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:



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.


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.

Homeric Greek πέλωρ ‘monster’

One of my favorite words is τὸ πέλωρ. The first of its two occurrences in the Odyssey is in apposition to Κύκλωψ ‘Cyclops’ (referring to Polyphemus, the only such creature with which Odysseus comes into contact):


“τοὺς ἀκέων συνέεργον ἐυστρεφέεσσι λύγοισιν,
τῇς ἔπι Κύκλωψ εὗδε πέλωρ, ἀθεμίστια εἰδώς,
σύντρεις αἰνύμενος”

“Without speaking, I fastened [the rams] together with well-twisted osier-twigs,
on which the Cyclops—the monster, expert in lawlessness—slept,
taking them three at a time” (Od. 9.427–429)

The other occurrence is of a creature no less deserving:

Scylla attacking Olysseus's ship

“ἔνθα δ᾽ ἐνὶ Σκύλλη ναίει δεινὸν λελακυῖα. 85
τῆς ἦ τοι φωνὴ μὲν ὅση σκύλακος νεογιλῆς
γίγνεται, αὐτὴ δ᾽ αὖτε πέλωρ κακόν· οὐδέ κέ τίς μιν
γηθήσειεν ἰδών, οὐδ᾽ εἰ θεὸς ἀντιάσειεν.”

Scylla dwells in there, shrieking awfully. 85
Her voice is like that of a new-born puppy,
though she herself is an evil monster; nobody would laugh
upon seeing her, not if it were a god coming face-to-face with her.” (Od. 12.85–88)

But the sole use of πέλωρ in the Iliad makes a curious departure from the image of man-killing creatures who do not abide by the laws set by the gods.


ἦ, καὶ ἀπ᾽ ἀκμοθέτοιο πέλωρ αἴητον ἀνέστη
χωλεύων· ὑπὸ δὲ κνῆμαι ῥώοντο ἀραιαί.

[Hephaestus] spoke, and the terrible monster rose from his anvil,
limping; his frail legs hastened underneath him. (Il. 18.10–11)

The god of the forge, Hephaestus, is rising to greet Thetis, the mother of Achilles, who will ask him to make a shield for her son. Hephaestus is famously lame in both feet, ever since an unfortunate event in his past. He limps everywhere, unable to walk in a normal manner, and is frequently the butt of the other gods’ jokes because of this. In these lines we get a cartoon-like portrayal of Hephaestus, with his legs (technically, his κνῆμαι ‘lower legs’; cf. κνημῖδες ‘greaves‘) fluttering about in frantic circuits only to convey him across the room at an unremarkable pace. Whether or not we are to understand πέλωρ αἴητον ‘terrible monster’ as being ironic for so unthreatening a character, it is worth asking whether it is Hephaestus’ disability, his deviation from what is considered normal physiology, that licenses this use of πέλωρ.

Beyond the noun, its derived adjectives πέλωρος and πελώριος are applied to creatures, gods (Hades, Ares), heroes (Ajax, Hector, and Achilles), and things that are inhuman or prodigious in some way, or deviate majorly from what is considered to be normal for a human.

A derived noun πελωρίᾱ yields the term ‘peloria‘ in modern botany, denoting an aberrant type of floral growth.

The word πέλωρ itself is, like a sizable minority of the Homeric vocabulary, taken from the Aeolic dialect. Evidencing this fact is an Attic-Ionic cognate τέλωρ that apparently existed as well. Just like the first sound in Aeolic πίσυρες ‘four’ (Ionic τέσσαρες and Attic τέτταρες), the first consonant of πέλωρ/τέλωρ goes back to Proto-Indo-European *kʷ-. (Aeolic lacks the Attic-Ionic exception where *kʷ becomes *t, not *p, before a front vowel.) The second consonant is the result of dissimilation from final ρ; the reconstructed form for Aeolic πέλωρ is therefore *kʷér-ōr-, built on the well-attested root *kʷer- ‘do, make, build.’

A second Greek word from this same root is τὸ τέρας ‘sign, portent’ < PIE *kʷér-h̥2s-. Whatever the connection between this term and the PIE sense of ‘make, do,’ it is worth pointing out that ‘portent, omen’ is a common first step in the semantic evolution of words meaning ‘monster’; cf. Latin monstro ‘show, point out’ and monstrum ‘sign, omen; monster, monstrosity’ (for the former semantics of monstrum cf. German Muster and Dutch monster, both ‘sample, template’; also English pass muster = “be deemed satisfactory according to a standard”); also, perhaps, δράκων ‘dragon, serpent’ from the zero-grade of the same root as δέρκομαι ‘see, behold.’

What is the semantic connection between *kʷer- ‘make’—whence Sanskrit कृणोति kṛṇoti ‘do,’ कर्म karma ‘deed’; Persian كردن kærdæn ‘do,’ كار kār ‘work’; Old Irish cruth ‘form, shape’—and πέλωρ, which so often is best translated ‘monster, prodigy’?  (*kʷer- is apparently also the root underlying such Balto-Slavic words as Lithuanian kẽras ‘sorcery,’ Polish czar ‘magic, spell,’ Russian чары ‘spells, charms.’) Perhaps the meaning of τέρας ‘portent’ was chronologically intermediate, following ‘something made (by a god?)’ but preceding ‘monster’?