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Tablet containing a fragment of the Epic of Gilgamesh
Major forms

Novel · Poem · Drama
Short story · Novella


Epic · Lyric · Drama
Romance · Satire
Tragedy · Comedy


Performance (play) · Book


Prose · Verse

History and lists

Basic topics · Literary terms
History · Modern history
Books · Writers
Literary awards · Poetry awards


Criticism · Theory · Magazines

An epic (from the Ancient Greek adjective ἐπικός (epikos), from ἔπος (epos) "word, story, poem"[1]) is a lengthy narrative poem, ordinarily concerning a serious subject containing details of heroic deeds and events significant to a culture or nation.[2] Oral poetry may qualify as an epic, and Albert Lord and Milman Parry have argued that classical epics were fundamentally an oral poetic form. Nonetheless, epics have been written down at least since Homer, and the works of Vyasa, Virgil, Dante Alighieri and John Milton would be unlikely to have survived without being written down. The first epics are known as primary, or original, epics. Epics that attempt to imitate these like Virgil's Aeneid and Milton's Paradise Lost are known as literary, or secondary, epics. One such epic is the Anglo-Saxon story Beowulf.[3] Another type of epic poetry is epyllion (plural: epyllia) which is a brief narrative poem with a romantic or mythological theme. The term, which means 'little epic', came in use in the nineteenth century. It refers primarily to the type of erotic and mythological long elegy of which Ovid remains the master; to a lesser degree, the term includes some poems of the English Renaissance, particularly those influenced by Ovid. One suggested example of classical epyllion may be seen in the story of Nisus and Euryalus in Book IX of Aeneid.


Oral epics or world folk epics

The first epics were products of preliterate societies and oral poetic traditions. In these traditions, poetry is transmitted to the audience and from performer to performer by purely oral means.

Early twentieth-century study of living oral epic traditions in the Balkans by Milman Parry and Albert Lord demonstrated the paratactic model used for composing these poems. What they demonstrated was that oral epics tend to be constructed in short episodes, each of equal status, interest and importance. This facilitates memorization, as the poet is recalling each episode in turn and using the completed episodes to recreate the entire epic as he performs it.

Parry and Lord also showed that the most likely source for written texts of the epics of Homer was dictation from an oral performance.

Epic: a long narrative poem in elevated stature presenting characters of high position in adventures forming an organic whole through their relation to a central heroic figure and through their development of episodes important to the history of a nation or race.

Epics have nine main characteristics:

  1. opens in medias res.
  2. The setting is vast, covering many nations, the world or the universe.
  3. begins with an invocation to a muse.
  4. starts with a statement of the theme.
  5. the use of epithets.
  6. includes long lists.
  7. features long and formal speeches.
  8. shows divine intervention on human affairs.
  9. "Star" heroes that embody the values of the civilization.

The hero generally participates in a cyclical journey or quest, faces adversaries that try to defeat him in his journey and returns home significantly transformed by his journey. The epic hero illustrates traits, performs deeds, and exemplifies certain morals that are valued by the society from which the epic originates. Many epic heroes are recurring characters in the legends of their native culture.

Conventions of epics:

  1. Praepositio: Opens by stating the theme or cause of the epic. This may take the form of a purpose (as in Milton, who proposed "to justify the ways of God to men"); of a question (as in the Iliad, where Homer asks the Muse which god it was who caused the war); or of a situation (as in the Song of Roland, with Charlemagne in Spain).
  2. Invocation: Writer invokes a Muse, one of the nine daughters of Zeus. The poet prays to the Muses to provide him with divine inspiration to tell the story of a great hero. (This convention is obviously restricted to cultures which were influenced by European Classical culture: the Epic of Gilgamesh, for example, or the Bhagavata Purana would obviously not contain this element)
  3. In medias res: narrative opens "in the middle of things", with the hero at his lowest point. Usually flashbacks show earlier portions of the story.
  4. Enumeratio: Catalogues and genealogies are given. These long lists of objects, places, and people place the finite action of the epic within a broader, universal context. Often, the poet is also paying homage to the ancestors of audience members.
  5. Epithet: Heavy use of repetition or stock phrases: e.g., Homer's "rosy-fingered dawn" and "wine-dark sea."

Literate societies have often copied the epic format; the earliest European examples of which the text survives are the Argonautica of Apollonius of Rhodes and Virgil's Aeneid, which follow both the style and subject matter of Homer. Other obvious examples are Nonnus' Dionysiaca, Tulsidas' Sri Ramacharit Manas.

Notable epic poems

The first page of the Beowulf manuscript
This list can be compared with two others, national epic and list of world folk-epics.[4]

Ancient epics (to 500)

Medieval epics (500-1500)

Modern epics (from 1500)

Other epics


See also


  1. ^
  2. ^ Michael Meyer, The Bedford Introduction to Literature, Bedford/St. Martin's, 2005, p2128. ISBN 0-312-41242-8
  3. ^ "epic". The Columbia Encyclopedia (6 ed.). New York: Columbia University Press. 2004. 
  4. ^ According to that article, world folk epics are those which are not just literary masterpieces but also an integral part of the world view of a people, originally oral, later written down by one or several authors.
  5. ^ Guerber, H.A. (1913). The Book of the Epic. Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott. p. 465. "a work which some authorities rank as the first American epic" 

External links

  • Clay Sanskrit Library publishes classical Indian literature, including the Mahabharata and Ramayana, with facing-page text and translation. Also offers searchable corpus and downloadable materials.
  • Humanities Index has notes on epic poetry.
  • World of Dante Multimedia website that offers Italian text of Divine Comedy, Allen Mandelbaum's translation, gallery, interactive maps, timeline, musical recordings, and searchable database for students and teachers.


  • Jan de Vries: Heroic Song and Heroic Legend ISBN 0-405-10566-5
  • Cornel Heinsdorff: Christus, Nikodemus und die Samaritanerin bei Juvencus. Mit einem Anhang zur lateinischen Evangelienvorlage, Untersuchungen zur antiken Literatur und Geschichte 67, Berlin/New York 2003, ISBN 3-11-017851-6
  • Fallon, Oliver. Bhatti’s Poem: The Death of Rávana (Bhaṭṭikāvya). New York 2009: Clay Sanskrit Library, [4]. ISBN 978-0-8147-2778-2, ISBN 0-8147-2778-6

Study guide

Up to date as of January 14, 2010

From Wikiversity

Literary Studies > Epic poetry

Please see Template_talk:Unit_boilerplate for more information.


Unit Summary

Content summary

This class will deal with the epic poems from the past to the present. There will be translations of the major works in other languages.

See also Wikiversity:School of Classics.

This page is still being worked on, please be patient. If there are issues, please let us know on the discussion Page.

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Unit materials

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Poets and Their Works

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1911 encyclopedia

Up to date as of January 14, 2010

From LoveToKnow 1911

EPIC POETRY, or Epos (from the Gr. Egos, a story, and i rucos, pertaining to a story), the names given to the most dignified and elaborate forms of narrative poetry. The word epopee is also, but more rarely, employed to designate the same thing, i r07rocos in Greek being a maker of epic poetry, and 7r07roi a what he makes.

It is to Greece, where the earliest literary monuments which we possess are of an epical character, that we turn for a definition of these vast heroic compositions, and we gather that their subject-matter was not confined, as Voltaire and the critics of the 18th century supposed, to "narratives in verse of warlike adventures." When we first discover the epos, hexameter verse has already been selected for its vehicle. In this form epic poems were composed not merely dealing with war and personal romance, but carrying out a didactic purpose, or celebrating the mysteries of religion. These three divisions, to which are severally attached the more or less mythical names of Homer, Hesiod and Orpheus seem to have marked the earliest literary movement of the Greeks. But, even here, we must be warned that what we possess is not primitive; there had been unwritten epics, probably in hexameters, long before the composition of any now-surviving fragment. The saga of the Greek nation, the catalogue of its arts and possessions, the rites and beliefs of its priesthood, must have been circulated, by word of mouth, long before any historical poet was born. We look upon Homer and Hesiod as records of primitive thought, but Professor Gilbert Murray reminds us that "our Iliad, Odyssey, Erga and Theogony are not the first, nor the second, nor the twelfth of such embodiments." The early epic poets, Lesches, Linus, Orpheus, Arctinus, Eugammon are the veriest shadows, whose names often betray their symbolic and fabulous character. It is now believed that there was a class of minstrels, the Rhapsodists or Homeridae, whose business it was to recite poetry at feasts and other solemn occasions. "The real bards of early Greece were all nameless and impersonal." When our tradition begins to be preserved, we find everything of a saga-character attributed to Homer, a blind man and an inhabitant of Chios. This gradually crystallized until we find Aristotle definitely treating Homer as a person, and attributing to him the composition of three great poems, the Iliad, the Odyssey and the Margites, now lost (see Homer). The first two of these have been preserved and form for us the type of the ancient epic; when we speak of epic poetry, we unconsciously measure it by the example of the Iliad and the Odyssey. It is quite certain, however, that these poems had not merely been preceded by a vast number of revisions of the mythical history of the country, but were accompanied by innumerable poems of a similar character, now entirely lost. That antiquity did not regard these other epics as equal in beauty to the Iliad seems to be certain; but such poems as Cypria, Iliou Persis (Sack of Ilion) and Aethiopis can hardly but have exhibited other sides of the epic tradition. Did we possess them, it is almost certain that we could speak with more assurance as to the scope of epic poetry in the days of oral tradition, and could understand more clearly what sort of ballads in hexameter it was which rhapsodes took round from court to court. In the 4th century B.C. it seems that people began to write down what was not yet forgotten of all this oral poetry. Unfortunately, the earliest critic who describes this process is Proclus, a Byzantine neo-Platonist, who did not write until some Soo years later, when the whole tradition had become hopelessly corrupted. When we pass from Homer and Hesiod, about whose actual existence critics will be eternally divided, we reach in the 7th century a poet, Peisander of Rhodes, who wrote an epic poem, the Heracleia, of which fragments remain. Other epic writers, who appear to be undoubtedly historic, are Antimachus of Colophon, who wrote a Thebais; Panyasis, who, like Peisander, celebrated the feats of Heracles; Choerilus of Samos; and Anyte, of whom we only know that she was an epic poetess, and was called "The female Homer." In the 6th and 5th centuries B.C. there was a distinct school of philosophical epic, and we distinguish the names of Xenophanes, Parmenides and Empedocles as the leaders of it.

From the dawn of Latin literature epic poetry seems to have been cultivated in Italy. A Greek exile, named Livius Andronicus, translated the Odyssey into Latin during the first Punic War, but the earliest original epic of Rome was the lost Bellum Punicum of Naevius, a work to which Virgil was indebted. A little later, Ennius composed, about 172 B.C., in 18 books, an historical epic of the Annales, dealing with the whole chronicle of Rome. This was the foremost Latin poem, until the appearance of the Aeneid; it was not imitated, remaining, for a hundred years, as Mr Mackail has said, "not only the unique, but the satisfying achievement in this kind of poetry." Virgil began the most famous of Roman epics in the year 30 B.C., and when he died, nine years later, he desired that the MS. of the Aeneid should be burned, as it required three years' work to complete it. Nevertheless, it seems to us, and seemed to the ancient world, almost perfect, and a priceless monument of art; it is written, like the great Greek poems on which it is patently modelled, in hexameters. In the next generation, the Pharsalia of Lucan, of which Cato, as the type of the republican spirit, is the hero, was the principal example of Latin epic. Statius, under the Flavian emperors, wrote several epic poems, of which the Thebaid survives. In the ist century A.D. Valerius Flaccus wrote the Argonautica in 8 books, and Silius Italicus the Punic War, in 17 books; these authors show a great decline in taste and merit, even in comparison with Statius, and Silius Italicus, in particular, is as purely imitative as the worst of the epic writers of modern Europe. At the close of the 4th century the style revived with Claudian, who produced five or six elaborate historical and mythological epics of which the Rape ofProserpine was probably the most remarkable; in his interesting poetry we have a valuable link between the Silver Age in Rome and the Italian Renaissance. With Claudian the history of epic poetry among the ancients closes.

In medieval times there existed a large body of narrative IX. 22 a poetry to which the general title of Epic has usually been given. Three principal schools are recognized, the French, the Teutonic and the Icelandic. Teutonic epic poetry deals, as a rule, with legends founded on the history of Germany in the 4th, 5th and 6th centuries, and in particular with such heroes as Ermanaric, Attila and Theodoric. But there is also an important group in it which deals with English themes, and among these Beowulf, Waldere, The Lay of Maldon and Finnesburh are pre-eminent. To this group is allied the purely German poem of Hildebrand, attributed to c. Boo. Among these Beowulf is the only one which exists in anything like complete form, and it is of all examples of Teutonic epic the most important. With all its trivialities and incongruities, which belong to a barbarous age, Beowulf is yet a solid and comprehensive example of native epic poetry. It is written, like all old Teutonic work of the kind, in alliterative unrhymed rhythm. In Iceland, a new heroic literature was invented in the middle ages, and to this we owe the Sagas, which are, in fact, a reduction to prose of the epics of the warlike history of the North. These Sagas took the place of a group of archaic Icelandic epics, the series of which seems to have closed with the noble poem of Atlamal, the principal surviving specimen of epic poetry as it was cultivated in the primitive literature of Iceland. The surviving epical fragments of Icelandic composition are found thrown together in the Codex Regius, under the title of The Elder Edda, a most precious MS. discovered in the 17th century. The Icelandic epics seem to have been shorter and more episodical in character than the lost Teutonic specimens; both kinds were written in alliterative verse. It is not probable that either possessed the organic unity and vitality of spirit which make the Sagas so delightful. The French medieval epics (see Chansons De Geste) are late in comparison with those of England, Germany and Iceland. They form a curious transitional link between primitive and modern poetry; the literature of civilized Europe may be said to begin with them. There is a great increase of simplicity, a great broadening of the scene of action. The Teutonic epics were obscure and intense, the French chansons de geste are lucid and easy. The existing masterpiece of this kind, the magnificent Roland, is doubtless the most interesting and pleasing of all the epics of medieval Europe. Professor Ker's analysis of its merits may be taken as typical of all that is best in the vast body of epic which comes between the antique models, which were unknown to the medieval poets, and the artificial epics of a later time which were founded on vast ideal themes, in imitation of the ancients. "There is something lyrical in Roland, but the poem is not governed by lyrical principles; it requires the deliberation and the freedom of epic; it must have room to move in before it can come up to the height of its argument. The abruptness of its periods is not really an interruption of its even flight; it is an abruptness of detail, like a broken sea with a larger wave moving under it; it does not impair or disguise the grandeur of the movement as a whole." Of the progress and decline of the chansons de geste from the ideals of Roland a fuller account is given elsewhere. To the Nibelungenlied also, detailed attention is given in a separate article.

What may be called the artificial or secondary epics of modern Europe, founded upon an imitation of the Iliad and the Aeneid, are more numerous than the ordinary reader supposes, although but few of them have preserved much vitality. In Italy the Chanson de Roland inspired romantic epics by Luigi Pulci (1432-1487), whose Morgante Maggiore appeared in 1481, and is a masterpiece of burlesque; by M. M. Boiardo (1434-1494)2 whose Orlando Innamorato was finished in 1486; by Francesco Bello (1 44 o? - 1 495), whose Mambriano was published in 1497; by Lodovico Ariosto, whose Orlando Furioso, by far the greatest of its class, was published in 1516, and by Luigi Dolce (1508-1568), as well as by a great number of less illustrious poets. G.G. Trissino (1478-1549) wrote a Deliverance of Italy from the Goths in 1547, and Bernardo Tasso (1493-1569) an Amadigi in 1559; Berni remodelled the epic of Boiardo in 1541, and Teofilo Folango (1491-1544), ridiculed the whole school in an Orlandino of 1526. An extraordinary feat of mock-heroic epic was The Bucket (1622) of Alessandro Tassoni (1565-1638). The most splendid of all the epics of Italy, however, was, and remains, the Jerusalem Delivered of Torquato Tasso, published originally in 1580, and afterwards rewritten as The Conquest of Jerusalem, 1 593. The fantastic Adone (1623) of G. B. Marini (1569-1625) and the long poems of Chiabrera, close the list of Italian epics. Early Portuguese literature is rich in epic poetry. Luis Pereira Brandao wrote an Elegiada in 18 books, published in 1588; Jeronymo Corte-Real (d. 1588) a Shipwreck of Sepulveda and two other epics; V. M. Quevedo, in 1601, an Alphonso of Africa, in 12 books; Sa de Menezes (d. 1664) a Conquest of Malacca, 1634; but all these, and many more, are obscured by the glory of Camoens, whose magnificent Lusiads had been printed in 1572, and forms the summit of Portuguese literature. In Spanish poetry, the Poem of the Cid takes the first place, as the great national epic of the middle ages; it is supposed to have been written between 1135 and 1175. It was followed by the Rodrigo, and the medieval school closes with the Alphonso XI. of Rodrigo Yanez, probably written at the close of the 12th century. The success of the Italian imitative epics of the 15th century led to some imitation of their form in Spain. Juan de la Cueva (1550?-1606) published a Conquest of Betica in 1603; Cristobal de Virues (1550-1610) a Monserrate, in 1588; Luis Barahona de Soto continued Ariosto in a Tears of Angelica; Gutierrez wrote an Ausiriada in 1584; but perhaps the finest modern epic in Spanish verse is the Araucana (1569-1590) of Alonso de Ercilla y Zuniga (1533-1595), "the first literary work of merit," as Mr Fitzmaurice-Kelly remarks, "composed in either American continent." In France, the epic never flourished in modern times, and no real success attended the Franciade of Ronsard, the Alaric of Scudery, the Pucelle of Chapelain, the Divine Epopee of Soumet, or even the Henriade of Voltaire. In English literature The Faery Queen of Spenser has the same claim as the Italian poems mentioned above to bear the name of epic, and Milton, who stands entirely apart, may be said, by his isolated Paradise Lost, to take rank with Homer and Virgil, as one of the three types of the mastery of epical composition.

See Bossu, Traite du poeme epique (1675); Voltaire, Sur la poesie epique; Fauviel, L'Origine de l'epopee chevaleresque (1832); W. P. Ker, Epic and Romance (1897), and Essays in Medieval Literature (1905); Gilbert Murray, History of Ancient Greek Literature (1897); W. von Christ, Geschichte der griechischen Litteratur (1879); Gaston Paris, La Littrature francaise au moyen age (1890); Leon Gautier, Les Epopees francaises (1865-1868). For works on the Greek epics see also GREEK LITERATURE and CYCLE. (E. G.)

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Simple English

Epic poetry is a form of poetry. Together with lyrics and drama it is one of the main forms of poetry. Epic poetry is usually very long. It takes place in different settings. There are many people who are involved in the story. Well-known people who wrote epics were Homer, Virgil, Ovid, Dante, and Milton.


Epics have 6 main characteristics:

  1. the hero is outstanding. He might be important, and historically or legendarily significant.
  2. the setting is large. It covers many nations, or the known world.
  3. the action is made of deeds of great valour or requiring superhuman courage.
  4. supernatural forces--gods, angels, demons--insert themselves in the action.
  5. It is written in a very special style.
  6. The poet tries to remain objective.

Conventions of Epics:

  1. It starts with the theme or subject of the story.
  2. Writer invokes a Muse, one of the nine daughters of Zeus. The poet prays to the Muses to provide him with divine inspiration to tell the story of a great hero. (This convention is obviously restricted to cultures which were influenced by Classical culture: the Epic of Gilgamesh, for example, or the Bhagavata Purana would obviously not contain this element).
  3. Narrative opens in medias res, or in the middle of things, usually with the hero at his lowest point. Usually flashbacks show earlier portions of the story.
  4. Catalogues and genealogies are given. These long lists of objects, places, and people place the finite action of the epic within a broader, universal context. Often, the poet is also paying homage to the ancestors of audience members.
  5. Main characters give extended formal speeches.
  6. Use of the epic simile.
  7. Heavy use of repetition or stock phrases.

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