Pointing at the Past: From Formula to Performance in Homeric Poetics

  Bakker, Egbert J. 2005. Pointing at the Past: From Formula to Performance in Homeric Poetics. Hellenic Studies Series 12. Washington, DC: Center for Hellenic Studies. http://nrs.harvard.edu/urn-3:hul.ebook:CHS_BakkerE_Pointing_at_the_Past.2005.

Chapter 2. Formula, Context, and Synonymy

Paraskevaides has demonstrated the importance and scope of synonymy as a factor in Homeric formulaic diction, but in some cases more can be said about a given pair of “synonyms” than that they are either metrically different (and thus functional synonyms) or metrically equivalent (and thus a violation of economy). In other words, I will suggest that some of Paraskevaides’ alleged synonyms are, on closer inspection, not synonyms. The consequence of this is that in the case of metrically equivalent pairs the case for functional (i.e. formulaic) synonymy is strengthened: when two metrically equivalent expressions can be shown to have a different meaning, they cease to be a violation of the “law” of economy, which can only be favorable to the notion of functional synonymy. In the present chapter I present a representative instance of this phenomenon.

The case to be discussed is the subject of the previous chapter, the set of dative expressions for “spear.” This formulaic set, which in itself is based on functional synonymy, displays a number of metrically identical pairs. My argument to the effect that this duplication is motivated by various differences in meaning primarily applies, of course, to the expressions themselves, but in its general orientation it is applicable, it is to be hoped, to other aspects of Homeric diction.

Synonymy and the Violation of Economy

The system of singular dative epithet-expressions for “spear” can be presented as follows, after Paraskevaides (1984:26):

ὀξέϊ δουρί   ⎯ ∪ ∪ ⎯ ∪
ἔγχεϊ μακρῷ   ⎯ ∪ ∪ ⎯ ⎯
ὀξέϊ χαλκῷ   ⎯ ∪ ∪ ⎯ ⎯
δουρὶ φαεινῷ   C ⎯ ∪ ∪ ⎯ ⎯
νηλέϊ χαλκῷ   C ⎯ ∪ ∪ ⎯ ⎯
αἰχμῇ χαλκείῃ   ⎯ ⎯ ⎯ ⎯ ⎯
ἔγχεϊ χαλκείῳ   ⎯ ∪ ∪ ⎯ ⎯ ⎯
ἔγχεϊ ὀξυόεντι   ⎯ ∪ ∪ ⎯ ∪ ∪ ⎯ ∪
χαλκήρεϊ δουρί   ⎯ ⎯ ∪ ∪ ⎯ ∪
ταναήκεϊ χαλκῷ   ∪ ∪ ⎯ ∪ ∪ ⎯ ⎯
ξυστῷ χαλκήρεϊ   ⎯ ⎯ ⎯ ⎯ ∪ ∪

In this passage, one and the same spear is referred to three times in succession, twice with δουρὶ, once with ἔγχος. This shows that the two words are synonymous in the sense that they may be used indiscriminately from a referential point of view. The interchangeability of the two lexemes lies at the basis of the datives being part of a formulaic system that in the previous Chapter is discussed as a case of “peripheral semantics.” It is on account of their function within this system that δουρί and ἔγχεϊ have their specific function in Homeric verse.

The metrical diversity displayed by the list cited above may be motivated by the formulaic purpose of the system of which the expressions are a part. But the list contains a number of metrically and prosodically identical pairs. The two main words form such a pair by the addition of metrically different epithets (ὀξέϊ δουρὶ ‘with the sharp spear’ vs. ἔγχεϊ μακρῷ ‘with the long lance’); furthermore, every instance of χαλκῷ ‘with bronze’ with epithet is consistently matched by an equivalent expression containing δουρὶ or ἔγχεϊ. Thus beside ὀξέϊ χαλκῷ ‘with the sharp bronze’ we have the two expressions just mentioned (ὀξέϊ δουρὶ and ἔγχεϊ μακρῷ (all three begin with a vowel); beside νηλέϊ χαλκῷ ‘with merciless bronze’ we have δουρὶ φαεινῷ ‘with the shining spear’ (both begin with consonant); and, finally, beside ταναήκεϊ χαλκῷ ‘with the sharpened bronze’ we have χαλκήρεϊ δουρὶ ‘with the bronze spear’. When we view the list as a formulaic system, that is, as a group of synonymous expressions conveying the idea “with the spear,” these pairs are mere duplicates and, as such, violations of the law of economy. This is the way they are treated by Paraskevaides (1984:23).

But Paraskevaides’ analysis is not immune to criticism, and in what follows, I challenge his view, offering some considerations on synonymy and metrical equivalence in Homer. These fall into three parts, covering three aspects of synonymy in Homer. The diachronic aspect (section 1) applies to the pair ὀξέϊ δουρὶ vs. ἔγχεϊ μακρῷ. It consists in the insight that two alleged synonyms may still be different in the diachronic dimension. The synchronic usage in Homer may reflect this former difference, in spite of the interchangeability of the expressions on other grounds.

Then follows the discussion of the semantic aspect (section 2), which applies to cases in which two allegedly synonymous expressions turn out, under closer investigation, not to be synonymous at all. The case here is ὀξέϊ δουρὶ vs. ὀξέϊ χαλκῷ. On the basis of a linguistic examination of the contexts in which they occur it can be shown that the two expressions conform to entirely different distributional patterns.

The poetic aspect (section 3), finally, lies in the significant addition of an epithet to a nuclear noun. The specific value of the epithet may preclude the equivalence in meaning of two allegedly synonymous expressions. This section will be concerned with the difference between νηλέϊ χαλκῷ and δουρὶ φαεινῷ.

It should be stressed that these three aspects of synonymy are not necessarily distinct, in that the presence of one of them excludes the other two. For example, the preservation of an older, metrically equivalent form may be motivated by semantic or poetic factors, and a semantic difference between two metrically equivalent expressions may be put to poetic use. The three aspects merely represent three vantage points from which to describe synonymy in Homer beyond the confines of formal analysis.

1. The Diachronic Aspect: ὀξέϊ δουρὶ vs. ἔγχεϊ μακρῷ

We saw that δόρυ and ἔγχος are functional synonyms in the Homeric diction. But on this basis, the co-occurrence of ὀξέϊ δουρὶ and ἔγχεϊ μακρῷ would be entirely dysfunctional and would disrupt the economy of the system: both expressions have exactly the same metrical form and localization (at the end of the verse, after the bucolic diaeresis).

Ὀξέϊ δουρὶ and ἔγχεϊ μακρῷ seem to be wholly interchangeable in the following pair, where they are used as periphery to one and the same verb of wounding:

βεβλήκει κεφαλῆς κατὰ ἰνίον ὀξέϊ δουρί·

Iliad V 73

he hit him on the head on the occiput with the sharp spear
Τληπόλεμος δ᾿ ἄρα μηρὸν ἀριστερὸν ἔγχεϊ μακρῷ
βεβλήκειν, αἰχμὴ δὲ διέσσυτο μαιμώωσα

Iliad V 660–661

Tlepolemos, on the left thigh with the long spear
he hit him, and the point went right through in furious zeal

2. The Semantic Aspect: χαλκῷ vs. δουρί

We now turn to the discussion of the meaning of ὀξέϊ (ταναήκεϊ) χαλκῷ ‘with the sharp(ened) bronze’ with respect to that of ὀξέϊ (χαλκήρεϊ) δουρὶ ‘with the sharp (bronze) spear’ and ἔγχεϊ μακρῷ ‘with the long lance’. Of course, χαλκός ‘bronze’ may come to mean “spear” only by a possible metonymical extension of its meaning; there are cases where the use of χαλκός is irrelevant for our purposes. At Iliad XXIII 118, for example, it is used to refer to an axe, and it may also just denote the bronze of which the spear point is made (Iliad X 135; XIV 12; XV 482). In these cases, obviously, even the alleged synonymy of χαλκός and the corresponding δουρὶ- or ἔγχεϊ-expression is ruled out.

But in the cases where the reference to a spear is not ruled out, an investigation of the contexts suggests that ὀξέϊ (ταναήκεϊ) χαλκῷ and ὀξέϊ (χαλκήρεϊ) δουρὶ are used under entirely different circumstances. ὀξέϊ χαλκῷ typically combines with predicates that denote states, such as (medio-) passive participles, for instance:

ὅς τις ἔτ᾿ ἄβλητος καὶ ἀνούτατος ὀξέϊ χαλκῷ

Iliad IV 540

whoever is still not hit and unhurt by the sharp bronze

ἂψ ἀναχαζόμενον βεβλημένον ὀξέϊ χαλκῷ

Iliad XVI 819

drawing back, hit by the sharp bronze

ὡς ἴδε Πάτροκλον δεδαϊγμένον ὀξέϊ χαλκῷ

Iliad XIX 283

when she saw Patroklos lacerated by the sharp bronze

καὶ γάρ θην τούτῳ τρωτὸς χρὼς ὀξέϊ χαλκῷ

Iliad XXI 568

he too has skin that is vulnerable to the sharp bronze

The verbs of the δουρὶ-expressions, by contrast, denote less “time-stable” phenomena, such as actions (consisting of killing, thrusting, hitting, or throwing), rather than states, for example:

οὔτασεν ὦμον ὕπερθεν ἐπάλμενος ὀξέϊ δουρί

Iliad XI 421

jumping toward him he wounded him from above on the shoulder with the sharp spear

λαιμὸν τύψ᾿ ἐπὶ οἷ τετραμμένον ὀξέϊ δουρί·

Iliad XIII 542

he struck the neck that was turned to him with the sharp spear

τὸν μὲν ἐγὼ προσιόντα βάλον χαλκήρεϊ δουρί

Iliad XI 742

him as he came to me I hit with the bronze spear

Another typical environment for ὀξέϊ (ταναήκεϊ) χαλκῷ is the following generic (“iterative”) sentence, which does not refer to a particular killing:

τὸν μὲν ἐγὼ μάλα πολλὰ μάχῃ ἔνι κυδιανείρῃ
ὀφθαλμοῖσιν ὄπωπα, καὶ εὖτ᾿ ἐπὶ νηυσὶν ἐλάσσας
Ἀργείους κτείνεσκε δαΐζων ὀξέϊ χαλκῷ·

Iliad XXIV 391–393

him in the battle that gives men kudos, very often
with my eyes I have seen him, also when drawing close to the ships
he would kill the Archives, lacerating them with sharp bronze

Returning, after this linguistic investigation, to the system of dative expressions for “spear” (see the list on p. #), we have to conclude that on account of their different distributional patterns the χαλκῷ-expressions in fact do not belong to this system at all; they form a mini-system of their own. To realize that the χαλκῷ-expressions are not synonymous with the δουρὶ-expressions, but have a different function in the language, enhances the economy of the system in Parry’s sense, since a number of violations have disappeared. In the new χαλκῷ-subsystem, metrical diversity is realized by the choice of different epithets (ὀξέϊ, ταναήκεϊ, νηλέϊ). Metrical-prosodic considerations, however, are not always sufficient to account for the presence of these epithets, as appears from the use of νηλέϊ to which we now turn.

3. The Poetic Aspect: δουρὶ φαεινῷ vs. νηλέϊ χαλκῷ

The first example (Iliad XII 427) is less transitive because the agent of the act is not expressed and also because the subject is unspecified; in the second example, we have again a conditional environment. In these cases, then, the reasons for using νηλέϊ χαλκῷ instead of its metrical and prosodic doublet δουρὶ φαεινῷ seem to be the same as those for preferring ὀξέϊ χαλκῷ to ὀξέϊ δουρὶ in the less transitive contexts cited earlier.

In a similar way, νηλέϊ χαλκῷ may add an overtone of menace and imminent terror to the context that would be absent if the more neutral δουρὶ φαεινῷ were used, for example:

ὁ δὲ Κύπριν ἐπῴχετο νηλέϊ χαλκῷ

Iliad V 330

and he, he went after Kupris with pitiless bronze

ἵεντ᾿ ἀλλήλων ταμέειν χρόα νηλέϊ χαλκῷ

Iliad XIII 501, XVI 761

they were eager to cut each other’s skin with the pitiless bronze

Τρῶες δὲ περισταδὸν ἄλλοθεν ἄλλος
οὔταζον σάκος εὐρὺ παναίολον, οὐδὲ δύναντο
εἴσω ἐπιγράψαι τέρενα χρόα νηλέϊ χαλκῷ

Iliad XIII 551–553

All around the Trojans, each from his own position
they were hitting the broad flashy shield, but did not succeed
in scratching the tender skin inside with the pitiless bronze

One might argue here that νηλέϊ χαλκῷ is used, not because of the epithet νηλέϊ, but because of χαλκῷ, in view of the nonfactual context (in the case of XIII 501 and XVI 761 the spear-expression occurs within the complement of ἵεντ᾿ ‘they wished to…’, and in the case of XIII 551–553 the context is negated, as complement of οὐδὲ δύναντο ‘they could not …’). It is true that these contexts are different from factual contexts like “He killed/hit him with the spear,” but that does not mean that νηλέϊ χαλκῷ is a mere prosodic alternative to ὀξέϊ χαλκῷ. Again, the difference between δουρὶ φαεινῷ and νηλέϊ χαλκῷ lies both in the opposition between “pitiless” and “shining” no less than between “spear” and “bronze.” Besides, νηλέϊ χαλκῷ is sometimes used in factual contexts that seem to be the domain of the δουρὶ-expressions:

Ἰδομενεὺς δ᾿ ᾿Ερύμαντα κατὰ στόμα νηλέϊ χαλκῷ
νύξε· τὸ δ᾿ ἀντικρὺ δόρυ χάλκεον ἐξεπέρησε
νέρθεν ὑπ᾿ ἐγκεφάλοιο, κέασσε δ᾿ ἄρ᾿ ὀστέα λευκά·
ἐκ δ᾿ ἐτίναχθεν ὀδόντες, ἐνέπλησθεν δέ οἱ ἄμφω
αἵματος ὀφθαλμοί· τὸ δ᾿ ἀνὰ στόμα καὶ κατὰ ῥῖνας
πρῆσε χανών· θανάτου δὲ μέλαν νέφος ἀμφεκάλυψεν.

Iliad XVI 345–350

Idomeneus, Erumas in the mouth with pitiless bronze
he struck; and the bronze spear pierced right through,
from below under the brain, and it crushed the white bones:
the teeth were shattered out, and both were filled
with blood, the eyes; and through his mouth and nostrils
he blew out gaping. And the black cloud of death enveloped him.

The force of the epithet νηλέϊ as opposed to that of φαεινῷ, is particularly suited to the gruesome detail in which the hit is described, which is another way of saying that νηλέϊ χαλκῷ is not just a prosodic alternative to ὀξέϊ χαλκῷ, or a doublet of δουρὶ φαεινῷ.

Structuralism vs. Functionalism

Insofar as the preceding discussion of the “doublets” in the system for “spear” in the dative has implications beyond that system, it shows that the issue of synonymy in Homeric diction involves more factors than metrical-prosodic ones only. The Parryan approach to synonymy is functional insofar as it is concerned with the similarity in function of two or more expressions with different metrical forms. But to the extent that this similarity is subservient to a system, the Parryan approach had better be called structuralist, in that the emphasis is on the function of expressions within the system to which they belong rather than to their actual contexts.


[ back ] 1. Parry 1928, translated and reprinted in Parry 1971.

[ back ] 2. Cf. Witte 1913; Meister 1921.

[ back ] 3. Parry 1928:105 (= 1971:84).

[ back ] 4. Parry 124–125 (= 1971:100–101).

[ back ] 5. Parry 141–142 (= 1971:114–115).

[ back ] 6. Düntzer 1872:538.

[ back ] 7. Paraskevaides 1984.

[ back ] 8. See Trümpy 1950:51–52; Lorimer 1950:254–258, as well as below.

[ back ] 9. See Whallon 1966:16–18, who contrasts the interchangeability of δόρυ and ἔγχος with the clear distinction between ἀσπίς and σάκος.

[ back ] 10. See also Trümpy 1950:53; and Chapter One above.

[ back ] 11. In the context of the second case the other lexeme is actually used: V 656: δούρατα μακρά, and V 664/666: δόρυ. Notice that the spear mentioned in V 660 is used for throwing, not thrusting (cf. V 657 ἐκ χειρῶν ἤϊξαν); this is a further indication that ἔγχεϊ μακρῷ is used arbitrarily here (see below).

[ back ] 12. Notice that Eustathius reads ὀξέϊ δουρὶ here, and that ὀξέϊ χαλκῷ is a variant. The latter can be explained on the basis of the juxtaposition with the middle perfect participle, see section 2 below.

[ back ] 13. It testifies to the general functional synonymy of ἔγχος and δόρυ that in the spear-throwing formula (δολιχόσκιον) ἔγχος is used: ἦ ῥα, καὶ ἀμπεπαλὼν προΐει δολιχόσκιον ἔγχος.

[ back ] 14. Trümpy 1950:52–54; and Lorimer 1950:258–261.

[ back ] 15. Ἐγχος is attested in Mycenaean: e-ke-si (PY Jn 829), see Ruijgh 1957:91–93.

[ back ] 16. A passage where the long spear is probably meant is XIX 47–49, where wounded warriors use an ἔγχος to lean on.

[ back ] 17. See Trümpy 1950:53. It is precisely these two heroes, especially Aias, that are also σάκος-bearers. Σάκος, the long shield, reaching to a warrior’s feet, is another relic from the Mycenaean age. It may be used indiscriminately to some extent with ἀσπίς, which designates the younger type (ibid., pp. 20–36), again for the sake of functional synonymy, but the difference between the two terms is never far away, owing among other things to the strong association of the σάκος with Aias (see Whallon 1966:5–36).

[ back ] 18. This is not to say that δουρὶ does not or cannot occur with νύσσω. See for example XI 95–96 τὸν δ᾿ ἰθὺς μεμαῶτα μετώπιον ὀξέϊ δουρὶ | νύξ᾿ (said about Agamemnon).

[ back ] 19. See also Chapter One, p. # above. Δουρὶ combines with ἀκοντίζειν sixteen times in the Iliad (out of twenty-two occurrences of the verb) and ἔγχεϊ two times. With the finite aorist form βάλ(ε)(ν), δουρὶ combines twenty-eight times (out of 100 occurrences of the verb), and ἔγχεϊ four times. Notice that, conversely, ἔγχεϊ cannot be shown to have an affinity with verbs for thrusting: both ἔγχεϊ and δουρὶ combine five times with νύσσειν (out of eighteen occurrences of the verb).

[ back ] 20. This is in fact the only instance of ἀκόντισεν ὀξέϊ δουρὶ: normally ἀκόντισε δουρὶ φαεινῷ is used. Apart from historical linguistic reasons (in the Aeolic phase, n-mobile being absent, *ἀκόντισε ὄξεϝι δόϝρι was prosodically undesirable), the synchronic, poetic explanation for this preference seems to be the value of the epithet φαεινός: a spear in its quality of being thrown (i.e. not yet entering a body) is typically “shining,” and not “sharp.” See Chapter One above, for reflections on the meaning of ornamental adjectives, as well as section 3 below.

[ back ] 21. Trümpy 1950:54.

[ back ] 22. On which, see Shannon 1975:31–86.

[ back ] 23. See in particular the study of the demonstrative οὗτος in Chapter Five and of verbal augment in Chapters Seven and Eight.

[ back ] 24. At XVI 623 and VII 77, the χαλκῷ-expression occurs in the conditional clause proper (protasis); it may also occur in the apodosis, which, its truth depending on the fulfillment of a condition, is equally nonfactual: (ἀτὰρ εἴ κε Διὸς θυγάτηρἈφροδίτη | ἔλθῃσ᾿ ἐς πόλεμον, τήν γ᾿ οὔταμεν ὀξέϊ χαλκῷ (V 131–132, 820–821).

[ back ] 25. For “time-(in)stability” as a criterion on the basis of which predicates may be differentiated, see Givón 1979:14, 320–323; Bakker 1988a:125–131. For “factual,” “non-factual,” and “generic” as sentential modalities in Greek, see Bakker 1988b; and in general, Givón 1973; 1984:321–351; 387–435.

[ back ] 26. Hopper and Thompson 1980; citation: p. #.

[ back ] 27. As in traditional grammar, where a verb’s (in)transitivity is determined on the basis of its having, or not having, a direct object.

[ back ] 28. In all, Hopper and Thompson distinguish ten transitivity parameters: number of participants (the exclusive traditional parameter), kinesis, aspect, punctuality, volitionality, affirmation, mode (reality), agency, affectedness of object, individuation of object. Obviously, the cases of highest transitivity are those in which most or all of the parameters converge. The clustering of parameters, furthermore, may have as a consequence that a sentence that is transitive by the traditional definition, in that it has an object (e.g. “Odysseus likes wine”) may be much less transitive than a one-participant event (“Odysseus jumped”): the object of the former is entirely unaffected (in fact, it will not be coded as object at all in many languages), whereas the latter is transitive by at least four of Hopper and Thompson’s criteria (kinesis, aspect, punctuality, volitionality).

[ back ] 29. Note that the verb in question, κτείνεσκε, has the suffix -σκ-, which is the morphological reflex of this detransitivization. See below, Chapter Seven, p. #, for a discussion of the lack of augmentation of verbs with this suffix.

[ back ] 30. In less transitive, generic and/or nonfactual contexts, indefinite noun phrases tend to have a non-referential interpretation: in “Every time I entered, he was reading a book” the constituent “a book” is most naturally read as not referring to any particular book. On the other hand, in “When I entered, he was reading a book,” the same constituent refers to a specific book. See also XXIV 391–393 cited on p. # above.

[ back ] 31. It is important to note, though, that the converse does not always hold: ὀξέϊ χαλκῷ occasionally occurs in transitive sentences, for example, τόν ῥ᾿ ἔβαλεν κεφαλὴν ὑπὲρ οὔατος ὀξέϊ χαλκῷ (XV 433), where the context makes it clear that a spear is involved (line 429: ἀκόντισε δουρὶ φαεινῷ); see also XIII 561.

[ back ] 32. Paraskevaides 1984:24.

[ back ] 33. This is not to say that when two epithet-expressions are prosodically or metrically different, the epithet is entirely subservient to this difference. It is more correct to assume, it seems, that an epithet is used for its specific (poetic) value as long as the metrical-prosodic context does not require its use. Thus δουρὶ φαεινῷ typically refers to spears as gleaming objects and combines “poetically” with ἀκόντισε. But it can also be used in contexts that poetically favor “sharp” spears but prosodically require an initial consonant (e.g. VI 32 ἐνήρατο δουρὶ φαεινῷ).

[ back ] 34. Eide 1986. Note that χειρὶ παχείῃ belongs to the so-called “illogical” epithets in Homer. See note 29 in Chapter One (p. #).

[ back ] 35. Paraskevaides 1984:23. See also Page 1959:276–277.

[ back ] 36. Cosset 1983; see also Schmiel 1984.

[ back ] 37. Notice, however, that Page’s 1959:276–277 diachronic treatment (the two formulas being prosodically different: χάλκεον vs. [μ]μείλινον) remains valid in that Cosset’s “semantic” approach is strictly synchronic: it deals only with the use of the pair in Homer, but it does not follow that this use also motivates the existence of the pair as such.

[ back ] 38. The systems consisting of peripheral material with respect to a given nucleus are especially important in this respect. See the discussion of ἔγχεϊ/δουρὶ as a peripheral element in Chapter One.