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Epic Poetry: Characteristics, Elements, and Examples

An epic poem is an elaborate narrative about an important event. It contains a character of incredible stature and courage who performs superhuman deeds with valor in terrific battles or journeys, and these glorious deeds are of national significance. This Penlighten article tells you about the characteristics and examples of epic poetry.
Penlighten Staff
Goddess of Epic Poetry
In Greek mythology, Calliope was the Muse of epic poetry.

The word 'epic' has its origins in the Greek word, "epos," which means word or story. An epic poetry is a lengthy narrative poem about a subject which is linked with the deeds of a legendary or heroic character who undergoes a series of adventures, battles or long and arduous journeys in life. The deeds or events of the hero determine the fate of a nation and are of great importance to the nation or race. The poem is written in a highly styled and formal manner.

Epics come from oral poetic traditions of the past. In oral traditions, poetry is introduced to the audience through means like audiotapes or videotapes, or carried forward from older generations to the newer ones. Some of the prominent names in epic poetry include Homer, Virgil, Ovid, Dante, Edmund Spenser, and Milton.

Characteristics of Epic Poetry
  • The hero in the poem is a figure of heroic stature or national significance. He is usually a warrior who faces opponents and performs courageous deeds that are valued by the nation.
  • The setting of the poem is vast and could include land, seas, oceans, the world, or even the whole universe.
  • The deeds are those which require great heroism, spirit, and bravery.
  • Supernatural or other worldly forces or beings such as Gods, angels, or demons are introduced and they play an active part in the actions of the heroic character.
  • Epic poems are written in a formal manner and they often use exaggeration.
  • The poet presents everything with knowledge and objectivity.

Conventions of Epic Poetry or Epic Formula
  • There is invocation of a Muse by the poet before beginning the epic poem, to help him by providing him the emotion, creativity, or articulation of speech to create a poem. The Muse then gives the necessary inspiration to the poet and speaks through the poet's words to create a poem. Muses are the goddesses and sources of inspiration in literature, science, and art in Greek mythology.
  • Stating of the theme or subject of the epic poem is done by the poet to the Muse.
  • It is followed by opening or beginning the narrative in medias res or in the midst of an action and at a crucial time. The beginning of the story is mentioned with a flashback. Flashbacks are descriptions which denote the happening of an event prior to the one with which the poem begins.
  • Concern is expressed to the future of the nation or to people.
  • Objects such as ships, places, and heroic or important characters such as warriors and armies are introduced.
  • That is followed by formal speeches by the main characters.
  • Epic similes are used at the appropriate places. Also called Homeric similes, epic similes are elaborate comparisons made by using words such as 'like' or 'as'.
  • Heavy usage of dialogs or similar phrases is made, to describe the characters.

Examples

The Epic of Gilgamesh
The Epic of Gilgamesh, regarded as the first great work of literature, is an epic poem from ancient Mesopotamia. The poem is about the relationship between Gilgamesh, a king who has become perturbed and demoralized by his rule, and a friend, Enkidu, who undertakes perilous quests with Gilgamesh. The poem focuses deeply on immortality.

Aeneid
The Aeneid is a Latin epic poem that is attributed to Virgil. It was written between 29 and 19 BC. It tells the legendary story of Aeneas, a Trojan who came to Italy, and became the ancestor of the Romans.

Mahabharata
This is an ancient Indian epic and the longest poem ever written. It is attributed to Vyasa. It tells us about the Kurukshetra War and also has divine and philosophical material.

Iliad
It is an ancient Greek epic poem attributed to Homer. Set in the Trojan War, it describes the battle of Troy (Ilium), one of the most significant events in Greek mythology.

Odyssey
It is an Ancient Greek epic poem attributed to Homer. It was probably written around the end of 8th century BC. The poem is about a Greek hero, Odysseus, and his journey back to Ithaca, his home after ten years following the fall of Troy.

Paradise Lost
Paradise Lost is an epic poem of the 17th-century written by John Milton. It tells about the temptation and fall of Adam and Eve.