(in this web):
Epic and heroic literature
times: The best example of Near Eastern epic
before Homer is the Sumerian poem, The Epic of Gilgamesh, which may date
from 2000 BC or earlier, though its final written form appeared in the 7th
century BC. (Gilgamesh was the name of a historical ruler of Uruk in Babylonia
about 2700 BC.) Similarities with Homer include a quest structure and a featured
trip to the
underworld to learn the secret to eternal life.
poetry of Homer's day:
Homer's chief rival was Hesiod.
From the surviving fragments of Homer's competitors it is clear that
Hellenic poetry of the time was richly varied and highly creative.
the Homeric tradition was carried on brilliantly in
Greek tragedy of the 5th century BC, where the one-man show of the bard gave way
to performances embellished by multiple actors and elaborate staging. Classical Greek tragedy is
represented by only a handful of surviving plays from three authors:
(525-455 BC?) composed seventy or more plays but only seven have survived.
The earliest of these works (Persians,
Thebes, and Suppliants)
make use of only two actors. The best known works of Aeschylus are the
Orestia, a trilogy of plays in the style of the Odyssey but on
the subject of Agamemnon's homecoming from Troy (Agamemnon,
(496-406 BC?) wrote more than 120 plays over a long career, but again only
seven have survived including the famous Theban plays of Oedipus
the King, Oedipus
Sophocles is credited with adding the third actor and painted scenery to the
stage. After his death, the Athenians honored him with his own hero cult.
(485-406 BC?) wrote some ninety plays, and nineteen survive, along with
fragments of others. The
Trojan Women, Medea,
are among the best known. Euripides also is the author of The
Cyclops, the only surviving example of the Greek satyr play, a
comic celebration with which the performance of tragedies sometimes
the classical period, outside of drama, Homeric tradition also found its way
into narrative writing about past events. The great example is the story of
the Persian Wars by "the Father of History" Herodotus,
The Histories (c. 440 BC). This tradition lasted
into Roman times, as we have seen in the discussion of Plutarch's "Life
of Alexander" in Lesson
9, so that Homer or Homeric method colors much of the history of
classical Western civilization.
also fostered the growth of classical philosophy in the heroic writing of
Plato, otherwise known as the Socratic dialogues. See Lesson
11 through Lesson 14 in this web.
although the Hellenistic world embraced new literary forms, the strong interest
in Homeric studies at the library in Alexandria fostered imitations of Homer.
The best surviving example is The
Argonautica, or voyage of the Argo, composed about 250 BC by Apollonius of Rhodes, the story of
Jason, Medea and the quest for the Golden Fleece. It is based on much older
sources that have not survived. (Five centuries or more earlier, Homer knew of
the quest for the Golden Fleece; Achilles' father Peleus had been one of the
Argonauts, per Homer.)
The Bible has been called a sprawling epic,
"the story of all things." The Biblical heroes' lives are
intertwined with the destiny of the Lord's chosen people. Two famous
examples are the Exodus from Egypt and the story of David:
Exodus: Exodus 1-20, Numbers
10-17 and 20-24, Deuteronomy 32-34
David: 1 Samuel 16-17, 2
other examples can be found throughout the Hebrew Bible, particularly in Genesis
and in the books of "former prophets"
who appear within chronicles of the Jewish settlement of Palestine (Joshua, Judges,
1 & 2 Samuel, 1 & 2 Kings).
the great imitation of Homer in the Roman world is the Aeneid by Virgil
(Publius Virgilius Maro, 70-19 BC). Virgil ties the
origins of Roman culture to Troy through the figure of Aeneas. After Aeneas
escapes from the flames of Troy on the night of its destruction, he wanders
across the Mediterranean waters in episodes splendidly modeled after the Odyssey.
Then he comes ashore in Italy and establishes himself at Latium (near eventual
Rome) after wars
modeled on the Iliad. Spiritual values are emphasized through the
characterization of Aeneas as the pious man, serving the gods, ancestors and
Bardic oral tradition of heroic song revived in the European Middle Ages. The
Old English poem Beowulf
is one of the best examples. Although the Troy story was extremely popular
during the later Middle Ages, Homer had been lost. The medieval "matter of
Troy" came down from classical prose summaries and simplified renditions of
Homer such as Dares of Phrygia's History of Troy (5th or 6th century AD) and
Dictys of Crete's Story of the Trojan War (4th century AD). In English the written record starts with
Layamon's Brut (c. 1205 AD, based on earlier Latin sources) which
traces the ancestry of the early Briton kings to the Trojan Aeneas who
escaped when Troy fell. Elements of medieval
romance and chivalry were added to the Troy story in Geoffrey Chaucer's Troilus
and Criseyde and many other works.
We will discuss epic tradition in the Renaissance when we
study Shakespeare and Milton. The best known examples of English epic in the
Renaissance include Edmund Spenser's The Faerie Queene, and John
Milton's Paradise Lost. Epic tradition was particularly strong in
Renaissance Italy where followers of Virgil included Dante, The Divine
Comedy, Ariosto, Orlando Furioso, and Tasso, Jerusalem
web sites of note
impersonators (sample sounds of Homeric song)
comedy routine (from A Prairie Home Companion)
Greek mythology and
the Homeric Hymns and Homeric fragments (texts)
Diotima: women and
gender in the ancient world
history from Homer to Alexander
Library at Alexandria
Chat about Homer
of Homer criticism
- Austin, Norman, At the Dark of the Moon (Berkeley/LA: U. Cal
- Bloom, Harold (ed.), Homer's The Iliad (NY Chelsea House
1987) [Modern Critical Interpretations].
- Bloom, Harold (ed.), Homer's The Odyssey (NY Chelsea House
1987) [Modern Critical Interpretations].
- Clarke, Howard W., The Art of the Odyssey (Englewood Cliffs,
NJ: Prentice Hall 1967).
- Clay, Jenny, The Wrath of Athena: Gods and Men in the Odyssey (Princeton
- Edwards, Mark, Homer, Poet of the Iliad (Baltimore: Johns
Hopkins 1987) paper
- Finley, M. I., The World of Odysseus 2nd ed. (Chatto 1977)
- Griffin, Jasper, Homer (NY Oxford 1980) paper.
- Hainsworth, J. B., Homer (Oxford: Clarendon Press 1969).
- Hogan, James, A Guide to the Iliad (Doubleday Anchor 1979).
- King, Katherine Callen, Achilles: Paradigms of the War Hero from
Homer to the Middle Ages (LA: U. Calif. 1987) paper
- Kirk, Geoffrey, Homer and the Epic (1965).
- Lamberton, Robert, Homer the Theologian: Neoplatonist Allegorical
Reading and the Growth of the Epic Tradition (LA: U. Calif. 1986)
- Nagy, Gregory, The Best of the Achaeans: Concepts of the Hero in
Archaic Greek Poetry (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins 1979).
- Nardo, Don (ed.), Greek Drama (San Diego: Greenhaven, 2000).
- Page, Denys, The Homeric Odyssey (Oxford: Clarendon Press
- Peradotto, John, Man in the Middle Voice: Name and Narration in
the Odyssey (Princeton: Princeton U P 1990).
- Tracy, Stephen V., The Story of the Odyssey (Princeton:
Princeton U P 1990). paper
- Wace, Alan J. B. and Frank H. Stubbings, A Companion to Homer (NY:
- Whitman, Cedric H., Homer and the Heroic Tradition (NY Norton
1965; Cambridge Mass: Harvard UP 1958).
- Wood, Michael, In Search of the Trojan War (NY: New American
Library 1985) paper [Library: DF 221 .T8W66]
- lots more at http://www.stoa.org/diotima/biblio.shtml