The Homeric epithets were created to meet the demands of the meter of Greek heroic poetry, the dactylic hexameter. They offer the improvising bard different ways of fitting the name of his god, hero or object into whatever section of the line is left after he has, so to speak, filled up the first half (that too, quite possibly, with another formulaic phrase). The Achaeans, for example—one of the names used for the Greeks, Achaioi—are often “strong-greaved”: ěūknēmīděs Ăchāiδi a line ending. “Stay your ground, all of you strong-greaved Achaeans,” says the prophet Calchas, encouraging the troops: āll’ ăgě, mīmnět pāntěs, ěū- knēmīděs Ăchāiδi. A few lines earlier, however, he has asked them, “Why have you fallen silent?”: tīpt’ ăněō ěgěnēsthě ... How will the bard finish this line? Ĕūknēmīděs Ăchāiδi will fit the meter, for the two opening phrases are of the same metrical length. But it will produce a junction of two short open vowels: ěgěnēsthě ěūknēmīděs Ăchāiδi, and this usually results in elision, the suppression of one of the two short vowels—ēgēnēsth’ ěūknēmīděs—an unacceptable metrical combination. The solution is simple. The Achaeans cease to be “strong-greaved” and become “long-haired”—a formula starting with a consonant, which avoids the hiatus: tīpt’ ănēō ěgěnēsthě, kărē kŏmŏōntěs Ăchāiδi. The bard may also need to fit the Achaeans into a different part of the line and in a different grammatical case. In Book 7, for example, the gods watch the Greeks toil and suffer in the battle. “So they toiled . . .”—hŏs hōi mēn pŏněōntŏ—“the long-haired Achaeans”—kărē kŏmŏōntěs Ăchāiδi (not “strong-greaved” —that would have produced elision: pŏněōnt‘ ěūknēmīděs). Two lines later, however, “the gods, seated by Zeus of the lightning bolt, watched the great labor”—měgā ērgŏn—“of the Achaeans”:Ăchāiōn—genitive case. To fill the rest of this line the bard needs an epithet of the form - - - - -. The Achaeans can’t be “strong-greaved” or “long-haired,” then; they have to be “bronze-cloaked”: chālkŏchĭtōnōn. The choice of the epithet is dictated by the meter. Agamemnon is “shepherd of the people,” “lord of men,” “son of Atreus,” “wide-ruling” or “brilliant” according to his grammatical case and his position in the line. So for Achilles and Zeus, Hera and Hector. As for ships, their position in the line and case determines whether they are “black,” “round,” “seagoing” or “well-benched.”I did skim those bits, since I am not really a Poetry Person™, and poetic features escape me even in English. I'm also reading Jonathan Burgess's Homer entry in the "Understanding Classics" series--no others are available as library e-books, though given the topics, I don't think I care--and Burgess steps up the game:
The venerable resonance of epic diction would have been appreciated by ancient Greeks. But the mix of forms is not just poetic colouring; it results from the requirements of metre. Metre is the ‘measure’ of verse, the system of how syllables are organized. In English poetry, this involves (or once did) the placement of accent-stressed syllables, perhaps with rhyme. In Greek verse rhyme is not sought, and syllables are not marked by stress (words have accents, but this involves pitch and is not relevant to metre). It is the length of time required for vocalizing each syllable that is important. Ones that take longer to pronounce are arranged with ones that take less time. Certain arrangements form a metrical unit (a ‘foot’), and several such units formed a line of verse (where a sentence need not end; grammatical units often spilt over to the next line).
Got that?The metre of epic requires six units (or feet) in a line. Each foot could either have an initial long syllable followed by two short ones, or two short ones. The first lines of the Iliad and Odyssey (transliterated into the Latin alphabet) could be represented metrically this way:Each line has six feet. The three-syllable foot is more common, and so the rhythm tends to be one of tripping momentum. There are exceptions to the rules on what constitutes a long and short syllable; for example, because of pausing at the end of the line, even a final long-short sequence (as in the examples) in effect equals the length of time of two longs.
I'm also listening to the fabulous Literature & History podcast, which has 3 episodes on The Iliad, telling me that I'll be doing some on-the-fly editing of my own, since, improbably enough, the back half of the book is even bloodier than the front (the podcaster's favorite example is the guy(s) who die of a very graphic spear to the face).
There's a lot of amazing archeology going on around Troy this past couple decades, and the best thing I've seen or read so far is this German geologist (huge swaths of archeology and linguistics are built by Germans) talking about the Luwian (pronounced "Luvian," because Germans) civilization, with sooooo much context.
The whole thing is amazing, but my favorite single factoid is the explanation for how these enormous mounds (tells) grow to hundreds of feet high over millennia of human habitation: they build houses out of mud bricks, that lasts for a couple generations, then it falls down, and you flatten the surface and build the new house on top of it. I've read lots of books, and nothing anywhere has ever explained that.