And I saw Tityos, son of glorious Gaea, lying on the ground. Over nine roods he stretched, and two vultures sat, one on either side, and tore his liver, plunging their beaks into his bowels, nor could he beat them off with his hands.

The Odyssey

This nor is not like not . . . either.

This nor is similar to never could he beat them off. . . .

Is this correct? Is this an archaic use?


It may be a little archaic, but it's perfectly comprehensible. Unlike the other respondents, I do not believe an implied previous phrase is required; it is simply and he could not beat them off... together with the rule that `and not =nor' (and possibly a reluctance to have too many ands in a sentence).

The Oxford English Dictionary agrees:



5. Following upon an affirmative clause, or in continuative narration, with the force of neither or and…not.

1523 Ld. Berners Froiss. I. cxxxv. 162, I greatly desyre to se the kynge my maister, nor I wyll lye but one nyght in a place, tyll I come there.

a1578 Lindesay (Pitscottie) Chron. Scot. (S.T.S.) I. 26 To mak hir purgatione that scho was frie of all misrewlle...nor gave na counsall thairto.

1631 May tr. Barclay's Mirr. Mindes i. 39 The whole coast is most sweetly verdant, ...nor hardly, is there ground any where more abundantly fruitfull.

1667 Milton P.L. iii. 626 A golden tiar Circl'd his Head, nor less his Locks behind...Lay waving round.

1697 Dryden Virg. Georg. iii. 161 His Age and Courage weigh: Nor those alone.

1738 Johnson London 260 Then shall thy friend, nor thou refuse his aid, ...forsake his Cambrian shade.

1788 Trifler No. 22. 291 The little creature cried and laid down, nor could all our beating raise it.

1821 Byron Heaven & Earth iii. 673 Away! nor weep!

1871 R. Ellis tr. Catullus lxi. 205 Come nor tarry to greet her.

1875 Jowett Plato (ed. 2) I. 423 Nor among the friends of Socrates must the jailer be forgotten.

  • 4
    I believe this is the right answer, especially considering the Greek. It makes sense to directly translate d'ouk ("and not") as nor in literary English, and I have seen nor used to mean "and not" without any preceding negative, real or imagined", in (older) literary English. – Cerberus May 15 '14 at 16:21
  • 1
    I don't think it as as comprehensible as you hope. It is surely a stumbling block and not at all common in speech or writing. Just because there is a logical translation of 'and not' to 'nor', doesn't necessarily lead to it flowing well. I wouldn't say it is archaic or obsolete, just not common nowadays. 'Nor' itself (in 'neither...nor' is falling out of favor (very high register). – Mitch May 15 '14 at 17:41
  • 2
    @Mitch: I have added the relevant definition from the Oxford English Dictionary and quotations illustrating this literary/older use. // Tim, I hope you're OK with my adding the definition and quotations from the OED supporting your answer. – Cerberus May 15 '14 at 22:31
  • @Cerberus: anyone who thinks the OED a better authority than myself can only applaud you. Nor can I object. – TimLymington May 15 '14 at 23:14
  • This feels like a Latinate influence - "neque" alone meant "and not", but a paired "neque...neque" meant "neither...nor". – user61268 May 16 '14 at 4:46

This way of using nor is indeed somewhat archaic.

Normally, nor requires that another negative has been employed somewhere previously. In your Odyssey quote, for example, we might imagine something like this:

Two vultures sat, one on either side, and tore his liver, plunging their beaks into his bowels. He could not rise himself, nor could he beat them off with his hands.

However, in older texts (especially, in my experience, older translations of Greek texts), nor could sometimes ‘piggyback’ not only on an expressed negative, but also on anything that implies a negative somewhere in the situation.

In this case, the despondent impuissance of Tityos creates such a situation. There is no explicit negative, but it is easy to imagine that the situation as a whole functions as a kind of ‘abstract negative’ that nor can be used to emphasise. Simply using not would just make it a plain statement that these birds were tearing out his innards and he couldn’t get rid of them—but using nor emphasises that the birds did not stop, he did not like it, it was not good … the whole thing was, basically, negative.

  • +1 Although I find the implication that the "plain statement that they were ripping out his liver" would not covey a very, very negative situation a bit disturbing. (To quote Monty Python: "Worse? How much worse can it possibly get?") – oerkelens May 15 '14 at 12:36
  • @oerkelens, it would describe a very negative situation, but it would not necessarily emphasise the negativity of the situation in the description itself: the extra nor does that and draws a heavy black line under the unspoken negation in the previous phrase, as it were. – Janus Bahs Jacquet May 15 '14 at 12:39
  • 1
    @oerkelens Well, they could be eating your liver AND your kidneys! – WS2 May 15 '14 at 12:39
  • 2
    @WS2: that would be preferable, as removal of the kidneys would end the suffering (the liver grows back). And while they're eating, I doubt the pain would be significantly worse. Maybe I am thinking too practically. :| – oerkelens May 15 '14 at 12:42
  • 2
    This construction is also used in Coleridge's 'Rime of the Ancient Mariner': "Water, water, every where/Nor any drop to drink." – Russell Borogove May 15 '14 at 21:01

I understand your concern over this but I do think it is an instance of a normal use of 'nor'.

'Tityos was unable to protect himself, nor was he capable of beating off his attackers', is what I think it is saying. It is just that in the original, the first condition is not stated in the negative. Hence 'nor' seems out of place. It is a bit like saying;

'I was helpless, nor could I beat off my attacker'.

It sounds strange, but not if you say;

'I had neither protection, nor the capacity to respond'.

I do think however you are right when you say it is an archaic use and I believe that a modern translation would deal with it differently.

  • 1
    Thank you for awarding me the 'correct answer', but I do think Janus has said exactly the same thing, perhaps more eloquently than I have. – WS2 May 15 '14 at 12:28

I would hesitate to say that the use of nor here is archaic, but it does strike me as being uncommon today. In the context of the quote from The Odyssey -- and without seeing or understanding the original text -- I would probably render it as "..., and what is more, he could not beat them off".


In this case "nor" means something akin to "and...not". Today this might be written as

I saw Tityos, the son of glorious Gaea, lying on the ground, stretched across more than two acres. On each side of him sat a vulture, each plunging their beaks into his bowels and tearing at his liver, and he could not fight them off with his hands.

(Here I've taken this usage of "rood" to be as a measurement of area. If in this context "rood" is intended as a measurement of length, then "over nearly two hundred feet" should be substituted for "across more than two acres". Still a big boy, no matter how you measure him :-).

Share and enjoy.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy