Tuesday, November 11, 2008

What is Epic? What are the Major Features of an Epic?

Epic is one of the oldest and widely popular poetic genres in the world. Epic is a traditional form of narrative poetry that portrays heroic deeds of great heroes in a war or adventure and the intervention of Gods and Goddesses on human life. This is a very long poem that uses elevated or majestic language- meaning formal language. Culture and history of a nation or race is often reflected in an epic. For example, Greek poet Homer’s great epics – Iliad and Odyssey- are vastly based on Greek mythology and thus it reflects the Greek culture. The same thing goes to Indian epics Ramayana and Mahabharata through which Indian culture is revealed. Iliad is based on the Trojan War or battle of Troy and thus it reflects history too. Moreover, Epic can also illustrate the founding of a nation. For instance, in Latin Epic Aeneid by Virgil, it is shown how legendary character Aeneas, an inhabitant of Tory, founded Italy and became the ancestor of the Romans.

Almost every language in the world has its own epic like Iliad and Odyssey in Greek, Ramayana, and Mahabharata in Sanskrit, Beowulf in English etc. Great heroic, war, Gods and Goddesses are some of the common features of epic poetry in any language. Heroes, who are centered in the story of an Epic, are often portrayed as the sons of Gods and Goddesses. In an Epic, a hero is often involved in a war or adventure or journey and encountered with various obstacles, sometimes even created by the Gods and Goddesses. The hero overcomes all the obstacles, sometimes with the help of Gods and Goddesses, in order to win the war or finish the journey or reach the goal, by showing his heroic and portraying some morals that are highly valued in that particular society. The journey, war or adventure often leaves a mark in their later life.

In Western Epic, description of wars, ancestry of the heroes, journey to the other world, Gods and Goddesses are given at the beginning. Gods and Goddesses very often invoke inspiration by their deeds. Similes and metaphors are also used in Epic. Another important feature of Epic is found in Homer’s writings: Iliad and Odyssey- where you can see that people are involved in a war or adventure or journey, but Gods and Goddess play the role of a determiner as they pre-determine the human destiny. For example, in Odyssey, the central character, Greek hero Odysseus, requires 10 years on his way home to Ithaca because the Poseidon, the God of sea, creates lots of obstacles for Odysseus on his way back home. However, he gets over all the obstacles with the help of his protector, the Goddess Athena. There are some other characteristics of Epic.

An Epic starts in media res- meaning the narrative of an epic begins in the middle of the story, not from its beginning. Past events, characters and setting of Epic are often presented through a series of flashbacks. The setting of an Epic is generally very vast involving many nations or races, the world or the universe. Use of epithet is seen in Epic as you can see in Homer’s Epics. Epithet is a word or group of words or phrase which is used to personify a character or a thing in an Epic. In place of the name of a character or thing, an epithet is used, invoking layers of meaning. For example, in Homer’s Iliad, Achaeans, the inhabitants of Achaea, are referred to as “flowing-haired” or “bronzed-armored”. These are the epithets which are used repeatedly in the course of an Epic. Heroes often reflect the values of a particular civilization that the hero belongs to in an Epic.

The oldest Epic in the world is “Epic of Gilgamesh” which is set in Arab Peninsula of Ancient Mesopotamia. The name of the writer of this poem is unknown. Epic of Gilgamesh is the tale of mythological king Gilgamesh, king of Uruk, and his journey to the City of Dilmun, looking to know the secret of the eternal youth so that he could bring back his dead friend, Enkidu, on the earth. Here, I am giving a list of names of popular and widely-known Epics of world literature:

1. Epic of Gilgamesh (based on Mesopotamian mythology)

2. Iliad (Greek Epic) by Homer

3. Odyssey (Greek Epic) by Homer

4. Aeneid (Latin Epic) by Virgil

5. The Divine Comedy (Italian Epic) by Dante Alighieri

6. Beowulf (Old English Epic)

7. The Faerie Queene (English Epic) by Edmund Spenser

8. Paradise Lost (English Epic) by John Milton

The role of Epic has been changed over the years. Initially, Epic was the most popular medium of telling stories, but over time, Prose has taken over the role of telling stories. However, still Epic has its appeal among the readers intact in the literary world.


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  2. Anonymous12:29 AM

    Till now I was under impression that Ramayana is the oldest Epic... how can we decide the oldest epic?

  3. Anonymous5:19 PM


  4. Anonymous7:10 AM

    hai........ by the way my name is judy jade n. layo from sonlon national high school im very glad because you shared to me about the epic of ramayana and until now i was under impression that ramayana is the oldest epic in the world.

  5. Anonymous2:53 PM

    hello!! i have one question! what is the different between oral epic and written epic!!! ??

  6. oral uses voice(mouth to ears)
    written uses pen or any writing material (hand to eye)
    brilliant question...

  7. oral uses voice(mouth to ears)
    written uses pen or any writing material (hand to eye)
    brilliant question...