*Definition: Formulas are ready-made phrases, extending in length from a word or two to several complete lines, already adapted to the meter and either already adapted or instantaneously adaptable to the limited range of ideas which the subject-matter of the epic may require the poet to express.

In Homer and the Homeric Tradition (Harvard U. Press, 1957) Whitman offers a slightly different definition from the above: "A formula is an artificially devised unit of semantic, grammatical and metrical functions."

This means that formulas:

(1) have a meaning;

(2) and serve the grammatical and metrical requirements of the poet at any given point in his song.

Whitman further details a number of characteristics of formulas:

(1) Formulas regularly occupy a given metrical position in a line. E.g. The word Cheir ('Hand') appears very frequently in the Iliad. Whenever the word appears in the plural as subject or object(in Nom. Or Acc. case) and modified by an adjective meaning "invincible" (AAPTOI or AAPTOUS) the formula, "invincible hands", closes the line. The phrase, "in his hands," {ENCHEIRESSI}, however, always begins the second foot of the hexameter (For hexameter, see below).

(2) The parts of a formula exist as a semantic unity. This is especially true of noun + epithet combinations, such as Agamemnon kning of men, swift-footed horses, or rosy-fingered Dawn. While noun + epithet combinations are naturally ornamental and richer than the noun would be alone, these combinations are not really meant to be heard analytically -- i.e. word-by-word -- but more as names given in full. These combinations recur frequently and once their meaning is known, the ear no longer distinguishes the words so much as accepts the phrase as a whole.

(3) Formulas are numerous.

*About 1/5 of the Homeric poems is composed of lines which are wholly repeated from one place to another. And in 28,000 lines, there are some 25,000 repeated phrases. It is repetitionwhich turns a phrase into a formula and the process is determined both by a time element and the usefulness of a given phrase.

(4) Formulas are complex.

According to Milman Parry:

Each formula is ... made in view of the other formulas with which it is to be joined,m and many formulas have an internal flexibility, such that the formula is not a completely steretyped phrase but one of a group of phrases, differing (it may be) by a single word of equivalent metrical value but radically different meaning and such groups of phrases in turn, fall into groups which have a larger pattern in common.

(5) There is remarkable economy in the use of formulas.

"Rule of economy": For a given idea within a given place in a line, there will generally be found in the vast treasury of phrases one formula and one only. Thus if you take in the five grammatical cases singular* of all the noun-epithet formulas used for Achilles, you will find that you have 45 different formulas of which none has, in the same case, the same metrical value.

(*A case indicates the relation of a noun to the rest of the sentence. In English we have two cases: the nominative or subject case and the accusative or object case. Except in our personal pronouns, we have no special forms for subject and object. Among our personal pronouns we have subjects, such as I and we, and objects like me and us. Greek, however, had five cases -- each with a slightly different form; hence the case of a word would determine its metrical value and would be an important factor in its position in a line).

This singular instance of 45 different formulas for Achilles, of which no two formulas serve the same metrical and grammatical function, is an example of an economy of expression which is very difficult for us to understand. And this case must be multiplied hundreds of times over because of all the formulas in the poems. What the poet has in his memory is a stock of many thousands of interrelated formulas already adapted to his verse, and it may be stated as a general rule that none of these formulas can replace any other to express the same meaning in the same part of the line.

This material has been used for many years by Professor Tom Sienkewicz in his courses at Howard University and at Monmouth College in Monmouth, Illinois. If you have any questions, you may contact him at toms@monm.edu.

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