Epithet is a poetic tool employed to describe a quality or trait of an individual, object or setting with the aid of an adjective or phrase. Additionally, this literary device can be employed to assign descriptive titles to prominent historical figures based on their most distinguishing traits and accomplished feats.
The inclusion of such descriptions in a written work allows authors to provide more precise illustrations of their heroes and setting and add more value to the text as a whole. If a hero’s name or object is accompanied by this tool, it makes it easier for the reader to immerse themselves in the book and enhances the reading process.
The term itself has roots in the Ancient Greek language and derives from the form “epithetos”, meaning “to be attributed” or “to be added”. This literary device was originally introduced by writers like Homer and Virgil, and it continues to be one of the most popular poetic tools to this day.
Several terms are commonly mistaken for epithet, with the most frequent one being antonomasia (also known as pastiche). Unlike the former, antonomasia deals with substituting the name of a specific hero with a title that reflects his or her most notable trait. Thus, instead of describing a name, it replaces it due to having more value in the context of a narrative.
Another tool that is oftentimes confused with epithet is simile. The latter is a figure of speech employed to compare two different entities that possess similar traits. Unlike epithets, which primarily are expressed via adjectives, similes use nouns and phrases as well as the words “like” and “as” to complete the comparison.
The primary role of epithets is to highlight notable features of a person or thing, which might otherwise be ignored by the reader, and to establish which attributes of an entity the author considers to be the most valuable. The significance and aesthetical value of a specific epithet depend on the adjective chosen by a writer and the context of its usage.
Out of all genres, this device is most commonly found in poetry, as it represents the perfect building material for powerful images and metaphors. The inclusion of this tool allows the author to express his or her individuality and convey a unique vision of an entity that can be considered mundane otherwise.
One of the qualities that make this literary tool stand out is that it possesses the potential to transcend time. Such a description is called a constant one and occurs when the chosen word or phrase not only adds importance and beauty to a character or setting but also resonates with the reader, who shares a similar perception of the described entity, prompting him or her to use it in conversation.
Epithets can be used to degrade someone by choosing an unappealing attribute that emphasizes a negative trait of an individual or entity. However, since the second third of the 20th century, the question of using certain racial or appearance-related descriptions has been raised, prompting authors to carefully think about the appropriateness of each adjective when describing a fictional character or a real person.
As mentioned above, this tool can also be employed to assign a nickname to either a real historical figure or a fictional character. Doing so, allows an author to develop the personality of a hero, make him or her more memorable, and underline his or her significance within the described setting. This epithet function is crucial for pieces based on historical events and for writers who work in the fantasy genre and want to create a legendary aura around a specific character.
Epithet-titles aren’t necessarily given to historical personas, as they can also be assigned to contemporary celebrities or even used in a group of acquainted people. In the latter scenario, the description would depend on the specific individual and the nature of the nickname, as it can be flattering, humorous, or degrading.
Common examples of epithets used in everyday language include: “crystal-clear water,” “menacing look,” “damning evidence,” “hideous laughter.” Most descriptions of this kind have become cliché and are usually avoided by experienced writers, as they no longer possess the power initially present within them.
Among epithets that transcended its time, the most prominent example is Homer’s “rosy-fingered dawn” that was originally featured in the “Odyssey”. This form can be found in several poems written by other authors and can be heard in ordinary conversations.
As for epithets employed for giving descriptive titles to individuals, examples can be found both in literary works and in real life. For instance, George R.R. Martin, in his “A Song of Ice and Fire” series includes such heroes as “The Late” Walder Frey, Jamie “The Kingslayer” Lannister, and Daenerys Targaryen “The Stormborn”. Real life examples include prominent figures like King Richard the Lionheart and The Maid of Orleans Joan of Arc.