Monday, May 30, 2011


Thesaurus Linguae Graecae, Lexikon des frühgriechischen Epos. Lfg. 25 χαλκότυπος – Ὦψ. Göttingen/Oakville, CT: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2010. Pp. 120. ISBN 9783525255285. €119.00.

Reviewed by Oliver Thomas, University of Oxford (

Version at BMCR home site


The volume under review is the twenty-fifth and final part of the Lexikon des frühgriechischen Epos (LfgrE), a monumental and indispensable resource for researchers of early Greek epic. If they have access to LfgrE and do not use it, they are very probably being negligent.

During the first half of the twentieth century, as the Thesaurus Linguae Latinae inched forwards, the heft and breadth of the Greek canon seemed to preclude a similar treatment. However, in 1944 Bruno Snell founded an Archiv für Griechische Lexikographie at the University of Hamburg with a view to producing a whole range of Greek lexica, targeted at single genres and periods. Snell's most notorious interest was to argue that Homer thought in ways quite different from the Greeks of a few generations later, and indeed the first project which he designed for the Archiv was to focus on archaic epic. The first fascicule appeared in 1955, promising twenty-four more, each of about 96 pages and to cost 24 Deutschmarks. There were indeed to be twenty-five fascicules, even if the time-frame, length, and cost of the project rather outstripped initial expectations.1

The lexicon's approach was characterised, like Snell's discussion of Homeric verbs of looking, for example, by ignoring traditional definitions, ferreting out semantic detail by contrasting near-synonyms ('Wortfeldforschung'), and relating this to the thought-patterns of a particular era.2 This was a world away from the venerable lexicographical tradition of one-word definitions. It was also, particularly when applied to epic epithets, a polemical position opposed to any oral poetics whereby 'essential ideas' and metrical exigency prevail over controlled semantic subtlety.

For the lexicon, each headword's etymology, ancient interpretation, accidence, and metrical distribution were to be treated systematically, all of its instances categorised and cited, and secondary literature mentioned. This methodology was streamlined after twenty-five years, when the lexicographers moved from α to β and their main funding from Hamburg to Göttingen. In particular, various less-efficient branches of each entry were pruned (see the Introduction to Volume II). Perhaps the only regrettable decision was to provide a mere bibliography for the commonest words, such as ὡς in the present fascicule. More significant than this major overhaul, however, was the authors' constant care to keep abreast of scholarly developments. For instance, the lexicon's treatment of formulas adapted as scholars such as Russo, Hainsworth and Hoekstra demonstrated formulaic flexibility, and again as J. M. Foley's ideas about traditional referentiality gained ground.

It is impossible to review lexicography without wading into some detail. In the following paragraphs I will consider two entries (χαλκός, by H. W. Nordheider; χάρις, by V. Langholf), partly with specific criticisms, but mainly to show what kind of questions the lexicon is well-placed to answer. Examples could be multiplied, but I chose these entries with a particular contrast in mind. On the one hand, one might expect to be satisfied by a brief definition of χαλκός: the word means 'bronze', or occasionally 'copper'; strikingly often it appears in synecdoche (as a shorthand for 'bronze weaponry', 'bronze armour', or even 'bronze basin'), and occasionally in metonymy (as a shorthand for 'war'). What does Nordheider achieve by devoting slightly over ten columns to the word? On the other hand, χάρις is a very slippery word, and quickly takes one into the specifics of Greek social relationships. This is where one might expect a longer discussion to be particularly illuminating.

The fascicule begins, despite its title, with almost the whole entry for χαλκός. Nordheider gives a generous (or, depending on one's enthusiasm, overwhelming) archaeological bibliography, and draws particular attention (with more manageable bibliography) to some general literary questions posed by the technological background. Do mentions of bronze by the iron-age poet simply reflect centuries-old formulas, or do they also constitute deliberate archaism? If the latter, as is generally accepted, why? For example, references to gold/silver, bronze and iron help respectively to stratify the heroic world into gods, heroes and the 'working class'. LfgrE also prides itself on bringing out the prominent associations of a word as well as its core meaning, and Nordheider rightly emphasises the remarkable frequency with which Homeric bronze 'flashes like lightning' and 'clatters' in vivid battle-narrative.

However, the main value of listing every instance, and describing the word's metrical distribution and epithets at length, would seem to be in assessing the variegated formulaic landscape. In some respects, different formulas apply neatly to different types of object: thus, at verse-end, ὀξέϊ / νηλέϊ χαλκῶι of weapons, but αἴθοπι / νώροπι χαλκῶι of defensive armour; contrast formulas describing bronze in storerooms, which eschew epithets in favour of a string of nouns – gold and bronze, and sometimes also iron or clothing. But in other cases the same epithet applies to objects of diverse categories. For example, the bronze blade of a wood-axe may also be ὀξύς or νηλής. This makes organising the entry tricky: should one group passages by referent, by formula, or some sort of mixture? Personally, Nordheider's approach does not seem totally intuitive. Hatchets and sacrificial knives are widely separated from swords and spears, despite the shared formulaic background. Three instances of the trope 'Even he can be wounded with bronze' end up in three different subsections (Iliad 4.511, 13.323, 22.568). The numerous synecdoches where χαλκός means 'bronze missile(-tip)' are categorised artificially by grammatical case, which separates the formulas διάπρο δὲ εἴσατο χαλκός and διάπρο δὲ χαλκὸν ἔλασσεν. Nordheider begins with the few passages where χαλκός is a raw material, but includes Iliad 8.473 (the Achaeans purchased wine with bronze booty) and excludes from this section Works and Days 151 (the brazen generation worked with bronze).

A few pages later one finds Langholf's entry on χάρις (and on Χάριτες, χαρίεις, χάρμα, χαρμή, etc). As I said, the basic desiderandum here is to pin down the basic meaning in a way that carries conviction. For example, in Iliad 4.95 Athena tempts Pandaros with the thought of kudos and χάρις (including gifts from Paris): 'impressiveness', Trojan 'gratitude', 'reciprocal favours'? Given such difficulties, the entry as a whole could usefully have been rather longer, though Langholf again gives a good bibliography, including the classic lexicographical study by Latacz, and some references to scholarly disputes about individual passages.3

Langholf begins with passages where χάρις denotes a quality of producing τὸ χαίρειν ('grace', 'delightfulness', 'impressiveness', etc.). Physical attractiveness, the most straightforward, is taken first, though more emphasis could have been placed on its conception as a kind of radiance (joy and brightness together, as often in Greek thought), or as something to be poured (like unguent?). A subsection on 'communicative' instances (which in fact includes the χάρις not only of words but also of situations and actions) glosses verbal χάρις as 'Interessantheit', which fails to convince. Langholf's other main category is when χάρις denotes an action, subdivided into sections on the formula 'bear χάρις to someone' and reciprocal favours. This seems dubious: first, a framework of reciprocity seems to me to lurk close to the surface of all instances of χάρις as 'a favour'; secondly and more importantly, there is a further distinction to be made between χάρις which is 'sensed' or 'remembered' (roughly, 'gratitude') and that which is done.

Many of these criticisms reflect the degree to which the nuanced sense of Greek words – and it is in the nuances, not in cursory glances at Liddell & Scott, that so much of the poetry lies – is a subject for interpretative debate. One of the great benefits of LfgrE is to draw attention to precisely this complexity, both through its general aims and through the use it makes of (for example) internal cross-references and alternative glosses. It invites critical engagement rather than complacency. The other great benefit is that all but the shortest entries (including, I must emphasise, both of those discussed above) will teach something useful even to experts.

The 3,300 or so pages of LfgrE constitute a huge achievement, and are remarkably free from slips. Particular praise is due to three long-term editorial driving forces – Michael Meier-Brügger and his second William Beck, and before them Eva-Maria Voigt – as well as to various funding bodies, and to Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht. I for one look forward to further products of the Thesaurus Linguae Graecae team, even if patience will again be required.4


1.   Supplementary volumes were also planned. Two on archaeological material turned into the Archaeologia Homerica series. Others, such as a list of the intersection between Mycenaean and epic vocabulary, and a set of maps, were obviated by other publications.
2.   B. Snell, The Disovery of the Mind, transl. T. G. Rosenmeyer, New York 1960, 1-4.
3.   J. Latacz, Zum Wortfeld 'Freude' in der Sprache Homers, Heidelberg 1966.
4.   The other major project to have appeared to date, the Index Hippocraticus (Göttingen, 1986-9), has been of similar importance to its field.

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