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Ancient Heroes; Epic Poems

Ancient Heroes; Epic Poems

Published: 12/29/2014 by EducationGroup.ca

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Before Tony Stark’s impulsive capers and Professor Xavier’s cool and calculated strategy there was the god-like Achilles and the tactician Odysseus. They fought for honour, for love, for plunder, but always at the mercy of their gods.


Epic Stories

The Iliad and The Odyssey are two epic poems that are part of what is known as the Greek Epic Cycle that illustrates the beginning of the Trojan War through to the return of the Greek solders to their homeland.  In fact, these two poems are the only bodies of work from the Greek Epic Cycle that fully survived; the remaining texts – Cyria, Aethiopis, Lliupersis, Nostoi and Telegony – only survive in fragments.


Oral Tradition

The Iliad and The Odyssey  are believed to originate as an oral tradition. That is, these long narratives – 16,000 lines for The Iliad and 12,000 lines for The Odyssey – were likely sung or recited in front of an audience.

A tell-take sign is the frequent repetition and re-combination of stock phrases as well as the use of epithets. Epithets are descriptions distinctive to one character and serve as a reminder to the audience that they have already encountered this character. For example, Odysseus is often described as crafty, a tactician, or of many devices.

The use of stock phrases, repitition and epithet’s are part of an oral formula, which makes spontaneous recitation of long stories possible. In fact, many scholars believe the epics were not memorized line for line, but recomposed in each new telling and then passed down through the generations.


Dactyl Hexameter

Eventually these oral traditions were committed to writing, which is how we are able to study them today. A look at the structure of the poems reveals they are composed using dactylic hexameters.
A dactyl is arranged with a long syllable followed by two short syllables. Together these make up a dactyl foot (meter). Therefore, a dactylic hexameter consists of six dactyls.


Ambiguous Details
The Iliad and The Odyssey are often attributed to Homer, but scholars continue to debate whether he composed them, or if a group of individuals simply stitched the story together under the name Homer.
How the poems were committed to writing is also disputed. Some believe Homer recited them to literate Greeks who wrote them down. Others argue the poems were passed down through oral tradition in Homer’s time (8 century B.C.E) before being committed to writing, perhaps as late as the 6 century B.C.E.


Whether recited in front of an audience, or read privately, these epics weave a tale of neck-and-neck battles between the Greeks and the Trojans that brought out the malicious or heroic in people, setting the stage for our first superhero’s and super villains.


 Pomeroy, S. B., Burnstien, S. M., Donlan, W. & Roberts, J. T. (1999)) Ancient Greece A Political, Social and Cultural History. Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press.

 Harris, S. L., Platzer, G. (2008) Classical Mythology Images & Insights Third Edition. Sacramento, California: McGraw Hill Higher Education.

 www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/The Iliad

www.gutenberg.org/ebooksThe Odyssey



SparkNotes: The Iliad
SparkNotes: The Odyssey

Homer and the Greek Epic  

Homer Biography