I. What is an Encomium?
Encomium (en-KOH-mee-um) comes from a Latin word meaning “to celebrate.” It’s a speech, poem, or other text written in praise of a specific person or thing. Encomia are usually written in very elevated language and praise their object in very strong terms.
There are many synonyms for encomium: panegyric and paean are especially common ones. There’s also eulogy, which is another word for encomium, but is most commonly used in the context of funerals.
II. Examples of Encomium
The most famous encomium in history is Gorgias’ Encomium to Helen. The poem is dedicated to Helen of Troy, the Greek woman who represented the ultimate ideal of feminine beauty. Gorgias’ poem was thought to be so well-written that it actually lived up to the beauty of Helen herself. This may be where we get our word gorgeous.
The idea of praise plays an important role in Christian and Islamic worship. In both religions, practitioners are supposed to praise God in the highest possible terms, and the resulting prayers are their own sort of encomia. Indeed, in the Middle Ages it was quite common to write encomia to God, Jesus, or Mary.
III. The Importance of Encomium
An encomium is a way of giving honor to something or someone deserving. If a person has many admirable qualities, they may be praised through an encomium (if they’re lucky enough to have a good writer/speaker who admires them). Similarly, a poet might write encomia to her native city or country, or a place she’s traveled recently and fallen in love with. A good encomium is a great way to express deep emotions of admiration, love, and respect.
IV. Examples of Encomium in Literature
Encomia don’t have to be dedicated to people. They can also be dedicated to places and even concepts. Medieval poets often wrote encomia to their cities, and some of the most popular poems of these period have names like “The Verse of Verona” or “The Verse of Milan,” which are both clear examples of encomia.
Desiderius Erasmus wrote an essay called “In Praise of Folly” that ironically praised foolish behavior. In the essay, a character named Folly praises herself for her many good qualities, not realizing how foolish she was. The whole essay is a deeply ironic satire, and Erasmus’s point is to make fun of Folly, not to praise her.
“Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful.” (1 Corinthians 13:4-5)
1 Corinthians 13 has often been interpreted as Paul’s encomium to love. In these verses, Paul praises the value of love and expresses its deep importance to the Christian tradition.
V. Examples of Encomium in the Media and Popular Culture
- Several artists collaborated to release an album called Encomium in tribute to Led Zeppelin. On the album, the various artists recorded versions of Led Zeppelin’s classic songs. Of course, the album was literally more of an homage than an encomium (see §6), but it’s easy enough to understand why they chose that title.
- Before a politician comes out to give a speech, somebody else will deliver an introduction – this usually involves listing the politician’s accomplishments and praising their many excellent qualities. The intros rarely last more than a few minutes, but in that short time the speaker will use many of the same techniques as an encomium.
VI. Related Terms
Hyperbole is probably the most common technique for encomium. It means “exaggeration” and involves wildly overstating your point. In an encomium it would be something like, “my father was braver than Achilles and wiser than Solomon.” It doesn’t have to be positive, though – in other contexts you could have a negative hyperbole.
These words can both mean the same thing as “encomium.” However, they can also mean a much more practical sort of praise – not just saying nice things, but actually doing something in tribute. The Taj Mahal, for example, was built by the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan as a tribute to his deceased wife. The building isn’t praising her outright; but it’s extremely beautiful and grand, suggesting the depth of Shah Jahan’s love. So it’s a tribute but not an encomium.
Similarly, an homage can be an admiring imitation. If you love James Bond movies, for example, you might create your own movie in a James Bond style, which would be called an “homage.”
Many encomia are also odes. An ode is a speech or poem addressed directly to someone or something (i.e. using “you”). If the ode is offering high praise (e.g. “you are as radiant as the Alps in spring!”) then it’s also an encomium.