An epic is a lengthy narrative poem, ordinarily concerning a serious subject containing details of heroic deeds and events significant to a culture or nation. Oral poetry may qualify as an epic, although even the works of such great poets as Homer, 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 The Aeneid and John Milton's Paradise Lost are known as literary, or secondary, epics. One such epic is the Anglo-Saxon story Beowulf.
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 The 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:
- opens in Media Res
- The setting is vast, covering many nations, the world, or the universe.
- begins with an invocation to a muse
- starts with a statement of the theme
- the use of epithets.
- includes long lists.
- features long and formal speeches.
- shows divine intervention on human affairs.
- "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:
- 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).
- 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 Classical culture: the Epic of Gilgamesh, for example, or the Bhagavata Purana would obviously not contain this element)
- 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.
- 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.
- 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
- This list can be compared with two others, national epic and list of world folk-epics.
Ancient epics (to 500)
- 20th to 18th century BC:
- 8th to 6th century BC:
- Enuma Elish (Babylonian mythology)
- Iliad, ascribed to Homer (Greek mythology)
- Odyssey, ascribed to Homer (Greek mythology)
- Works and Days, ascribed to Hesiod (Greek mythology)
- Lost Greek epics ascribed to the Cyclic poets:
- Epic Cycle including Cypria, Aethiopis, Little Iliad, Sack of Troy, Return from Troy, Telegony
- Theban Cycle including Oedipodea, Thebaid, Epigoni (epic), Alcmeonis
- Others: Titanomachy, Heracleia, Capture of Oechalia, Naupactia, Phocais, Minyas, Danais'
- 5th to 4th century BC:
- 3rd century BC:
- 2nd century BC:
- 1st century BC:
- 1st century AD:
- 2nd century:
- 2nd to 5th century:
- 3rd to 4th century:
- 4th century:
- 5th century:
Medieval epics (500-1500)
- 8th to 10th century:
- 9th century:
- 10th century:
- 11th century:
- 12th century:
- 13th century:
- 14th century:
- 15th century:
Modern epics (from 1500)
- 16th century:
- 17th century:
- 18th century:
- 19th century:
- 20th century:
- 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