What is an epic in history

Historically, the epic is the earliest major narrative form. In terms of material, it is tied to historical, mythological or fairytale traditions that were passed on orally. The epic itself was also orally performed by a singer (Greek: Rhapsode). Historically, the ancient and medieval epic can be understood as the self-portrayal of pre-bourgeois societies with their norms and values. It unfolds the world order, especially of the warlike and courtly upper class, in adventure trips and combative disputes undertaken by a hero who serves as a model for the respective society. The hero of this epic, as it was also said in the older language, is, in Georg Lukács' formulation following Hegel, "strictly speaking, never an individual. but that of a community. " (P. 64f.)

The epic is produced collectively, deals with this collective and its history and is also addressed to this collective. Because it reflects and creates a sense of identity, it has an important function for entire cultures or nations (national epic). Heroes and subjects are predominantly located in the border area between history, myth and legend. Mythical figures and gods intervene in what is happening, historically guaranteed characters gain a fabulous existence of their own as epic heroes. The narrative style of presentation is characterized by the elevated, often pathetic style of language appropriate to heroic deeds. At the same time, however, the epic renounces the problematization of the narrated world and value order. Reflection or irony are alien to him. The loose sequence of adventures is open to insertions, episodes or secondary narrative threads. However, this tendency to formlessness is mostly tamed by an external structure - in books or chants - as well as by a formulaic style. These mainly include standing expressions, typifying attributes (so-called epithets such as "der cunning Odysseus "or" Zeus' blue-eyed Daughter Athena ") or the call of the Muses by the epic narrator.

The Gilgamesh epic stands out from the diverse early Oriental epic, telling the heroic deeds and fate of the Sumer king Gilgamesh and his friend Enkidu (3rd millennium BC). In Europe, the two oldest literary works are also regarded as the climax of epic poetry: they are the Greek hexameter poems Iliad and Odyssey. Although they are based on older traditions, they were used in the form we know today in the 8th century BC. Chr. Fixed in writing. Traditionally, they are attributed to the blind rhapsodist Homer, whose existence and authorship are still debated today. While the Iliad describes a fifty-one day episode in the battle of the Greeks against the city of Troy is the Odyssey Dedicated to the ten-year return of Odysseus from Troy to Ithaca.

For the Greco-Latin antiquity, these epics were to a large extent traditional, they became the epitome of poetry. For the Middle Ages, however, this function was taken from a Latin epic, the Aeneid taken by Virgil. Virgil consciously draws on the "Homeric" epics when, in his hexameter poem, he tells the wanderings of Aeneas who fled Troy. At the same time, this report of the conquest of Aeneas in Latium and the prediction of Roman world domination becomes a Roman national epic. It is similar with that Nibelungenlied (13th century) in German-speaking countries or with the various Chansons de geste (e.g. the Chanson de Roland around 1100) and the Versepen Chrétien de Troyes around the Celtic King Arthur for France. Dante's Christian monumental work was created on the threshold of the Renaissance La Divina Commedia (1307-21) who founded Italian literature. The widespread return to antiquity in the Renaissance and humanism subsequently promoted the emergence of various epic poems, which were not infrequently a conscious attempt to create a national epic. For example the Italian knight reps by Ariosto (L'Orlando furioso) and Torquato Tasso (La Gerusalemme liberata), in England by Edmund Spensers The faerie queen or John Milton's biblical epic Paradise lost. In the 18th and 19th centuries, however, it became increasingly apparent that the traditional form of the epic was no longer capable of depicting the increasingly differentiated reality. The need to focus the epic perspective on limited excerpts of reality and to shape the expressive intentions more specifically (e.g. religious, political, satirical, idyllic) became more and more noticeable. A different form was required for a comprehensive representation of this new social reality. The novel had already taken the place of the epic

© JV and SR


  • Georg Lukács: Theory of the novel, Darmstadt et al. 1987.

Secondary literature

  • M. Bachtin: Epic and Novel. On the methodology of research into the novel, in: ders .: forms of time in the novel. Studies on historical poetics, Frankfurt / M. 1989, pp. 210-251.
  • J. Latacz: Homer. Father of the Occident, Munich, Zurich 1989.