Core Vocab: aitios, aitiā

For some time now we have been exploring the key Greek terms from H24H[a] and some of the Greek Core Vocabulary terms that are tracked in HeroesX, and in the Sourcebook[b]. You can find links to these forum discussions from the list at the Core Vocab page.

This month we come to aitios [αἴτιος] ‘responsible, guilty’; aitiā [αἰτία] ‘responsibility, guilt; cause, case’. Where are these terms used? How might we visualize them?

Here are a couple of examples.

In Iliad Poseidon tries to urge on the Achaean troops. During the speech he says:

True, King Agamemnon son of Atreus is responsible [aitios] for our disaster by having insulted the swift-footed son of Peleus, still this is no reason why we should leave off fighting.
(Iliad 13 110–114, Sourcebook) [1]

Later on Agamemnon himself denies it, however:

Akhilleus_embassy_Louvre_G146_n3[85] Often have the Achaeans spoken to me of this matter and upbraided me, but it was not I who was responsible [aitios]: Zeus, and Fate [moira], and the Fury [Erinys] that roams in darkness struck me with derangement [atē] when we were assembled on the day that I took from Achilles the prize that had been awarded to him.
[90] What could I do? All things are in the hands of the gods, and Atē, eldest of Zeus’ daughters, shuts men’s eyes to their destruction. She walks delicately, not on the solid earth, but hovers over the heads of men to make them stumble or to ensnare them.
(Iliad 19 85–94, Sourcebook) [2]

Klytemnestra claims not to be counted as Agamemnon’s spouse, but rather as a phantom continuing the bloodletting in the house of Atreus, and the Chorus responds:

That you are not responsible [aitios] for this murder—who will bear you witness? How could anyone do so?
(Aeschylus Agamemnon 1505–1507, Sourcebook) [3]

I noticed in all these passages that a couple of the core vocab words occurred in fairly close proximity just before or just after the passages I have quoted: aidōs ‘shame, sense of shame; sense of respect for others; honorableness’—and atē ‘aberration, derangement, veering off-course; disaster; punishment for disaster’. Why not go and look at these passages for yourselves to see if you notice these or any other patterns? I also wonder if that is true in other passages where aitios or aitiā occur?

I have chosen to illustrate this post with an ancient Greek vase painting of the episode when Briseis is taken from Achilles, because it relates to a couple of the passages I selected. But there are many ways we could choose to illustrate the concept of aitios or aitiā. How would you visualize this concept?

Now it is over to you. There are various ways in which you can engage with these words for yourselves:

  • Find other examples of where these words are used. To do this, you can search for the transliterated words in the Sourcebook.
  • If you can read a little Greek, you could try to find them in these or other works by searching on Perseus or Perseus Under PhiloLogic. We have prepared quick guides on using these tools (you can find them with the learning resources under the Learn tab), so if you have never tried before why not have a go? You can always post on the Support forum if you want help, or to request a Google+ hangout where we can go through the tools in more detail.
  • You might like to find ways to illustrate the concept. Perhaps you can find an example of ancient Greek art that demonstrates it, or maybe a photograph that you have taken. (Please remember only to upload images that are free from copyright restrictions.)

I hope to see you here on the forum to explore further these core vocabulary words!

Greek passages

Here are the original Greek passages, taken from Perseus:

[1] ἀλλ᾽ εἰ δὴ καὶ πάμπαν ἐτήτυμον αἴτιός ἐστιν
ἥρως Ἀτρεΐδης εὐρὺ κρείων Ἀγαμέμνων
οὕνεκ᾽ ἀπητίμησε ποδώκεα Πηλεΐωνα,
ἡμέας γ᾽ οὔ πως ἔστι μεθιέμεναι πολέμοιο.
(Iliad 13 111–114 on Perseus)

[2] πολλάκι δή μοι τοῦτον Ἀχαιοὶ μῦθον ἔειπον
καί τέ με νεικείεσκον: ἐγὼ δ᾽ οὐκ αἴτιός εἰμι,
ἀλλὰ Ζεὺς καὶ Μοῖρα καὶ ἠεροφοῖτις Ἐρινύς,
οἵ τέ μοι εἰν ἀγορῇ φρεσὶν ἔμβαλον ἄγριον ἄτην,
ἤματι τῷ ὅτ᾽ Ἀχιλλῆος γέρας αὐτὸς ἀπηύρων.
90ἀλλὰ τί κεν ῥέξαιμι; θεὸς διὰ πάντα τελευτᾷ.
πρέσβα Διὸς θυγάτηρ Ἄτη, ἣ πάντας ἀᾶται,
οὐλομένη: τῇ μέν θ᾽ ἁπαλοὶ πόδες: οὐ γὰρ ἐπ᾽ οὔδει
πίλναται, ἀλλ᾽ ἄρα ἥ γε κατ᾽ ἀνδρῶν κράατα βαίνει
βλάπτουσ᾽ ἀνθρώπους: κατὰ δ᾽ οὖν ἕτερόν γε πέδησε.
(Iliad 19 85–94 on Perseus)

[3] ὡς μὲν ἀναίτιος εἶ
τοῦδε φόνου τίς ὁ μαρτυρήσων;
πῶς πῶς;
(Aeschylus Agamemnon 1505–1507 on Perseus)


Updated 2018.05.19 to include citation references

[a] Nagy, Gregory. 2013. The Ancient Greek Hero in 24 Hours. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2013. (H24H)

[b] Sourcebook: The Ancient Greek Hero in 24 Hours Sourcebook of Original Greek Texts Translated into English, Gregory Nagy, General Editor.

Picture credit

Hieron potter, The taking away of Briseis, side B of a red-figure Attic skyphos, c480BC, Louvre. Creative Commons 3.0 license


Sarah Scott is a technical author who lives in Scotland. She has taken part in all three iterations of HeroesX, being one of the Community TAs in v2 and v3, and has a lifelong love of language, literature, and learning.