφυρος and τανίσφυρος, this fact will confirm the symbolic connections and importance of all these epithets.

In his study, Edwards has demonstrated convincingly the oral nature of Hesiodic poetry. Many formulae and phrases are, in fact, uniquely Hesiodic. It is obvious that Hesiod employs a Homeric vocabulary. But, as Edwards points out, it is necessary to distinguish between natural composition in a formulaic tradition and deliberate, self-conscious composition in a formulaic style. [1] And the Hesiodic works are an example of the former kind of composition. Where Hesiod does use Homeric epithets and formulae, he often reshapes or recombines them in original, vital ways. [2] In light of this analysis the use of the epithets in Hesiod becomes especially significant. For if their particular use corresponds thematically to their use in Homer this will indicate that the epithets have particular and fixed significance, independent of one author or one tradition.

τανίσφυρος only appears once in the Theogony, at the end of the catalogue of the daughters of Okeanos and Tethys:

τρὶς γὰρ χίλιαί εἰσι τανίσφυροι Ὠκεανῖναι,
αἵ ῥα πολυσπερέες γαῖαν καὶ βένθεα λίμνης
πάντῃ ὁμῶς ἐφέπουσι, θεάων ἀγλαὰ τέκνα.


It is difficult to infer any meaning from this use of the word because it appears in the simple summation of a catalogue. But it nevertheless seems an important description because it applies to the group of rivers as a whole, tying together the entire passage.

The Okeanides have significance both in Homer and elsewhere in Hesiod that is probably assumed in this passage. They were believed to encircle the earth and therefore to mark the borders of the world. This identification is frequent already in Homer. In Book XIV of the Iliad, for example, Hera says she is travelling to Okeanos, which she twice identifies as the πείρατα γαίης (XIV 200, 304). Similarly, in the Hymn to Aphrodite, Eos and Tithonys live παρ’ Ὠκεανοῖο ῥοῇς ἐπὶ πείρασι γαίης (227). It is particularly apt that a mortal and an immortal should live together at the edge of the world, in a region which is neither human nor mortal.

Because they mark the borders of the world they also mark, specifically, the entrance to Hades, a fact which was noted earlier in the discussion of the Hymn to Demeter. The hymn includes a literal illustration of this identification. The Okeanides play with Persephone and watch as Hades abducts her from their company and from their location at the edge of the word into the underworld. They not only mark the boundary of earth but also appear as anthropomorphized witnesses of death. The fact that it is in this same passage, in connection with this same event, that Persephone appears as τανίσφυρος reinforces the thematic importance of the epithet.

While the passage in the Theogony does not allude to the role the Okeanides have in this myth or in any of the Homeric passages, the elaborate cataloguing of them most likely evokes or implies their function. Perhaps τανίσφυρος is emblematic of their unexpressed role. Certainly the appearance of the epithet in the Hymn to Demeter suggests this. For when Persephone is τανίσφυρος at the moment of her rape from their midst, they are connected with her experience and with the epithet she hears. The Okeanides share with Persephone the vision of death. Like her, they are neither a part of death nor entirely free from association with it.

It also makes sense that the Okeanides be τανίσφυρος in light of the connotations this epithet, and καλλίσφυρος, acquired in Homer and in the Homeric Hymns. For they are representative of the transition from life to death, of the tension between the two states of existence. It is at their location that the change of consciousness between the earth-bound and the inhuman occurs. And it is this change—whether it is expressed in terms of sex and reproduction or in terms of death—that is at the crux of all the passages where these epithets occur.

Klymene is another one of the Okeanides whom Hesiod includes in the catalogue and whom he later describes as καλλίσφυρος. She first appears only in passing, in line 351, without any descriptive information. But she reappears later in an account of her seduction by the Titan Iapetos and her consequent bearing of Atlas, Prometheus and Epimetheus:

κούρην δ’ Ἰαπετὸς καλλίσφυρον Ὠκεανίνην
ἠγάγετο Κλυμένην καὶ ὁμὸν λέχος εἰσανέβαινεν.
ἡ δέ οἱ Ἄτλαντα κρατερόφρονα γείνατο παῖδα.


καλλίσφυρος does not refer to her name but to her patronymic, and this combination recalls the conclusion of the catalogue and the mention of the τανίσφυροι ὠκεανῖναι. τανίσφυροι ὠκεανῖναι and καλλίσφυρον Ὠκεανίνην occupy the same position in the hexameter and are phrases almost identical in meter and in sound. The use of the epithet is generated by the mention of the name. But once again it must be noted that καλλίσφυρος has different metrical value from τανίσφυρος. It could not be primarily the metrical exigencies of the line that generate the use of these related epithets, but it must be the thematic connotations of the epithets that associate them with these characters. These two phrases provide a straightforward indication that the uses of τανίσφυρος and καλλίσφυρος are generated by the same themes and have the same connotations.

The specific situation in which Klymene is καλλίσφυρος also parallels the situation of other passages where one of these epithets occurs. A female’s seduction or rape by a god is the subject of many of the passages in other works that were discussed earlier. Certainly this seduction and its consequences are particularly significant in the Theogony since the offspring are important characters.

These are not the only descendants of Okeanos who receive epithets deriving from the noun σφυρόν. Another one is Amphitrite, the daughter of Nereos and Doris and, like Nike, the granddaughter of Okeanos. She has the same function as the Okeanides, being a personification of the sea. She first appears ina a catalogue of the Nereids (242) and Hesiod describes one of her functions ten lines later:

Κυμοδόκη θ’, ἣ κύματ’ ἐν ἠεροειδέι πόντῳ
πνοιάς τε ζαέων ἀνέμων σὺν Κυματολήγῃ
ῥεῖα πρηΰνει καὶ ἐυσφύρῳ Ἀμφιτρίτῃ.


Amphitrite is the only one of the Nereids named twice in the catalogue, and so her name stands out among the spirits of water.

This is the first passage discussed in which εὔσφυρος appears. It contains one less syllable than either καλλίσφυρος or τανίσφυρος and so is obviously not metrically equivalent to either of these epithets. But its application to a descendant of Okeanos coincides with the uses of the other epithets in the Theogony. And if καλλίσφυρος and τανίσφυρος have comparable thematic functions, although they are not metrically equivalent, it follows that this epithet too should have similar connotations because of its root noun.

Medea is another figure in the Theogony who is a descendant of Okeanos and who is also described as εὔσφυρος. According to Hesiod’s genealogy she is descended both through her mother and through her father from Okeanos. Hesiod explains the complicated mating that resulted in her birth:

Ἠελίῳ δ’ ἀκάμαντι τέκε κλυτὸς Ὠκεανίνη
Περσηὶς Κίρκην τε καὶ Αἰήτην βασιλῆα.
Αἰήτης δ’ υἱὸς φαεσιμβρότου Ἠελίοιο
κούρην Ὠκεανοῖο τελήεντος ποταμοῖο
γῆμε θεῶν βουλῇσιν, Ἰδυῖαν καλλιπάρηον·
ἣ δή οἱ Μήδειαν ἐύσφυρον ἐν φιλότητι
γείναθ’ ὑποδμηθεῖσα διὰ χρυσῆν Ἀφροδίτην.


This passage is, once again, about sexual mingling and procreation, about the birth of a child to Iduiya, a daughter of Okeanos. Medea’s identification as εὔσφυρος continues the thematic pattern of the epithet’s appearance in the Theogony. Medea is a particularly colorful and sinister variant of the sea figures who receive the epithet. As Hesiod indicates, she is a niece of Kirke, an alluring but demonic character strongly connected both with her sexuality and with death. Medea herself appears elsewhere as no less of a compelling and evil force. Her character and powers are described frequently, most notably in Euripides’ play, [
8] as both a passionate wife and a murderess. She is a descendant of Okeanos with overt sexual and morbid qualities.

All these figures that share association with these epithets also share a common genealogy and some common attributes. The entire group of Okeanides is τανίσφυρος and they represent the water boundaries of earth and the border of Hades and death; Klymene is one Okeanides who is specifically καλλίσφυρος in the context of sexuality and procreation. Amphitrite is the daughter of an Okeanides and an important personification of the sea; and Nike is another granddaughter of Okeanos, identified therefore both with the sea and with death. These themes of sexuality and death, intertwined with water elements not only are consistent within the Theogony but also parallel the connotations the epithets have in Homer and in the Hymns.

There is only one other figure apart from this group that bears one of these epithets in the Theogony, and that is Alcmene. She is καλλίσφυρος in two passages in the poem, once half way through the work and again toward the end of it. She first appears in the passage where Heracles saves Prometheos from the bird that is tormenting him:

τὸν μὲν ἄρ’ Ἀλκμήνης καλλισφύρου ἄλκιμος υἱὸς
Ἡρακλέης ἔκτεινε, κακὴν δ’ ἀπὸ νοῦσον ἄλαλκεν
Ἰαπετιονίδῃ καὶ ἐλύσατο δυσφροσυνάων …
ὄφρ’ Ἡρακλῆος Θηβαγενέος κλέος εἴη
πλεῖον ἔτ’ ἢ τὸ πάροιθεν ἐπὶ χθόνα πουλυβότειραν.


She appears only as a point of reference in an account of her son’s heroism. She is important because she is the mother of Heracles, who by Zeus’ will is increasing his κλέος and approaching his destined immortalization. The next passage, in fact, in which Alcmene is καλλίσφυρος is a description of Heracles’ transformation from mortal to immortal and of his ascent to Olympos:

Ἥβην δ’ Ἀλκμήνης καλλισφύρου ἄλκιμος υἱός,
ἲς Ἡρακλῆος, τελέσας στονόεντας ἀέθλους,
παῖδα Διὸς μεγάλοιο καὶ Ἥρης χρυσοπεδίλου,
αἰδοίην θέτ’ ἄκοιτιν ἐν Οὐλύμπῳ νιφόεντι·


This passage parallels both in theme and in diction the description of Heracles’ transformation in Odyssey xi where καλλίσφυρος appears. [
9] It also echoes the language and subject of the earlier passage in the Theogony where Alcmene receives the same epithet. For the mention of Heracles’ increasing κλέος in line 526 is a foreshadowing of this event. So there is a consistent thematic correlation among the passages about Heracles where this epithet occurs.

In the Odyssey it is Hebe and not Alcmene who is καλλίσφυρος at the moment of his rebirth. But here Hebe appears in the same line as the epithet and her name is juxtaposed to Alcmene’s name. And here too it is Hebe’s union with Heracles that marks his entrance into Olympos. The two female figures share the same epithet when they appear in the same context. The fact that they have this description in common suggests most strongly that the epithet applies to Heracles’ experience and that they are just reflections of his glory. Furthermore, the facts that Alcmene and Hebe are not metrically equivalent names, and that καλλίσφυρος appears in different cases and in different metrical positions in the two passages are additional indications that the use of the epithet is thematically prompted.

Alcmene appears as εὔσφυρος early in the poem, when the poet describes her relationship with her husband Amphitryon:

πρὶν λεχέων ἐπιβῆναι ἐυσφύρου Ἠλεκτρυώνης
πρίν γε φόνον τείσαιτο κασιγνήτων μεγαθύμων
ἧς ἀλόχου, μαλερῷ δὲ καταφλέξαι πυρὶ κώμας
ἀνδρῶν ἡρώων Ταφίων ἰδὲ Τηλεβοάων.


After killing Elektryon, Amphitryon carries off his daughter Alcmene as his bride. This combination of murder and romantic conquest is not uncommon in hero cycles and appears similarly in the stories of Medea and Marpessa. But this particular union is unusual because Amphitryon is barred from his wife’s bed; their marriage is ἄτερ φιλότητος (15). He cannot consummate their relationship until he avenges the death of Alcmene’s brothers. Once again, εὔσφυρος appears in a context of sexuality and abduction, but this instance is a negative variation of the familiar theme. It is a situation of forced abstention rather than of forced fulfilment.

But this situation of abstention is altered by a single act of Zeus, by his rape of Alcmene, and it is in the description of this act that Alcmene again receives oneof these epithets, this time τανίσφυρος:

αὐτῇ μὲν γὰρ νυκτὶ τανισφύρου Ἠλεκτρυώνης
εὐνῇ καὶ φιλότητι μίγη, τέλεσεν δ’ ἄρ’ ἐέλδωρ·


This passage presents an explicit contrast with the earlier one, describing the fulfilment of love that replaces the earlier lack of it.

Zeus’ seduction of women is a familiar theme, one, as has become evident, that often prompts the use of the one of the epithets deriving from σφυρόν. It is always a significant theme because it raises a story to a supra-human level. And in this poem it is the single most important act because it results in the birth of Heracles.

Not only does this rape mark Alcmene’s first sexual experience, but it also signifies the end of Amphitryon’s period of abstention. For it is during the same night of Zeus’ rape that Amphitryon lies with his wife for the first time and conceives another child, the mortal Iphikles. Alcmene’s mingling during one night both with Zeus and with a man, and the subsequent birth of twins, one immortal and one mortal, represent graphically the tension and the confusion between mortality and immortality expressed in this myth.

Alcmene is once again described as εὔσφυρος in Heracles’ speech to Iolaus, the first words attributed to him in the poem. He begins his speech with an identification of his genealogy and his parents’ history, a common mode of introduction for heroes. He describes his father’s misfortunes and then says:

ζῶε δ’ ἀγαλλόμενος σὺν ἐυσφύρῳ Ἠλεκτρυώνῃ,
ᾗ ἀλόχῳ·


He refers to his parents’ marriage as a complete and joyful one. Alcmene is united with her mortal husband. The early sexual taboo has been lifted, the disruptive divine interference has disappeared and the natural relationship endures. This is the third and final passage which refers to the marital status and, implicitly, to the sexual union, and it is the final place where εὔσφυρος or τανίσφυρος appears in the poem.

Each use of εὔσφυρος or τανίσφυρος in the Shield of Heracles precedes the patronymic Ἠλεκτρυώνη, either in the dative or in the genitive case, and in each instance the epithet-noun compound completes the hexameter. There is then a metrical similarity among the uses of the epithets in this poem. But there is a thematic consistency to their use as well, a consistency that is enlightening and that corresponds to their appearance in other works. For the epithets appear in each case in a passage about sexual union or procreation. The first appearance is in the context of the privation of sex; the second is in a passage about divine sexual intervention and the subsequent beginning of sexual relations between Alcmene and Amphitryon; and the third is in a statement of the establishment of a complete marital relationship between the two mortals. There is a clear and artful progression in the uses of the epithets that corresponds to the themes and the structure of the poem. A barren stalemate is broken by divine intervention, and yet the human order of things endures. Heracles remains as the focus, the product of this divine sexual intervention, the semi-divine figure who incorporates the tensions between the mortal and immortal realms. It is significant that he appears in the poem alternately as the son of Amphitryon and as the son of Zeus.

Alcmene is the most frequent recipient of the epithet καλλίσφυρος, τανίσφυρος and εὔσφυρος in extant poetry. But she appears so only in passages about Heracles’ divine conception or about his eventual immortalization. So the frequency of her appearance and of her association with these epithets reflects the importance of Heracles as a hero-god figure, an importance already evidenced in the Odyssey and confirmed in the Hesiodic works. And the fact that she receives all three epithets in parallel contexts is the most convincing evidence of the thematic connection between these words.

The collection of Hesiodic fragments contains many interesting uses of the epithets. The significance of their appearances is in some cases difficult to determine since the context is often ambiguous or altogether lacking. But there are several passages where the use of an epithet parallels its use elsewhere, as in the example above. Another such instance is a fragment where Danae is καλλίσφυρος:

ἣ δ’ ἔτεκεν Δανά]ην κ̣[α]λλίσφυρο[ν ἐν μεγά]ρ̣[οισιν,
ἣ Περσῆ’ ἔτεκεν κρα]τ̣ε̣[ρὸ]ν μ[ής]τωρ[α] φόβοιο.

The poet only mentions her in a catalogue, as the mother of Perseos, but this fact invokes the circumstance of that birth and of her rape by Zeus, a situation which Zeus recalls in Iliad XIV 319 and where Danae is also καλλίσφυρος.

There are also passages in the fragments in which these epithets describe figures not associated with these words in any other works. One such figure is Atalanta, who appears twice as τανίσφυρος. The poet describes her so once in a short fragment about her unwillingness to marry:

[ ]σ̣ι ποδώκης δῖ’ Ἀταλάν[τη…
[ πρὸς ἀνθρώπων ἀ]παναίνετο φῦλον ὁμιλ[εῖν
ἀνδρῶν ἐλπομένη φεύγ]ε̣ιν γάμον ἀλφηστάων̣[.
[ ]τ̣ανι̣σ̣φ̣ύ̣[ρ]ο̣υ̣ εἵνεκα κού[ρης


She appears similarly as [τ]ανίσφ̣υ̣ρ[ο]ς… κούρη in the narration of the contest her father Schoineos establishes for the winning of her as a bride (75.6). Each suitor must race with Atalanta. If he wins, he may take her off as his bride; if he loses, he must die. Hippomenes wins, gaining possession of Atalanta and avoiding death.

The story of Atalanta is the story of an unwilling bride overcome. It is in this respect a variant of the Persephone myth and of many other myths already described, only set in the secular context of athletic games. In the two passages where Atalanta is τανίσφυρος her unwillingness and her attempted flight from marriage are emphasized. And once again the threat of death overshadows the story, this time a threat not to the female figure but to the male pursuer.

Helen is an important figure in the fragments of the Eoiai who appears both as τανίσφυρος and as καλλίσφυρος. In some passages she appears in her most familiar role, as the maiden who causes the Trojan war. In fragment 23(a), for example, the Greeks set sail for Troy to extract punishment on account of καλλις]φύρου Ἀργειώ[νη]ς (20). Similarly, fragment 136 describes the Argive heroes who went to Troy, and the same phrase appears in the midst of this list (9). The poet probably cites her once again as the cause of the war.

There is also a long fragment describing the many suitors who vied for Helen. This narrative seems to reflect a tradition somewhat different from that of the Iliad, one that deals only with her conjugal role. In this fragment the great heroes of the Trojan cycle—Odysseus, Menelaos, Ajax, Philoctetes, and others—come to compete for her. In this context the poet describes her as:

ἐκ δ’ Ἰθάκης ἐμνᾶτο Ὀδυσσῆος ἱερὴ ἴς,
υἱὸς Λαέρταο πολύκροτα μήδεα εἰδώς.
δῶρα μὲν οὔ ποτ’ ἔπεμπε τανισφύρου εἵνεκα κούρης·


Helen’s association with these epithets is furthermore confirmed by the fact that her daughter Hermione is καλλίσφυρος in another fragment that belongs to this same narrative. The poet only refers to Hermione as the offspring of Helen:

ἣ τέκεν Ἑρμιόνην καλλίσφυρ[ο]ν ἐν μεγάροισιν


As in many other examples, the epithet associated thematically with one character transfers to that character’s child, who is simply an extension of the parent’s identity. In light of this transfer, Leda’s description as καλλίσφυρος in the Hymn to the Dioskouroi is perhaps all the more significant.

The Hesiodic fragments are a valuable resource for a study of these epithets. Because the surviving passages are broken, it is impossible to determine the position of the epithet in its wider context or the significance it held within the broad framework of the complete poem. Nevertheless the combination of the epithets with figures they describe elsewhere serves to confirm the importance of its particular associations. And their combination with other characters seems to follow the same patters and to reflect the same themes with which the epithets are associated elsewhere in Hesiod and in Homer. They describe descendants of Okeanos, who are associated with water and with death; they describe women unwillingly abducted by men or gods and who are often translated across the sea to islands; Mestra, Danae, Europa and Helen are all variants of a single figure and are related to Persephone; Alcmene and Hebe mark the birth and death of Heracles, the divine origin and divine transcendence of this unique figure. All refer to a sexual or eschatological transformation, a change of consciousness or of existence.

The Hesiodic works provide the greatest number of examples of these epithets’ use. They contain many examples of εὔσφυρος, a word that appears neither in Homer nor in the Hymns, one which is metrically unequivalent to τανίσφυρος and καλλίσφυρος but which has the same thematic connotations they do. These symbolic associations are consistent in all the examples in Hesiod and correspond to the uses of the epithets elsewhere. This fundamental consistency, transcending individual works and traditions, argues strongly that the epithets must share independent symbolic connotations in archaic Greek tradition.


[ back ] 1. Edwards 1971:190–193.

[ back ] 2. Ibid. pp. 46–54. Hesiod uses Homeric language, but recombines the words and extends their use further. He often uses an Homeric formula in a different case or construes an epithet predicatively. These facts reflect independent usage.

[ back ] 3. Hesiod Theogony 361.

[ back ] 4. Iliad VII 369.

[ back ] 5. Often the Nike of one man is juxtaposed to the consequent death of his opponent (Iliad VIII 175–176); like death, Nike is also arbitrary, bestowed by Zeus according to whim (VII 291–292; VII 378–379); the tenuousness and ephemerality of victory are also stressed (VI 339); and often it is the striving for victory that brings on death (XXIII 436–437).

[ back ] 6. In Pindar Olympian VI, for example, the sea god is identified as χρυσαλακάτοιο πόσις Ἀμφιτρίτας (104).

[ back ] 7. Odyssey v 422; xii 60.

[ back ] 8. Also cf. Pindar Pythian IV 218ff.

[ back ] 9. Line 952 in the Theogony is, in fact, identical to Odyssey xi 604. This fact might be used as proof of interpolation but, once again, such a controversy is irrelevant to this study, because the concern here is with the diction of poetry.

[ back ] 10. Edwards 1971:196–197.

[ back ] 11. The numbers of the fragments are according to Merkelbach and West 1967.

[ back ] 12. This fragment recalls the Hymn to Heracles 8 and Odyssey xi 603. Line 29 is identical to Odyssey xi 604 and to Hesiod Theogony 952. It also must be noted that lines 26–33 of this fragment are obeli praefixi in P. Oxy. 2075. These facts suggest the lines might be spurious, but this fact is still not a concern here.

[ back ] 13. Scholia ad Lykophron 1393 (ii 384/5 Scheer) as quoted in Merkelbach and West 1967:31.

[ back ] 14. Fragment 141.8: ….. ….. … ἔμ]ε̣λ̣λ̣ε τανισφύρωι Εὐρωπείηι.

[ back ] 15. Scholia ad Iliad XII 292 as quoted in Evelyn-Wite 1970:171.

[ back ] 16. Ibid., and Hymn to Demeter 6–7.

[ back ] 17. Scholia ad Pindar Nemean X.150 as quoted in Evelyn-Wite 1970: ὁ μέντοι / Ἡσίοδος οὔτε Λήδας οὔτε Νεμέσεως δίδωσι τὴν / Ἑλένην, ἀλλὰ θυγατρὸς Ὠκεανοῦ καὶ Διός (190).

[ back ] 18. Some of her particular epithets are Ἑλένη Διὸς ἐκγεγαυῖα; Ἀργείη Ἑλένη. Cf. Parry 1928a:119.

[ back ] 19. Odyssey iv 561–562 and 569.

[ back ] 20. Pausanias II.19.13.

[ back ] 21. Pausanias III.15.3; III.19.3. Also Nillson 1972:170.

[ back ] 22. Euripides Orestes 1629ff.

[ back ] 23. Nilsson 1972:171.