καί νύ κ' ὀδυρομένοισι φάνη ῥοδοδάκτυλος Ἠώς,
εἰ μὴ ἄρ' ἄλλ' ἐνόησε θεὰ γλαυκῶπις Ἀθήνη.
νύκτα μὲν ἐν περάτῃ δολιχὴν σχέθεν, Ἠῶ δ' αὖτε
ῥύσατ' ἐπ' Ὠκεανῷ χρυσόθρονον, οὐδ' ἔα ἵππους
ζεύγνυσθ' ὠκύποδας, φάος ἀνθρώποισι φέροντας,
Λάμπον καὶ Φαέθονθ', οἵ τ' Ἠῶ πῶλοι ἀγουσι.
Homer: The Odyssey, XXIII.241-246
Dawn with her rose-red fingers might have shone
upon their tears, if with her glinting eyes
Athena had not thought of one more thing.
She held back the night, and night lingered long
at the western edge of the earth, while in the east
she reined in Dawn of the golden throne at Ocean's banks,
commanding her not to yoke the windswift team that brings men light,
Blaze and Aurora, the young colts that race the morning on.
Homer: The Odyssey, XXIII.273-280, trans. Fagles.
Of the forty-eight books and thousands of lines that comprise Homer's The Odyssey and The Iliad, these eight (in translation) are perhaps my favourite. By this point, we have
neared the end of Odysseus' adventure. After a twenty year absence from Ithaca, he's made it home, and is reunited with his wife, Penelope. One great test awaits Odysseus and
his son, Telemachus, but for now, Odysseus and his wife have twenty years of trials and tribulations, battles and vixens, sea voyages and suitors to recount. One night is just not
enough, so Athene, Odysseus' immortal guardian, takes action to prevent rosy fingered Dawn from casting her tendrils of light across the earth. Selene's chariot must hoist the moon
higher, and allow the starlight to linger, leaving Dawn's horses expectant at Ocean's edge. Time stands still that night.
Both The Iliad and The Odyssey are brutal stories. Bodies are ripped asunder, maidens are violated, cities are razed, entire fleets are obliterated, and each slash
of a sword, thrust of a body, lick of a flame, and ear-shattering splintering of wood is described in perfect detail. But finally, towards the end of this brutality, comes this moment of
tenderness. Twenty years of terror swirls about the couple like a storm, leaving them in the eye.
This is not the only instance where rosy fingered Dawn makes her appearance, though. It is the standard epithet that Homer uses to describe daybreak, although different
translators have their own versions of the phrase: Shewring uses 'rosy fingered Dawn', Lattimore prefers 'Dawn of the rosy fingers', Rieu uses 'Dawn with her roses', whilst
FitzGerald favours 'the rose Dawn'. Whatever the translation, though, it evokes a picture of sky broken by a burning golden disc, sliced with pink.
Homer made extensive use of epithets: wily or cunning Odysseus, Athene with glinting, gleaming, flashing or grey eyes, the wine-dark sea, Ox-eyed Hera, and the list goes on. When The
Iliad and The Odyssey were composed, probably some time around 800 BCE, they were oral poems, to be recited by a professional poet after a meal or at a symposium. In order to help each line scan and fit with the prescribed meter, and to help the poet remember his lines, epithets were ascribed to commonly-occuring nouns. They were a beautiful tool.
Rosy fingered Dawn, though, remains my favourite.
No longer All Greek to Me:
- Homer: The Odyssey, trans. R Fagles (London, 1996).
- --trans. R FitzGerald (New York, 1963).
- --trans. R Lattimore (New York, 1975).
- --trans. EV Rieu (London, 1952).
- --trans. W Shewring (Oxford, 1980).
- Huage thanks you to creases for the Greek, which can be found here, should anyone wish to refer.