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This article is taken from PN Review 79, Volume 17 Number 5, May - June 1991.

Four Words Gabriel Josipovici


THE WORD 'EPIC' comes from epos, a word. Interestingly, when Homer uses this word he often links it with an epithet meaning 'flying' or 'winged' - epea pteroenta - winged words - 'so he spoke', we frequently read in the course of the Iliad and the Odyssey, 'and uttered winged words'. The idea presumably is that words fly from the speaker to the person spoken to as a bird or a feathered arrow flies from one place to another - the epithet probably refers to words as arrows rather than birds, but the connection was clearly made long before Homer, it was part of the epic vocabulary that he inherited, and we are not to imagine that he ever consciously thought about its meaning.

Nevertheless, it is highly suggestive. Words fly from person to person and lodge in the recipient, to do their work in his body, and the whole epic, the body of words spoken or rather sung by the bard, has the same effect on the audience. It cuts directly to their hearts, though once spoken it also vanishes into thin air, since there is no medium in which to record it. That is why the bard is so important: he is the memory of the community, the person who retains the store of words, the 'word-hoard', as the poet of Beowulf puts it. Without the bard the community would be lost, it would know nothing about its ...

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