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)

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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.’

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):

1a3b8a70e90eb9c860b8ffa9b4d58391

“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.

rubens_-_vulcano_forjando_los_rayos_de_jc3bapiter

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’?

Penelope and the Two Dream-Gates (Odyssey 19.560–569)

Penelope is lamenting the continued absence of her husband to an elderly beggar (who happens to be her husband in disguise). She has just related to him a bizarre dream she had, in which an eagle violently destroys a gaggle of geese to which she is attending. The eagle, telling her she has nothing to fear, says

“οὐκ ὄναρ, ἀλλ᾽ ὕπαρ ἐσθλόν, ὅ τοι τετελεσμένον ἔσται”
“It was not a dream, but true reality, which will come true for you” (Od. 19.547)

and discloses that the geese represent her many suitors, whom her husband—who is yet alive, represented by the eagle himself—will brutally slay, after his homecoming. Penelope then expresses her worry to the beggar that this dream, like so many others, is not prophetic at all, but a mere delusion.

“ξεῖν᾽, ἦ τοι μὲν ὄνειροι ἀμήχανοι ἀκριτόμυθοι 560
γίγνοντ᾽, οὐδέ τι πάντα τελείεται ἀνθρώποισι.
δοιαὶ γάρ τε πύλαι ἀμενηνῶν εἰσὶν ὀνείρων·
αἱ μὲν γὰρ κεράεσσι τετεύχαται, αἱ δ᾽ ἐλέφαντι·
τῶν οἳ μέν κ᾽ ἔλθωσι διὰ πριστοῦ ἐλέφαντος,
οἵ ῥ᾽ ἐλεφαίρονται, ἔπε᾽ ἀκράαντα φέροντες· 565
οἱ δὲ διὰ ξεστῶν κεράων ἔλθωσι θύραζε,
οἵ ῥ᾽ ἔτυμα κραίνουσι, βροτῶν ὅτε κέν τις ἴδηται.
ἀλλ᾽ ἐμοὶ οὐκ ἐντεῦθεν ὀΐομαι αἰνὸν ὄνειρον
ἐλθέμεν· ἦ κ᾽ ἀσπαστὸν ἐμοὶ καὶ παιδὶ γένοιτο.” (Od. 19.560–569)

560   ἀμήχανοι ‘inscrutable, having no (ἀ-) means (μηχανή) of being understood’—ἀκριτόμυθοι ‘with indiscriminate (ἄ-κριτος) babbling (μῦθος)’

562   δοιαί fem nom pl adj ‘twofold, two’—ἀμενηνῶν ἀ-μενηνός ‘unsubstantial, fleeting,’ lit. ‘powerless’ < *ἀ-μενεσ-νός (cf. τὸ μένος ‘might, power’)

563   κεράεσσι κέρας dat pl ‘horns’—τετεύχαται τεύχω perf pass 3 pl ‘are wrought’—ἐλέφαντι ἐλέφᾱς dat sg ‘ivory’; cf., of course, the eponymous animal

564   πριστοῦ πριστός ‘sawn,’ cf. πρίω ‘grind, bite, cut’

565   ἐλεφαίρονται ἐλεφαίρομαι ‘play a trick on, deceive’ (only other occurrence in Homer is Il. 23.388); I will talk about the contextual significance of this word below—ἔπε[α] neut ἔπος acc pl ‘words’—ἀκράαντα ἀ-κράαντος ‘unfulfilled, unaccomplished,’ from κραιαίνω

566   ξεστῶν ξεστός ‘hewn’ (cf. ξέω ‘cut, shave’), parallel to l. 564 πριστοῦ ‘sawn’—θύραζε adv ‘out, to the outside,’ but historically an allative form θύρᾱσ-δε ‘to the doors,’ built with the same suffix (still somewhat productive in Homer) as οἴκαδε/οἶκόνδε ‘homewards,’ Ἀθήναζε (Ἀθήνᾱσ-δε) ‘to Athens,’ and doubly in ὅνδε δόμονδε ‘to his home,’ lit. ‘his-wards home-wards’ (e.g. Od. 1.83); for this kind of semantic broadening from ‘door’ to ‘out,’ cf. Latin foras ‘outside, out through the doors’ (Spanish fuera) from the same root (PIE *dʰwer- ‘door’), and English outdoors

567   ἔτυμα ἔτυμον neut pl ‘true [things]’; etymology (ἐτυμο-λογία) is, perhaps overreachingly, ‘the study of the true meaning [of words]’—κραίνουσι κραίνω = κραιαίνω ‘accomplish, bring to pass’—ἴδηται ὁράω aor mid subj 3 sg ‘may see’

568   ἐντεῦθεν ‘from there, thence,’ i.e. from the gate made of horns—αἰνόν αἰνός ‘dreadful, dire’

569   ἀσπαστόν adj ἀσπαστός neut sg ‘welcome,’ the predicate of γένοιτο

Mortals have long wondered why some dreams come true and some do not. Penelope’s puzzlement over this question is resumed by Chaucer in the proem to his House of Fame. The theory put forth here relies on an impressive bit of wordplay usually reserved—in Homeric verse, anyway—for the origin of a character’s name, such as when the young Odysseus is named by his maternal grandfather, Autolycus (Od. 19.407–409), who claims to be ὀδυσσάμενος ‘wroth, hateful’; or when Aphrodite tells Anchises, father of Aeneas, that it was a shameful (αἰνόν) distress to have slept with a mortal man (HH 5.198–199)). But in the present passage, it is the material of the gates’ construction that is given explanation:

τῶν οἳ μέν κ᾽ ἔλθωσι διὰ πριστοῦ ἐλέφαντος,
οἵ ῥ᾽ ἐλεφαίρονται, ἔπε᾽ ἀκράαντα φέροντες 565

The ivory (ἐλέφας) gates are the ones that deceive (ἐλεφαίρομαι) mortals and render images that never come to pass. This pun is made more obvious by the fact that ἐλεφαίρομαι is a rather rare verb, and would certainly have struck the Greek listener’s ear. (An interesting side note: Vergil uses the ivory gate as the portal through which Aeneas returns from the underworld—A. 6.893–898.)

οἱ δὲ διὰ ξεστῶν κεράων ἔλθωσι θύραζε,
οἵ ῥ᾽ ἔτυμα κραίνουσι, βροτῶν ὅτε κέν τις ἴδηται.

But the gate of horns (κέρᾱ) produces those dreams that do come true and ultimately effect (κραίνω) what they promise.

This pair of dream-doors is odd, not in the least because ivory and horn are such similar materials. How did this wordplay originate? Were these verbs (ἐλεφαίρομαι and κραίνω) selected to pun on a pair of mythological dream-gates whose respective compositions were well-established canonically, or were the materials (ἐλέφας and κέρα) chosen secondarily as a mnemonic for what sort of dream each gate allowed through? What do you get if you cross the two animals that produce these unusual building materials?

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‘Ell if I know!

“Stranger, dreams are certainly inscrutable, with indiscriminate 560
babbling, and not everything comes true for humans.
For there exist two gates of fleeting dreams;
One is wrought of horns, the other of ivory;
those dreams that go through hewn ivory
are deceitful, bringing words that have no fulfillment 565
but the ones that go out by way of the sawn horns
bring true things to pass, whenever some mortal sees them.
But I don’t reckon that this dire dream came to me
from the latter way, though it would be quite welcome to my child and me.”

(Featured image credit: Amanda Kiefer)