Previewing a concise inventory of Greek etymologies, Part 1: Introduction by Gregory Nagy 2016.01.15 to the shape of things to come

2016.01.15 | By Gregory Nagy


The Greek words and names that are examined in CIGE include the following entries, each one of which was edited by one of the participants in a micro-seminar organized by Olga Levaniouk at the University of Washington in Seattle during the academic year 2015. These micro-seminar participants did preliminary research by collecting etymological insights from my own publications to date, and it is their preliminary entries that I am presenting here. The definitive edition of these entries will be the version that appears in Issue 18 of Classics@. That version will be what goes by the name CIGE, the editor for which is Olga Levaniouk. My role in that project can be described this way: associate editor of CIGE. Similarly in the preview that follows here, my role is simply that of associate editor for the primary editing that is done by my dear friend and colleague Olga.

The content is organized in the mode of a dictionary. Each entry, arranged in alphabetical order, appears under a heading or lēmma that indicates the basic word to be analyzed. The editors of the individual entries are identified by name-stamp and date-stamp at the end of each entry. Each editor is the owner of his or her own entry as edited. Some entries are divided into parts, numbered A, B, C, D, etc. Occasionally, there are different editors for different parts, in which case the editors of the individual parts are identified by name-stamp and date-stamp at the end of each part.


Asōpós (᾿Ασωπός)

It is said that when Zeus abducted the nymph Aegina from the banks of the river Asopos, the river god became so angry that his waters overflowed abnormally as he pursued Zeus, who reacted by striking the waters with his flaming thunderbolt, thus restoring the normal flow of the river. And because the fiery thunderbolt of Zeus made this violent contact with the waters of the river, it is said that even now you can see ánthrakes ‘glowing coals’ rising up from the depths of these waters. I quote the relevant wording in the retelling of Apollodorus (3.12.6): Ζεὺς δὲ Ἀσωπὸν μὲν κεραυνώσας διώκοντα πάλιν ἐπὶ τὰ οἰκεῖα ἀπέπεμψε ῥεῖθρα, διὰ τοῦτο μέχρι καὶ νῦν ἐκ τῶν τούτου ῥείθρων ἄνθρακες φέρονται ‘when Asopos pursued Zeus, Zeus struck him with his thunderbolt and thus restored the river to its familiar course, and that is why even to this day there are glowing coals [ánthrakes] produced by the streams of this river’.

The noun Asōpós can be understood as a compound formation meaning basically ‘having the looks of glowing coals’; in this case, the root as in Asōpos is cognate with the root as in the noun asbolos/asbolē, which refers to the sparks emitted by glowing coals.

Such an etymology of the noun Asōpós indicates that the name of the river god is connected to myths of anthropogony. And this connection is validated by the local Aeginetan anthropogonic myth about the god Asopos as the father of the nymph Aegina, who in turn is the Mother Earth that generates the first human in the land of Aegina.

Asopos and his multiple daughters: Traces of preclassical epic in the Aeginetan Odes of Pindar,” in Contexts for Choral Lyric Poetry. Myth, History, and Identity in the Fifth Century BC.

Gregory Nagy edited by Daniel Miller 2015.11.20


Hēsíodos (῾Ησίοδος)

The name of Hesiod is announced in the Hesiodic Theogony (22): it is Hēsíodos (Ἡσίοδος). I interpret the etymology of this name as *hēsíwodos, meaning ‘he who emits the voice’. The first part of this compound formation *hēsíwodos comes from the root of the verb hiénai (ἱέναι) ‘emit’, while the second part comes from the root of the noun audḗ (αὐδή) ‘voice’. And the Muses literally ‘breathe’ (pneîn) into him an audḗ ‘voice’ that makes him a poet (31 ἐνέπνευσαν δέ μοι αὐδήν). This poetic voice is his inspiration. There is a semantic correspondence between this etymology of *hēsíwodos meaning ‘he who emits the voice’ and the description of the singing Muses as ὄσσαν ἱεῖσαι ‘emitting the voice’ (Theogony 10, 43, 65, 67), which applies to these goddesses in descriptions of their singing and dancing (7–8, 63).

Nagy, Gregory. 2009. “Hesiod and the Ancient Biographical Traditions.” In The Brill Companion to Hesiod, ed. F. Montanari, A. Rengakos, and Ch. Tsagalis, 287–288. Leiden.

Gregory Nagy edited by Edgar A. García 2015.11.03


Hómēros (῞Ομηρος)

A. Etymologically, the form is a compound *hóm-āros meaning ‘he who fits / joins together’,  composed of the prefix homo- ‘together’ and the root of the verb arariskein (ἀρ-αρ-ίσκειν) ‘fit, join’. So Hómēros is ‘he who fits [the song] together’.

Nagy emphasizes the importance of the word kúklos in building a metaphorical relationship between Homeric poetry, the epic cycle, and the master-carpenter, téktōn. Thus “the etymology of Hómēros, in the sense of ‘fitting together’, is an aspect of this metaphor: a master poet ‘fits together’ pieces of poetry that are made ready to be parts of an integrated whole just as a master carpenter or joiner ‘fits together’ or ‘joins’ pieces of wood that are made ready to be parts of a chariot wheel.”

B. “The etymology of the noun hómēros (ὅμηρος) . . . [has] the sense of ‘hostage’, which derives from the same compound *hóm-āros meaning ‘he who fits / joins together’.” (2§331)

Further, “a hostage is the visible sign of a pact or agreement between two parties, that is, of a ‘joining together’ or ‘bonding’. Such a meaning evidently derives from metaphors of social bonding inherent in derivatives of ararískein (ἀρ-αρ-ίσκειν) ‘fit, join’: an ideal case in point is arthmós (ἀρθμός) ‘bond, league, friendship’ and related forms. The etymology of the noun hómēros (ὅμηρος) in the sense of ‘hostage’ is in turn compatible in meaning with the etymology of the verb homēreîn/ homēreúein (ὁμηρεῖν / ὁμηρεύειν) in the sense of ‘joining’ the company of someone or ‘accompanying’ someone.” (2§332)

Homer the Preclassic, “Further Variations on a Theme of Homer.”

Gregory Nagy edited by Emma Brobeck 2015.11.05


C. The reconstructed noun *hóm-āros can be interpreted as a compound formation meaning ‘he who fits [the song] together’, composed of the prefix homo- (ὁμο-) ‘together’ and the root ar- of the verb ararískein (ἀραρίσκειν). As we see from a survey of the oldest attested formations involving the root ar-, this form expresses primarily the idea of woodwork and secondarily the idea of other handicrafts that involve the fitting together of distinct pieces into a unified whole. Moreover, this form extends metaphorically to the art of songmaking. The name Hómēros in its traditional contexts is linked to all these meanings. The name means literally ‘joiner’ or ‘carpenter’. So, etymologically, Hómēros is a master joiner of woodwork; and, metaphorically, Homer is a master joiner of song. (2§282)

Homer the Classic, Chapter 2: “Homer the Classic in the Age of Callimachus.” 316–317

Gregory Nagy edited by Milan Vidaković, 2105.11.06


hupokrínesthai (ὑποκρίνεσθαι)

Nagy argues that the verb hupokrínesthai indicates an interesting connection between something that is seen and its interpretation. Beginning with Calchas’s interpretation of the bird sign in Iliad 2, Nagy shows that the verb hupokrínesthai “to respond” implies a “verbal message that responds to a visual message” (Homer the Classic 1§14). This pertains especially to a seer (theoprópos) who is responding to (hupokrínesthai) a vision or an omen. Nagy supports his point by discussing the performative connotations of hupokrínesthai, arguing that hupokrínesthai gives us the word for actor, hupokritḗs, which is best understood “by juxtaposing it with another theatrical word, théātron ‘theater’ ” (1§44). Both are quite clearly performative words, and both have to do with seeing and being seen. The form théātron is “composed of verb-root thea– ‘have a vision’ and noun-suffix -tron, indicating an instrument; thus the whole word can be interpreted etymologically as ‘instrument for having a vision [thea-]’. The etymological implications of these two words, théātron and hupokritḗs, can be interpreted together. The audience of theater, of théātron, which is the instrument for achieving théā, or vision, literally sees a vision of a character, such as the Antigone of Sophocles in the drama that is named after her, and this vision of Antigone can then speak for itself. Moreover, the word for ‘audience’ is theātaí ‘spectators’. Thus the mask-wearing actor who is the visualization of, say, Antigone is a hupokritḗs of the theatrical vision of Antigone and of the whole drama that is the Antigone of Sophocles” (1§44).

Nagy’s argument concludes with the idea that hupokrínesthai indicates an act which the seer performs in response to a visual stimulus. “The responsiveness of hupokrínesthai is a matter of performance. . . . The basic idea of hupokrínesthai, then, is to see the real meaning of what others see and to quote, as it were, what this vision is really telling them” (1§158). Nagy argues that hupokrínesthai is particularly relevant to Homeric poetry because this poetry is, by nature, a piece of performance art: “The performance of Homer as a speaker mirrors the performances of the heroes and gods whose speeches he frames. Homer as the framing narrator mirrors the poetic virtuosity of his framed epic characters, especially Achilles. The responsive mentality of speakers in Homeric song extends ultimately to Homer himself, who becomes re-enacted again and again in the traditions of performance. The responsiveness of Homeric poetry, as conveyed by hupokrínesthai, is parallel to the responsiveness of theatrical poetry, as likewise conveyed by the same word hupokrínesthai. Earlier, I argued for the relevance of theatrical contexts of hupokrinesthai in the sense of ‘act’, as in ‘act the role of a persona’, and of hupokritḗs in the sense of ‘actor’. Now I am arguing that Homer himself is such a ‘persona’ in his own right. In that sense, Homer is the embodiment of theater” (1§158–160).

Nagy also discusses hupokrínesthai in Chapter 2 of Homer the Classic (“Homer the Classic in the Age of Callimachus”) in reference to the Homeric Hymn to Apollo. He shows that hupokrínesthai has a performative connotation in the Homeric Hymn to Apollo which is similar to its performative connotation in the Iliad. Says Nagy, “Now we see that the Homeric Hymn (3) to Apollo makes the theatricality [which is implicit in hupokrínesthai] explicit, at verse 163, by way of the word mimeîsthai ‘re-enact’. In earlier work, I have argued that the Delian Maidens of the Homeric Hymn (3) to Apollo are in effect offering to make a mī́mēsis of Homer, that is, to ‘re-enact’ him, and Homer responds by making a mī́mēsis of them” (2§29).

Homer the Classic, “Homer the Classic in the Age of Virgil” and “Homer the Classic in the Age of Callimachus.”

Gregory Nagy edited by Anna Simas, 2015.11.05


poikílos/poikíllein (ποικίλος / ποικίλλειν)

The adjective poikílos, Nagy argues, generally means ‘varied’, with the specialized meaning ‘pattern-woven’. It is closely related to the verb poikíllein, which means ‘pattern-weave’. The noun poikílma is also derived from the verb poikíllein ‘pattern-weave’, and refers to fabric that is “woven . . . rather than embroidered.” Nagy cites the following comparative evidence for interpreting poikíllein as referring to pattern-weaving: “The verb poikíllein itself, along with the adjective poikílos, meaning ‘varied’, is derived from the root *peik-, also attested in Latin pictūra. So poikíllein means literally ‘make (things) be poikíla, that is, ‘make (things) be varied’. These words poikílos and poikíllein convey not only the general idea of variation. They convey also the specific idea of a picture, whether static or moving: in fact, they are cognate with the Latin word pictūra. This word evokes for us the celebrated formulation ut pictura poesis ‘like the painting is the poetry’ in Horace’s Ars Poetica (Epistulae 2.3.361).” In applying this etymology to the epithet of Aphrodite, poikilóthronos (Sappho Song 1.1), Nagy understands Aphrodite poikilothronos as ‘Our Lady of the varied pattern-woven floral love charms’.

Homer the Classic, “Homer the Classic in the Age of Virgil.”

Gregory Nagy edited by Eunice Kim, 2015.11.05


rhapsōidós (ῥαψωιδός)

Nagy identifies the term rhapsōidos, meaning ‘rhapsode,’ as a “compound formation composed of the morphological elements rhaptein ‘stitch together’ and aoidē ‘song’ ” (Homer the Classic 2§94). He cites the etymology as part of a web of metaphors which are to be found in the etymologies of terms associated with poetic composition and having relation to any of the Greek tekhnai ‘crafts’, explicitly the term prooímion, but with implicit relevance to the terms Hómēros and Hēsíodos as nomina loquentia whose significance draws on metaphors of stitching, carpentry, and joining in imagining poetic composition.

In Poetry as Performance (pp. 61–79), Nagy expands upon the significance and implications of this etymology of rhapsōidós. He cites the opening of Pindar’s Nemean 2 for an explicit rendering of the etymology implicit in the term. Pindar refers to the opening of a Homeric performance by the Homērídai, “a lineage of rhapsodes in Chios who traced themselves back to an ancestor called Hómēros, or Homer”: ὅθεν περ καὶ Ὁμηρίδαι ῥαπτῶν ἐπέων τὰ πόλλ᾿ ἀοιδοὶ ἄρχονται, Διὸς ἐκ προοιμίου . . . ‘starting from the very point where [hóthen] the Homērídai, singers [aoidoí] of sewn-together [rhaptá] utterances [épē], most often take their start [= verb árkhesthai], from the prooímion of Zeus . . .’ (Pindar Nemean 2.1–3).

Nagy continues by distinguishing between the metaphor of sewing and a related, but subtly distinct, metaphor in archaic Greek tradition and with Indo-European linguistic traces, that of weaving (65–66): “As we juxtapose these two metaphors for song-making in archaic Greek traditions, weaving and sewing, we discover that the second of the two is more complex than the first. The idea inherent in rhapsōidós, ‘he who sews together [rháptein] the song(s) [aoidḗ]’, is that many and various fabrics of song, each one already made, that is, each one already woven, become re-made into a unity, a single new continuous fabric, by being sewn together. The paradox of the metaphor is that the many and the various become the single and the uniform—and yet there is supposedly no loss in the multiplicity and variety of the constituent parts. In effect, this metaphor conveyed by the concept of rhapsōidós amounts to an overarching esthetic principle, one that may even ultimately settle the ever-ongoing controversy between advocates of unitarian and analytic approaches to Homer.”

The implications for this etymology reveal a model of rhapsodic performance that is at odds with what we see presented in such texts as Plato’s Ion, “where the rhapsode Ion is metaphorically pictured as the last and weakest link in a long magnetic chain of rhapsodes leading all the way back to the real thing, the original magnet, the genius of Homer (535e–536a).” The term rhapsōidós in fact highlights the process of poetic composition as continuous performance of spontaneously produced material that continues the poetic narratives that precede it: “The poet as rhapsode is the ultimate performer, but he is also the ultimate composer—at least from the standpoint of myth. The esthetics of sewing as a metaphor for singing highlight both the technique and the product of poetic craftsmanship.”

Homer the Classic, “Homer the Classic in the Age of Callimachus.”

Poetry as Performance, “Mimesis of Homer and Beyond.”

Gregory Nagy edited by Adriana Vazquez 2015.11.06


sêma (σῆμα)

Brugmann’s etymology of the word sēma ‘sign’ connects it to the Indic dhyāma ‘thought’ (Brugmann 1886–1900 2:348); the forms would then reflect an Indo-European *dhiéh2-mn- (Beekes 2010 s.v.). Nagy supports Brugmann’s etymology (Greek Mythology and Poetics Chapter 8):

“The basic form in Greek is sēma ‘sign’, a neuter action-noun built on a root-verb that is no longer attested in the language. There is a cognate of Greek sēma in the Indic branch of the Indo-European linguistic family. The form is dhyāma ‘thought’, a neuter action-noun, attested only in the late Indic lexicographical tradition. This poorly attested noun is built on a root-verb that is well attested in early Indic. The root is dhyā- ‘think’ (variant of dhī- ‘think’). Even though the morphological relationship of dhyā- and dhyāma is transparent in Indic, and even though Indic dhyāma and Greek sêma would have to be considered cognates on the basis of their parallelism on the level of morphology, students of language are troubled by the apparent lack of parallelism on the level of semantics: how could the meaning ‘sign’ of Greek sēma be connected with the meaning ‘thought’ of Indic dhyāma?” (202)

Nagy thus endeavors “to show that the semantics of sêma are indeed connected with the semantics of thinking” by examining the word “not only in context but also specifically in the contexts of its behavior within the formulaic systems of archaic Greek poetic diction” (202), namely, by considering its relationship to the noun nóos ‘mind, sense, perception’, and the derivative verb noéō ‘perceive, take note, think, think through’ (203).

Nagy adduces a number of literary examples to demonstrate that in Greek, a sēma serves as a key to recognition, that recognition requires interpretation, and that nóos is the Greek word expressing the “basic faculty of recognition and interpretation” (204). For example, before the chariot race in the funeral games of Patroklos in Book 23 of the Iliad, Nestor gives his son Antilokhos a sign (sêma) when he gives him advice about how to win the chariot race, a sign which Antilokhos understands: “Antilokhos himself uses the verb noéō to express what he is doing (νοήσω 415). What, then, makes Nestor’s sēma work as a key to victory? It is the ability of his son to recognize how the sēma works within its code, which is equated with simply noticing it. And the word for this noticing/recognition is noéō” (209). Nestor’s advice is to turn as closely as possible to the térma ‘turning point’ (Il. 23.327–345), which he says is either the “tomb [sēma] of a man who died a long time ago, or it was a turning post in the times of earlier men” (Il. 23.331–332) (215). Nagy connects the meaning of sēma ‘tomb’ with the meaning ‘sign’: “As a ‘sign’ of the dead hero, the ‘tomb’ is a reminder of the hero and his kléos” (216).

The associations between the meanings of sēma lead Nagy to a discussion of Douglas Frame’s (1978) etymology of the word nóos: “The question is: what do these associations of sêma have to do with the semantics of nóos? As Frame argues in the course of his illuminating book, nóos is an action-noun derived from the Indo-European root-verb *nes– meaning ‘return to light and life’. . . . The root-verb *nes– is attested in Greek as néomai, but in this case it means simply ‘return’, not ‘return to light and life’. One derivative of néomai is nóstos ‘return, homecoming’—and another is nóos. As Frame also argues, the theme of ‘return to light and life’ is recovered by way of the pervasive interplay between the themes of nóos and nóstos within the overall framework of the Odyssey: the key to the nóstos ‘homecoming’ of Odysseus is his nóos, and the nóstos is endangered whenever the nóos is threatened by lḗthē ‘forgetfulness’, as in the story of the Lotus-Eaters. There are in fact two aspects of nóstos in the Odyssey: one is of course the hero’s return from Troy, and the other, just as important, is his return from Hades. Moreover, the theme of Odysseus’s descent and subsequent nóstos ‘return’ from Hades converges with the solar dynamics of sunset and subsequent sunrise. The movement is from dark to light, from unconsciousness to consciousness, as expressed by nóos” (218–219).

Nagy connects this to the language of the Iliadic chariot race:

The sēma of the chariot race in honor of the dead Patroklos is not just a ‘tomb’ that serves as a ‘reminder’ of ‘a man who died a long time ago’. It is also a ‘sign’ that was encoded by the nóos of Nés-tōr ‘he who brings about a return’ (cf. Il. 23.305). And the word nóos conveys life after death, not only by virtue of its etymology ‘return to light and life’ but also by virtue of its usage in Homeric diction. (219)

In sum, it seems as if the contextual connections of sēma and nóos reflect not only the etymology of nóos as ‘return to light and life’ but also the etymology of sēma as a cognate of Indic dhyāma ‘thought’. The related Indic form dhīyas ‘thoughts’ is in fact attested as designating the consciousness of man in awakening and reminding the sun, by sacrifice, to rise, as well as the consciousness of man in being reminded by the rising sun to awaken and sacrifice. This theme is in turn closely linked with Indic concepts of life after death. (220)

In conclusion, Nagy connects the interpretation of to the reading of poetry: “the testimony of Greek poetry about sēma and nóēsis turns out to be a lesson in how to read this poetry: the Greek poem is a sēma that requires the nóēsis of those who hear it” (222).

Greek Mythology and Poetics, Chapter 8: “Sēma and Nóēsis: The Hero’s Tomb and the ‘Reading’ of Symbols in Homer and Hesiod

Beekes, R. S. P. 2010. Etymological dictionary of Greek. Leiden.

Brugmann, K., and Delbrück, B. 1886–1900. Grundriß der vergleichenden Grammatik der indogermanischen Sprachen. Strassburg.

Gregory Nagy edited by Megan O’Donald 2015.12.24


Sígeion (Σίγειον)

A. The meaning of this name can be connected with the presence of the tomb of the hero Achilles in the environs of that city. Confirmed by comparative evidence in another part of the Greek-speaking world, the city of Taras (Latin Tarentum, modern Taranto) in Magna Graecia offers a traditional explanation for the naming of the city after a sacred space of Achilles that was called Sígeion by ‘the Trojans’ who once lived there.  The morphology of the place name Sígeion is parallel to that of Akhílleion; the root of the form Sígeion, is cognate with the root of the adverb sîga ‘silently’ and of its derivatives, including the verb sigân ‘be silent’ and the adjective sígēlos ‘silent’. The name Sígēlos is even attested as the secret name of a cult hero (see Alciphron letters 3.22.3).

The observance of reverential silence in passing by the tomb of a cult hero is relevant to the naming of another Aeolian site, Sigíā, which is directly comparable to the naming of the old Aeolian site Sígeion. The site of Sigíā is associated with rocky heights overlooking the Hellespont and with tumuli marking the burial places of cult heroes. Both Sígeion and Sigía refer to heights imagined as markers of sacred places where tombs of heroes are located. As for the actual meaning of these Aeolic place names Sígeion and Sigía, both signal a sacred space of reverential silence. By metonymy, the naming of these heights Sígeion and Sigíā is connected with the practice of observing reverential silence at the tombs of heroes.

Homer the Preclassic, Chapter 7: “Conflicting Claims on Homer.”

Gregory Nagy edited by Chad Carver 2015.10.30


B. Sígeion: A site in the Troad near which the tomb of Achilles was said to be located; “Achilles was worshipped as a cult hero at this tomb” (Homer the Preclassic II§44).  The root of Sígeion is “cognate with the root of the adverb sīga ‘silently’ and of its derivatives, including the verb sigân ‘be silent’ and the adjective sígēlos ‘silent’ (II§134). According to Nagy, the name of the town has its origins in the ritual silence owed to the sacred spaces of cult heroes; he draws a parallel from a reference in Alciphron Letters 3.22.3 to a cult hero Sígēlos and the custom thatthose who pass by the tomb of the cult hero Sígēlos must observe reverential silence” (II§134).  The name Sígeion also parallels that of another Aeolian site, Sigíā, which he connects with the name of one of the old cities in the region, Kolōnai, from the plural of kolōnē, ‘tumulus’ (II§135).  Nagy concludes that “both Sígeion and Sigíā refer to heights imagined as markers of sacred places where tombs of heroes are located. As for the actual meaning of these Aeolic place names Sígeion and Sigíā, both signal a sacred space of reverential silence. By metonymy, the naming of these heights Sígeion and Sigíā is connected with the practice of observing reverential silence at the tombs of heroes” (Homer the Preclassic II§136).

Homer the Preclassic, Chapter 7: “Conflicting Claims on Homer.”

Gregory Nagy edited by Megan O’Donald 2015.10.30

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