Meanings of the Aorist Stem

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75. The aorist gives the meaning of a verb without the accessory notion of progress or continuance. It does not describe, or transport us to a time in the past when the action was present (as the imperfect does), but makes us think of it as now past. Hence it asserts a single occurrence—an action, or series of actions, regarded as an undivided whole—or completion, a culminating point, in which the action is summed up. Thus

μογέω I am toiling
ἐμόγησα I have toiled (Il. 1.162)

νοέω I think of
ἐνόησε perceived, understood

θαρσέω I feel confident
θαρσήσας taking courage

and so δείσας, ἀλγήσας, μίσησε, νεμέσησε, etc., of the access of a feeling.

δηρινθήτην
joined in strife (Il. 16.756)

παπτήνας
casting a glance

φωνήσας
raising his voice or having spoken

ἐπʼ ἤματι δακρύσαντες
performing the due weeping for the day (Il. 19.229)

76. The aorist is often used in Homer of the immediate past–that which in an especial sense is thought of as now past.

Il 2.114 νῦν δὲ κακὴν ἀπάτην βουλεύσατο, καί με κελεύει δυσκλέα Ἄργος ἱκέσθαι

Od. 1.182 νῦν δʼ ὧδε ξὺν νηῒ κατήλυθον (cp. 23.27)

Il. 20.16 τίπτʼ αὖτʼ, ἀργικέραυνε, θεοὺς ἀγορήνδε κάλεσσας;

Sometimes the aorist seems to give the question a tone of impatience.

Il. 2.323 τίπτʼ ἄνεω ἐγένεσθε;

Il. 4.243 τίφθʼ οὕτως ἔστητε τεθηπότες; (vulg. ἕστητε, an impossible form)

Cp. 20.178 τί νυ τόσσον ὁμίλου πολλὸν ἐπελθὼν ἔστης
Cp. Il. 21.562, 22.122, Od. 4.810, 10.64.

Cp. the Attic use of τί οὐ, as Soph. O. T. 1002 τί δῆτʼ ἐγὼ οὐχὶ . . . ἐξελυσάμην; (Goodwin, § 62).

When the aorist is used of an action which is subordinate to another in the past, it implies completion before the main action.

Il. 2.642 οὐδʼ ἄρʼ ἔτʼ αὐτὸς ἔην, θάνε δὲ ξανθὸς Μελέαγρος
              he was no longer living, and yellow-haired Meleager had died

A similar use of the aorist is regular in the subjunctive,

Il. 1.168 ἐπεί κε κάμω
when I have grown weary

and in the participle, as ὣς εἰπών having thus spoken. The aorist in these uses expresses, not past time as such (with reference to the moment of speaking), but completion with reference to (i.e. usually before) the time of the principal verb.

77. The participle of the aorist is sometimes used to express exact coincidence with the action of the principal verb.1 

βῆ δὲ ἀΐξασα
went with a spring

ψευσαμένη προσηύδα
spoke a lie

ἆλτο λαθών
leaped unseen

Here a present participle would imply that there was a distinct subordinate action: the aorist expresses something that coincides with, or is part of, the main action.

This is especially found with verbs expressing the manner (tone, gesture, etc.) with which a thing is said or done.

Il. 6.54 ὁμοκλήσας ἔπος ηὔδα
shouted the words

Il. 8.219 ποιπνύσαντι θοῶς ὀτρῦναι Ἀχαιούς
to make hot haste in stirring up the Greeks

Il. 13.597 χεῖρα παρακρεμάσας

Il. 10.139, 16.474, 17.334, 20.161; Od. 2.422, 17.330 (cp. φεύγειν παρασείσαντι Arist. Eth. Nic. 4.3.15).

78. The aorist sometimes appears to be used of present time.

  1. As in—

    Il. 14.95 νῦν δέ σευ ὠνοσάμην πάγχυ φρένας οἷον ἔειπες.

    The aorist here expresses a culminating point, reached in the immediate past, or rather at the moment of speaking: I have been brought to the point of blaming, i.e. I blame.

    Il. 20. 306 ἤδη . . . ἤχθηρε
                     has now come to hate

    Il. 3. 415 τὼς δέ σʼ ἀπεχθήρω ὡς νῦν ἔκπαγλʼ ἐφίλησα
                   come to hate you as I now love you (lit., have got to love; cp. Od. 8.481).

    So ἔπλετο has come to be, is (§ 32); Attic ἥσθην, ἐπῄνεσα, etc. In these cases the aorist is used because the stress is on the nature of the action as something completed, though the completion is in present time.2

    By a slight boldness of expression the aorist may even be used of an event completed in future time.

    Il. 9.412 εἰ μέν κʼ αὖθι μένων Τρώων πόλιν ἀμφιμάχωμαι, ὤλετο μέν μοι νόστος, ἀτὰρ κλέος ἄφθιτον ἔσται·

    = my return will have been lost, i. e. will be ipso facto lost. The speaker puts himself at the (future) point of time given by the context, and uses the Tense which then becomes appropriate.

  2. Again—

    When an assertion is made irrespective of time, the present or aorist is used–the present for continuous and the aorist for single or momentary action. Hence the use:

    In similes, as

    Il. 3. 23 ὥστε λέων ἐχάρη
                 as a lion is gladdened (but in v. 25 κατεσθίει goes on devouring)

    Il. 4. 75 οἷον δʼ ἀστέρα ἧκε . . . τοῦ δέ τε πολλοὶ ἀπὸ σπινθῆρες ἵενται.

    The only examples of the imperfect in a simile are Il. 15.274, 21.495, in the phrase οὐδʼ ἄρα . . . αἴσιμον ἦεν, where it is virtually a present.

    Also in "gnomic" passages, reflections, general sayings, etc.

    Il. 1.218 ὅς κε θεοῖς ἐπιπείθηται μάλα τʼ ἔκλυον αὐτοῦ.

    Il. 9.320 κάτθανʼ ὁμῶς ὅ τʼ ἄεργος ἀνήρ, ὅ τε πολλὰ ἐοργώς.

    These uses of the aorist are very common in Homer.

    The imperfect may possibly be found in a gnomic passage, Il. 13.730-732—

    ἄλλῳ μὲν γὰρ ἔδωκε θεὸς πολεμήια ἔργα ἄλλῳ δʼ ἐν στήθεσσι τιθεῖ νόον εὐρύοπα Ζεύς

    where the MS. reading τίθει may be defended as an imperfect marking subordination to the aorist ἔδωκε: cp. the examples in § 71.2.

    Much light has been thrown upon the history of the aorist by the comparison of the use in Sanskrit (Delbrück, S. F. ii, and A. S. p. 280). If the result has not been to determine the original force of the aorist, it has at least shown that the question cannot be settled from the material furnished by Greek alone. The use which predominates in Greek, the historical use to assert the happening of a single event in the past, is almost unknown to the earliest Sanskrit. In the Veda the aorist is employed, as often in Homer (§ 74), of what has happened in the immediate past. In the early Sanskrit prose (the Brahmanas) the aorist is used of what has happened to the speaker himself. It is worth noticing that these uses, in which the aorist answers approximately to the English perfect with have, are found in later Greek in the case of the verbs whose perfect retains its original meaning. As Mr. Gildersleeve puts it, 'when the perfect is used as a present, the aorist is used as a perfect. So ἐκτησάμην I have gained possession of, κέκτημαι possessʼ (Am. Journ. of Phil. iv. 429). Hence, if the Greek perfect is originally a kind of present, there is a presumption that the aorist was originally akin in meaning to our perfect. On this view the ordinary historical aorist is a derivative use.

  • 1. Some valuable remarks on this and similar uses of the aorist participle are to be found in an article by Mr. Frank Carter in the Classical Review (Feb. 1891, p 4). He observes that it is really a timeless use, i. e. that the speaker does not wish to indicate a relation in time between the action of the participle and that of the finite verb. The participle expresses a predication, but one which is only a part or essential circumstance of that which the verb, expresses. See below § 245.1.
  • 2. So Eur. Med. 791 ᾤμωξα, I.A.510 ἀπέπτυσα: where, as Aken observes, "die Handlung geschieht erst mit dem Aussprechen" (Grundz. § 18). These aorists are sometimes explained of the past time at which the action began. As a reviewer of the former edition put it, "Greek speakers, in describing feelings excited by the previous remarks of other speakers, frequently refer those feelings to the time when they were felt, and not to the present time of the description" (Saturday Rev., Feb. 17, 1883). That is to say, ἐπῄνεσα means I praised (when I heard), But this kind of subordination to a past event is precisely what is expressed by the imperfect, not the aorist. The reviewer goes on to explain ἔπλετο in Il. 19.57 by the presence of the particle ἄρ (ἦ ἄρ τι τόδʼ ἔπλετο this was as we can now see), "as in the common ἦν ἄρα". This would only be possible if ἔπλετο were an imperfect; see § 33.