Stock epithet

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A stock epithet is a descriptive word or phrase which an author regularly or standardly uses to describe an object or, more often, a person. Alternative expressions for stock epithet are conventional epithet, standard epithet, or Homeric epithet.

Stock epithets are most commonly used in literature which is based on a strong oral tradition, for example, some types of epic poetry and ballad. They are, for example, a distinctive feature of the two great epic poems of Greek literature, the Iliad and the Odyssey. The table below lists some stock epithets to be found in the Iliad and the Odyssey.

Subject Stock epithet Stock phrase in Greek
(the goddess) Athene gleaming-eyed glaukopis Athene, γλαυκῶπις Ἀθήνη
(the goddess) Hera goddess of the white arms thea leukolenos Here, θεὰ λευκώλενος Ἥρη
(the hero) Odysseus of many counsels polumetis Odysseus, πολύμητις Ὀδυσσεύς
(the hero) Agamemnon lord of men anax andron Agamemnon, ἄναξ ἀνδρῶν Ἀγαμέμνων
(the hero) Achilles god-like dios Achilleus, δῖος Ἀχιλλεύς‚
(the hero) Achilles swift-footed podas okus Achilleus, πόδας ὠκύς Ἀχιλλεύς‚
the Achaeans (i.e., the Greeks) glancing-eyed helikopes Achaioi, ἑλίκωπες Ἀχαιοί
dawn rosy-fingered rhododaktulos Eos, ῥοδοδάκτυλος Ἠώς

Stock epithets are particularly useful to poets working in an oral tradition for a number of reasons. They make a poem easier to remember - which clearly matters when poetry is not read, but recited from memory before an audience. They also help in the composition of a poem by providing the poet with ready-made phrases in the appropriate metre. It is no accident that all the examples of stock epithets in the table above generate phrases which, in Greek, can form the end of a dactylic hexameter: the Iliad and the Odyssey were composed in dactylic hexameters, and the end of a dactylic hexameter is the part of the line that is most difficult to construct.

The phrase 'stock epithet' embodies a metaphor from commerce. A shopkeeper's stock are those goods he regularly keeps in his shop, and so a stock item is an item he can immediately supply to a customer because he does not need to order it specially from the wholesaler. Analogously, the poet has in his mind a stock of adjectives or descriptive phrases appropriate to the various individuals and objects in his poem - stock epithets - and he can effortlessly draw on this resource when the demands of his verse require this.
  • Similar stock phrases can be found in British folk ballads, where "They hadna sailed a week from her,/A week but barely three provides a link to the convenient rhyme common in everyday vocabulary, '-ee-', as in The Wife of Usher's Well; repetition of phrases, as in "Who will shoe her bonny foot, and who will glove her hand"; and various refrains - which give the singer (or reciter) time to collect the words for the next line or verse. See also "Edward, Edward"
See further Epithet, Homer, Iliad and Odyssey, ballad.