Simon Pulleyn on editing Homer with linguistic archaeology

In the British TV sitcom Yes Minister, Sir Humphrey Appleby knows how to terrify his ministerial masters so that they will drop any new policies of which he disapproves. All he has to say is, ‘Hmm. That would be very … brave … Minister.’ It might be thought similarly brave to write about Homer and to do so in the way that I do, relying heavily on insights afforded by the somewhat technical discipline of Indo-European comparative philology. I do so for no better reason than that I find it interesting and that I hope some others will too. In 2000, I wrote a commentary with vocabulary on Iliad I aimed chiefly at students. In 2018, I published an edition of Odyssey I for the same audience but at greater length and in much more detail, running to about 125,000 words. I am currently working on an edition with commentary and translation of Odyssey XI, where Odysseus goes to the world of the dead. This will not have a vocabulary and is not chiefly aimed at students. It will be 250,000 words and in scope and aim will be more like a Cambridge Orange, although under contract to be published by Oxford University Press.

Years of studying classical texts do not lead me to a position where I can relax in a warm glow of mastery. My day-to-day experience is chiefly one of puzzlement. I do not mean to say that, half way through the sixth decade of my life, I am puzzled by the same things that puzzled me as a teenager. Plainly one progresses. But the more heights one scales, the more new problems come into view.

When I approach a line of Homer, I look at every single word. Quite often, I write a note on every single word. Then I delete quite a few of them. This is what I call ‘negative research’: one does a lot of reading, writes what one regards as an elegant distillation, then crosses it out because it does not seem worth foisting on others. The hope is that what remains might be useful.

Nobody who reads Homer can avoid thinking about how formulaic language works: are epithets ‘ornamental’ or ‘intentional’? But more helpful than this, I find, is looking at all instances in Homer of the word that you are interested in. This is what Porphyry called Ὅμηρον ἐξ Ὁμήρου σαφηνίζειν (homēron ex homērou saphēnizein, ‘clarifying Homer by means of Homer’). So, for example, at Odyssey 1.19 νύξ (nux, ‘night’) is described as ὀλοή (oloē, ‘baneful’). This is not really part of a formula of the kind so familiar to all readers of Homer like ‘swift-footed Achilles’. But it is a word that is found elsewhere, and we can understand more about what it means by looking at other things to which it is applied: madness (Il. 9. 305), death (Il. 13. 665), fate (Il.16. 489), wrath (Od. 3. 135), Charybdis (Od. 12. 113) and the hands of Achilles (Il. 22. 65). So the associations evoked by oloē are more than merely the idea that night is unpleasant: it might, in fact, kill. If it had been desired to emphasize merely the darkness of night, δνοφερή (dnopherē, ‘dark’) would have been a perfectly feasible choice here (as at Od. 13. 269).

This is no more than common sense. It is also what linguists call synchronic: it involves looking at the language as a piece at a given moment and assuming, with Saussure and the structuralists, that meaning in a given instance (Fr. parole) depends on likeness and contrast within a systematic web of usage (Fr. langue) with which speakers are familiar. Whilst all of that theory was developed a very long time ago, and whilst Derrida and others, also quite a long time ago, thought we ought to be deconstructing as much as anything else, the fact remains that one has to climb the structuralist ladder before presuming to kick it away.

But what is closest to my heart is a diachronic approach. If a synchronic reading involves looking at the rest of Homer, a diachronic approach involves accepting that Homer did not spring from nowhere and that the tradition is older than the poems that we have in Greek. As long ago as the 1960s, Rüdiger Schmitt talked of the Indogermanische Dichtersprache (‘Indo-European poetic language’). By this, he meant that Greek is just one of many genetically related Indo-European languages and that what is preserved in Greek, especially from the early period, seems to involve features of vocabulary and phraseology that correspond with things we find in other early works in related Indo-European languages such as the Vedic Hymns (the earliest attested phase of Indic), the Gāthas in Old Avestan (the earliest attested phase of Iranian), together with items from Latin, Old Irish, Hittite, Old Church Slavonic and other languages. It is important to note that, although our written sources for all of these things can often be surprisingly late, this does not alter the fact that the language recorded in those sources is often early. Thus, the oldest manuscript of the Rig Veda dates to the first half of the second millennium AD but the language that it contains belongs in the second half of the second millennium BC.

My basic position, fundamental to my whole approach, is that the synchronic is not all that there is. Older senses linger. Let me give an example. Among the shades that Odysseus meets in Hades is that of his mother. Asked how she died, she replies (Od. 11. 201-2),

οὔτε τις οὖν μοι νοῦσος ἐπήλυθεν, τε μάλιστα

τηκεδόνι στυγερῇ μελέων ἐξείλετο θυμόν

Nor did some disease come upon me, of the kind that most often takes the spirit from the members with hateful wasting.

What is significant here is the close collocation of νοῦσος (nousos, ‘disease’) and τηκέδων (tēkedōn, ‘melting’, ‘wasting’). Examples in later Greek suggest that these words somehow belonged together in the language and that the Homeric collocation is not accidental: νούσων τακεδόνες (‘wastings that result from diseases’ SEG II 615) and νόσῳ τηκεδόνι χρώμενος (‘having a wasting disease’ Appian B.C. 1.107). In both these instances the two words are directly juxtaposed and in the latter the substantive functions almost as an adjective. (NB nosos and nousos are dialectal variants of the same lexeme.)

The etymology of νόσος has long been a puzzle. A bold conjecture by Willi in 2008 derives it from Proto Indo-European *n-H1osu, itself a negative of *H1osu which is cognate with Greek ἐΰς (‘good’). If that is right, then νόσος means ‘without well-being’. That etymology requires a good deal of argument to deal with the formal problems. A simpler solution was advanced as long ago as 1978 by Ruijgh, deriving it from *νοτ-σϝος (*not-swos) containing the same root seen in νότιος (notios, ‘moist’), νοτίς (notis, ‘moisture’), and Νότος (Notos, the South-West wind that brings moisture). There is a lot more of a technical comparative kind that could be said in favour of this conjecture. But if it is correct, which I think it is, then νόσος had to do with moisture.

But τηκέδων also has an underlying connection with moisture. The simplest form of the root seems to be *teH2. This is seen in Armenian t’anam (‘moisten’), Ossetic taj- (‘melt’), Welsh tawdd (‘melt’). Latin tabes is related and exhibits a labial infix. Tabes is sometimes found in the sense of ‘melting’ (Livy 21. 36. 6) but generally has a specialized sense involving disease (Cicero Tusc. 3. 13. 27) and putrefaction (Lucretius DRN 6. 1201). In Greek the root appears as τήκω (tēkō, ‘melt’), with a velar affix. Homer has τήκω used of melting snow (Od. 19. 207), but it is also applied to the putrefying corpse (Sophocles Antigone 906) and to flesh falling away from bones (Plato Timaeus 82e).

One might say that these uses of τήκω are metaphorical. Perhaps they are. But we have seen that νόσος and τήκω probably have at root a shared original sense of moisture. Their juxtaposition suggests that the older sense of νόσος lingered in the usage grammar of Greek even if not in people’s conscious minds.

Let me give a second example. The expression αἰπὺς ὄλεθρος (aipus olethros) occurs in epic and means ‘sheer destruction’. As long ago as 1976, Koch remarked that the earliest meaning of the root underlying ὄλεθρος, namely *H3elH1-, was to do with height and depth. It is cognate with Hittite hallu- (‘deep’). But there is more. Greek ὄλεθρος is built to the same root with a suffix *dh-r- > -θρο- that can often denote something almost animated: ὄλεθρος is not simply destruction but that which causes it, or ‘bane’. At Hom. Il. 11. 441 we have ἆ δείλἦ μάλα δή σε κιχάνεται αἰπὺς ὄλεθρος (‘Ah, wretched one, truly sheer destruction is overtaking you’). In the same way, ὄρθρος (orthros, ‘sunrise’) beside ὄρνυμι (ornūmi, ‘rush’, ‘arise’) denotes the act of the sun when it rises.

It has been said that αἰπύς is etymologically opaque. But already by 1916 Brugmann had identified it as built upon a PIE adverb *āi- (‘there’). With this he connected formally with Greek εἰ (ei, ‘if’), Oscan eíseí (‘if’). With a affix *-kw- can be built a form that would show up in Latin as aequus but as αἰπύς in Greek (on account of the differing treatment of inherited labiovelars in the two languages). The original sense of aequus and αἰπύς was probably ‘just there’. From this develops ‘straight(away)’ and then ‘sudden’. The semantic shift from ‘sudden’ to ‘headlong’ or ‘steep’ is present in German jäh. This being so, we can see that αἰπύς has an affinity for ὄλεθρος since both words have to do with steep height. The pairing likely indicated at an early stage not simply the concrete force of destruction but more specifically death by being thrown from a high place. This is a well-attested motif in Indo-European mythology. It also fits perfectly with the idea of PIE *H3elH1- indicating depth or height, cf. Hittite hallu-. This sense is much in evidence when the predicted death of Astyanax by being thrown from a battlement is called ὄλεθρος (Hom. Il. 24. 735). Homer calls that a λυγρὸς ὄλεθρος (lugros olethros, ‘baneful death’) and the epithet is picked up by Euripides (Trojan Women 755) in the expression λυγρὸν πήδημα (lugron pēdēma, ‘baneful leap’). But the choice of adjective does not disprove the overall point being made. It would make assurance doubly sure if the death of Astyanax had been described as an αἰπὺς ὄλεθρος; but all that we may conclude is that the story of Astyanax entered the epic repertoire at a stage when the original sense of ὄλεθρος was still felt but that the epithet λυγρός was added when this was no longer the case.

I have been to talks where sage persons in the front row have scratched their heads at such contentions as these and said something like, ‘Surely you can’t expect us to swallow this. Homer did not have at his fingertips all this comparative material. Nor did his audience.’ The point being made here does not depend on any intentionality on the part of the monumental composer Homer, or any perception of the same by his audience. What is being unearthed here is linguistic archaeology. Comparative material shows that certain words belong together. At some very early stage, either in the poetic tradition or in the ordinary vernacular use of late Indo-European, these senses will have been operative. They persist in ways that we can only uncover with the benefit of hindsight. It does not matter whether anyone in archaic Greece knew this or not. Just as ‘reception’ is a department of knowledge, so is ‘preception’ – chasing the prehistory of words and phrases. To be sure, this approach will not convince or thrill all. For one thing, one cannot necessarily deploy such material in an A-Level or undergraduate gobbet exam and expect the examiner to have it on the list of things that might attract marks. But it is nevertheless an aspect of the past that rewards investigation.


Simon Pulleyn is an honorary research fellow in the department of Greek and Latin at University College London.  His books include Prayer in Greek Religion (Oxford, 1997) and editions of the first books of the Iliad (in 2000) and the Odyssey (in 2018), as well as The Secret Life of Language which looks at the evolution of world languages and their interrelation. He is currently preparing a full-scale commentary on Homer Odyssey 11 for Oxford University Press.