I've been trying to piece together the grammar for how we talk about parts of the body in ancient Greek. (Homer is the dialect I care about.) I've found this discussed in passing in various places (Smyth, Goodell, Monro), but nobody seems to specifically address this in detail. They just seem to mention it in passing when they discuss the dative. In English, we either use an article or a possessive pronoun: "I got hit in the head," "My head hurts." In Spanish, we use an article: Me duele la cabeza. I don't remember enough modern Greek to know, but Google Translate says you use both an article and a genitive pronoun: Πονάει το κεφάλι μου. But Homer doesn't have articles, nor do the Attic examples I've seen seem to use them for body parts.

So is the following a correct understanding?

I think that in ancient Greek, one normally uses the dative to say whose body part it is (not the genitive), and I'm guessing that this is explained either because the locative turned into the dative (the head that's located in me) or because my body parts exist for my advantage. I think the pronoun can either follow or precede the body part.

Is the pronoun optional? That is, in English I can't say "Doctor, I have a pain in foot," but from the example of Iliad 1.46 below, it seems like we can omit the pronoun in Greek.

How do we express things like having pain, healing, wearing a hat on our head, and so on?

Some examples:

Dative personal pronoun:

Iliad 1.55
τῷ γὰρ ἐπὶ φρεσὶ θῆκε θεὰ λευκώλενος Ἥρη·
for to his mind the white-armed goddess Hera had suggested it [Buckley]

αἶψά τοι αἷμα κελαινὸν ἐρωήσει περὶ δουρί.
Immediately your dark blood will flow from my spear.

Pronoun seems like it can follow the body part:

Il. 1.104
ὄσσε δέ οἱ πυρὶ ἐΐκτην
and his eyes were like fire  [Buckley]

Omitting the possessor for family members:

Iliad 1.584
μητρὶ φίλῃ ἐν χειρὶ
in the hand of [his] dear mother 

Omitting the possessor of a body part:

Iliad 1.46
ἔκλαγξαν δ᾽ ἄρ᾽ ὀιστοὶ ἐπ᾽ ὤμων χωομένοιο,
αὐτοῦ κινηθέντος· ὁ δ᾽ ἤιε νυκτὶ ἐοικώς·
But as he moved, the shafts rattled forthwith upon [his] shoulders, he being
enraged, but he went along like unto the night. [my modification of Buckley]
  • I wouldn't say the possessor is omitted in the penultimate example, since the mother is the possessor of the body part. Possibly also in the last example χωομένοιο can be understood as a genitive possessor of "shoulders", though that reading seems debatable.
    – TKR
    Nov 19, 2021 at 21:52
  • Right, the "possessor" of the mother is omitted, but not of the body part. (To what extent those semantic groups may be treated similarly is an interesting question.) χωομένοιο is definitely gen. sg. of the participle of χώομαι; it's singular because it refers to Apollo ("of him being enraged").
    – TKR
    Nov 19, 2021 at 22:58
  • "it's not correct (or not fully idiomatic) to refer to a body part without explicitly attributing it to someone's body" -- this needs some kind of qualification since there are lots of counterexamples: e.g. 4.123 νευρὴν μέν μαζῷ πέλασεν "he brought the bowstring close to his chest", 5.345 χαλκὸν ἐνὶ στήθεσσι βαλών "throwing a bronze [spear] into his chest". (BTW in your second example τοι may be the discourse particle rather than the dative pronoun.)
    – TKR
    Nov 20, 2021 at 18:43
  • On χωομένοιο, a dative actually strikes me as unlikely in that sentence, since these "ethical datives" (to use the traditional term for convenience, though it's very broad and vague) imply that the action has an effect on the person referred to in the dative, which isn't the case here -- the clanging of the arrows doesn't affect Apollo, who may not even be aware of it.
    – TKR
    Nov 20, 2021 at 19:24

2 Answers 2


Your first three examples illustrate what is commonly called the dativus ethicus, here specifically in its use to indicate that a noun or pronoun in the dative case identifies the owner of a body part. This construction is very common not only in ancient languages but also in many modern languages; e.g. French “je me lave les mains”, or German “ich wasche mir die Hände”, where in English you have to say “I am washing my hands”.

Your fourth example illustrates something that seems to be unique to the Epic dialect of Greek, namely the use of “philos” to mean “one’s own”. Here we have two constructions embedded in each other: μητρὶ φίλῃ is a dativus ethicus indicating the owner of the hand. At the same time the adjective φίλῃ indicates that it is the mother of the person referenced in the sentence: this is the hand not just of any mother, but of the own “dear” mother of the person in question.

  • Thanks, that's very helpful. In your French example, is "me" really an indirect object pronoun, or a reflexive pronoun? They happen to be the same for 1s, but for 3s, wouldn't you say "Il se lave les mains" (reflexive), rather than "Il lui lave les mains" (indirect object)? Your German example seems more analogous to Greek or Latin, since mir is unambiguously dative (or dative reflexive, which I guess is a thing in German). (Since I don't speak any German, I'm getting this just by looking up tables of pronouns, and I could be misunderstanding.)
    – user3597
    Nov 20, 2021 at 14:20
  • @BenCrowell. Il se lave les mains means ”He washes his (own) hands”; il lui lave les mains means “he washes his (=someone else’s) hands”.
    – fdb
    Nov 20, 2021 at 14:53
  • 2
    @BenCrowell Can't speak for French, but German "mir" is most assuredly dative. The reflexive pronoun would be "mich," and reflexive "waschen" is also quite common, but not used in this example. Nov 20, 2021 at 18:47
  • 2
    It is also clear from other structures that the French "se" is dative here, e.g., "Je vais lui casser la tête" (I'm going to break his head). "Lui" can only be dative. Spanish uses the same type of ethical dative" in these situations. It is clear to me that Ancient Greek is using the same style of expression. English is actually the outlier in routinely using possessive pronouns with body parts, but even we have the alternative formula of having the person as the direct object ( and the body party in a dative espression, i.e., "I hit him in the head" or in the passive equivalent. Nov 20, 2021 at 21:36
  • 2
    @BenCrowell. No, it is not reflexive. Have a look at Sebastian's comment.
    – fdb
    Nov 23, 2021 at 22:43

Here's a self-answer addressing four things:

  1. Actually, it turns out you don't have to use dative pronouns. You can also use possessive pronouns.
  2. When the dative pronouns are used, they are not ethical datives.
  3. How one describes pain in a body part.
  4. Whether one always needs to identify the owner of the body part, as in English.

It turns out that you can, after all, use a possessive pronoun to identify whose body part it is. You can also use the dative. I haven't seen any case where you use the genitive, so I'm thinking that that isn't idiomatic. Here are two examples from Homer:

(a) Unambiguously a possessive pronoun:

Ζεῦ ἄνα δὸς τίσασθαι ὅ με πρότερος κάκ’ ἔοργε, δῖον Ἀλέξανδρον, καὶ ἐμῇς ὑπὸ χερσὶ δάμασσον

Here ἐμῇς is feminine plural, agreeing with χερσὶ, so it's definitely a possessive pronoun. (It also happens to be dative, but that's just because χερσὶ is dative.)

(b) Unambiguously a dative pronoun:

αἶψά τοι αἷμα κελαινὸν ἐρωήσει περὶ δουρί.

In this example, τοι can't be a possessive pronoun, because it doesn't agree in case with αἷμα; τοι is dative, αἷμα nominative.

These are what Smyth refers to as the dative of the possessor (p. 341, sec 1480) and Benner calls a dative of interest. Benner says:

The dative of interest ... is often found where the English idiom requires a possessive adjective or noun.

He then gives the examples of Iliad 1.55, 1.104, and 1.188, which all involve body parts.

When a noun is modified by a possessor and the noun is in the dative, the possessor is in the genitive, and vice versa. This seems to be the only situation I've come across in which the possessor of the body part is genitive:

ὅς κεν ἐπ᾽ ἤματι τῷδε πέσῃ μετὰ ποσσὶ γυναικὸς (Iliad 19.110)

Re #2: These are not ethical datives. From the grammatical descriptions I've seen, an ethical dative is an indirect object of a verb, or, in Smyth's description, it modifies the sentence as a whole (p. 341, sec 1474; p. 343, sec. 1486.). But in the following examples the dative pronoun modifies a noun (p. 346, sec. 1502):

Iliad 1.104 ὄσσε δέ οἱ πυρὶ ἐΐκτην

Iliad 1.303 αἶψά τοι αἷμα κελαινὸν ἐρωήσει περὶ δουρί.

In these examples, the dative pronoun modifies a noun in a manner similar to the more common one in which a genitive noun modifies a noun. In the first example, ὄσσε is in the nominative dual and is modified by the dative pronoun οἱ. In the second example, αἷμα is in the nominative and is modified by the dative pronoun τοι.

In neither of these examples is the dative pronoun acting as an indirect object of the verb or to modify an entire sentence, as in Smyth's description of the ethical dative. Furthermore, the ethical dative is "used to denote the interest of the speaker, or to secure the interest of the person spoken to, in an action or statement" (not the case in 1.104) and "The dative in the third person is very rare" (but the third person is used in 1.104).

These pronouns are also not possessive pronouns, which would agree with the noun they're modifying in gender and number.

These constructions are also not analogous to ones in Romance languages such as French "Je me lave les mains" (fdb's example). In this French sentence, "me" is a reflexive pronoun that acts as the indirect object of the verb. Although, as an indirect object pronoun, it can be said to be in something analogous to the dative case in earlier IE languages, it is not modifying "mains," and therefore is not analogous to constructions like the ones in Iliad 1.104 and 1.303.

Cf. Smyth p. 351, sec 1531, re the use of the body part in the dative.

Re #3, pain:-- In English we say, "My foot hurts," but there is no intransitive verb like "hurt" in ancient Greek. There seem to be a variety of ways of expressing this kind of thing in the Homeric dialect, but the most common is expressions involving πάσχω, to experience or to suffer, with the dative used for the body part:

πάθοι ἄλγεα θυμῷ -- suffer pain in one's soul

The noun πῆμα is also used, as well as the plurals.

Another common idiom is that the injury or weapon weighs down or oppresses the body part. I don't know if this is poetic or is something that people would really say.

Εὐρύπυλος δ᾽ ἐπόρουσε καὶ αἴνυτο τεύχε᾽ ἀπ᾽ ὤμων.
τὸν δ᾽ ὡς οὖν ἐνόησεν Ἀλέξανδρος θεοειδὴς
τεύχε᾽ ἀπαινύμενον Ἀπισάονος, αὐτίκα τόξον
ἕλκετ᾽ ἐπ᾽ Εὐρυπύλῳ, καί μιν βάλε μηρὸν ὀϊστῷ
δεξιόν· ἐκλάσθη δὲ δόναξ, ἐβάρυνε δὲ μηρόν. (Iliad 11.580)

We can also talk about enduring or being weighed down by pain using τλάω, or we can say that pain seizes us:

τλῆ δ’ Ἥρη, ὅτε μιν κρατερὸς πάϊς Ἀμφιτρύωνος
δεξιτερὸν κατὰ μαζὸν ὀϊστῷ τριγλώχινι
βεβλήκει· τότε καί μιν ἀνήκεστον λάβεν ἄλγος.

So to summarize, the idioms for pain seem to be:

  • I suffer pain -- using τλάω, πάσχω, ἄλγος/ἄλγεα, πῆμα/πήματα, and optionally the dative for the body part; example: "πάθοι ἄλγεα θυμῷ"
  • Pain or a weapon weighs down my body part -- using βαρύνω + acc (note semantic similarity between τλάω, βαρύνω)
  • Pain seizes me -- using λαμβάνω

These examples also show that we can talk about body parts without explicitly referring to whose body parts they are. For example, "ἐβάρυνε δὲ μηρόν" would translate as "and weighed down [the] thigh," whereas in English we'd have to say "and weighed down his thigh."

TKR has also given some nice examples in comments (quoting):

4.123 νευρὴν μέν μαζῷ πέλασεν "he brought the bowstring close to his chest"

5.345 χαλκὸν ἐνὶ στήθεσσι βαλών "throwing a bronze [spear] into his chest"

  • I'm not sure why you're saying that the dative modifies the noun -- the Greek and French constructions seem entirely analogous to me (as fdb says). The standalone noun phrase for e.g. "my hands" would be αἱ ἐμαὶ χεῖρες, not *αἱ χεῖρές μοι; for a dative to be used there has to be a verb in the sentence for it to depend on, as datives don't generally modify nouns.
    – TKR
    Nov 24, 2021 at 0:02
  • BTW there is also a verb ἀλγέω "suffer pain", e.g. Iliad 2.269 (Thersites) ἀλγήσας δ᾽ ἀχρεῖον ἰδὼν ἀπομόρξατο δάκρυ. It doesn't seem to be used with body parts in Homer, but that may just be accidental.
    – TKR
    Nov 24, 2021 at 0:37
  • @TKR: datives don't generally modify nouns. See Smyth, p. 342, sec. 1480. The standalone noun phrase for e.g. "my hands" would be αἱ ἐμαὶ χεῖρες, not *αἱ χεῖρές μοι You seem to be claiming possessive pronoun is the only one that can occur in this context. That simply isn't true, as shown by the examples above.
    – user3597
    Nov 24, 2021 at 19:10
  • There are occasional exceptions (hence "generally"), but I don't think those apply here. To make the point using an English parallel: consider a sentence like I'll punch his face for him. The phrase for him does not modify the noun face, but is an adjunct of the verb. These Greek examples with dative are structurally the same, except that Greek can leave out the possessor his.
    – TKR
    Nov 24, 2021 at 19:14
  • @TKR: There are occasional exceptions (hence "generally"), but I don't think those apply here. I think between the two of us (thanks!), we've dug up examples of pretty much all the cases that can occur: body part with no possessor, possessor given with a dative pronoun, and possessor given with a possessive pronoun. I don't think there is much left to debate except possibly the relative frequencies of the different ones. I haven't attempted anything like a statistical sample, but it seems to from examples that the dative pronoun is, if anything, the most common of the three usages.
    – user3597
    Nov 24, 2021 at 19:21

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