It seems like there's some interesting cross-cultural stuff going on in the description of emotions in Homeric Greek compared to my US/English way of talking about these things. For "happy," the words I find are:


For "sad:"


But most of these words seem to have more to do with fortunate/unfortunate or blessed/not blessed than with the emotional states. Is this just a cultural mismatch in ways of conceptualizing life and feelings? For example, I could say that singing makes me happy. That doesn't have much to do with being fortunate -- even very unfortunate people can sing. Can anyone clarify the contrasts in meaning, tell me if these are right for the Homeric language, and tell me if I'm missing more relevant words?

  • 3
    English "happy" also originally primarily meant "fortunate", as it still does in phrases like "a happy accident". The association of happiness and good fortune is common across languages. – Cairnarvon Feb 6 at 19:14
  • 3
    Are you familiar with Bruno Snell's Die Entdeckung des Geistes (The discovery of the mind) from the 1940s? Roughly stated, Snell put forward the notion that figures in Homer don't have an inner mental life (and he then shows how the course of Greek literature shows the development of an understanding of inner life). Therefore, we shouldn't be surprised if words for happiness/sadness in Homer are focused on externalities. Although I don't think Snell's ideas are widely accepted any more, this work, and later responses to it, may be a good place to start if you're interested in this topic. – cnread Feb 6 at 21:33
  • @cnread: Thanks, that's interesting. Turns out there's a freely available English translation of Snell: archive.org/details/discoveryofmindg00sneluoft/page/n5/mode/2up – Ben Crowell Feb 6 at 22:41

The answer may be in large part morphosyntactic: Greek often uses verbs to express the meanings of English adjectives like "happy" and "sad". Some examples from the Iliad:

4.255 τοὺς δὲ ἰδὼν γήθησεν ... Ἀγαμέμνων "and Agamemnon was happy to see the two of them"

3.111 ὣς ἔφαθ᾽, οἱ δ᾽ ἐχάρησαν Ἀχαιοί τε Τρῶές τε "So he spoke, and the Achaeans and the Trojans were happy"

11.273-4 ἡνιόχῳ ἐπέτελλε νηυσὶν ἔπι γλαφυρῇσιν ἐλαυνέμεν, ἤχθετο γὰρ κῆρ "he instructed his charioteer to drive to the hollow ships, for he was sad at heart"

Such verbs are traditionally often translated into English as verbs ("he rejoiced"), but this is arguably following the Greek too slavishly; this is simply the idiomatic Greek way of saying "be happy" etc. Your example "singing makes me happy" would probably be phrased as literally "singing I rejoice", ᾄδων χαίρω or the like.

| improve this answer | |
  • 1
    For the benfit of other beginners like me, I thought it might be helpful to give the basic forms of the three verbs from these examples, which I think are γηθέω, χαίρω (as in the modern greeting χαίρετε), and ἄχθομαι. – Ben Crowell Feb 9 at 19:12

You certainly have a point. In classical Greek, Xenophon, etc. εὔθυμος is your "cheerful happy", but in Homer it is only "kind, generous".

ἄθυμος is Xenophon's sad, but Homer's "fainthearted, spiritless", lackadaisical.

If you could find in Homer

ἱλαρός , "cheerful, joyful"

δύσθυμος , "melancholy" in the lyric poets , or

δύσφρων , "sad" in Aeschylus, etc...

your task might be done.

Indulgence: My casual (lifelong) reader's take is the Homeric epics are far from psychological novels and lyric poems, and deal with primal, harsh emotions: anger, fear, vengefulness. When Odysseus smiles in the Iliad (ἐπιμειδήσας προσέφη), it's a warning he is about to kill the poor guy. Eurycleia the nanny's wild cheer is checked by blood-smeared Odysseus in 22.410 (ἐν θυμῷ, γρηῦ, χαῖρε καὶ ἴσχεο μηδʼ ὀλόλυζε : rejoice in your heart, old woman--peace! no cries of triumph now). There was reluctance to coddle or broadcast inner emotions.

| improve this answer | |

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.