Epic Genre – Concept, origin, characteristics and examples

We explain what the epic genre is, its origin, structure and other characteristics. Also, examples from world literature.

epic genre Mahabharata
The epic genre is the predecessor of modern forms of narration: the short story and the novel.

What is the epic genre?

The epic, that is, the epic genre of literature, is one of the oldest known forms of narrative, whose normally voluminous works deal with mythical or legendary events, such as heroic deeds and great wars, which often served as the founding narrative of ancient cultures.

Many epic sagas of ancient times survive today, and constitute the main source of understanding of ancient peoples and their religions, or at least their worldviews. In these texts the people are usually exalted or enlarged, recounting their divine origins (or those of their national heroes), but they were not texts intended for prayer -such as sacred texts- but rather literary works transmitted from generation to generation.

While all the great ancient civilizations had their own heroic songs and their own epic narratives, they were not the same. The first to formally study the characteristics of the genre and differentiate it from other forms of song and poetry were the ancient Greeks, specifically the philosopher Aristotle (384-322 BC), who in his book Poetics from 335 a. C. composed the first study and classification of the literature of the West.

For Aristotle, the epic was the second most important literary genre, behind the tragedy, since both men represented strong men (that is, better than they really are), faced with a cruel and immovable destiny, which allowed great moral teachings.

But while the tragedy (where the current theater comes from) represented them at the same moment and in front of the eyes of the spectators, the epic did it through a narrator, and therefore it was a step further from the truth, since everything was known through the words and point of view of said narrator.

At present, the epic is a genre little or nothing cultivated, understood as the predecessor of modern forms of narration: the short story and the novel.

Characteristics of the epic genre

Broadly speaking, the epic is characterized by the following:

  • It is an ancient narrative genre, which relies on a narrator to tell a series of real or fictional episodes (or both).
  • In general, the epic tells the story of a hero’s exploits, who faces the gods, war, supernatural creatures or the forces of nature. Often these actions are handled halfway between history and mythology.
  • Traditionally, the epic it was composed in verse, since it is a genre prior to the invention of writing, and its works had to be narrated and transmitted orally. For this, the verse was a method of memorization (mnemonics). However, afterwards they were mostly transcribed or compiled in writing.
  • Like all narration, had dialogues and actions, and used to be divided into songs (equivalent to chapters).
  • His works can be of different types: epics, deed songs, romances, etc., and are usually called “epic poems”, since predate the modern distinction between prose and poetry.

Origin of the epic genre

genre epic origin
The Epic of Gilgamesh recounts the adventures of the king of Uruk.

The epic, as we have said, arose in ancient times. It was part of the cultural expressions of the different cultures of the time, especially those with a higher level of artistic refinement. Thus, there are epics of Egyptian, Sumerian, Roman, Indian, Persian origin, and so on. Each one provides its people with a reason for being and a mythical or divine origin..

The oldest known epic work is The Epic of Gilgamesh (2500-2000 BC), of Sumerian origin, where the adventures of the king of Uruk, Gilgamesh, in his search for immortality, are recounted throughout five independent poems. The poem was written on clay tablets, using the cuneiform script of the time.

However, the best preserved epic tradition in the West is of Greek origin: it is attributed to the Aedo Homer (ca. 8th century BC), composer of the Iliad, who sings the facts of the Trojan War, and the Odyssey, which narrates the return home of the Greek hero Odysseus after the destruction of Troy, across the Mediterranean Sea. These works inspired the great Greek playwrights of the 5th century BC. C. and are considered the foundation stone of Western culture.

Structure of the epic genre

According to what Aristotle established in his Poetics, Every epic story had to consist of three parts: beginning, end and end, which take place in the time of the play and which serve respectively to present the situation and the characters, complicate the plot and present the obstacles, and finally find an outcome. This structure is essential to all later Western narrative.

Furthermore, over the course of those three parts, the epic was to feature:

  • Adventures: Changes of the action towards the fortune or towards the misfortune of the characters.
  • Agnition of the characters: The passage from ignorance to knowledge.
  • A final pathetic cast: It is a painful or destructive action.

Epic genre examples

epic genre Shahnama
The Shahnama is the Iranian national epic.

Some of the best known epic works of antiquity are:

  • Iliad and Odyssey, from Homer, the great Greek works composed in the second half of the 8th century BC. C., according to the prevailing opinion among experts.
  • The Epic of Gilgamesh, the first epic in history, of Sumerian origin, composed around 2500 BC. C.
  • The Aeneid, text written by the Roman poet Virgilio (70-19 BC) in the 1st century BC. C., in which the supposed mythical origin of Rome is told, attributing it to the Trojan hero Aeneas, the only one to escape the destruction of Troy at the hands of the Greek hosts, according to the Iliad. This last work served as a model for Virgilio himself to compose the Aeneid, at the request of Emperor Augustus.
  • The Mahabharata, an extensive epic-mythological text of Indian origin, composed around the 3rd century BC. C. by an unknown author, although attributed to the Hindu sage Viasa or Krishna-Dwaiayana (unknown time).
  • The Shahnama, a work written by the Persian poet Ferdousí (935-1020) around the year 1000 AD. C., and considered the greatest epic ever written by a single verifiable author. It is the Iranian national epic, in which the history of this nation and its religion, Zoroastrianism, is collected.