Some couplets on a moribund snowman I passed on a walk yesterday

ἠέλιον φεύγοντ’, ὦ χειματίδη, σε θεῶμαι
 μοῖραν ἀμύνεσθαι δάκρυσι μυδαλεήν
μαψιδίως· ἦ γὰρ κατὰ νῦν Ἀίδαο δόμονδε
 δύσεαι οὐλοδαής, ἠὲ, ἄνερ χιόνος,
τυτθόν περ καθύπερθε τετηγμένος ἤματι τῷδε 5
 ἠελίοιο φάει αὔριον ἀποθανῇ;

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To Poseidon (Homeric Hymn XXII)

Ἀμφὶ Ποσειδάωνα, μέγαν θεόν, ἄρχομ᾽ ἀείδειν,
γαίης κινητῆρα καὶ ἀτρυγέτοιο θαλάσσης,
πόντιον, ὅσθ᾽ Ἑλικῶνα καὶ εὐρείας ἔχει Αἰγάς.
διχθά τοι, Ἐννοσίγαιε, θεοὶ τιμὴν ἐδάσαντο,
ἵππων τε δμητῆρ᾽ ἔμεναι σωτῆρά τε νηῶν. 5
χαῖρε, Ποσείδαον γαιήοχε, κυανοχαῖτα,
καί, μάκαρ, εὐμενὲς ἦτορ ἔχων πλώουσιν ἄρηγε.

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An ominous sneeze (Od. 17.534–547)

People of all walks of life in Ancient Greek civilization(s) were fond of predicting the future by any means necessary. Sometimes this was a structured, purposeful process where a knowledgeable seer would set up an experiment, as it were, and use animal entrails or the flights of birds or random lines of literature.

But sometimes an omen inserts itself into everyday life and you have no choice but to remark on it. In Book 17 of the Odyssey, when the eponymous wanderer has returned to Ithaca but been disguised by Athena as an old man (called “the stranger” ξεῖνος—ironic, as his connection to Ithaca is more profound than anybody else’s), his wife Penelope is ranting about all the terrible things she wishes would happen to the many men (μνηστῆρες ‘suitors’) who are trying to woo her in her husband’s seemingly interminable absence.

“οἱ δ᾽ εἰς ἡμέτερον πωλεύμενοι ἤματα πάντα,
βοῦς ἱερεύοντες καὶ ὄϊς καὶ πίονας αἶγας, 535
εἰλαπινάζουσιν πίνουσί τε αἴθοπα οἶνον,
μαψιδίως· τὰ δὲ πολλὰ κατάνεται. οὐ γὰρ ἔπ᾽ ἀνήρ,
οἷος Ὀδυσσεὺς ἔσκεν, ἀρὴν ἀπὸ οἴκου ἀμῦναι.
εἰ δ᾽ Ὀδυσεὺς ἔλθοι καὶ ἵκοιτ᾽ ἐς πατρίδα γαῖαν,
αἶψά κε σὺν ᾧ παιδὶ βίας ἀποτίσεται ἀνδρῶν.” 540

Right in the middle of her raving, her son Telemachus lets out a powerful sneeze.

ὣς φάτο, Τηλέμαχος δὲ μέγ᾽ ἔπταρεν, ἀμφὶ δὲ δῶμα
σμερδαλέον κονάβησε· γέλασσε δὲ Πηνελόπεια,
αἶψα δ᾽ ἄρ᾽ Εὔμαιον ἔπεα πτερόεντα προσηύδα·

Penelope sees the aptly timed sneeze as a prophetic confirmation that what she has been saying will come to pass. She asks Eumaeus— the faithful swineherd of the estate—to finally bring the elderly stranger into her presence.

“ἔρχεό μοι, τὸν ξεῖνον ἐναντίον ὧδε κάλεσσον.
οὐχ ὁράᾳς ὅ μοι υἱὸς ἐπέπταρε πᾶσιν ἔπεσσι; 545
τῷ κε καὶ οὐκ ἀτελὴς θάνατος μνηστῆρσι γένοιτο
πᾶσι μάλ᾽, οὐδέ κέ τις θάνατον καὶ κῆρας ἀλύξει.” (Od. 17.534–547)

534   ἡμέτερον sc. οἶκον ‘home’ from a few lines earlier—πωλεύμενοι = πωλεόμενοι ‘coming and going; visiting frequently’

535   ἱερεύοντες ἱερεύω ‘sacrifice’; cf. ἱερεύς ‘priest’—βοῦς … καὶ ὄϊς καὶ πίονας αἶγας ‘bulls … and sheep and fat goats’ exemplifies what is in comparative poetics called an augmented triad, where in a list of three items only the last has an attributive adjective or otherwise resists syntactic parallelism with the first two.

536   εἰλαπινάζουσιν εἰλαπινάζω ‘revel in large company, party’; cf. εἰλαπίνη ‘feast, banquet’—αἴθοπα αἶθ-οψ lit. ‘fiery-looking,’ a common epithet for wine; cf. αἴθω ‘burn, ignite’ (PIE *h2eydh-); note the hiatus τε αἴθοπα, which is sometimes allowed between the fourth and fifth feet, the so-called Bucolic dieresis.

537   μαψιδίως ‘recklessly, thoughtlessly’—κατάνεται κατ-άνομαι ‘be used up, wasted’—οὐ γὰρ ἔπ’ ἀνήρ: ἔπι here is adverbial (note the accentuation), with the semantics of ἔπ-ειμι ‘be left, remain’; thus = ‘for there [is] no man left’

538   ἀρήν ἀρή acc sg ‘ruin, destruction’—ἀμῦναι ἀμύνω aor act inf: to be taken with l. 537 ἀνήρ ‘a man to ward off’ i.e. ‘a man who can/will ward off

539   βίας βίη acc pl ‘act of violence’—ἀποτίσεται ἀπο-τίνομαι ‘exact payment for, avenge’

541   ἔπταρεν πταίρω 3 sg aor ‘sneeze’; a hapax legomenon in Homer (not counting l. 545 ἐπέπταρε); the word, beginning with πτ-, is an obvious onomatopoeia (cf. English ptui, imitative of spitting)

542   σμερδαλέον σμερδαλέος ‘fearful, terrible’; here as an adverb qualifying ἔπταρεν—κονάβησε κοναβέω ‘resound, echo’—γέλασσε γελάω ‘laugh’ 3 sg aor

543   πτερόεντα πτερό-εις ‘winged,’ lit. ‘feather-having’; ἔπεα πτερόεντα προσηύδα ‘spoke winged words to’ is a very frequent collocation in Homer; note also the phonetic similarity between l. 541 ἔπταρεν ‘sneezed’ and πτερόεντα (where respective ἔπταρ– and -[ἔπε]α πτερ– even occupy the same position in the verse)—προσηύδα προσ-αυδάω ‘speak to, address’

544   μοι is the ethical dative, signifying basically “Please do this for me.”—τὸν ξεῖνον = Odysseus, disguised as an old beggar—ἐναντίον ἐν-αντίος ‘opposite’ i.e. ‘into [my] presence’—ὧδε ‘thus, in this way,’ but here = ‘in this direction, hither’—κάλεσσον καλέω 2 sg aor imp

545   ὁράᾳς ὁράω 2 sg pres act ind with assimilation of ε in ὁράεις to the preceding vowel— = ὅτι conj ‘that’—μοι dative of possession with υἱός—ἐπέπταρε ἐπι-πταίρω ‘sneeze at’; cf. l. 541 ἔπταρεν

546   τῷ ‘therefore, for that reason’—ἀτελἠς ‘without completion, unaccomplished’; thus οὐκ ἀτελής = ‘completed, fulfilled’—μνηστῆρσι μνηστήρ ‘suitor, wooer’; cf. μνάομαι ‘woo, court’

547   This line basically rephrases the preceding line.—θάνατον καὶ κῆρας lit. ‘Death and the Kēres (spirits of violent death)’ = ‘death’; a frequent hendiadys in Homer—ἀλύξει ἀλύσκω 3 sg fut ind ‘avoid, escape’

“They—coming and going in our home all of the days,
sacrificing bulls and sheep and fat goats— 535
revel and drink the flashing wine,
thoughtlessly; and everything is used up. For there is no man left,
the likes of how Odysseus was, to ward off ruin from the house.
If Odysseus came and arrived at his homeland,
he’d at once, with his son, take vengeance on the mens’ violent acts.” 540

She spoke thus, and Telemachus sneezed greatly, and around the house
it resounded terribly; Penelope laughed,
and at once addressed winged words to Eumaeus:

“Go now, and call that stranger hither to my presence.
Don’t you see that my son has sneezed at all my words? 545
Therefore death to all the suitors will not go unfulfilled,
nor will any man escape Death and the Kēres.” (Od. 17.534–547)

An ancient word for ‘earthling’?

Many Indo-European languages exhibit a word for ‘human being’ that is built off of PIE *dʰéɡ́ʰom- ‘earth, ground.’

  • Celtic *gdonyo- (Irish duine ‘person,’ Welsh dyn ‘man’) < *dʰɡ́ʰom-yo-
  • Germanic *guman- ‘man’ (Old English guma ‘man,’ English [bride]groom; Old High German gomo ‘man,’ German [Bräuti]gam) < *dʰɡ́ʰm̥-mon-
  • Latin homō, –minis ‘person’ < *dʰɡ́ʰm-on- (whence also hūmānus)
  • Phrygian ζεμελως ‘man (dat. pl.)’ < *dʰɡ́ʰem-el-o-

This underlying root is also well-attested with its original meaning.

  • Albanian dhe ‘earth’ < *dʰɡ́ʰom-
  • Celtic *gdon- (Old Irish , don ‘place’) < *dʰɡ́ʰom-
  • Greek χθών, -νός ‘earth’ (an English derivative of which is chthonic) < *dʰɡ́ʰom-; χαμαί ‘on the ground,’ χαμᾶζε ‘earthwards,’ χθαμαλός ‘near the ground’ < *dʰɡ́ʰem-el-o-
  • Latin humus ‘ground’ < *dʰɡ́ʰom-o-, humilis ‘near the ground’ < *dʰɡ́ʰem-el-i-
  • Sanskrit क्ष kṣa ‘field’ < *dʰɡ́ʰm̥-
  • Slavic *zemja (Polish ziemia; Bulgarian земя, Russian земля) < *dʰɡ́ʰem-yh̥2

Although Greek derives no explicit word for ‘person’ from this, ἐπιχθόνιος ‘on (ἐπί) the earth (χθών)’ is an occasional epithet of humans in Homeric verse:

“οὔ τινα γὰρ τίεσκον ἐπιχθονίων ἀνθρώπων,
οὐ κακὸν οὐδὲ μὲν ἐσθλόν, ὅτις σφέας εἰσαφίκοιτο” 415
“Not one of the people on earth did they respect—
not wicked and not noble—whoever came to them.” (Od. 22.414–415)

Sometimes it even occurs on its own, without ἄνθρωποι ‘people’ or βροτοί ‘mortals,’ and we are expected to fill that meaning in ourselves:

“εἰ μὲν γάρ τίς μ᾽ ἄλλος ἐπιχθονίων ἐκέλευεν, 220
ἢ οἳ μάντιές εἰσι θυοσκόοι ἢ ἱερῆες,
ψεῦδός κεν φαῖμεν καὶ νοσφιζοίμεθα μᾶλλον.”
“For if some other one of those on the earth had told me,
either those who are diviners or priests who make sacrifices,
we would rather call it a falsehood and distance ourselves from it.” (Il. 24.220–222)

The derived meaning of ‘person’ from ‘earth’ is not exclusive to these Indo-European examples. Hebrew, too, seems to derive אָדָם ɔādām ‘man, Adam‘ from אֲדָמָה ɔădāmâ
‘ground.’ (The underlying root ɔdm means ‘red.’)

Why these languages would have derived words for ‘human being’ from a word meaning ‘earth’ is an interesting question. I see several possibilities:

  1. the sense of earth-denizen is in opposition to sky-denizens, or the gods;
  2. there is a common myth in the Indo-European and Semitic mythologies (and elsewhere?) that humans were created out of clay or dirt;
  3. humans called themselves earthling to differentiate themselves from otherworldly visitors.

Seriously considering #1 and #2, I am inclined to think that #1 is the likeliest. To be sure, the notion that humankind was created from clay is a common belief across many world mythologies. On the Semitic side of things, in Genesis (2:7), Adam is created from the “dust of the ground”—just like in the Enûma Eliš—while the Qurɔān (55.14–15) mentions that God also created the jinn from smokeless fire. Thus the connection between ɔādām ‘man, Adam’ and ɔădāmâ ‘ground’ fits this theory very nicely.

Elohim Creating Adam 1795-c. 1805 by William Blake 1757-1827
And Elohim Created Adam by William Blake

But in these many Indo-European derivations from *dʰéɡ́ʰom- ‘earth,’ a parallel creation story wherein humans are wrought out of clay seems too good to be true; it would certainly be asking a lot of comparative mythology. For this reason I prefer #1. The Greek ἐπιχθόνιος ‘[living] on the earth’—as opposed to something like *ἐκχθόνιος ‘[sprung] from the earth’—in particular suggests that the noteworthy aspect of humankind’s relationship with *dʰéɡ́ʰom- is that it is our home. Whether or not it is also the ur-material of our bodily composition is not the central issue.

There are plenty of ancient Indo-European sources that drive home the opposition between earth-dwelling mortals and sky-dwelling immortals. Here is one of my favorite examples:

A monument (2nd cent. BC) with a dual-language inscription sums up in more concise Gaulish a dedication that has already been written in Latin:

dewogdonion

AKISIOS·ARKATOKO{K}
MATEREKOS·TOŠO
KOTE·ATOM·TEUOX
TONION·EV

Akisios Argantomaterecus gave the area (?) for gods-and-humans.

This TEUOX/TONION—for which David Stifter reconstructs the pronunciation dēwoγdoniyon—is the Gaulish equivalent of deis et hominibus ‘for gods and humans’ in the Latin text. The word is apparently a dvandva compound (which are not common in Celtic) that breaks down into dēwo– ‘god’ and γdoniyo– ‘human,’ with a plural inflectional ending. The first half is from Indo-European *deywó- ‘god’ (cf. the Germanic god *Tīwaz), which is probably an ablaut-variant of *dyew- ‘sky, day,’ and therefore related to *dyēw- ‘sky god’ (frequently with the epithet “Father”; cf. Ζεὺς Πάτηρ, Iuppiter, Dyauṣ Pitā, etc.). The second half of the compound, γdoniyo-, is our old friend *dʰɡ́ʰom-yo- ‘earthian, earthling,’ and therefore exactly cognate with Irish duine ‘person.’

Therefore this single word TEUOXTONION dēwoγdoniyon ‘for gods and humans’ perfectly encapsulates the opposition between sky-dwelling immortals and earthbound mortals. For these reasons it makes the most sense to me that, at least for the Indo-European terms, the original sense must have been ‘earth-dwelling’ (and not, say, ‘made from earth/dirt’). But perhaps the answer does not have to be one or the other.

And option #3 is always available.

Etymology: cyclops

As the defining characteristic of this creature is its single eye, for a long time it was taken for granted that cyclops—Greek κύκλωψ—was an old compound meaning ’round-eye’:

*kʷékʷlh3ōkʷ-s = *kʷékʷlo– + *h3ō

*kʷékʷlo– ‘circle, ring’ (cf. κύκλος; English wheel)

*h3ōkʷ– ‘face, eye’ (cf. ὄψομαι ‘see (fut.)’)

In more recent years another, perhaps better, etymology has sprung up, with the original meaning ‘cattle-thief’:

*pḱúḱlōp-s = *pḱu– + *ḱlōp

*pḱu– ‘cattle’ (zero-grade of Indo-European *peḱu ‘cattle’; cf. Latin pecu, Old English feoh, German Vieh, Sanskrit paśu)

*ḱlōp– ‘thief’ (agent noun from *ḱlep- ‘steal’; cf. verbs κλέπτω < *ḱlep-yō, Gothic hlifan)

This option implies a simplification of an initial *pḱ- cluster to k-. For another initial cluster simplification like this, cf. Andrew Sihler’s proposed etymology of Homeric τρυφάλεια (a kind of helmet) as literally ‘with four (reading τρυ- as reflecting the combining zero-grade form *kʷtru- of *kʷetwór- ‘four’) phaloi (φάλος, a part of the helmet)’ (Sihler 1995 §389.4a).

Comparative Indo-European mythology is rife with monsters and enemies on a mission to steal livestock—to name just a few, Queen Medb plays this role in the Táin Bó Cúailnge, as does the monster Grendel in Beowulf, and Odysseus’s own men slaughter the Cattle of the Sun in the Odyssey (with this sin precipitating their demise). It seems likely that the myth of the cyclops evolved with a similar function.

Another “One Bites the Dust”

A curious idiom that shows up a number of times in both the Iliad and the Odyssey means literally “take the ground with one’s teeth”; figuratively, it means “die.”

The idiom bite the dust, or something like it, is found in a handful of modern European languages:

Dutch: in het zand/gras bijten ‘bite into the sand/grass’
French: mordre la poussière ‘bite the dust’
German: ins Graß beißen ‘bite into the grass’
Spanish: morder el polvo ‘bite the dust’
Swedish: bita i gräset ‘bite into the grass’

How intriguing to find basically the exact same collocation in three-thousand-year-old Greek! The recurring phrase is not properly a Homeric formula because it shows up under various guises, with altered components.

                                πολέες δ᾽ ἀμφ᾽ αὐτὸν ἑταῖροι
πρηνέες ἐν κονίῃσιν ὀδὰξ λαζοίατο γαῖαν.”
“[Hector’s] many companions, fallen face-down around him
in the dust, may seize the earth with their teeth.” (Il. 2.417–418)

Here the verb is λάζομαι ‘seize, grasp for oneself’ and the ‘earth’-word is γαῖα.

                                              “δύο δ᾽ ἀμφὶς ἕκαστον
φῶτες ὀδὰξ ἕλον οὖδας ἐμῷ ὑπὸ δουρὶ δαμέντες.”
“Around each [chariot], two
men took the ground with their teeth, conquered by my spear.” (Il. 11.748–749)

In this one—as is most common—the verb is ἑλεῖν (aor. of αἱρέω) ‘take, grasp.’ The noun is οὖδας.

οἱ μὲν ἔπειθ᾽ ἅμα πάντες ὀδὰξ ἕλον ἄσπετον οὖδας,
μνηστῆρες δ᾽ ἀνεχώρησαν μεγάροιο μυχόνδε
All of them at the same moment took the vast ground with their teeth,
and the suitors retreated to a far corner of the hall. (Od. 22.269–270)

ἄσπετον, which I have translated ‘vast,’ is a common epithet of οὖδας ‘ground’—together they make up a nice dactyl-spondee pair on which to end a line—and it is not an integral element of the idiom.

And then we have the peculiar little adverb ὀδάξ ‘with the teeth, toothwise,’ whose exact history is somewhat mysterious. It is obviously a member of the same class of body-part adverbs as γνύξ ‘with [bent] knee’ (cf. τὸ γόνυ ‘knee’), λάξ ‘with the foot/heel,’ πύξ ‘with the fist(s)’ (cf. πυγμή ‘fist’). A zero-grade root, *h3dn̥t-, seems likely, but what is the suffix? Cf. also verbs like ὀδακτάζω ‘bite, gnaw’; λακτίζω ‘kick with the heel.’

A Rhyming Line in Iliad 9

I stumbled across this line in the Iliad that I think is noteworthy from a poetic perspective.

Agamemnon is making a list of all the gifts (mostly furniture and servants) he will offer Achilles to entice him to return to the battlefront, and concludes it thus:

“τὰς μέν οἱ δώσω, μετὰ δ᾽ ἔσσεται ἣν τότ᾽ ἀπηύρων
κούρη Βρισῆος· ἐπὶ δὲ μέγαν ὅρκον ὀμοῦμαι
μή ποτε τῆς εὐνῆς ἐπιβήμεναι ἠδὲ μιγῆναι, 133
ἣ θέμις ἀνθρώπων πέλει ἀνδρῶν ἠδὲ γυναικῶν.”

“I will give him those [women], and with them will be the one I once took,
the daughter of Briseus; I will swear a great oath
that I never entered her bed and slept with her, 133
which is the custom of people, of men and women.” (Il. 9.131–134)

This exact line (l. 133) recurs twice in the Iliad (at 9.275  and 19.176).

As far as I know, the line that shows up in these three different places is the only one in Homer that uses the same long vowel (eta) for the ictus of all six dactyls. It is an usually extensive example of what might be called internal rhyme within the hexameter.

μή πο τε | τς εὐ | νς ἐ πι | βή με ναι | δὲ μι | γναι

Note that these sounds—though homophonous in Ionic Greek—arose from different sources historically. If we turn back the clock and reconstruct this line for an earlier period in the history of the language (before *ā, from Indo-European *eh2, merged into inherited *ē), the result

*mē kʷokʷe tās eunās epi-gʷāmenai ē-de migēnai

offers nothing so remarkable.

Is this an important find? Probably not. But it is an interesting piece of trivia and certainly has a peculiar effect on the ear when read aloud; the consistent ictic vowel throughout the line gives an impression of tired, perhaps futile repetition. Agamemnon has reached the end of an elaborate litany of offerings to Achilles—”You may even have Briseis back; and before you say anything, no, I never slept with her”—even though he has little hope of success.