στήτη, a post-Homeric ghost word

By: | Post date: 2011-01-11 | Comments: 5 Comments
Posted in categories: Ancient Greek, Linguistics
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I posted in November about Leo Allatius, who coined a new word in the Greek literary corpus through a misreading of Pindar—or rather, perpetuating a mediaeval misreading of Pindar. But with the transmission of Classical literature as haphazard as it was, Allatius was not the only writer to have come up with such creative misreadings.

In the sixth verse of the Iliad, Homer introduces the feud between Achilles and Agamemnon over Briseis:

ἐξ οὗ δὴ τὰ πρῶτα διαστήτην ἐρίσαντε
Ἀτρεΐδης τε ἄναξ ἀνδρῶν καὶ δῖος Ἀχιλλεύς.
from the time when first they parted in strife,
Atreus’ son, king of men, and brilliant Achilles

διαστήτην ἐρίσαντε literally means “the two of them stood apart contending”. But διαστήτην is a strange verb for those who post-date Homer: it is too archaic to be understood readily.

The verb is archaic enough to lack an augment—the prefix that obligatorily indicates past tense in Classical Greek: where Homer used δια-στήτην /dia-stɛ́ːtɛːn/, later Greek would expect δι-ε-στήτην /di-e-stɛ́ːtɛːn/. Later on still—by the end of Classical Greek—the dual number of the verb fell out of use; Greek by then would expect not the dual διεστήτην, but the plural διέστησαν.

So διαστήτην did not look familiar to speakers to later Greek as a verb. What it did look like, though, was a feminine accusative noun, since -ην is the first declension ending for that case. Since spaces were not normally marked between words in Ancient writing, it would be easy for ΔΙΑΣΤΗΤΗΝΕΡΙΣΑΝΤΕ to be read as διὰ στήτην ἐρίσαντε, “contending for an X”.

Reading διαστήτην as διὰ στήτην means that you have unearthed a brand new noun in Homer, and now you need to come up with a meaning for it. It’s not the first time readers of Homer were faced with such a challenge, and the way out was provided, as it often was, by context. Achilles and Agamemnon were contending for Briseis; since Briseis was a woman, and στήτην seems to be a feminine noun, it follows that Homer has the noun στήτη, meaning “woman”.

Some Homerically clueless poet later on, in the same mindset as Allatius, followed along with this misconstrual of Homer: he used στήτη as a noun in his verse, to mean “woman”. In fact he went a step further than Allatius: Allatius cited πεδαφρόνων just as he read it in his Pindar; but this poet was pretending to write in Doric, so he switched dialects in the inflection, and came up with the genitive στήτας, not στήτης.

To make things even worse, another poet, within the next century, used this ghost word στήτας again, in a poem clearly derived from the first poet’s conceit. (“Of the writer nothing is known; he was obviously acquainted with the [first poem]”.) Both poets were pedants, more concerned with crafting poesie concrete than using words anyone had heard of. Clearly Homeric learning had fallen unpardonably far.

The poets in question are Theocritus (in his poem shaped like a Pipe) and Dosiadas (in his poem shaped like an Altar). In the 3rd century BC. You can see their handiwork at theoi.com, reproducing the 1912 Loeb edition and translation.

In the 3rd century BC, of course, Homeric scholarship was just getting started: Aristophanes of Byzantium might have worked in Alexandria at the same time as Theocritus. And we can be smug about misreadings like διὰ στήτην now, but five centuries after the Iliad was written, scholars had to start somewhere trying to make sense of Homer’s antiquated Greek. Those scholars’ attempt to make sense of Homer led them to invent Western grammar. So we should cut Theocritus and Dosiadas some slack.

Here are the phantoms of στήτη in action:

LSJ, στήτα:

στήτα, ἁ, pseudo-Doric, = γυνή [woman], Theoc.Syrinx 14, Dosiad.Ara 1. (The form arose from a false reading of Il.1.6, διὰ στήτην ἐρίσαντε having quarrelled about a woman, cf. Eust.21.43, Sch.D.T. p.11 H.)

Dosiadas, Altar, 1

Εἱμάρσενός με στήτας
πόσις, μέροψ δίσαβος,
I am the work of the husband of a mannish-mantled quean, of a twice-young mortal

Note that in the 1912 Loeb, writing to a more literate audience, J M Edmonds could afford to translate obscure Greek into obscure English: quean, “1. a disreputable woman; specifically: prostitute; 2. chiefly Scottish: woman; especially: one that is young or unmarried”.

Theocritus, Syrinx, 13-20:

ψυχὰν ᾇ, βροτοβάμων,
στήτας οἶστρε Σαέττας,
κλωποπάτωρ, ἀπάτωρ,
with which heartily well pleased, thou clay-treading gadfly of the Lydian quean [i.e. Omphale], at once thief-begotten and none-begotted

Scholia in Theocritum, Syrinx 14:

Without the scholia to Theocritus, we’d be even more lost than Theocritus was before Homer:

στήτας οἶστρε Σαέττας: τουτέστιν ὁ οἶστρον ἐμβαλὼν τῇ Λυδῇ γυναικί. φασὶ γάρ, ὅτι ἡ Ὀμφάλη ἡ Λυδὴ οἶστρον εἶχε περὶ τὸν Πᾶνα πολύν. τὸ δὲ στήτη ἡ γυνή, Σαέττης δὲ τῆς Λυδῆς.
That is, the gadfly poking the Lydian woman. For he is saying that Omphale, the Lydian, had a great gadfly (= sexual excitement) about Pan. And στήτη means “woman”, while Σαέττη means “Lydian woman”.

I think this is our only source form knowing what a Saetta was. It’s not our only source for knowing what a στήτη is:

Scholia on Homer, Scholia Recentiora [more recent scholia] by Theodore Meletiniotes (codex Genevensis gr. 44), I 6:

[διαστήτην] διὰ τὴν στήτην, διὰ τὴν γυναῖκα.
διαστήτην: for the στήτην, for the woman.


στήτα· γυνή
στήτα: woman

Though Hesychius does Contain Multitudes:


στήτην· ἔστησαν, δυϊκῶς
στήτην: “they stood”, in the dual

Some scholars, at least, had worked out what had gone wrong—fully and astutely (Melampous or Diomedes’ grammatical commentary), or almost but not quite (Eustathius of Thessalonica):

Eustathius of Thessalonica, Commentary on the Iliad, Vol. 1 p. 35 (van der Valk):

Ἰστέον δὲ […] ὅτι περιέργως τινὲς ἐπιβαλόντες Θεοκρίτου στήτην τὴν γυναῖκα εἰπόντος γράφουσιν ἐνταῦθα «διὰ στήτην ἐρίσαντο», ἵνα λέγῃ ὁ ποιητής, ὡς διὰ γυναῖκα ἤρισαν. ὁ δὲ τούτοις προσέχων εἴη ἂν φιλόκαινος.
Note that oddly enough, some authorities, imposing Theocritus’ στήτη “woman” here, read this as διὰ στήτην ἐρίσαντο, so that the Poet ends up saying that they “contended for a woman”. To pay attention to such readings would be an infatuation with novelty.

Commentary on Dionysius Thrax‘s Art of Grammar, by Melampous or Diomedes, p. 11 (Hilgard, Grammatici Graeci vol. 1.3)

Ἕως ἐνταῦθά ἐστιν ὁ ὅρος τῆς γραμματικῆς. Εἴπωμεν οὖν αὐτόν· «γνῶσις τῶν παρὰ <τοῖς> τὰ ἔμμετρα καὶ ἄμετρα γράψασιν ὡς ἐπὶ τὸ πλεῖστον εὑρισκομένων». Διὰ τί δὲ εἶπεν «ὡς ἐπὶ τὸ πλεῖστον»; Ἐπειδή τινες λέξεις ἅπαξ που ἢ δὶς εἰρημέναι εἰσίν, ἃς οὐ πᾶσα ἀνάγκη εἰδέναι τὸν γραμματικόν, οἷον οἱ γρῖφοι. Τί δέ εἰσιν οἱ γρῖφοι; Τὰ ζητήματα τὰ δεινά· […]
ἢ ὡς ἐν τῷ βωμῷ τοῦ Δοσιάδου ἡ γυνὴ εἴρηται στήτη, ἐπειδή τινες τὸ παρ’ Ὁμήρῳ διαστήτην ἐρίσαντε οὕτως ἐξηγήσαντο, διά τινα γυναῖκα. Σύριγξ δὲ καὶ βωμὸς ποιήματά τινά ἐστιν ἐμμέτρῳ τῷ σχήματι καὶ τῇ διατυπώσει τὴν ἐπωνυμίαν ἔχοντα. Τὰ οὖν τοιαῦτα ζητήματα εἰ μὲν ἐπίσταται ὁ γραμματικός, ἐπαινετέος ἐστίν, εἰ δὲ μή γε, οὐκ ἔστι μέμψεως ἄξιος.
This much is the definition of grammar. Let us add: “the knowledge of most things written in verse and prose”. Why “most”? Because there are some words which have been used just once or twice, which it is not essential for the grammarian to know, such as riddles. And what are riddles? Difficult questions […]
Or, as in Dosiadas’ Altar, where στήτη is used for “woman”, because some people interpreted Homer’s διαστήτην ἐρίσαντε as referring to a certain woman. And the Pipe and the Altar are poems in verse form and named for their appearance. Now if a grammarian knows about such matters, he is to be praised; but if not, he does not merit condemnation.


  • Whether it arose from an accidental misreading or an intentional one (as a joke), it's still pretty hilarious that it persisted.

  • So, στήτη is the Homeric equivalent of Dord?

  • nycguy says:

    I have read about this before, in other the work of other scholars (Robert Renahan I think) who consider this to be an Alexandrian schoolboy joke, a sort of grammatical pons asinorum.. It's reasonable to assume that because the verse comes from the proem of the Iliad which every schoolboy would learn.

    If the source were a more obscure passage then it would be more believable that the line was misunderstood.

    I find it easier to believe that Theocritus used the word as an Alexandrian in-joke.

  • John Cowan says:

    Sometimes these ghost words do catch on. The word syllabus is entirely standard in English, with over 12 million Google hits, but its etymology (per the OED) is sheer comedy:

    [< modern Latin syllabus, usually referred to an alleged Greek σύλλαβος. Syllabus appears to be founded on a corrupt reading syllabos in some early printed editions—the Medicean MS. has sillabos—of Cicero Epp. ad Atticum iv. iv, where the reading indicated as correct by comparison with the MS. readings in iv. v. and viii. is sittybas or Greek σιττύβας, accusative plural of sittyba, σιττύβα 'parchment label' or 'title-slip on a book'. (Compare Tyrrell and Purser Correspondence of Cicero nos. 107, 108, 112, Comm. and Adnot. Crit.) Syllabos was græcized by later editors as συλλάβους, from which a spurious σύλλαβος was deduced and treated as a derivative of συλλαμβάνειν to put together, collect (compare syllable n.)]

  • π2 says:

    Speaking of technopaignia, there's a new monograph on them.

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