Indo-European Language and Society

Chapter 5. Honour and Honours


In Greek géras—the connection of which with gérōn ‘old man’ is no more than a popular etymology—is the honorific supplementary share occasionally granted to a king by his subjects which is a mark of his rank. If the timḗ, like the géras, enters into the apanage of the king, if it likewise entails honorific material prestations, it is distinguished in being a permanent dignity of divine origin. Since it designates the honorific royal portion which the gods receive from destiny and men from Zeus, timḗ is to be separated from the group of Gr. tínō ‘pay’, poinḗ ‘ransom, punishment’, the constant sense of which is of a juridical character.


The special privileges of Homeric royalty are conveyed by a number of terms relating to honor and honors. They form part of a vocabulary the specific meanings of which are linked with archaic institutions. These meanings must be elucidated by textual analysis. We begin this study with a word which occupies an important place in epic: this is the word géras (γέρας), usually translated as “honor,” “sign of honor,” a translation which seems to fit everywhere.
The particular interest of this word, quite independently of what it tells us about social conditions, is that it is illuminated by an etymological connection which has won general assent. Géras is said to be related to gérōn ‘old man’. This notion is, therefore, defined as a privilege attached to age, as an honor paid to old men; a right peculiar to a certain age class rather than to a social rank or a political function.
From a morphological point of view, géras is a neuter, the very structure of which is indicative of a high antiquity. The formation in –as is in fact ranked among the most ancient categories of the neuter, examples being sélas, kréas, téras, which are specified in their function by the vowel grade e (which is proper to ancient Indo-European neuters) and by the suffix –as with its variations. The word géras has been identified in the Mycenaean kera.
From géras is derived an adjective gerarós (γεραρός) whence in its turn the denominative verb geraírō (γεραίρω) comes, and this presupposes an ancient form *gerar alongside géras, a stem in –s which is confirmed by the negative form agérastos (αγέραστος). Thus this neuter in –as is flanked by a stem in –ar, thus conforming to the ancient type of Indo-European neuters.
The sense of géras emerges from certain uses, especially in the first book of the Iliad, and particularly in the middle part of this book. The géras is precisely the center of a dispute involving Agamemnon and Achilles. The situation is familiar. The divine oracle requires Agamemnon to restore his captive Chryseis to her father. He consents to do so on one condition. “But in that case, without delay, prepare for me another honorific portion (géras) so that I alone of the Argives shall not be deprived of such a portion (agérastos); that would be unseemly. For you all see that my own géras (hó moi géras) goes elsewhere” (118-120). Here the géras is naturally represented by the captive girl. She was certainly his honorific portion. But in virtue of what quality did Agamemnon receive her?
Achilles makes a spirited reply: “How shall the great-souled Achaeans give you a géras? We have, so far as I know, no common treasure laid in store. All that we have got from the sack of cities has been distributed; it would be unseemly to gather these things back from the people” (123-126).
The géras is thus a privilege in kind bestowed by the members of a social group on the occasion of a sharing out, after a haul of booty (e.g. the sack of a town), all the said booty being first put into a common pool on which the géras, the portion of the chief, is levied.
Achilles continues: “Give back this woman to the god and we, the Achaeans, will recompense you threefold and fourfold if Zeus one day should grant us to sack Troy,” that is to say, if conditions are favorable for the allocation of a new géras.
Then the discussion continues and Agamemnon gets angry: he will come and get his share from Achilles, Ajax or Odysseus. These are the heroes who have a right to a géras. They are all basilē̂es, men of the royal class.
This motif recurs often: géras is the key word in the whole of the first book of the Iliad. On it will depend the course of events which follow. From the moment when Agamemnon takes Briseis from him, Achilles, deprived of his géras, deems himself dishonored, átimos (ἄτιμος): “For behold the son of Atreus, the powerful prince Agamemnon, has dishonored me, for he has taken and holds my prize of honor (géras); by his own hand he has taken it away” (355-6). This is the origin of Achilles’ resentment and later Agamemnon will say that he must have been struck with madness the day he deprived Achilles of his géras.
In Book 9, line 334, the precise conditions of this allocation are defined. It is always Agamemnon who distributes to the aristḗessi (ἀριστήεσσι) and the basile û si (βασιλεῦσι), to the lords and kings, their géras, their portions of honor.
In another passage Achilles asks the Trojan Aeneas, who advances against him: “What reason impels you to oppose me? Do you hope to rule over the Trojans and win the rank which Priam holds? Even if you killed me, Priam would not entrust his géras to you. He has children, and he is not so foolish. Unless the Trojans have already granted you a témenos if you succeeded in killing me” (Il. 20, 178ff.).
Thus the géras can be bestowed as reward for some exploit. It may take the form of a kingdom like the one which, according to Achilles, Aeneas hopes will be conferred on him by the ruling sovereign Priam. This prerogative is, or can be, hereditary, if we may judge by the reference to Priam’s sons. The grant of this géras may be accompanied by an allocation of land (témenos), but these are independent things.
After the capture of Troy Neoptolemos distinguished himself by his valor. As a consequence he receives his portion (moîra)—to which all the warriors have a right—and over and above this a fine géras. The nature of the géras is not specified; it may have been a woman, like Chryseis in the first book of the Iliad, or like Eurymedousa, who was given as a géras to King Alcinous and was made his waiting-maid in his palace in Phaeacia (Od. 7, 10-11).
In the fourth book of the Odyssey we see Menelaus, who is a king, offering to his guests, besides the meat which has already been served to them, (ll. 57-59) his own géras, the chine (nō̂ta) of an ox, a supplementary portion of the meat (ll. 65-66).
When Odysseus, in the underworld, enquires about his possessions and the present fate of his family, he asks what has become of his géras: “Tell me, what has become of my father and my son, do they still hold my géras?” (Od. 11, 174f.). He receives the reply: “No one possesses your géras, but Telemachus looks after your teménea.” The two notions are not linked: the témenos is distinct from the géras, the privilege of royal dignity. This is why each of the suitors desires, by marrying Penelope, to obtain géras, the royal apanage of Odysseus.
Those examples show what the géras represents. It consists of extraordinary prestations reserved as the right of the king, in particular a special portion of the booty, and certain material advantages bestowed by the people; a place of honor, allocation of the best pieces of meat, cups of wine. Let us listen to Sarpedon, king of Lycia, as he enumerates his royal privileges (Il. 12, 310ff.): Why are we honored with so many privileges, the place of honor, meat, cups of wine? Why do all honor us as gods? Why do we enjoy a large allocation of land (témenos méga)? … Is it not our duty, in view of this, to fight in the first rank so that it will be said of us ‘Our kings are not men without glory…, but valiant men who fight in the first rank’?”
These are not merely poetic imaginings. Here we touch on real institutions, the memory of which is preserved by the historians. Thucydides (I, 13) in speaking of primitive Greece says in a lapidary formula: “hereditary monarchies comprising fixed géra.” Thus the géra form part of the definition of basileía, of royalty.
Herodotus (VI, 56ff.) gives a detailed account of the privileges of the kings in ancient Sparta. They have two priests, the right to wage war wherever they please; on the land, as many cattle as they wish, and the skins and the chines (nō̂ta, cf. above Od. 4, 65) of the animals offered in sacrifice.
Even longer is the enumeration of the rights in time of peace: the first place at public banquets, the first fruits of every kind, at banquets portions twice as big as that of others (each term seems contrived to illustrate a Homeric text); they have the right to an allowance of victims for a sacrifice. At the games, they occupy the seat of honor (cf. above, Il. 12, 311); when they do not appear at the public meal, their portion is brought to them, but this portion is double if they attend in person; they preserve the oracles which are given, etc.
These historical testimonies may in their turn throw some light on a passage from the Homeric Hymn to Hermes (lines 128-129). The subject is a sacrifice made by Hermes while he was still a child. He has taken the cows from the herd and sacrifices two of them; he pierces them with spits, roasts them and spreads them out. Then he divides the flesh into twelve portions, which he draws by lot, and then he “adds to each moîra a géras.”
Previously Hermes has prepared the meat: σάρκαϛ … καὶ νῶτα γεράσμια (l. 122); we pick out this expression nō̂ta gerásmia ‘the chine which constitutes the royal portion’; it is always the chine which is offered as a géras at festivities.
Thus to each of the twelve parts Hermes adds a piece of the nō̂ta, which by definition serve as géras. Since he does not wish to make a mistake, he does this twelve times; he offers to each of the gods the géras which belongs properly only to one. The term is here very concrete; it is a “privilege consisting of meat.”
The definition at which we have arrived appears to be uniform and it exhibits everywhere the features which we have culled successively from the texts. We are now in a position to take up again the problem of the etymology and of the connection of géras with gérōn ‘old man’.
This connection was proposed by Osthoff in 1906 [1] and it has won general acceptance. Osthoff started from the Homeric formula: tò gàr géras estì geróntōn, which appears twice in the Iliad (4, 323; 9, 422), from which it appears to emerge that the géras properly belongs to old men (gérontes). This serves to illustrate an etymology which the very form of the words seems to impose. But what is the precise meaning of this expression? Let us read it in its context.
In 4, 323, Nestor declares: “I am too old to fight, but all the same I remain among the warriors to guide them with my counsel and my voice: that is the privilege (géras) of old men.”
In the other example (9, 422), Achilles dismisses in similar terms the venerable envoys of Agamemnon: “Go, declare my message to the chiefs of the Achaeans, since that is the privilege (géras) of elders.”
This expression, regarded by Osthoff as so revealing, in fact boils down to the simple metaphorical use in which géras goes beyond its specific meaning: to give counsel, to intervene to reconcile men of power—such is the géras of old men, the privilege of those whom age excludes from combat. From this nothing of value can be extracted for the etymology. We can convince ourselves of this by another formula of the same structure which recurs six times and not merely two, which Osthoff has ignored: tò gàr géras estì thanóntōn ‘such is the privilege of the dead’: if we make offerings to the dead, this is the privilege which accrues to them. No one would think of drawing the conclusion from this use that the géras has any connection with death.
Thus there is nothing which relates géras ‘privilege’ to gérōn ‘old man’. The formula in which these two words occur side by side does not imply any etymological connection between them. Besides, nowhere do we see that the géras is the perquisite of old men. Certainly, old age is surrounded with respect; the old men formed the council of elders, the senate; but royal honors are never accorded to them and an old man never receives a royal privilege, a géras in the strict sense of the term. Osthoff has been the victim of a popular etymology which was suggested by the ancient commentators in their anxiety to explain everything: “geraiós (γεραιός) ‘old’ comes from géras because the old men (gérontes) are geraioí, worthy of honor and respect.”
These fantasies of the scholiasts are refuted by the forms in question. For besides géras (γέρας) ‘privilege’ there is another word in –as: gē̂ras (γῆρας) ‘old age’, which has the vocalic grade of the aorist égēra (ἔγηρα). Thus we have two alternatives: either gē̂ras ‘old age’ is a form with an original long grade and it would be impossible that géras ‘privilege’ came from the same root, or the long grade of gē̂ras ‘old age’ is borrowed from the aorist of the verb “to grow old” and this is a proof that by this means gē̂ras ‘old age’ was distinguished from géras ‘privilege’. Everything goes to confirm the view that these two terms must be kept apart and no connection between them was felt.
We know further that gérōn ‘old man’ and gē̂ras ‘old age’ are etymologically connected with Skt. jarati ‘make decrepit’, jarant– ‘old man’, Avestan zarvan ‘old age’. The forms derived from this root never indicate anything else than physical decrepitude and are never linked with the notion of honor. We can judge the force of the word from the Homeric expression sákos géron (Od. 22, 184) which designates an old shield, worn out and decrepit.
The connection between géras and gérōn must, therefore, be rejected. Released from an etymological relationship which falsified it, the term géras is restored to its real meaning and antiquity. It designates one of the royal prerogatives, a prestation due to the basileús and constitutive of his dignity. Achilles is no longer himself—he loses his rank—if his géras is taken away.
This is what characterizes this notion in Homeric society. Even if we are not in a position to recover the Indo-European pre-history of the notion, at least we can be assured that the institution belongs to the most ancient form of royalty in Greece.
In the vocabulary which we are studying a good many words do not look as though they referred to institutions. They seem to have only a general meaning. Only certain modes of employment can reveal their institutional character.
While géras is found especially in poetry and remains confined to the most ancient phase of the language, the word timḗ (τιμή) occurs at every period and in all kinds of text. The place which it occupied in the language can be gauged by the number of forms which belong to the same family. Further, it is a word so clear, so constantly employed, that it might seem sufficient to recall that timḗ ‘honor, dignity’ (with the derived verb timáō) is the abstract noun from the old verb tíō (τίω) ‘honor’.
In fact, timḗ is one of the most specific terms of certain social conditions. It remains to analyze it, and in order to give the problem its full scope we shall first consider the etymological group with which timḗ is connected. It constitutes a vast family of words, so extensive and diversified that the connections between the forms sometimes create difficulty. We list the chief members: besides tíō, timáō, átimos ‘deprived of timḗ’, we must cite the group of tínō (τίνω) ‘pay’, tínumai (τίνυμαι) ‘cause to pay, cause to expiate’, tísis (τίσις) ‘punishment, vengeance’, átitos (ἄτιτος) ‘not paid, unpunished’, etc. As we see, the terms refer to the payment of a debt, compensation for some misdeed. Further relatives are poinḗ (ποινή), debt which must be paid to atone for a crime, and in Latin poena, pūnīre.
Outside Greek, we can list Skt. cāyate ‘pay, cause to pay, punish, chastise’; cayati ‘respect’, cāyu ‘respectful’; Av. kay-, čikay– ‘punish’; kaēθā, kaēnā ‘vengeance, hatred’, this last corresponding to Gr. poinḗ.
Such are the forms which present themselves in Greek and Indo-Iranian; they can all be derived from a root *kwei-.
But the disparity of sense creates a difficulty; which is predominant, the sense “punish” or the sense “honor”? Is it possible to begin with the sense “obtain punishment, take vengeance” and derive from this the idea “honor, pay honor to”? It is only by positing a somewhat vague transition that we can unify the two senses. This is why, long ago, W. Schulze in his Quaestiones epicae (1892) proposed to separate the two etymological families. He posited two forms, one in ē, *kwēi-, whence tíō, timḗ and the Sanskrit forms having the meaning of “respect,” and another in e, *kwei-, whence tínō, tínumai, tísis and the Sanskrit forms with the sense “to punish,” etc.
In general, scholars have not made up their minds firmly on this question. Schulze has the merit of having underlined the difficulty of ascribing a single origin to the two sets of forms and meanings, and he has provided the means of solving it. The question is to decide whether the sense of timḗ and the words related to it support or exclude a connection with the family of poinḗ. It will not be sufficient to translate timḗ as “honor, esteem.” We must give precision to the definition by reference to terms of similar sense. We shall choose some of the most explicit examples.
In the first place we consider again the passage in which géras and timḗ are associated as two connected concepts. This is in the passage about the quarrel between Achilles and Agamemnon in the first book of the Iliad. Achilles, when Agamemnon is proposing to take away his share of the booty, reproaches him in these words: “I never had any personal interest in coming here. It is you whom we followed, to please you, to win a timḗ for you (τιμὴν ἀρνύμενοι, l. 159), for you and Menelaus from the Trojans.”
The translation of timḗ as “recompense” is incorrect, for we cannot see by what Agamemnon could be recompensed and how he would receive recompense from the very people whom he will defeat. What is involved here is the honorific portion and material advantages which men accord to a person in virtue of his dignity and rank. Agamemnon replies: “Be off with you, if your heart bids you. There are many others besides you who will accord me the timḗ (timḗsousi), above all wise Zeus” (174ff.). Here we have an important feature: the consideration which men—and gods—will accord to him; this timḗ is thus the apanage of royal status. Conferred by gods and men, it comprises consideration, manifestations of respect and also material advantages.
This definition may be supplemented by other testimony. In his effort to allay the quarrel Nestor says to Agamemnon: “Leave to Achilles the géras that the Achaeans have awarded to him” and to Achilles “Do not dispute with a king. The king to whom Zeus has granted kûdos ‘glory’ (cf. below, Chapter 6) has not the same timḗ in the division. You are strong and a goddess was your mother; but he is superior because he commands more men” (276ff). Here appears an important difference between géras and timḗ; the former is granted by men whereas timḗ is conferred by destiny: it forms part of one’s personal lot. A text like Il. 15, 189 brings confirmation. The three sons of Kronos, Zeus, Poseidon, and Hades, divided all things among themselves; the world was divided into three parts and each one got his timḗ by drawing lots (ḗlakhen). Thus among both gods and men it is chance which decides the attribution of timḗ, and the key terms moîra and lakheîn serve to underline this fact. Thus no one can challenge the legitimacy of this apanage.
If there remained any doubt about the connection between timḗ and the royal power, it would be dispelled by Il. 6, 193. The King of Lycia, wishing to retain Bellerophon, gives him his daughter in marriage and “half of his royal timḗ (timē̂s basilēídos hḗmisu pásēs).” In a passage already quoted (apropos of géras), Achilles upbraids Aeneas, who marches towards him with the words: “do you hope that this combat will give you the right to rule over the Trojans with the timḗ of Priam?” (Il. 20, 180f.); the expression associates the timḗ with the exercise of royal power. And there is a large number of kings (basilē̂es) who count these timaí among their privileges: places of honor, seats of honor, meat in abundance and full cups (Il. 12, 310). Not simply honor, but substantial advantages are linked with the status of basileús and are accorded by fate. What is therefore the origin of timḗ? The poet tells us in express terms: “the timḗ (of the king) comes from Zeus, and Zeus has taken him into friendship” (Il. 2, 197). The timḗ is of divine origin. This statement will be found elsewhere. We must also take note of the fact that the verbs which govern timḗ are verbs of giving: didónai ‘give’, opázein ‘accord’, phérein ‘confer’ or of deprival: Achilles was deprived of his timḗ when his captive girl was taken away. This notion of timḗ may be defined as a dignity of divine origin, conferred by fate on a royal person, which comprises not merely power but privileges of respect and material advantages. Thus timḗ is distinct from géras, which is an occasional prestation of a material kind which men accord to a sovereign or a hero.
Does timḗ also have a religious significance? This is often asserted, with citation of the passage from the Homeric Hymn to Hermes (l. 172) where timḗ is linked with hosíē (ὁσίη). This is the sole example, in Homeric poetry, which might seem to suggest this value for timḗ. Hermes replies to his mother’s reprimand by saying that he has no desire to remain obscure and despised. It would be better to live with the immortals than to be cooped up in a dark cave all by himself. He adds “Then, in point of honors (timē̂s), I shall have—I shall see to it—the same holy privileges (tē̂s hosíēs) as Apollo.”
Does this mean that there is a connection between timḗ and hosíē as sacred privileges, which would make the timḗ the privilege of a god? In this case the sense of the word would go beyond everything that has been read into it hitherto. It would no longer designate merely the regard shown to a powerful personage.
But is this the meaning of hosíē? In another passage of the hymn, Hermes, who desires that the wishes he has formulated should be fulfilled, sees in Apollo all that he has wished for himself: “You are the first, you dwell among the immortals, Zeus holds you in affection ek pásēs hosíēs (470)—this is only justice—and has bestowed on you wondrous gifts.”
The translation of hosíēs as “justice,” a term devoid of any religious value, might cause surprise. We shall see below (Book Six, Chapter One) in a study devoted to hósios, that this adjective is not the equivalent of hierós: it is opposed to hierós as the “profane” to the “sacred.”
Thus the first passage from the Hymn to Hermes (173f.) must be understood as follows: “As regards timḗ, I also wish to have a right to this hosíē which Apollo enjoys.” This concerns profane advantages and not a sacred privilege. The best proof of this lies in what follows: “…if my father does not grant me them, I will make myself the Prince of Brigands. If they punish me, I shall go to Pytho and take away the tripods, the gold and the cauldrons.” Such are the advantages which a god enjoys outside the domain of the sacred. There is no need in this passage to give timḗ a special sense. The word is to be taken in its usual sense and does not denote a religious notion.
We may now proceed to an examination of the other half of the problem. What here concerns us is the notion expressed by tínumai, tísis, and poinḗ, with the corresponding forms in other languages. This notion could be described as “cause to pay a premium, claim the price of a fine, especially for a capital offence.” Has this any connection with timḗ?
In the first place, let us consider the forms themselves and the difference in the root vowel. We have on the one hand tīmḗ, tíō, and on the other tī́numai (= teinu-, cf. apoteinútō from a fifth-century Cretan inscription). The formal difference brings out the difference which separates the two notions.
It has often been maintained that in one passage of Homer timḗ is the equivalent of poinḗ. This text forms the basis for those who argue for the connection of the two lexical families. Let us therefore reread it. Agamemnon announces the solemn pact which will bind the Trojans and Achaeans and asks the gods to serve as witnesses: “If Alexander should kill Menelaus, let him have for himself Helen and all the treasure; we ourselves shall depart on our ships. But if on the contrary it should be Menelaus who kills Alexander, it will be for the Trojans to give back Helen and all the treasure to us and to pay to the Argives an appropriate recompense (timḕn apotínemen), from which future generations shall profit. And if Priam and Priam’s sons refuse to pay (timḕn tínein), seeing that, it is I who will fight to obtain satisfaction (poinḗ) and I shall not depart until I have brought the war to its end”(Il. 3, 275ff.).
It has been proposed to read into this passage an etymological link between tínō, apotínō ‘pay’ and timḗ on the one hand, and an equivalence between timḗ and poinḗ on the other. In fact neither relation stands up to examination. The pact envisages in the case of a victory by Menelaus that the Trojans will give back Helen and all the treasures and that they will pay in addition the timḗ to Agamemnon and to the Argives. This is a tribute which goes beyond the simple restitution of the property: it implies a recognition of royal power and the accordance of the honor which accompanies such recognition. This being so, under the conditions in which the pact is concluded, the timḗ takes the form of a payment which the Trojans will make over and above the property which they are to return. It is only by chance and in this single example that timḗ comes to be associated with the verb “pay in return.” It follows that the poet did not conceive of timḗ as a morphological correlative of apotínō. On the contrary, this text clearly brings out the gap separating timḗ and poinḗ. If the Trojans refuse the timḗ, then Agamemnon will have the right to fight to obtain a poinḗ. That is quite a different matter: poinḗ is the punishment and the reparation due for violation of an oath.
The comparable forms outside Greek are no less foreign to the notion of consideration or honor and they all refer to punishment: this is the case with the Latin poena, a term of criminal law, an old borrowing from the Greek form poinḗ. It is clear that poena and pūnīre have nothing in common with the idea of honos. In Avestan, the verb kāy– and the derivatives kaēnā-, kaēθa– are connected with the idea of exacting vengeance, obtaining reparation for a crime or an injury. No term in the Avestan group corresponds to the Sanskrit cāyati ‘respect’.
In sum, outside Greek, nothing can be found to compare with the sense “to honor” except a few Indic forms, the verb cāya-, and the adjective cāyu ‘respectful’.
There are, however, secondary contacts in Greek between the two families; as a result of this we have notably the form timōreîn ‘bring aid, help, chastise’, timōrós ‘protector, avenger’; literally “he who watches over the timḗ (timaoros).” This is a mixture of the two notions. Similarly, the most ancient forms tínō, tinúō, seem to have borrowed their vowel i from timḗ, as is shown by the alternation between i and ei attested in the dialects. [2]


[ back ] 1. Indogermanische Forschungen, XIX, 1906, pp. 217ff.
[ back ] 2. For a detailed treatment of these problems of the vowels and their quantity see Schwyzer, Griechische Grammatik, I, 697 and n. 4.