Homeric Nēpios

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My object in this study has been to explore the meaning of the word nēpios within the Homeric poems. The possibility of an etymological connection between nēpios and ēpios led me to consider the contexts of ēpios also. At the least, these two words are thematically parallel—not only in that to be ēpios is to be “like a father” and to be nēpios is to be “like a child.”

The typically ēpios figure is mature, gives good advice, understands justice, and promotes social cohesion. A specific sub-type of ēpios figure, the foster parent, is separated from his or her own parents and has no progeny; at the same time, the role of this figure is to promote cohesion within his or her foster family. Thus Eumaios and Eurykleia are agents of repatriation for both Odysseus and Telemachos. Another specifically ēpios type, the old man of the sea, is the agent of repatriation for Menelaos. The divine foster parent is Athene, who, in addition to overseeing social reintegrations, oversees the integration of young people into the adult world.

The typically nēpios figure lives in a fragmented and dangerous world, in danger of becoming an orphan and consequently a social outcast, or failing to observe the laws of hospitality, he or she is outside the web of human interconnections. Furthermore, the nēpios person is unable to put together inferences from the past or signs that reveal the future and is thus trapped in ephemera. Neither long-life nor immortal fame is the lot of the nēpios. In the Odyssey, the hero’s compatriots, his own men, the suitors of his wife, and finally the disgruntled citizens of his town drop away from him because they are nēpios. His son, however, becomes concurrently less and less nēpios and more and more attached to his father. In the end, three generations are united and all rivals eliminated. In the Iliad, the hero cannot have his aristeia until those around him have proven themselves nēpios and he is alone on the field.

The Homeric contexts of nēpios and ēpios yield enough semantic evidence, perhaps, to support a derivation of both these words from a root meaning “to join,” or “connect.” Establishment of this derivation (which is less firmly supported by phonological evidence) must seem to be the goal of my argument. My object, however, was not the destination but the journey—a tour through the {98|99} Iliad and Odyssey following the tracks of one element in the Homeric language.