Epic Poetry: Definition, Types & Characteristic

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1. Epic

      The word ‘epic’ is derived from the Ancient Greek adjective, epikos, which means a poetic story. In literature, an epic is a long narrative poem, which is usually related to heroic deeds of a person of an unusual courage and unparalleled bravery. In order to depict this bravery and courage, the epic uses grand style. Many ancient writers used epic poetry to tell tales of intense adventures and heroic feats. Some of the most famous literary masterpieces in the world were written in the form of epic poetry. Epic poems were particularly common in the ancient world because they were ideal for expressing stories orally. Classical epic employs dactylic hexameter. Some of the most famous examples of epic poetry include the Ancient Greek poet Homer’s The Iliad and The Odyssey, Virgil’s Aeneid, the ancient Indian Ramayana and Mahabharata, Dante’s Divine Comedy, the Portuguese Lusiads, John Milton’s Paradise Lost in English literature, etc.

2. Conventional Characteristics of Epic

      Epic poetry had been continued to exist orally among the people all over the world to transmit their traditions from one generation to another, without the aid of writing. These traditions frequently consist of legendary narratives about the glorious deeds of their national heroes. Thus, scholars have often identified epic with a certain kind of heroic oral poetry, which comes into existence in so-called heroic ages. Such ages have been experienced by many nations, usually at a stage of development in which they have had to struggle for a national identity. Usually, the setting of an epic may be vast covering one or many nations, the world or the universe. Epic generally begins with an invocation to Muse which is termed as Epic Invocation. Muse is 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. Epic offers proper statement of the theme at the opening point, which is called Praepositio. In mediasres or flashback, show may be included at the initial point of an epic. It includes the use of epithets and epic catalogs or Enumeration. Long, narrative and formal speeches, divine interventions on human affairs are common features in an epic. It is a heroic story incorporating myth, legend, folk tale and history. The deeds involve a great number of characters as well as a large background. The hero is usually the representative of the values of a certain culture, race, nation or a religious group on whose victory or failure the destiny of the whole nation or group depends. Therefore, certain supernatural forces, ‘dues ex machina’, help the hero, who defeats the evil power and ultimately wins at the end. An epic usually starts with an invocation to Muse, but then picks up the threads of the story from the middle and moves on to the end.

3. Oral Tradition

      Oral tradition, or oral lore, is a form of human communication wherein knowledge, art, ideas and cultural material is received, preserved and transmitted orally from one generation to another. The transmission is through speech or song and may include folktales, epics, ballads, chants, prose or verses. In this way, it is possible for a society to transmit oral history, oral literature, oral law and other knowledge across generations without a writing system, or in parallel to a writing system. Indian religions such as Buddhism, Hinduism and Jainism, for example, have used an oral tradition, in parallel to a writing system, to transmit their canonical scriptures, secular knowledge such as Sushruta Samhita, hymns and mythologies from one generation to the next.

      The ancient Greek epic exemplifies the cycle of an oral tradition. Originating in the late Mycenaean period, the Greek epic outlasted the downfall of the typically heroic age culture (c. 1100 BCE) and maintained itself through the “Dark Age” to reach a climax in the Homeric poems by the close of the Geometric period (900-750 BCE). After Homer, the activity of the acidosis, who sang their own epic songs at the courts of the nobility, slowly declined. During the first half of the 7th century, the aoidoi produced such new poems as those of Hesoid and some of the earlier poems of what were to become known as the Epic Cycle. Between 625 and 575 BCE the aoidoi gave way to oral reciters of a new type, called rhapsodes or ‘stitchers of songs’. It seems probable that these rhapsodes, who played a crucial role in the transmission of the Homeric epic, were using some sort of written aids to memory before Homeric recitations were adopted in 6th century Athens as part of the Panathenaic festivals held each year in honour of the goddess Athena.

      To compose and to memorize long narrative poems like The. Iliad and The Odyssey, oral poets used a highly elaborate technical language with a large store of traditional verbal formulas, which could describe recurring ideas and situations in ways that suited the requirements of meter. So long as an oral epic tradition remains in its creative period, its language will be continually refined by each generation of poets in opposite directions. This highly formalized language was elaborated by generations of oral poets to minimize the conscious effort needed to compose new poems and memorize existing ones. Because of it, an exceptionally gifted aoidos, working just prior to the corruption of the genre, could orally create long and finely structured poems like The Iliad and the The Odyssey, and those poems could then be transmitted accurately by the following generations of rhapsodes until complete written texts were produced.

      The passing of a heroic age does not necessarily mean the end of its heroic oral poetry. An oral epic tradition usually continues for as long as the nation remains largely illiterate. Usually it is after the heroic age that the narratives about its legendary heroes are fully elaborated. Even when the nobility that originally created the heroic epic perishes or loses interest, the old songs can persist as entertainment among the people. Court singers, then, are replaced by popular singers, who recite at public gatherings. This popular tradition, however, must be distinguished from a tradition that still forms an integral part of the culture of nobility. For when a heroic epic loses its contact with the banquet halls of the princes and noblemen, it cannot preserve for long its power of renewal. Soon it enters what has been called the reproductive stage in the life cycle of an oral tradition, in which the bards become noncreative reproducers of songs learned from older singers. Popular oral singers, like the guslari of the Balkans, no doubt vary their songs to a certain extent each time they recite them, but they do so mainly by transposing language and minor episodes from one acquired song to another. Such variations must not be confounded with the real enrichment of the tradition by succeeding generations of genuine oral poets of the creative stage. The spread of literacy, which has a disastrous effect on the oral singer, brings about a quick corruption of the tradition. At this degenerate stage, the oral epic soon dies out if it is not written down or recorded.

4. General Subjects of Epic Poetry

      Oral heroic poetry, at its origin, usually deals with outstanding deeds of kings and warriors who lived in the heroic age of the nation. Since the primary function of this poetry is to educate rather than to record, however, the personages are necessarily transformed into ideal heroes and their acts into ideal heroic deeds that conform to mythological or ideological patterns. Some of these patterns are archetypes found all over the world, while others are peculiar to a specific nation or culture. Thus, in many epic traditions, heroes are born as a result of the union of a maiden with a divine or supernatural being. Because these unions occur outside the usual social norms - the heroes are exposed at birth, fed by an animal, and brought up by humble foster parents in a rustic milieu; they grow up with marvelous speed, fight a dragon - in their first combat — to rescue a maiden whom they marry, and die young in circumstances as fabulous as those that surrounded their birth. 

      Most of the Indo-European epics have as their central themes interaction among these three principles or functions which are: (1) religion and kingship; (2) physical strength; (3) fecundity, health, riches, beauty, and so forth. In the long Indian epic the Mahabharata, for example, the central figures, the Pandava brothers, together with their father, Pandu, their two uncles, Dhritarashtra and Vidura, and their common wife, Draupadi, correspond to traditional deities presiding over the three functions of the Indo-European ideology. During the first part of their earthly career, the Pandavas suffer constantly from the persistent enmity and jealousy of their cousins, Duryodhana and his 99 brothers, who, in reality, are incarnations of the demons Kali and the Paulastya. The demons at first succeeded in snatching the kingdom from the Pandavas and in exiling them. The conflict ends in a devastating war, in which all the renowned heroes of the time take part. The Pandavas survive the massacre, and establish on earth a peaceful and prosperous reign, in which Dhritarashtra and Vidura also participate. This whole story, it has been shown, is a transposition to the heroic level of an Indo-European myth about the incessant struggle between the gods and the demons since the beginning of the world. Eventually, it results in a bloody eschatological battle, in which the gods and the devils exterminate each other. The destruction of the former world order, however, prepares for a new and better world, exempt from evil influences, over which reign a few divine survivors of the catastrophe.

      Similarly, The Odyssey is a Greek epic poem attributed to the Greek poet Homer during the late eighth century BC. An epic tells the tale of a hero and his heroic deeds. The Odyssey sketches the themes of complicated adventure of its hero named Odysseus, his at Home, wandering, and fidelity, cunning and disguised hospitality, loyalty or perseverance, women as predatory, vengeance, appearance vs. reality, Odysseus’ character flaws, and spiritual growth and so on. The Odyssey follows its hero and protagonist Odysseus as he fights to get home after the Trojan War, a war that lasted an entire decade. Not only did the war last ten years, but so did Odysseus’ journey. Odysseus must battle terrifying monsters and escape from some decay situations, but he does eventually make it back to his home of Ithaca.

      Homer’s The Iliad, on the other hand, recounts some of the significant events of the final weeks of the Trojan War and the Greek siege of the city of Troy. Written in the mid-8th Century BCE, The Iliad is usually considered to be the earliest work in the whole Western literary tradition, and one of the best-known and loved stories of all time. The Iliad, on the other hand, deals with the major subjects of the glory of Trojan war, military glory over family life, impermanence of human life and its creations, motifs, armor, burial, fire, symbols, the Achaean ships, shield of Achilles, pride, interaction between fate and free will and so on. The main theme of The Iliad is stated in the first line, as Homer asks the Muse to sing of the “wrath of Achilles”. This wrath, all its permutations, transformations, influences, and consequences, make up the themes of The Iliad. In essence, the wrath of Achilles allows Homer to present and develop, within the cultural framework of heroic honor, the ideas of strife, alienation, and reconciliation.

      In this way, the major subjects of the great epics of the coming eras in different kinds of literature are centered on the heroism of great national figures, religious and spiritual powers on humanity, heroic deeds of great kings and warriors, transition from God to humanity, influence of supernatural beings on human beings, evolution of generations, transition of culture from the ancient to the following periods and so on. For the domination of the aforementioned themes, the poems are ever remembered and referred to while studying any good work of literature.

5. Function of Epic

      The main function of epic poetry in heroic age society appears to be to stir the spirit of the warriors to heroic actions by praising their exploits and those of their illustrious ancestors, by assuring a long and glorious recollection of their fame, and by supplying them with models of ideal heroic behavior. One of the favorite pastimes of the nobility in heroic ages in different times and places has been to gather in banquet halls to hear heroic songs, in praise of famous deeds sung by professional singers as well as by the warriors themselves. Heroic songs also were often sung before a battle, and such recitations had tremendous effects on the morale of the combatants. Among the Fulani (Fulbe) people in the Sudan, for instance, whose epic poetry has been recorded, a nobleman customarily set out in quest of adventures accompanied by a singer (mabo), who also served as his shield bearer. The singer was thus the witness of the heroic deeds of his lord, which he celebrated in an epic poem called Baudi.

      As the epic poem is the earliest form of poetry, it is the earliest form of entertainment as well. Epics were written to commemorate the struggles and adventures of kings and warriors. The main function of epic poetry was to elevate the status of the hero among the audiences to inspire them to be ready to perform heroic actions. Epic obtained most of its themes from the exploits performed by legendary characters and their illustrious ancestors. That is why these exploits became examples for others to follow, and still lived in books. It is through epics, models of ideal heroic behavior were supplied to the common people. Moreover, epics also were collections of historical events not recorded in common history books - the reason that they are read today to be enjoyed and be informed regarding the past.

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