Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Epic Poems

An epic is a long narrative poem. Most are very old. The word comes from the Greek word ‘epikos’, and the two most famous epics are Greek, the Iliad and the Odyssey, both written by Homer. Other famous epics include the Roman epic Aeneid by Virgil, the Sumerian Epic of Gilgamesh, Beowulf from Old English, and the Ramayanna from India. Epics are some of humanity’s oldest poems, and were not written, but memorized. These long stories were organized into a series of episodes, to help people memorize them. They were written down hundreds of years later.

Epics usually have these ten characteristics:

1. They begin with an invocation to a muse – a god or goddess of art, for example Calliope, goddess of poetry (múza).

2. They also begin with a statement of the theme (téma). Homer’s Iliad combines this with the invocation, asking if the muse would sing a song about Achilles’ anger.

3. The story starts in the middle of the plot (dej), not the beginning.

4. They include heroes that are virtuous (cnostný) and go on quests (výpravy).

5. The characters travel to many different countries.

6. They use epithets (prezývky). Homer used many, for example Zeus was the cloud gatherer. Aphrodite was the laughter-loving. Achilles was the lion-hearted, Thetis was silver-footed. Men were high-hearted, women were the lovely-haired, and the sea was wine-dark.

7. They include a long list called an epic catalogue. The list might be enemies killed, or, in the Iliad, the number of ships that sailed to Troy.

8. They include long, formal speeches (prehovory).

9. They include gods and goddesses influencing life and events here on Earth.

10. They often show the hero suffering a series of tragedies, sometimes with a happy ending, sometimes not.


Bust of Homer, dated 2nd Century BC,
centuries after his death, a Roman copy

Homer was the greatest Greek poet and orator of antiquity, and was called the teacher of Greece, but very little is known about him. No one knows exactly where he lived, or when. Herodotus, an ancient Greek historian (called the Father of History) said that Homer lived around 850 BC, but some ancient texts say he was much older, near 1200 BC, the time of the Trojan War. The name Homer sounds similar in Greek to words for “hostage” and “blind”, leading to legends about him.

Homer and his Guide, by Bouguereau (1825-1905)

The Iliad

This poem tells the tale of the siege (obliehanie) and sack of Troy, by the Greek king Agamemnon. The story begins with an argument between this king and the hero Achilles in the final year of the war (which lasted ten years). Then it explains how the war started (Paris kidnapped Helen) and all the major battles, such as Achilles killing Hector.

The Odyssey

This is Homer’s sequal to the Iliad. It tells the story of the hero Odysseus, who fought with the Greeks, and helped end the siege after ten years. It was Odysseus who thought of making the Trojan Horse, a false gift of peace to the Trojans. Greek warriors hid inside and opened the gates, while the Trojans were celebrating. That’s how the Greeks won the war. The Odyssey tells of Odysseus’ ten year journey home, after the war, to the island of Ithica, where his wife was waiting for him. He had to face many dangers, including cannibals, pirates, sirens, Cyclops, drug dealing lotus eaters, and the goddess Circe, who fell in love with him. When Oddyseus finally came home, after 20 years, everyone thought he had died. Many men wanted to marry his wife, and they were all waiting for her to choose one. But Odysseus forced them all to leave.

The Aeneid

This tells the story of Aeneas, a Trojan who survived the sack of Troy, and travelled to Italy, where he defeated the Latins, and founded the Roman empire. It was written by Virgil between 29-19 BC, hundreds of years after the event.

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