The names of divinities and the epithets employed to characterize their powers and functions play an essential role in the history of religions. This article is confined to the use of epithets in Greek and Roman religion. The employment of epithets in other religions is treated in the respective articles devoted to them.
Epithets in Greek Religion. They are found frequently in poetry, especially in hymns; however, their occurrence in religious formulas is even more important as these reflect formal and official use. In Greek religion it is necessary to distinguish between epithets that apply to all gods and those that are appropriate for individual divinities. For easier intelligibility, the typical epithets selected are given in transliteration.
General Epithets. As the principle or beginning of all things, god is called archē (beginning) archós, archēgós, archēgétēs —all with the basic meaning of founder or leader; prōtos (first), or patēr (father)— defined more precisely by the addition of the adjectives áphthitos (imperishable), pantelēs (perfect), or megalōnumos (illustrious). Gaia and Demeter especially are called mēter. The divinity's sanctity is reflected by the epithet hágios (holy, replaced later by hierós or hagnós ); his longevity and his immortality, by présbus (venerable) and athánatos (immortal); his happiness, by makários (blessed) and ólbios (happy); his power, by téleios (all-powerful), and his kindness by eumenēs, ēpios, híleōs, and phílos. Power and sovereignty are expressed by formulas with aeí (always), mónos (alone), pâs (all), or their compounds. A term like polutímētos (very revered) is reserved for divinity.
Epithets Applied to Individual Gods. Some are applied to a group of gods, as sōtēr (savior) to Zeus, Apollo, Asclepius, and the Dioscuri; others more particularly to a given god, according to his appearance (an inheritance from anthropomorphism), his attributes, his origin, or his favorite locales. Thus, Apollo is called akersekómēs or chrusokómas because of his long golden hair, argurótoxos because of his silver bow, Dēlios after his birthplace, or Púthios after his chief temple at Pytho (Delphi). His sister, Artemis, is called iochéaira (archer), agróteira (huntress), or chrusēlakatos (with golden distaff). Other epithets are rather secondary appellations that are employed alone, as Lóxias and Phoîbos for Apollo, Brómios and 'Iakchos for Dionysus. Many are unexplained, such as Diáktoros and Erioúnios for Hermes.
Epithets in Roman Religion. A full index of Latin epithets is given in Carter (see bibliography). Among the general epithets, sanctus, which is rare in the literary texts, is very frequent in inscriptions, particularly in votive inscriptions. As regards individual gods, Ceres and Cybele are called alma, Apollo, Jupiter, and Mercury, bonus ; and Liber (Bacchus) is often given the title or epithet Pater.
Bibliography: h. j. rose, The Oxford Classical Dictionary, ed. m. cary et al. (Oxford 1949) 333–334. c. f. h. bruchmann, "Epitheta deorum quae apud poetas graecos leguntur," Ausführliches Lexikon der griechischen und römischen Mythologie, ed. w. h. roscher, Suppl. 1, (Leipzig 1893). j. b. carter, "Epitheta deorum quae apud poetas Latinos leguntur," (1902; ibid. Suppl. 2), with an excellent index, 107–154. k. keyssner, Gottesvorstellung im griechischen Hymnus (Stuttgart 1932). h. delehaye, Sanctus (Brussels 1927; reprint 1954).
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