Epithets in Charlayn von Solms Assemblage

I often provide my assemblages with a subtitle in ancient Greek. The reason why is not what you may think.


In 1990 South African conceptual artist Willem Boshoff launched a project still ongoing to this day named Blind Alphabet. Each installation of this artwork consists of a visually overwhelming number of boxes constructed from steel mesh. Inside each box is a unique object, made near impossible to view through the container encasing it. Fortunately, Boshoff provides a plaque with a detailed description of the object contained on the top of each box. But there’s a catch: the plaque is in Braille. A full experience of this work therefore requires the assistance of a specialist interpreter of a code that is most likely to be completely foreign to the average visual art enthusiast.

The Value of Rare Languages

Closeup of a person reading a text in Braille; Stefan Malmesjö, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons


Specialist interpretive tools

The vast majority of people will live their entire lives without ever needing and therefore learning, to read Braille. But to its users, Braille is a vital tool: it provides people with visual impairments with the means to engage with, and make sense of a world that often favours visual forms of communication.

Any judgement on the impact and value of Braille clearly cannot be based on the fact that the vast majority of the human population never uses it.

Officially, Ancient Greek is a dead language. No longer anyone’s native tongue, it has become a specialist interpretive tool for studying a range of subjects. For decades now, various school and university administrators have worked hard to render it extinct. So why, in an age of such marvels as Google Translate should anyone bother with it? Because, like Braille, Ancient Greek is of profound value to those who use it to make sense of the world.


Classical reception

Despite the broad selection of available translations, there are always some aspects of any ancient text that will resist transition. What these aspects are will vary, depending on the translator’s aims and the audience’s expectations. But even the best translation can only ever be a partial interpretation. While no individual translation can fully replicate or replace an ancient text, each of these interactions is a valuable record of the time, place, and cultural context in which it occurred.

As each successive generation engages with an ancient text, the result is an accumulation of interpretive strata that can be studied the way a geologist analyzes a mountain range.

In this scenario, the source text is gradually enveloped by its own variants. And over time, what audiences interact with is this mass of associated ideas more than the actual text itself. The danger lies when the source gets completely lost in its adaptations. Because for a scholar, the question is not just how, but why. As in: what was it about these ancient texts that inspired and then sustained all of this encrustment? To answer that question requires a direct encounter. That direct encounter requires an understanding of the language used to compose it.

The Value of Ancient Greek

Detail of a 2nd century papyrus with the text of Iliad II 757-775Homer, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons


The Homeric epics

Believed to have been composed during the 8th century BCE, the Iliad and the Odyssey have accumulated an astonishing amount of interpretive patina in the millennia since audiences first encountered them. Literary critique of these poems already occur in antiquity. And many works of art and literature were either clear adaptations or contain references to their plots and/or characters, a trend that continues to this day.

The Homeric epics have also long been the subjects of ideological appropriation, often followed by ideological denunciation.

Homeric poetry has been accused of glorifying violence, oppressive social hierarchies, and the patriarchy. But it has also been interpreted as antiwar, critical of religion, and lauded for giving rare agency to female characters, to give a few examples. Somehow these ancient texts have provided enough evidence to vastly different audiences of the qualities required to make these conflicting assessments. To an artist, this makes Homeric poetry catnip. And I don’t just mean in the conventional sense, as source material for depictions of characters and events from the Iliad and the Odyssey. Multiple centuries of documented analysis, critique, imitation, adaptation, appropriation, praise, and condemnation have resulted in an unprecedented record of the life of an artwork. This record spans not only time, but geographical, cultural, and social space.

Why would anyone with an interest in human creativity not be fascinated by this?



Epithets are descriptive devices that provide additional information about a person or a thing. This enables an audience to imagine a subject with greater clarity. Like similes, epithets facilitate the transfer of ideas from words to mental images. The “rosy-fingered dawn” ranks amongst the most famous of Homer’s epithets. However, in ancient Greek poetry the meanings of epithets are not always as clear. In addition, poets frequently used epithets as alternatives to names that would not fit within the strictures of a poem’s metrical format. Interpreters must determine whether the form, as opposed to the meaning of epithets carries greater weight within specific contexts.

This seemingly illuminating device is therefore also a complicating one.

Unlike Homeric epithets the ones I use are not compound phrases, but a single word. Preferably a short one. Each of these is chosen with great care to function not just individually, but also within the context of the series. The aim is find a word that provides some insight into a character’s traits as well as their role within the epics. When a viewer looks at the name of the artwork, the main title of the sculpture is an ancient Greek name written in Latin script such as “Telemachos”. As a visual and interpretive contrast, the subtitle is an ancient Greek word written in Geek script such as “ΟΦΕΛΛΩ”. Both signal that the subject is Greek. But they also indicate that while the work is relatively easily accessible on one level, on another, it is not. Unless of course you are a specialist, or have one at your disposal.

Epithets Charlayn von Solms

Front and side views of Telemachos ΟΦΕΛΛΩ


The Homeric epic is in reputation a familiar part of modern popular culture, and in original form a foreign artifact. I don’t illustrate scenes from the poems or create images of what I imagine the characters look like. Instead, I make these works to reflect on the compositional strategies underlying these poems and their interpretation as a form of re-composition and transmission.


For a reading in Ancient Greek with a discussion on epithets enjoy this video featuring three Homerist heroes: Gregory Nagy, Douglas Frame, and Leonard Muellner