Achilles and Odysseus, formulaic counterparts of Tweedle-Dee and Tweedle-Dum

2022.02.17| By Gregory R. Crane

[Click here to view this article translated into Persian.]

I note here something that I discovered recently that surprised me and that I hope to explore more fully in the near future: the Greek names Ἀχιλλεύς and Ὀδυσσεύς are, from a metrical point of view, exactly equivalent. They have the same number of syllables (3). They both begin with a vowel (so they have the same effect upon the quantity of preceding vowels). They both end in -εύς and take the same set of inflections. Both even contain alternate forms  Ἀχιλεύς and Ὀδυσεύς that scan with two short syllables, thus allowing the names to slot into (the same) extra parts of a Homeric hexameter line. They are identical from a metrical perspective.

That metrical equality is even more noticeable when we look for other metrically equivalents in the Homeric Iliad and Odyssey. A search of the lemmas in the Perseus Treebank files for the Homeric epics1 identifies 61 uppercase dictionary entries that end in -εύς. Of these, only eight are metrically equivalent to  Ἀχιλλεύς and Ὀδυσσεύς: Ἀλωεύς,  Ἐπειγεύς, Ἐρεχθεύς, Ἐλατρεύς, Ἐνυεύς (which appears as Ἐνυῆος), Ἐνιπεύς (which appears as Ἐνιπῆος), Ἐρετμεύς, Ὀτρυντεύς (which appears in the form Ὀτρυντῆϊ). These eight names appear 11 times in the Homeric Iliad and Odyssey. Achilles appears 382 times, Odysseus 713, and together they appear 1,095, – about 1,000 times as often as the other 8 names that consist of short-vowel + long-syllable + εύς. None of these eight names shows up also in forms that can be scanned short-vowel + short-syllable + εύς as Ἀχιλεύς and Ὀδυσεύς can.

I might have vaguely understood that the key heroes of the two Homeric epics might have had metrically equivalent names. But I certainly did not appreciate how unusual this similarity would be. Since Milman Parry’s work on Homericnames and epithets, many of us assumed that the names of Homeric heroes were designed to be metrically interchangeable – βοὴν ἀγαθὸς Διομήδης and βοὴν ἀγαθὸς Μενέλαος work because Διομήδης and Μενέλαος begin with a consonant and then contain short-short-long with the final syllable ending the line (and thus always long).

Two things come to my mind. The first possibility would be surprising at the least but needs, I think, to be entertained: the two greatest heroes of Homeric epic had co-evolved from the start as exponents of two complementary visions of heroic excellence. Of course, Achilles and Odysseus predate our Iliad and Odyssey and were the product of much older traditions. But I find myself wondering, quite against my personal inclination, if the two names did not appear either at the same time or with one in reaction to the other. Is one the Dr. Moriarty who emerged to play the villainous foil to Sherlock Holmes? I find it hard to believe such a thing is true but the shape of these names seems too unusual and the coincidence of their exact material equality commands my attention and makes me wonder.

The second conclusion is much more straightforward: if the names Achilles and Odysseus are metrically identical, then their epithets should only differ insofar as the tradition is conveying something of significance.  And, indeed, when we compare the associated epithets of the two heroes, the differences are clear. The list below also draws on the Perseus Treebanks for the Iliad and the Odyssey. It counts every word that is defined as an adjective describing Odysseus or Achilles.

Odysseus: 34 Achilles: 27
δῖος 103 δῖος 57
πολύμητις 59 ὠκύς 36
θεῖος 30 ποδαρκής 19
πολύτλας 26 ἐπιείκελος 6
πολυμήχανος 22 δαίφρων 5
διογενής 11 ταχύς 5
ἀντίθεος 10 φαίδιμος 5
ταλασίφρων 9 πτολίπορθος 4
ἀμύμων 9 φίλος 4
πτολίπορθος 8 μεγάθυμος 3
δαίφρων 8 θεοείκελος 2
φαίδιμος 5 ἀμύμων 2
ποικιλομήτης 5 ποδώκης 2
ἀτάλαντος 4 θεῖος 2
μεγαλήτωρ 4 πελώριος 2
φίλος 3 ποδάρκης 1
πολύαινος 3 ἄρειος 1
ἐσθλός 3 ἀγαυός 1
τλήμων 2 φέρτατος 1
δουρικλειτός 2 ὄβριμος 1
κλυτός 2 κλυτός 1
αὐτός 2 κυδάλιμος 1
Ἰθακήσιος 2 δουρικλειτός 1
κυδάλιμος 2 κρατερός 1
δύσμορος 1 ἴσος 1
πολύφρων 1 ὀλοός 1
πολύτροπος 1 Πηλείδης 1
θρασύς 1
μεγάθυμος 1
ἄλλος 1
πόλυτλας 1
δύστηνος 1
ἀγακλυτός 1
πτολιπόρθιος 1

The totals are both expected and surprising. We should expect that such generic epithets as δῖος, φαίδιμος and even δαίφρων apply to both heroes. Each is πτολίπορθος, and the relative frequencies (8x vs. 4x) reflect the relative frequency with which the two heroes are named (Odysseus twice as often).  At the same time, some epithets that we might see as generic features that could be applied to any hero do skew one way or the other. Why is Odysseus διογενής 11x while this apparently standard epithetic never applies to Achilles? Why is Odysseus θεῖος 30x and ἀντίθεος 10x – as ornamental a pair of epithet sas we might wish to conjure up – while θεῖος and ἀντίθεος never apply to Achilles?

A closer look, however, reveals how clearly the tradition distinguishes the two metrically equivalent figures. Odysseus is πολύμητις (59x), πολυμήχανος (22x), ποικιλομήτης (5x). Odysseus is also πολύτλας (26x), ταλασίφρων (9x) and τλήμων (2x). None of these six epithets applied to Odysseus, 123x in total, is ever applied to Achilles. By contrast, we find that Achilles is ὠκύς (36), ποδαρκής (19), ταχύς (5), and ποδάρκης (1). None of these epithets, which apply to Achilles 61x, ever describes Odysseus. Note again, the frequency of the distinctive epithets for each hero  (123x vs. 61x) are proportional to the relative frequency of each name (713x for Odysseus and 382x for Achilles).

Odysseus is smart and Odysseus can take punishment. Achilles is fast. In the popular athletic culture of 2022 America, Odysseus is the wily football player who can use his mind to outwit others and his toughness to succeed by enduring punishment. Achilles would be the running quarterback who delivers the lethal blow as hulking defenders, gasping for breath, let him slip through their fingers.


This work was made possible by the Beyond Translation Project, funded by NEH HAA-266462-19 and by support from the Data Intensive Studies Center at Tufts University.


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