1. Introduction

Toward the end of Alcman IP, the choir of maidens makes a strangely emphatic exclamation about the presence of Hagesichora. The identity of this figure is mysterious, and the significance of the passage is unclear:
οὐ γὰρ ἁ κ[α]λλίσφυρος
Ἁγησιχ[ό]ρ[α] πάρ' αὐτεῖ,
Ἀγιδοῖ .... αρμένει
θωστήρ[ιά τ'] ἅμ' ἐπαινεῖ
The appearance of the adjective καλλίσφυρος contributes to the mystery. It is the only adjective describing Hagesichora in the poem, and its significance is all but clear. The word appears nowhere else in extant lyric poetry. Why is Hagesichora at this dramatic moment καλλίσφυρος? What importance does the adjective have for its context? Does its use reflect a specific intention, or is it necessary to accept it as lacking any independent meaning in the poem?
While the word καλλίσφυρος does not appear in any other attested lyric poetry, however, it does appear both in the Homeric epics and in Hesiod, and so it is possible to trace the history of its use and to compare its various appearances. The use of the epithet is no more apparently significant in early poetry than it is in Alcman’s composition. In both the Iliad and the Odyssey, in fact, καλλίσφυρος is a prime example of the so-called “ornamental epithet,” one which describes a series of characters and one whose literal meaning bears no discernable relation to its immediate context. Is it necessary to accept this apparent lack of significance, or is it possible to discover a latent emblematic meaning that is not at once evident, but that would make some sense out of the epithet’s use, explain why it appears where it does and what it contributes to the poem?
Parry’s answer to this question is to accept the lack of meaning. In an essay on the problem of Homeric vocabulary, he observes that “the words in Homer for whose meaning we are in the dark are limited almost entirely to the category of ornamental epithets.” [1] Why would this be so? He argues it is because these epithets have no independent and fixed meaning. Even those epithets whose literal meanings are comprehensible have no significance for their context. He writes:
The noun epithet formula constitutes a thought unit differing from that of the simple noun by an added quality of epic nobility. The meaning of the fixed epithet has thus a reduced importance: it is used inattentively by the poet, and heard by the auditor in a like manner. [2]
If a word has no apparent significance for its context, if its use seems to make no sense, this can only be, Parry argues, because it has no specific meaning at all.
Lord answers these questions somewhat differently, modifying Parry’s views on this point. He does not assume our present lack of comprehension to be conclusive proof of lack of meaning, for he finds this assumption inadequate in explaining the origin of the epithet. An epithet must have had a “peculiar potency,” he argues, so that it entered the tradition at all. It is more probable that it lost its meaning in time rather than that it never had meaning at all. He supposes that “meaning in them became vestigial, connotative rather than denotative.” An epithet may lose its obvious significance, but it must somehow keep its original meaning, “the fragrance of its past importance.” [3]
Lord’s assertions are suggestive but they offer no method for recovery of the significance of this epithet. Perhaps by examining each instance of an epithet’s appearance—considering its function within one passage and its recurrence in several works—it is possible to arrive at some idea of its original meaning and the intention of its use.


[ back ] 1. Parry 1928b:235.
[ back ] 2. Ibid. 246.
[ back ] 3. Lord 1960:65.