The Epic and Epic Heroes

21 07 2010

What is an epic?

1. Primary epics were originally intended to be sung or recited to music: “Sing, Muse . . . .”

2. In primary epics, deities and other supernatural agencies are often involved in human affairs: “What god was it . . . ?” asks Homer in the famous epic question that opens the Iliad.

3. The poem often has national interest and has a national bias: “and brought low the souls of so many Acheans” (Iliad, Book I).

4. Often, the principal characters are larger-than-life demigods (descendants of deities) or heroes of immense stature and strength. They represent such cultural ideals are endurance and cunning (Odysseus), all-round virtue or arte(Achilles), fair play and selflessness (Beowulf), chivalric self-sacrifice (Roland), or Christian love (Adam).

5. In epic, single combat is a common plot device; if the warriors are equals, such as Achilles and Hector, they fight with sword and spear; if the adversaries are not equally heroic, as in the case of Odysseus and the suitors, the protagonist may use lesser weapons such as a bow. The hero often has a special weapon (e. g., Achilles’ Pelian ash spear) or quality (e. g., Odysseus’s ability to adopt disguises).

6. The subject of the poem is announced in the opening lines, in an invocation (in which the poet calls for divine assistance to tell his tale) and epic question in classical epics.

7. The epic is long (the Iliad and the Odyssey each contain 24 books) and dignified (courtly address and epithet are common). It uses the technique in medias res–it starts usually in the middle of things.

8. Geographical and temporal scopes are wide: the action of the Odyssey, for example, occurs across all of the known world of the Greeks over a twenty-year period. However, the action may be compressed into a matter of days (as in the case of the Iliad) or even hours (as in the case of the Song of Roland). The Odyssey takes roughly forty days.


What is an epic hero?

1. The hero is introduced in the midst of turmoil, at a point well into the story; antecedent action will be recounted in flashbacks.

2. The hero is not only a warrior and a leader, but also a polished speaker who can address councils of chieftains or elders with eloquence and confidence.

3. The hero, often a demi-god, possesses distinctive weapons of great size and power, often heirlooms or presents from the gods.

4. The hero must undertake a long, perilous journey, often involving a descent into the Underworld (Greek, “Neukeia“), which tests his endurance, courage, and cunning.

5. Although his fellows may be great warriors (like Achilles and Beowulf, he may have a commitatus, or group of noble followers with whom he grew up), he undertakes a task that no one else dare attempt.

6. Whatever virtues his race most prizes, the epic hero as a cultural exemplar possesses these local virtues in abundance. His key quality is often emphasized by his stock epithet: “Resourceful Odysseus,” “swift-footed Achilles,” “pious AEneas.”

7. The concept of arete (Greek for “bringing virtue to perfection”) is crucial to understanding the epic protagonist.

8. The hero establishes his aristeia (nobility) through single combat in superari a superiore, honour coming from being vanquished by a superior foe. That is, a hero gains little honour by slaying a lesser mortal, but only by challenging heroes like himself or adversaries of superhuman power.

9. The two great epic adversaries, the hero and his antagonist, meet at the climax, which must be delayed as long as possible to sustain maximum interest. One such device for delaying this confrontation is the nephelistic rescue (utilized by Homer to rescue Paris from almost certain death and defeat at the hands of Menelaus in the Iliad).

10. The hero’s epic opponent is often a “god-despiser,” one who has more respect for his own mental and physical abilities than for the power of the gods. The adversary might also be a good man sponsored by lesser deities, or one whom the gods desert at a crucial moment.

11. The hero may encounter a numinous phenomenon (a place or person having a divine or supernatural force) such as a haunted place or enchanting sorceress that he most use strength, cunning, and divine assistance to overcome.

12. The hero’s almost invulnerable.

13. The hero has mysterious/special birth, an attempt at the reconstruction of the early life of a notable adult.

– condensed from




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21 07 2010

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