he ancient Greeks considered epic poetry the highest form of literature. Epic comes from the Greek word epos, meaning word or speech. An epic is a long poem, usually composed of lines with six rhythmic measures, that has a serious tone and tells a story about the deeds of gods and heroes*. Two works by the Greek poet Homer, the Iliad and the Odyssey, are among the most famous epics in world literature.
Since the early Greeks had no tradition of written literature, they used narrative verse—spoken or sung poems that told stories—to pass on their history and legends from one generation to the next. Narrative poetry of the Greeks and other ancient peoples was often intended for religious instruction. The epic may have originated from hymns that were sung to the gods at religious festivals, such as the contests at Delphi. In addition to religious themes, Greek epics also told historical tales about heroes, wars, and explorations. Short narratives about the gods formed a separate class of poetry, exemplified by the Homeric Hymns. These poems were identical in speech and technique to the epic.
With the development of the Greek alphabet in the late 700s B.C., the transcription of oral epics began. The earliest and greatest of the Greek epics to be written down—probably soon after they were composed— were the Iliad and the Odyssey of Homer. The Iliad tells of the Greek war against Troy, the heroes who fought in the war, and the gods who determined the fate of each side. The Odyssey describes the wanderings of the hero Odysseus in his attempt to return home after the war. In these poems, Homer established many of the features now considered essential to the epic.
* hero in mythology, a person of great strength or ability, often descended from a god
The Greek epic is almost solely credited to one legendary writer—Homer, the author of both the Iliad and the Odyssey. The scene depicted on this urn comes from the Odyssey. It illustrates the episode in which the hero, Odysseus, had his crew tie him to the mast so he could resist the songs of the Sirens, whose enchanting voices lured sailors to their island. Once there, sailors were compelled to listen to the bird-women, unable to move, until they died of starvation.
SINGING FOR THEIR SUPPER
Poets in ancient Greece needed to possess considerable skill. Wealthy aristocrats often expected them to sing at their bidding, on subjects of their choosing, and to cease at their command. Poets had to be able to take up a story at some point and add episode to episode as long as the interest of the audience required, often recreating the story as they went along. Most importantly, poets had to have the ability to select the right words and speech fitting a heroic poem. The Greeks believed the poet's skill came from the gods. They would say he had the "gift of the Muse," one of the nine goddesses who ruled over song and poetry.
The epic is a lengthy narrative of extraordinary deeds or actions. It usually tells of a hero who is larger than life and who embodies many of the values of the society from which the epic springs. Epics may also include supernatural characters. Typical scenes within an epic often include feasts, funerals, journeys made by the hero, or preparations for battle. How the epic is told is just as important as its characters or plot. Epics have a formal, stately style and often include lengthy speeches made by the characters. Epics also have a distinctive verse form. Each line of an epic follows a set pattern of stressed (accented) syllables, or meter. Usually, one stressed syllable is followed by two unstressed syllables, and this pattern is repeated six times in each line, forming a verse known as dactylic hexameter. Modern scholars suggest that the frequent occurrence of repetition in Homer reflects the singer’s use of formulas, or traditional expressions that developed over time to accommodate the demands of the hexameter verse. The epic singer also uses extended similes*. In the Iliad, for example, Homer’s hero does not advance to battle merely “like a lion” but goes “like a mountain-bred lion, who for a long time has been starved of meat, and his proud heart urges him to go for the flocks.” Because of the outstanding quality of Homer’s works, all later epics were measured against them.
A shorter epic, Theogony, composed by the Greek poet Hesiod at about the same time as Homer’s works, tells the story of the creation of the world and the genealogy* of the gods. Theogony remains one of the earliest sources of information about Greek religion. Hesiod also composed a related style of poetry, called didactic* poetry. Rather than telling an extended narrative, as in the Homeric epic, Hesiod wanted to compose poetry that taught moral and practical lessons in a direct way. His poem Works and Days contains advice on how people can, through work and social behavior, maintain a harmonious relationship with the gods.
Lesser Greek poets of the 600s and 500s B.C. continued to compose epics, mostly about the Trojan War. These works, collectively known as the Epic Cycle, included Cypria, which introduced the war; Aethiopis, which recounted the death of Achilles; Little Iliad, which told the story of the Trojan Horse; and Sack of Ilium, which described the fall of Troy. Although these works were not highly regarded as epics, they provided subjects for other types of literature, such as tragedy.
Epic poetry declined as other forms of literature, including lyric* poetry and tragedy, gained in popularity. Antimachus of Colophon and other poets around 400 B.C. continued to compose traditional epics, but critics, such as the poet Callimachus and the philosopher Aristotle, compared them unfavorably to the great epics of Homer.
During the 200s B.C., poets developed a new form of epic poetry, called the epyllion. The epyllion was a short tale that reported a single heroic deed or episode. For example, Callimachus’s Hecale told the story of Theseus and the bull of Marathon. Theocritus also wrote epyllia during the 200s B.C., as did the poet Euphorion, whose work influenced later Roman epic poetry. Although the epic was never completely out of fashion, by the 100s B.C., interest in the creation of this form of poetry was greater in Rome than in Greece. (See also Achilles; Drama, Greek; Epic, Roman; Helen of Troy; Heroes, Greek; Iliad; Literature, Greek; Odyssey; Poetry, Greek and Hellenistic.)
* simile figure of speech that compares two unlike things, often introduced by the word like or as,
* genealogy account of the descent of an individual, family, or group from one or more ancestors
* didactic intended to instruct
* lyric poem expressing personal feelings, often similar in form to a song