Chapter 4: The Vow


The root of Gr. eúkhesthai, Latin voveo, recurs in Indo-Iranian. Latin voveo, votum means specifically “the vow,” while Iran. aog- and Skt. oh- means “to pronounce solemnly or with pride”; but Homeric eúkhesthai is usually translated either as “to pray” or “to boast.”
This polysemy becomes less surprising if we assign to the root *wegh w- the double meaning of “vow”: a thing solemnly vowed, an assurance demanded in return for devotion. The first sense would be the source of Greek eúkhesthai in the sense “to boast,” or rather “to give a solemn guarantee of the truth of what one asserts”; the second sense is the source of “to pray” or rather “to ask for divine protection by means of vows.” This semantic unity also extends to eûkhos, eukhōlḗ, Homeric substantives derived from the root of eúkhomai. If eûkhos may, in a warrior context, mean “glory” or “victory,” its meaning is nonetheless “vow” (in the sense of the favor granted by a god in return for a human eúkhesthai).
Thus *wegh w- denotes in the domain of speech what *spend- does in the realm of act: a solemn pledge with the purpose of ensuring security, a real oath when a man’s own person is pledged (devotio).


In our special study of the terminology of the oath in Greek we met with a number of terms which denoted the various modes of swearing it and others which described the rites involved, such as spéndō. There is another verb often associated with spéndō, whether on the occasion of an oath or in either circumstances: this is eúkhesthai, for instance in this command (Homer, Iliad 24, 287): speîson kaì eúkheo. This association between the two verbs is thus an established fact.
There are numerous passages in which the two verbs occur together; evidently the two acts are linked. As in the case of spéndō we must undertake the task of determining the proper meaning of this verb by an examination of its uses and by comparison with other languages. The verb eúkhesthai, invariably in the middle, is found throughout Greek literature in two senses: (1) “to pray” and (2) “to boast, to brag.” This double meaning is also found in the nominal derivatives, eukhḗ (once in Homer, Od. 10, 526), eûkhos, and eukhōlḗ, “prayer” and “boast.”
These two senses were already recognized in antiquity but it is difficult to see how to interconnect them. One refers to a religious act and the other to an arrogant mode of speech. They seem to have nothing in common.
If we turn to the other languages we find that the root is attested in Indo-Iranian and Italic. In Sanskrit it appears in the form oh-, ohati ‘to make an announcement in an oratorical way’, and it is used in the religious vocabulary. Avestan has the corresponding form aog-, which simply means “to say, speak”: e.g. Ahura Mazda “said” (aogǝdā) to Zarathuštra. There is nothing here which suggests the idea of “prayer.” For this notion Avestan and Sanskrit have several other terms.
In Latin the corresponding verb is voveo, with the derivatives votum, votivus and de-voveo, de-votio. This time the sense is “to vow, consecrate to a god,” but not “to pray.” The same meaning must no doubt be attributed to the Umbrian term vufruvotivus’. We find therefore that in Italic at least this root was confined to the expression of “vow.”
We may add an isolated form in Armenian, gog, ‘said’, from a verb which has not survived.
All these forms go back to the root *wegh w-, but the meaning differs from one language to another and gives no hint how they can be brought under one head. The Latin sense “vow” is a special one, and this is unknown in Indo-Iranian. Greek, while it gives emphasis to the notion of “prayer,” also uses the words with reference to “boasting,” which is difficult to reconcile with the first sense.
Let us now try by analyzing the uses to establish the interconnections. One hint which we may use to detect the meaning of Gr. eúkhesthai is given in the fact that the verb is linked with spéndein. We may then use the proper meaning of spéndein to discover what intention is involved in the act denoted by eúkhesthai.
Let us consider a Homeric example: Il. 24, 287 … speîson Diî patrì kaì eúkheo oíkaď hikésthai. We might content ourselves with the translation “pour a libation to father Zeus and pray to him to come back to your native land.” But it would be more precise to observe that here we have the expression of a wish addressed to Zeus and accompanying the spondḗ. Now, as we have seen, the spondḗ in Homer and in other ancient uses is an offering intended to guarantee security (cf. Book Six, Chapter Two). Here the act of spéndein is accompanied by a certain form of words indicated by eúkhesthai. The operation and the act of speech are complementary; they serve the same purpose. What is involved is an entreaty to Zeus for the favor of a safe return home in a case where the person making the offering of a spondḗ, Priam, is venturing among the enemy and is not certain of his return. One might therefore translate eúkhesthai by “express a vow.”
But it should be realized that this term “vow” has an ambiguous meaning. There are two different senses, as we can see in the use of the Latin terms votum, voveo. On the one hand a vow is made to perform some action; on the other a vow is expressed. In the first case the vow is something that one binds oneself to perform; e.g. one makes a vow to build a temple; this is a promise made to a god. But at the same time the “vow” is the substance of what one hopes to gain from the god in return for what is promised; hoc erat in votis, says Horace, Sat. II, 6, 1, “This is what I wished for.” Latin has two different expressions to make this distinction: votum solvere ‘to discharge a vow’; the person who has made a vow to consecrate a statue to a divinity if he escapes the perils of war must discharge it; but we also have voti potiri ‘to obtain one’s vow’ (in speaking of the man); that is “to obtain from the god the fulfillment of the wish which was formulated.”
We must stress this double sense: sometimes the wish which the person making the vow asks the god to fulfill, at others what he promises the god to accomplish. We must keep these two senses in mind in interpreting the forms of other languages. We first turn to Indo-Iranian: oh- ‘to pronounce’ in Sanskrit and aog- in Avestan correspond not only in form but also in characteristic collocations: Rig Veda VIII, 5, 3: vacām dūto yathohiṣe ‘The word I pronounce like a messenger’. Avesta Yt XIII, 90: yō paoiryō vāčim aoχta ‘he who has first pronounced the word’.
What this verb expresses is more than a simple “enunciation”; it is a certain activity of the hotar (who is making the offering and announces the offering to the gods and invites them to partake of it), with the same connection between oh- and the offering as we have observed in Greek between eúkhesthai and spéndein. Furthermore, this Vedic verb oh- means “to boast, to take pride in something, to assert something with pride.” This links up with one of the senses of the Greek verb.
Finally the nominal form vāghat is connected with the verb oh-, and this denotes the “person sacrificing,” the one who organizes the sacrifice, who declares its consecration. He enunciates with authority (on the occasion of a sacrifice destined for the gods) what is expected from them dūto yatha ‘like a messenger’.
In Iranian the verb aog- means “to say”; but it is not used with reference to just anyone; those concerned are the highest personalities, the gods, Zarathuštra their spokesman, whose words are introduced by aog-. They bring forth a decisive utterance, one which is pronounced with authority. The sense is rather wider in Avestan than in Vedic, but they have closely related meanings: “to announce with authority an utterance which binds, to give a solemn assurance (the sense of which is made precise in the course of the operation itself).” This permits the utterance of a vow on the occasion of an offering from which some return is hoped for.
If we now turn to Italic, we have to consider in Latin voveo, votum and in Umbrian vufetesvotis (consecratis)’ and perhaps also vufru, which is translated as “votivum.”
At first sight the precise sense of Latin vovere does not coincide with that of the Greek eúkhesthai ‘to pray’ nor with eukhḗ ‘prayer’. They are, however, concerned with the same institution, the foundations of which must be laid bare. The only way we can do this is to give precision in both languages to the sense of the terms.
The sense of “to vow” in Latin may be illustrated from an episode of Roman history which highlights the notion of vovere (Livy VIII, 10, 11). The subject is Decius Mus, who in 340 B.C. “devoted” his own person to nether deities that they might grant victory to the Romans. This anticipated consecration of his own person to the nether deities is the pledge offered by Decius Mus in exchange for the support he expected from them.
An anticipatory offering, this act is founded on the principle of a constantly increased reciprocity which we know from other institutions. What one offers provokes a superior gift. Thus the person “vowed,” although he still remains in the land of the living, is acquired in advance by the divinity: “to vow” is a consecration and one in the most stringent form. It is as well to recall that in Roman religious law the “vow” was the subject of strict rules. First there had to be a nuncupatio, the solemn enunciation of the vows for the “devotion” to be accepted by the representatives of the State and religion in the proper set terms. Then the vow had to be formulated, votum concipere, which meant conforming to a given model. This formula, in which the priest took the initiative, had to be repeated exactly by the person making the vow. Finally, it was necessary for the authorities to receive this vow, and to sanction it by an official authorization: this was votum suscipere. Once the vow was accepted, the moment came when the interested party had to put his promise into execution in return for what he had asked for: votum solvere. Finally, as with every operation of this kind, sanctions were provided in case that the obligation was not carried out. The man who did not fulfill what he had promised was voti reus and prosecuted as such and condemned: voti damnatus. These rules are fully in the spirit of Roman law.
If we now turn our attention to Greek, we see that in spite of the variety and richness of the testimony, the terms appear to be of quite a different character. The precise notion of the “vow” is foreign to them. We must take up the whole problem again and examine a large number of examples. The first question we must face is one which concerns the whole domain of eûkhos in the Homeric vocabulary. This is the two senses of eúkhomai ‘to pray’ and ‘to boast’. If we look at the examples, which are of great number (the verb occurs more than a hundred times), it seems that the usual translation is inescapable. According to context eúkhetai means variously “he asserts emphatically (that he is braver, the son of so and so)” or “he prays.”
The question is how a verb which preserved a religious sense throughout the history of Greek could also be used in Homer for “to assert emphatically.” Could it perhaps be that the true sense is “to proclaim in a loud voice, to announce solemnly,” as is stated in the etymological dictionaries? In this case the whole development to the special meaning of “vow” must have taken place in Latin. Thus we have no resource but to examine some characteristic examples of the verb and the noun in Homer.
In Il. 4, 101 the translation cannot give rise to any doubt: “Make a vow (eúkheo) to offer, on your return, a hecatomb to Apollo.” This example will throw light on eúkhomai in other passages, where, according to the translations, we have to do with “prayer,” but the act of “praying” occurs in the description of a ceremony. Such is the great prayer of the priest Chryses when his daughter has been given back to him and he consecrates a hecatomb round the altar:
And Chryses, in a loud voice, prayed (megál’ eúkheto) for them, with his hands stretched out to heaven: Listen to me, Ο God of the silver bow… you have just fulfilled my vows… this time too fulfill my wish and avert the plague from the Danaans. Thus he speaks making a eukhḗ (eukhómenos) and Phoebus heard him; and the others eúksanto, casting the barley grain before them.
Il. 1, 450ff.
This whole scene is structured by the verb of “prayer,” eúkhesthai. Formerly we have seen “you have heard me euksámenos” (453). We may introduce the essential notion by translating “you have formerly listened to my vows.” The “prayer” is not distinguished from the “vow”; it is one and the same operation, for here the “prayer” announces a “vow” in favor of the Danaans and it is accompanied by a sacrifice. The god is bound by this consecration, which anticipates the support expected from him, along the lines of the request “avert this plague.”
In a second example (Il. 2, 410ff.) the formulas are the same; the context deserves examination. Agamemnon is making a sacrifice: “When they had all surrounded the ox and taken the barley grains, king Agamemnon in their midst pronounced (eúkhomenos metéphē) the words ‘O Zeus… do not allow the sun to set… until I have first overthrown… the palace of Priam… and until I have torn from his breast Hector’s coat of mail and seen at his side a crowd of his followers fall with their brow in the dust…’” He speaks, but the son of Kronos “was not disposed to fulfill his vows…” The person making the offering consecrates the sacrifice to the divinity on condition: this is the vow which he announces, the object of his “prayer.” This passage provides in a textual correlation the verb which indicates the vow (eúkhomai) and the verb which indicates the acceptance of the vow by the god (epi-kraiaínō).
Finally, as if there were a serial development, we find in Il. 6, 302ff. new facts which give further details of the development of the ceremony. The women go up to the temple of Athena: “all stretch out their arms to Athena with the ritual cry”; Theano takes the veil and puts it on the knees of the fair-haired Athena; then praying (eukhoménē) she addresses this vow to the daughter of Zeus… The following details are given in succession: the veil which is deposited in the temple, then an invocation to Athena, with the arms stretched out to heaven, and finally the request: “break the spear of Diomedes and immediately in your temple we shall offer up to you twelve heifers one year old.”
Here we have a complete “vow,” including both the thing vowed and the form of words which vows it.
This complex is found in all the examples of the Homeric formula hṑs éphat’ eukhómenos: an actual offering, which is anticipated, but always as a quid pro quo for something which is expected. Thus the sense “prayer” is too vague, and in all cases it should be defined more precisely as a “vow.”
We now come to the second category of uses, where eúkhomai is constructed with an infinitive proposition or with a nominal predicate. “Agamemnon who today ‘flatters himself’ with being (eúkhetai eînai) far the foremost in this camp” (Il. 1, 91); “march to the battle and show what you have long ‘flattered yourself’ with being, eúkheai eînai” (4, 264).
We propose to explain this sense as a development of the religious use of which it is properly only a variety. It is the same mechanism as the declaration before the gods. This time the gods are committed to guaranteeing an affirmation of existence; in support of this affirmation the man’s own person is, figuratively, what is offered: “I consecrate myself to the gods, as being the son of so and so, or, the bravest of all.”
It is from this metaphorical consecration that the emphatic value of eúkhomai developed: eúkhomai remains a verb of commitment: “pledge myself that I am …” and, if it can be said, “I make a vow that I am (the bravest, or, the son of so and so).”
The consecration, in the religious sense, of the offering, which we have seen either actually performed (the first sense in Homer) or promised (the Latin sense), here supports the affirmation of existence, which is itself a consecration: there is a real “devotion” in support of an affirmation. An English parallel may be adduced: it is usual to say “I promise you (for “I assure you”) that such and such is the case.” This is a way of binding oneself to the truth of the proposition which is enunciated.
Only one variety of use seems to elude this explanation, because of its grammatical construction. It is represented by a single example, but it is one of great interest. Whereas eúkhomai is everywhere used with reference to the future or the present, in this example it looks as though it referred to the past. This is the oddity of a passage in the description of the shield (Il. 18, 499-500). A crowd is assembled on the square. “A dispute has arisen and two men are arguing about the ‘wer-geld’ (poinḗ) for a man who has been killed. The one claims (eúkheto) that he has paid in full and he makes this declaration to the people; the other denies (anaíneto) having received anything. The people are divided into two camps. The heralds restrain the crowd; in a sacred enclosure the Elders are seated, etc.” This translation of eúkhesthai and the interpretation of the scene seems to be generally accepted, but we do not believe that it is possible. The sense and interest of a scene described in these terms is incomprehensible. One party claims to have paid the poinḗ and the other denies having received it. But how could such a dispute rouse the passions of the crowd? Why should the Elders be assembled to decide a question of fact, if it were simply a case of verifying whether the payment had been made? What is the connection, therefore, between the poinḗ of a man who has been killed and this fierce debate? Still worse, we cannot see how such a debate could be translated into images, nor how the artist of the Shield would have represented what was at stake in such a quarrel.
The grammatical construction is also open to objection. Can one say eúkheto apodoûnai ‘he claims to have paid’, where the notion of priority is expressed by the simple aorist? Can one interpret anaíneto helésthai as “He denied having received anything,” seeing that anaínesthai never means “to deny” but only and always “to refuse”?
Let us be guided by the second phrase: “the other refuses to receive anything.” Then by induction we immediately apprehend the meaning of the first: “the one promises (binds himself) to pay the full sum, the other refuses to accept anything.”
Now the scene has quite different implications. It is a very serious debate. A man who has committed manslaughter can redeem himself by a payment to the family of the victim; but this is a relaxation of the primitive rule of lex talionis, and according to ancient law the murderer had to pay for his crime with his own blood.
Here the murderer binds himself to make full payment but the opposing party refuses to accept any payment; this means that he is demanding the blood of the murderer and he has the strict law on his side. What is at stake is the life of the man who offers to pay this poinḗ. Now we can understand the passions of the crowd and why they are divided into two camps. The Council of Elders assembles, the heralds go round, etc. We can imagine what the artist could make of this; the offer of the one, the refusal of the other, before the corpse of the victim: the scene can be vividly imagined. Thus eúkhesthai does not mean here “to affirm that one has done something”; it does not refer to a past event but “to commit oneself to doing something, to make a vow with a divine sanction” as it does everywhere else.
This interpretation is not given in any translation or in any dictionary. It is simply alluded to as a possibility in the grammatical commentary of the edition of the Iliad by Leaf. In our opinion this interpretation is obviously right. We conclude that eúkhomai never involves a reference to the past nor to an accomplished fact but always to a present or future situation.
We now turn briefly to the substantive eûkhos. This is constant in Homer although later the feminine eukhḗ becomes predominant. We shall now consider eûkhos in its relation to eukhōlḗ. The usual translation of eûkhos is “victory, triumph.” A number of different equivalents were accepted by the ancient Greek scholars: eukhōlḗ is glossed in Hesychius by eukhḗ (prayer), kaúkhēsis (boasting), thusía (sacrifice), níkē (victory), térpsis (pleasure), khará (joy). In its ordinary construction eûkhos is always the complement of a verb of giving: “to give, grant, refuse.” Here is an example (Il. 5,285): “You are wounded right through the belly. I imagine you will not last very long; and you will give me great glory, még’ eûkhos.” Is eûkhos ‘glory’ or ‘victory’? It is neither: in battle a warrior makes one “vow” and only one: that is to win a victory. For a warrior, to grant him his “vow” is to give him victory. The conditions of its use thus make plain the apparent change of sense. We may thus restore to eûkhos the meaning of “vow” and eukhōlḗ denotes, more concretely, the motive for the vowing, for the devotio.
In cult eúkhesthai indicates a promise to a god to consecrate something to him in return for a favor that is asked of him. Here the two senses divide: at some times it means to give a solemn assurance of an advantage promised to the god, eúkhesthai hiereîon (Lat. vovere templum), at others to announce expressly the favor expected, eúkhesthai thánaton phugeîn, to ask as a favor from the god, avoidance of death. The evolution of eukhōlḗ is parallel to that of the verb: it is an affirmation of truth, publicly and solemnly announced, in circumstances where it might pass for a boast; thus it may be an affirmation of being the bravest of all: eukhōlḕ áriston eînai, the emphatic affirmation of a superiority for which a man offers himself as a guarantee.
Thus the religious sense of eúkhomai is: “to pronounce some binding undertaking towards the god, a pledge which one hopes will be paid by a favor.” There is nothing which justifies the translation “prayer”; this translation does not suit a single example, to say nothing of the examples as a whole.
To return finally to our point of departure, we can see how eúkhesthai consorts with spéndein: the “rite” and the “myth” are closely associated. The act of speech has the same significance as the act of offering: the two together accompany the taking of the oath which binds two peoples or two armies. The spondḗ, a rite of security, guarantees the contracting parties against a possible misfortune, against a violation of the given word; eukhḗ is the same action enunciated in words. It is a public declaration, solemn and even emphatic, which is appropriate to the circumstances since the two parties are swearing an oath. For the oath is a kind of devotio: as we have seen, the Greek hórkos signifies an act of self-consecration by anticipation to the power of an avenging deity if the given word is transgressed.
This consecration to a deity is proclaimed as an assured thing in exchange for an explicit favor: one so engaged is delivered in advance into the power of the divinity. Similarly, once the oath is formulated, the man taking it is by anticipation a “devoted” person. Everything fits together and it is no accident that in its fundamental uses (and here Homer is an important witness) these verbs are collocated together and recall each other. Through these turns of phrase we recover the traces of an institution which is really Indo-European and is common to a number of Indo-European societies.