“Mixed Aorists” in Homeric Greek

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The Homeric poems provide some of the easiest reading in Greek literature, as well as some of the most rewarding, and so we are introduced to them at an early stage in our study of the language. But when we learn more, we discover that Homeric Greek is not so simple after all. Some of its phenomena remain unexplained after two millennia of scholarship. For instance, we come across imperatives like οἴσετε, ἄξετε, ὄρσεο, λέξεο, δύσεο, βήσεο and secondary tense forms like ἄξοντο, ἐδύσετο, ἐβήσετο, ἵξον. When we look in the usual grammar books, Smyth for example, [1] we find these forms labeled “mixed aorists,” and are told that they combine the sigma of the first aorist with the thematic vowel of the second aorist. That description is an admission of ignorance. How could such a “mixture” happen? What kind of process is being attributed to the grammar of the epic language? What is Homeric grammar anyway? How can one tell what is grammatical and what is not?

In order to answer such questions, we must start by understanding the peculiar character of the epic language: its basic units are not so much single words as formulae ready-made to fit various parts of the hexameter verse.

For the literary scholar, we may extend our view of Homeric language to the scenes and stories from which, on a larger scale, the epics are constructed. When we do this, the “Homeric question” loses its significance. Each poet was working within a tradition of language and legend, and was developing it in traditional ways, by expanding, elaborating, and combining the given materials. He tried to tell the stories better than his predecessors had done, and so changes inevitably crept in. This being the case, the notorious inconsistencies in the epics cause less difficulty. If a poet invented everything for himself, he ought to be consistent; but if he is using a great mass of material worked out by many different predecessors, perfect consistency can hardly be expected. The analytical hypothesis thus becomes unnecessary. We can allow the overwhelming sense of coherent artistic purpose and faithful observation of character to persuade us that we have the work of one mind shaping the tradition in an exceptionally successful way.


[ back ] 1. Smyth, pp. 172f.

[ back ] 2. Parry, The Making of Homeric Verse.

[ back ] 3. Witte, RE 8.2214

[ back ] 4. Meister, Die homerische Kunstsprache.

[ back ] 5. Hoekstra, Homeric Modifications of Formulaic Prototypes; Hainsworth, The Flexibility of the Homeric Formula.

[ back ] 6. Kuryłowicz, Esquisses linguistiques 85.

[ back ] 7. Watkins, Indogermanische Grammatik 3.1.19.