An epithet (from Greek "ἐπίθετον" - "epitheton", neut. of "ἐπίθετος" - "epithetos", "attributed, added" [ [http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/cgi-bin/ptext?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.04.0057%3Aentry%3D%2339438 Epithetos, Henry George Liddell, Robert Scott, "A Greek-English Lexicon", at Perseus] ] ) is a descriptive word or phrase accompanying or occurring in place of the name of a person or thing. It has various shades of meaning when applied to seemingly real or fictitious people, divinities, objects, and biological nomenclature.


In linguistics, an epithet can only be a metaphor, essentially reduced or condensed appositive. Epithets are sometimes attached to a person's name or appear in place of their name, as what might be described as a glorified nickname. An epithet is linked to its noun by long-established usage and some are not otherwise employed. Not every adjective is an epithet, even worn clichés: an epithet is especially recognizable when its function is largely decorative, as when "cloud-gathering Zeus" is otherwise employed than in conjuring up a storm. "The epithets are not decorative insofar as they are neither essential to the immediate context nor modelled especially for it. Among other things, they are extremely helpful to fill out a half-verse", Walter Burkert has noted. [W. Burkert, "The Orientalizing Revolution: Near Eastern Influence on Greek Culture of the Early Archaic Age" 1992, p 116.]

Some epithets are known by the Latin term "epitheton necessarium" because they are required to distinguish the bearers, e.g. as an alternative to ordinals after a prince's name — such as Richard the Lionheart, or Charles the Fat alongside Charles the Bald. Still the same epithet can be used repeatedly, in different spheres of life and/or joined to different names, say Alexander the Great as well as Catherine the Great.

Other epithets can easily be omitted without serious risk of confusion, and are therefore known (again in Latin) as "epitheton ornans"; thus the classical Roman author Virgil systematically called the armsbearer of Aeneas, his main hero, "fidus Achates", the epithet being "fidus", which means faithful or loyal.

In contemporary usage, "epithet" is also used to refer to an abusive or defamatory phrase, such as a racial epithet.

There are also specific types of epithets, such as the "kenning" which appears in works such as "Beowulf". An example of a kenning would be the term "whale-road", meaning "sea".


Epithets are characteristic of the style of ancient epic poetry, notably in that of Homer or the northern European sagas. See above, as well as epithets in Homer. When James Joyce uses the phrase "the snot-green sea" he is playing on Homer's familiar epithet "the wine-dark sea". The phrase "Discreet Telemachus" is also considered an epithet.

*the Greek term Antonomasia, in rhetoric, means substituting any epithet or phrase for a proper name, as Pelides, or the son of Peleus, for Achilles; the opposite substitution of a proper name for some generic term is also sometimes called antonomasia, as Cicero for an orator.


In many polytheistic religions, such as in ancient Greek and Roman religions, a deity's epithets, easily multiplied in the practice of "cultus" generally reflected a particular aspect of that god's essence and role, for which their influence may be obtained for a specific occasion: Apollo "Musagetes" is "Apollo, [as] leader of the Muses" and therefore patron of the arts and sciences [Hence the word "mouseion"= museum)] while "Phoibos" Apollo is the same deity, but as shining sun-god. "Athena protects the city as "polias", oversees handicrafts as "ergane", joins battle as "promachos" and grants victory as "nike"." [Walter Burkert, "Greek Religion " (Harvard University Press, 1985) III.4.4. "The special character of Greek anthropomorphism", especially p. 184.]

Alternatively the epithet may identify a particular and "localized" aspect of the god, sometimes already ancient during the classical epochs of Greece or Rome, such as a reference to the mythological place of birth or numinous presence at a specific sanctuary: sacrifice might be offered on one and the same occasion to Pythian Apollo ("Apollo Pythios") and Delphic Apollo ("Apollo Delios"). A localizing epithet refers simply to a particular center of veneration and the cultic tradition there, as the god manifested at a particular festival, for example: Zeus Olympios, Zeus as present at Olympia, or Apollo Karneios, Apollo at the Spartan Carneian festival.

Often the epithet is the result of fusion of the Olympian divinity with an older one: Poseidon Erechtheus, Artemis Orthia, reflect intercultural equations of a divinity with an older one, that is generally considered its pendant; thus most Roman gods and goddesses, especially the Twelve Olympians, had traditional counterparts in Greek, Etruscan, and most other Mediterranean pantheons, e.g. Jupiter as head of the Olympian Gods with Zeus, but in specific cult places there may even be a different equation, based on one specific aspect of the divinity. Thus the Greek word "Trismegistos" "thrice grand" was first used as a Greek name for the Egyptian god of science and invention, Thot, and later as an "epitheton" for the Greek Hermes and, finally, the fully equated Roman Mercurius (Mercury; both were also messenger of the gods). Among the Greeks, T. H. Price notes [Price, "Kourotrophos", 1978, noted by Burkert 1985:184.] the nurturing power of "Kourotrophos" might be invoked in sacrifices and recorded in inscription, without specifically identifying Hera or Demeter.

Some epithets were applied to several deities of a same pantheon, rather accidentally if they had a common characteristic, or deliberately emphasizing their blood- or other ties; thus in pagan Rome, several divinities (including demi-gods, heroes) were given the "epitheton" "Comes" as companion of another (usually major) divinity. An epithet can even be meant for collective use, e.g. in Latin "pilleati" 'the felt hat-wearers' for the brothers Castor and Pollux. Some epithets resist explanation. [Burkert 1985:184.]

Similar practices still exist in Catholic and Orthodox Christianity in the veneration of Christ and, mainly, of the saints. "Our Lady of Lourdes" is essentially periphrasis, unless some aspect of the Virgin were being invoked.

Politics and military

In historical, journalistic, and other writings, one often encounters epitheta, but it is worthwhile distinguishing different types. While the same rationale as in the genealogical section above may apply, in some cases posthumously politicians, unlike ordinary citizens, often have some control over public opinion and generally more of an interest in their image, so whether forged for themselves or contrived by opponents, their epitheta often carry a political message.

Indeed while these differ from official titles as they don't express any legal status, epitheta have been awarded and adopted (though the official procedure may provide for the formal decision to be issued by another institution, such as a legislative assembly) by statesmen in power for fairly formal use, not unsimilar in purpose to various sinecures, knighthoods or peerage-type titles in post-feudal societies: they confer prestige without any legal authority, so essentially a matter of image or even propaganda, aimed at a domestic and/or foreign target audience. Examples of such epithets are the various traditions of victory titles (see there) awarded to meritous generals and rulers since Antiquity, and the epithets awarded to entire units, e.g. such adjectives as 'Fidelis' 'loyal' to various Roman legions.

Casual usage

In casual usage, "epithet" also means a derogatory word or phrase used to insult someone although this euphemistic use is discredited by Martin Manser [Manser, Martin H. (2007), "Good Word Guide" sixth edition, A&C Black, 147 ISBN 978-0-7136-7759-1] and other prescriptive linguists.


ee also

*Bahuvrihi, a Proto-Indo-European formation designed for epitheta.
*List of monarchs by nickname
*List of nicknames of European Royalty and Nobility

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