Words Worth Knowing: Epiphany

In the Iliad Athena visits Achilles just before he attacks King Agamemnon with a sharp sword. Only he could see, recognize and listen to the wise goddess. She warns him that his anger-filled intentions are not the wisest decision, and asks him in her name and in Hera’s name to face the king only with words. She promises that it will yield better fruits. That’s how Achilles had an epiphany.

It doesn’t sound remotely like what we know by epiphany today, I know, but that has its purpose. If you still don’t understand why, come with me to read a couple of definitions.  Perhaps we, too, may have a true epiphany!

Dictionary Definition


Epiphany: noun. A moment when you suddenly feel that you understand, or suddenly become conscious of, something that is very important to you. (Cambridge Advanced Learner’s Dictionary).

Epiphany: noun. An intuitive grasp of reality through something (such as an event) usually simple and striking. (Merriam-Webster Dictionary).

Epiphany: noun. Capitalized. A Christian holy day in January (traditionally 6 January in Western Christianity) that celebrates the revelation of the baby Jesus to the world (Cambridge Advanced Learner’s Dictionary).


So, an epiphany is certainly a special event, and unless you’re a seer, you don’t have an epiphany every day! It is an occasionally used Word among the 30,000 most commonly used words in the Collins dictionary.


These are a few examples on how to use it:


– “He told me he had had what sounded to me like an epiphany about homelessness, and epiphanies don’t come along often”.

From Harrogate Advertiser Article: Dear Reader: An epiphany about homelessness + supporting Harrogate Town FC. 2018

− “When the crunchy base, soft creamy peaks and tangy fruit come together, creating an epiphany for all the senses.”

From Otago Daily Times Article: An epiphany for the senses. 2018

− “The book starts with Advent, following its origins from France’s preparation for the feast of the Epiphany to the first Sunday of Advent designated by the church as the beginning of the church year”.

From The Arlington Catholic Herald Article: Celebrating the full seasons of Christmas from Advent to Epiphany. 2018


A glimpse from mortals to gods


When we have an epiphany it is frequent to feel that God enlightened us to find the answers to our greatest problems. That feeling is not far off from the origin of this word.

In ancient Greece it was considered possible for gods to descend to earth and appear to their most faithful mortals.  They would give them advice, help them settle their conflicts or warn them of dangers to come.

Thus, the greatest Greek writers portrayed these encounters between gods and mortals with the word Epiphaneia (ἐπιϕάνεια).  It can be read in documents as ancient as the Iliad, which was written approximately in the eighth century B.C. The word at that time had a literal meaning, and was the result of combining the prefix epi- meaning “upon” and phainein, which means “to show”, therefore, to have an epiphany was to have an “appearance” or “manifestation” of the Greek gods.

Epiphany with a capital E


The Catholic New Testament came to light in the 14th century.  This gave us the second meaning of the word Epiphaneia, now slightly modified to Epiphania.  This referred to the Christ’s Magi manifestation, one of the meanings preserved to this day. In fact many people still celebrate the feast of Epiphany.

And we owe the greatest use of this word today to Thomas De Quincey, a British Romantic who used it in his essays on Opium to speak of any manifestation or revelation. Thanks to him it is not necessary to meet with Pallas Athena in the middle of a math exam to use the word Epiphany.  It is also now reserved as the Christian holiday only in its capitalized form.

These days, whether its remembering the formula to ace your exam or remembering to pick up milk at the grocery store, we all can have our own versions of epiphany.

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