Reading the Odyssey in Greek: The Repetition of Sound

Previously, I discussed some of the significant themes of Odyssey books one, five, and nine, but I realized afterwards that all my comments could have been written based on an English translation of the poem. This time, I will discuss what effect reading in Greek actually has on the Odyssey; specifically, I will emphasize the use of sound in the first few lines of the poem. (As a side note, please check out my friend’s thoughts on the linguistic structure of Arabic and Hebrew.)

Here are the first two lines:

ándra moi énnepe, moûsa, polýtropon, hòs mála pollà
plánchthē, epeì Troíēs hieròn ptolíethron épersen.

Here is my English translation:

Tell me, Muse, of the man of many turns, who was very much
driven to wander, after he had sacked the sacred citadel of Troy.

The poet makes andra–the man–the first word of the entire epic to emphasize the primary focus of his story. We will learn all about a single man, Odysseus, but who exactly is this guy? What makes him unique as a hero?

A sculpture of Odysseus from the Hellenistic era.

Well, the poet calls him polytropon, which means literally “many way-ed” or “much turning.” No matter how it’s translated, it conveys his deep complexity, in that he has many ways of getting things done and many cunning turns of mind, in addition to being a man who must actually travel upon many turning paths as he tries to return home. We will get to know him in a variety of “ways.”

Next, we have mala polla (“very much”): two words that bounce nicely off each other, using the repetition of L-sounds. These are adverbs describing the way in which he was “driven to wander”(planchthe).

Notice the repetition of P-sounds (π in Greek; the technical term would be the “labial unvoiced consonant”): you’ll see above that I’ve bolded all such P-sounds within these two lines. The first instance is in the imperative ennepe, with which the poet asks the Muse to speak; next, we have two in polytropon. Finally, we have in close proximity polla and planchthe, tied together with P/L-sounds.

In English translation, it is impossible to notice this repetition of sounds, but in the original Greek, what we see is that these words end up being tied together on the simple basis of having such similar sounds.

Polla emphasizes the “poly” in polytropon: it is thus very clear that the Muse will soon speak (ennepe, also with a P-sound in it) about the many sides of Odysseus. We might even imagine that what the Muse speaks–the story itself–will contain many aspects and layers; the Odyssey itself is as complex as the man whom it describes.

Then: polla / planchthe. These P/L-sounds just roll right off the tongue; these words are inexorably pushed together. Planchthe is pushed to the next line; like the word andra, it sits right at the beginning of its own line, emphasizing the importance of Odysseus’ wanderings as the centerpiece of the poem; however, what cannot be attained in English is the extra oomph provided by polla being right next to planchthe.

The best we can do in English is simply to use extra words to push home this idea, as in Fagles‘ “driven time and again off course,” or to compromise with weaker alliteration as in Ian Johnston‘s “wandered far and wide.”

Planchthe goes first, so it overshadows, thematically, whatever follows it. In the next part of line two, we have “epei Troies hieron ptoliethron epersen.” Epei is just a conjunction–“after” or “when”–of no thematic importance, but its sound is used to turn the entire subordinate clause into a unit of repeated P-sounds.

An ancient depiction of the Trojan Horse, from the Greek island of Mykonos.

Next is ptoliethron, referring to Troy’s citadel; it contains a poli– root meaning city or town. It is not connected etymologically with the pol- root of polytropon and polla, but the similarity in their sounds ties Odysseus’ sacking of Troy with his many cunning ways of getting things done; this repetition reminds us of his key achievement in cleverness: the trick of the Trojan Horse, with which he epersen–“sacked”–a great city. You can almost hear the ripping noise contained in epersen as the walls of Troy falls.

So, presented here is one side of Odysseus: his warmongering tendency to use cleverness and cunning tricks–“ways”–to bring destruction upon others. However, this poem will emphasize not his exploits in war but his wanderings, for the word planchthe, at the front of the line, takes precedence over his time as a war hero.

Alright, that’s enough detailed analysis for now. But, let me just briefly show you the next few lines. I will label the relevant places where sounds are repeated, and perhaps you can reach your own conclusions as to their thematic effects on the Odyssey. I have tried to make it clear exactly what each labelled Greek word corresponds to in English, by highlighting them in the same way.

Consider: why do we have variations of the word polla at the very beginning of the next two lines? What is Homer trying to emphasize in regard to the follies of Odysseus’ comrades? Why is eipe, from the same root as ennepe, used towards the end of these lines? What is the effect of all those dentals (T, D, and Th) in the final line?

pollō̂n d᾽ anthrṓpōn íden ástea kaì nóon égnō,
pollà d᾽ hó g᾽ en póntōi páthen álgea hòn katà thymón,
arnýmenos hḗn te psychḕn kaì nóston hetaírōn.
all᾽ oud᾽ hṑs hetárous errýsato, hiémenós per:
autō̂n gàr sphetérēisin atasthalíēisin ólonto,
nḗpioi, hoì katà boûs Hyperíonos Ēeoio
sthion: autàr ho toîsin apheíleto nóstimon ē̂mar.
tō̂n hamóthen ge, theá, thýgater Diós, eipè kaì hēmîn.

He saw the towns of many men and learned their minds,
he suffered many pains upon the sea within his heart,
as he fought for his own life and the homecoming of his companions.
But not even so did he save his companions, though he strove to do so:
for they, by their very own follies, perished,
the fools, who ate the cattle of Helios, the Sun-God,
Devoured them: so he took from them their day of return.
Speak from anywhere of these events, goddess, daughter of Zeus, even for us.

Guide for lines 3-10

P-sounds (π in Greek) = Red.

N-sounds (ν in Greek) = Green.

T/D/TH-sounds (τ/δ/θ in Greek) = Blue, Purple, Mahagony. I group these sounds together because, in Greek, they are all “dental” sounds, made by pressing the tongue against the upper front teeth.

Vowel sounds without consonants = Orange.

Words with rough breathings in Greek, or an H-sound in English transliteration = Pink.

hetárous errýsato = syllables marked in Turquoise are pronounced almost identically. The emphasis in terms of pronunciation falls upon these syllables; both are considered long in regard to meter.

Syllables which, to me, seem to conspicuously rhyme with one another are bolded.


5 thoughts on “Reading the Odyssey in Greek: The Repetition of Sound

  1. I once wrote a paper on the parallels of Greek Mythology and modern television. It was titled “Is Polyphemus alive and well in Tony Soprano” of the HBO series. Worth looking into for the entertainment value. Art from art from life. Many names had similarities and the etymology of names,
    titles and words. Like “Soprano” to rule from above and ‘Polyphemus’ the giant ruling from above.
    It is endless and enticing.

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