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An epithet (from Greek: ἐπίθετον epitheton, neut. of ἐπίθετος epithetos, "attributed, added") or byname is a descriptive term (word or phrase) accompanying or occurring in place of a name and having entered common usage. It has various shades of meaning when applied to seemingly real or fictitious people, divinities, objects, and binomial nomenclature. It can also be a descriptive title: for example, Alexander the Great.
In linguistics, an epithet can only be a metaphor, essentially a reduced or condensed use of apposition. Epithets are sometimes attached to a person's name or appear in place of their name, as what might be described as a glorified nickname or sobriquet. An epithet is linked to its noun by long-established usage and some are not otherwise employed. Not every adjective is an epithet. An epithet is especially recognizable when its function is largely decorative, such as if "cloud-gathering Zeus" is employed other than in reference to conjuring up a storm. "The epithets are decorative insofar as they are neither essential to the immediate context nor modelled especially for it. Among other things, they are extremely helpful to fill out a half-verse", Walter Burkert has noted.
Some epithets are known by the Latin term epitheton necessarium because they are required to distinguish the bearers, e.g. as an alternative to ordinals after a prince's name — such as Richard the Lionheart (Richard I of England), or Charles the Fat alongside Charles the Bald. The same epithet can be used repeatedly, in different spheres of life and/or joined to different names, e.g. Alexander the Great as well as Catherine the Great.
Other epithets can easily be omitted without serious risk of confusion, and are therefore known (again in Latin) as epitheton ornans; thus the classical Roman author Virgil systematically called his main hero pius Aeneas, the epithet being pius, which means religiously observant, humble and wholesome, as well as calling the armsbearer of Aeneas fidus Achates, the epithet being fidus, which means faithful or loyal.
Epithets are characteristic of the style of ancient epic poetry, notably in that of Homer or the northern European sagas. See above, as well as epithets in Homer. When James Joyce uses the phrase "the snot-green sea" he is playing on Homer's familiar epithet "the wine-dark sea". The phrase "Discreet Telemachus" is also considered an epithet.
The Greek term Antonomasia, in rhetoric, means substituting any epithet or phrase for a proper name, as Pelides, signifying the "son of Peleus", to identify Achilles; an opposite substitution of a proper name for some generic term is also sometimes called antonomasia, as a Cicero for an orator. However, it should be noted that the use of a father's name or ancestor's name, such as "Pelides" in the case of Achilles, or "Saturnia" in the case of the goddess Juno in Vergil's Aeneid, is specifically called a patronymic device and is in its own class of epithet.
In many polytheistic religions, such as in ancient Greek and Roman religions, a deity's epithets, easily multiplied in the practice of cultus generally reflected a particular aspect of that god's essence and role, for which their influence may be obtained for a specific occasion: Apollo Musagetes is "Apollo, [as] leader of the Muses" and therefore patron of the arts and sciences while Phoibos Apollo is the same deity, but as shining sun-god. "Athena protects the city as polias, oversees handicrafts as ergane, joins battle as promachos and grants victory as nike."
Alternatively the epithet may identify a particular and localized aspect of the god, sometimes already ancient during the classical epochs of Greece or Rome, such as a reference to the mythological place of birth or numinous presence at a specific sanctuary: sacrifice might be offered on one and the same occasion to Pythian Apollo (Apollo Pythios) and Delphic Apollo (Apollo Delios). A localizing epithet refers simply to a particular center of veneration and the cultic tradition there, as the god manifested at a particular festival, for example: Zeus Olympios, Zeus as present at Olympia, or Apollo Karneios, Apollo at the Spartan Carneian festival.
Often the epithet is the result of fusion of the Olympian divinity with an older one: Poseidon Erechtheus, Artemis Orthia, reflect intercultural equations of a divinity with an older one, that is generally considered its pendant; thus most Roman gods and goddesses, especially the Twelve Olympians, had traditional counterparts in Greek, Etruscan, and most other Mediterranean pantheons, e.g. Jupiter as head of the Olympian Gods with Zeus, but in specific cult places there may even be a different equation, based on one specific aspect of the divinity. Thus the Greek word Trismegistos "thrice grand" was first used as a Greek name for the Egyptian god of science and invention, Thot, and later as an epitheton for the Greek Hermes and, finally, the fully equated Roman Mercurius (Mercury; both were also messenger of the gods). Among the Greeks, T. H. Price notes the nurturing power of Kourotrophos might be invoked in sacrifices and recorded in inscription, without specifically identifying Hera or Demeter.
Some epithets were applied to several deities of a same pantheon, rather accidentally if they had a common characteristic, or deliberately emphasizing their blood- or other ties; thus in pagan Rome, several divinities ( -gods, heroes) were given the epitheton Comes as companion of another (usually major) divinity. An epithet can even be meant for collective use, e.g. in Latin pilleati 'the felt hat-wearers' for the brothers Castor and Pollux. Some epithets resist explanation.
Similar practices still exist in Catholic and Orthodox Christianity in the veneration of Christ and, mainly, of the saints. "Our Lady of Lourdes" is essentially periphrasis, unless some aspect of the Virgin were being invoked.
In historical, journalistic, and other writings, one often encounters epithets, but it is worthwhile distinguishing different types. While the same rationale as in the genealogical section above may apply, in some cases posthumously politicians, unlike ordinary citizens, often have some control over public opinion and generally more of an interest in their image, so whether forged for themselves or contrived by opponents, their epithets often carry a political message.
Indeed, while these differ from official titles as they express no legal status, epithets have been awarded and adopted (though the official procedure may provide for the formal decision to be issued by another institution, such as a legislative assembly) by statesmen in power for fairly formal use, not dissimilar in purpose to various sinecures, knighthoods or peerage-type titles in postfeudal societies: they confer prestige without any legal authority, so essentially a matter of image or even propaganda, aimed at a domestic and/or foreign target audience. Examples of such epithets are the various traditions of victory titles (see there) awarded to meritorious generals and rulers since antiquity, and the epithets awarded to entire units: such adjectives as 'Fidelis' ('loyal') to various Roman legions.
Titles attached to modern units (such as the 101st Airborne Division of the US Army being called the 'screaming eagles') may be a continuation of this tradition.
In contemporary usage, epithet may also refer to an abusive, defamatory, or derogatory phrase, such as a racial epithet or as in "the dismal science". The euphemistic use is deprecated by Martin Manser and other prescriptive linguists.
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