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- The Achaeans.....
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Winged Words

In the Iliad and the Odyssey Homer uses the phrase "ἔπεα πτερόεντα προσηύδα"-- literally translated as "he/she spoke forth winged words"--124 times, making it one of the most common of the poet's repeated, formulaic phrases: 55 occurrences in the Iliad alone.

More than seventy years ago Milman Parry posited that the "ἔπεα πτερόεντα"--"winged words"--component of the phrase had no substantive meaning, and was nothing more than filler of the kind often resorted to by the epic oral poets. Parry, About Winged Words, Classical Philology 32 (1937), 59-63. He therefore concluded that, when Homer used "ἔπεα πτερόεντα προσηύδα," he intended no meaning other than merely "προσηύδα": "he or she said." Parry disputed an argument by G.M. Calhoun that the poet meant "winged words" to signify some circumstance about the speaking, such as urgency. Id at 61-3.

The dispute between Calhoun and Parry did not altogether die. One scholar, for example, contended in 1975 that the phrase connotes suddenness, surprise, or insight,1 reflecting the "inherent spontaneity of speech."2

Parry's view was anticipated by at least two prominent English translators of the Iliad. In his splendid 18th Century verse translation, Alexander Pope ignored the phrase and made his translation as if Homer had not used it. Samuel Butler, in his 19th Century prose translation did the same, as did E.V. Rieu for the most part in his post-Parry prose translation published in 1950.3

More recent verse translators of the Iliad have differed markedly in their handling of the phrase.

Richmond Lattimore (1951) undertook a fairly literal, line-for-line verse translation and used "winged words" every time that "ἔπεα πτερόεντα" appears in the original.

Verse translators Robert Fitzgerald (1974), Robert Fagles (1990), and Stanley Lombardo (1997) did not attempt literal or line-for-line rendition, and hence enjoyed more freedom to ignore and/or paraphrase "winged words" than Lattimore wanted to exercise. Each exercised his freedom liberally and in ways that are inconsistent both internally and with the other translators.

Fitzgerald chose a combination of ignore and paraphrase. He ignored the phrase altogether in six of the fourteen lines sampled.4 In seven others he said nothing about words or wings--let alone "winged words"--but used adverbs characterizing the speech as rapid, sharp, or rough.5 In the fourteenth he has "a warm rush of words," 6

Fagles announced in his preface that he would "rarely if ever omit that well-known phrase," though with variations. (Translator's Pref., x). That turned out to mean that, while he infrequently uses "the well-known phrase" ("winged words") he does not let "ἔπεα πτερόεντα" pass without using "wing," "fly" or "flight," sometimes with little connection to the meaning of the Greek phrase. Examples of the latter include:

     - Zeus "winged Athena on with a flight of orders" (4.69 [81];
     - Thetis' "words were winging pity" (18.72 [84]);
     - Hecuba's "words pouring forth in a flight of grief and tears" (22.81 [97]).

In the sample, the most striking instance of this is in 24.517 [604]: Achilles "spoke out winging words flying straight to the heart." There is no basis in the original Greek for "straight to the heart."

Fagles sometimes supplemented his use of "wing" or "fly" with a term to indicate the urgency or other quality of the speech, such as "burst,"7 or "urgent."8

Lombardo ignored the phrase in four of the sample lines. In others he described words as "winged",9 "feathered" or "feathery."10 He said words "flew" or "flew fast."11 Once he said "Zeus winged these words to Athena."12 For the first occurrence of the phrase in the epic, he put: "Words flew from his mouth like winging birds." (1.201 [211]). For the final occurrence, Achilles speaking to Priam: Achilles' "words enfolded him like wings." (24.517 [556]).

The propensity of Fagles and Lombardo to find ways to use a form of the words "wing," "fly" or "flight" in so many lines indicates that they were not persuaded, as translators, to act on Parry's postulate that in the original the phrase means only "he or she said." They honored words in the original which perhaps intend no substantive meaning, and sometimes ventured far afield as in the case of Fagles' "winging words flying straight to the heart," and Lombardo's "words enfolded him like wings."

Fitzgerald and Lombardo partially heeded Parry's insight, insofar as they ignored a significant percentage of the phrase's occurrences.

Unlike Lattimore, the three verse translators just discussed were not constrained by commitment to line-for-line or literal rendition. They could, therefore, have ignored the phrase without affecting their respective strategies of translation.

The present writer followed a course similar to Fitzgerald's: never using "winged words" or any component of that phrase, usually ignoring the phrase altogether,13 but sometimes using a modifier to characterize the speech as rapid or sudden.14

Omitting translation of the phrase carried a metrical benefit--as inserting it did for Homer, if Parry was right. The blank verse line has approximately six to eight fewer syllables than Homer's hexameters. The phrase "ἔπεα πτερόεντα" contains seven syllables, so substituting two syllables of "he said" went a long way towards conforming the lines where the phrase appears to the metrical requirements of the corresponding English blank verse.

End Notes

1. Vivante, "On Homer's Winged Words," Classical Quarterly, NS, 25.1, 5-6 (May 1975).

2. Id at 8.

3. The assertions in this and succeeding paragraphs are based on a sampling of fourteen lines in the Iliad: namely, 1.201, 2.7, 4.69, 4.92, 4.203, 7.356, 10.163, 12.365, 14.2, 16.6, 18.72, 20.331, 22.81, and 24.517. It is possible that the sample is misleadingly unrepresentative.

4. Lines 2.7, 4.203, 14.2, 16.6, 18.72, 22.81.

5. Lines 1.201 [Fitzgerald's lines 235-6] , 4.69 [81], 4.92 [108], 7.356 [422], 10.163 [182], 12.365 [409], 20.331 [372].

6. Line 24.517 [622].

7. Lines 7.356 [410]; 10.163 [191]; 20.331 [378].

8. Line 14.2 [3].

9. Lines 4.69 [79]; 4.203 [218].

10. Lines 2.7 [11]; 16.6 [5].

11. Lines 1.201 [211]; 4.69[79]; 10.163 [170]; 20.331 [339].

12. Line 4.69 [79].

13. Lines 1.201; 2.7; 4.92; 4.203; 7.356; 16.6; 18.72; 20.331; 22.81; 24.517.

14. Lines 4.69; 10.163; 12.365; 14.2.

See Wikipedia entry for winged words.

Herbert Jordan
July 2009
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