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In this lesson, you will explore the themes and characters of two of the greatest works of Western literature: the ”Iliad” and the ”Odyssey”. Then, test your understanding with a brief quiz.

Epic

What does it mean for something to be epic? Something that is incredible, legendary, or completely awesome.

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Even an epic fail, while disastrous, is notable for the scale and totality of the failure.However, an epic can also refer to a form of literature. Epic literature is defined by a story about a larger-than-life hero on a journey involving mighty deeds, written in poetic verse and generally extremely lengthy. Epics are the oldest form of literature in the Western world, probably evolving from an oral tradition of storytelling.The first epic stories were the Iliad and the Odyssey, both attributed to the blind poet Homer in the 8th century BC.

These stories describe events of the Greek Bronze Age, during which many foundations of Greek culture were first established. The Iliad and the Odyssey blend events from Greek history, mythology, and culture that reveal the unique worldview of this ancient civilization. They are full of morals about human emotions, and things like vanity, pride, lust, and dishonor continually reappear, always to the detriment of the hero.

Iliad

The Iliad is the first of the two books, taking place during the final weeks of the Trojan War, a major period of warfare between several of the powerful Greek cities.

The most notable combatants were the city of Mycenae, led by Agamemnon, and the city Troy, governed by Hector. You don’t really need to know the whole background of this war, but suffice it to say that it was caused by human emotions. People act out of vanity, pride, and lust, and the result is a major war that splits the Greek world. There’s a pretty clear message here that these actions have negative consequences.As the story begins, the Greek armies are heading towards a final, major battle resulting from the interference of the gods at the request of each city. Key to this is Achilles, a half-divine hero who is the greatest warrior in the world, and who is obsessed with proving his status as a hero. Achilles has to immortalize his name as a great warrior because he is mortal, despite the efforts of his immortal mother to give him eternal life.

Achilles’ mother, a nymph, dipped him in sacred water as a baby, making every part of his body impenetrable except his heel, where she held him. Although originally he fought for Menelaus, the brother of Agamemnon, Achilles is offended by the king and leaves, asking Zeus to bring the battle to a tipping point so that Menelaus will realize just how much he needs Achilles.With that, the Trojan War reaches a major moment as the armies prepare to fight.

There are several major battles, with each side being aided by the gods, and eventually Hector kills Achilles’ close friend, Patroclus. Achilles rejoins the war, not for Menelaus but out of grief for his friend, and with armor from the gods, he kills Hector.As this happens, the gods are also fighting amongst themselves about the fate of humanity. Achilles refuses to give the Trojans the body of their king, preventing them from burying it, until Hector’s father sneaks into Achilles’ tent and begs him for the body. He and Achilles share a meal and together mourn the people they lost during this war.

Hector’s body is returned to Troy and buried. Although the story ends there, it also contains foreboding prophesies, including the fall of Troy and the inevitable death of Achilles. These events are never described in either the Odyssey or the Iliad, except vaguely in passing. It seems likely that ancient Greek readers were expected to already know what happens, probably because the Trojan War was a major moment in Greek history.

The Odyssey

As far as Homer was concerned, the story did not end there.

The second great epic poem attributed to Homer is the Odyssey, which follows the character Odysseus on his journey home from the Trojan War. Some have described the Odyssey as the sequel of the Iliad, but it’s more of a spin-off, like when a character from a popular sitcom gets his own show.Odysseus was a prominent leader from Ithaca, a major player in the war and in the Iliad, and is trying to make it back to his wife and family.

A major theme of the Odyssey is pride, or hubris. Odysseus is often prideful, which constantly results in him offending the gods and them preventing him from making it home. In all, it takes Odysseus ten years to complete a journey that should take months.In the story, Odysseus makes enemies with the god of the sea, Poseidon, after Odysseus blinds Poseidon’s son, the Cyclops Polyphermus. Poseidon curses Odysseus to sail for ten years, during which he will lose his men and only return home with the help of others. After landing on a series of islands filled with monsters and gods, Odysseus loses all of his men and ends up captive of the nymph Calypso for seven years.

He finally convinces her to let him leave, upon which Poseidon wrecks Odysseus’ raft, and the adventurer is forced to swim to the nearest island, meeting the Phaeacian people, who listen to his story and take him home. Odysseus learns that his wife thinks he’s dead and that his house is full of suitors trying to claim her hand. Odysseus sneaks in, disguised as a beggar, and participates in an archery competition to win the hand of his own wife. Odysseus wins and promptly kills all the suitors, restoring peace to his family and his land.

Lesson Summary

The oldest style of literature in the Western world is epic poetry, stories about a hero on an incredible journey written in poetic verse and which are extremely long. The oldest epic poems, and therefore the oldest pieces of Western literature, are the Iliad and the Odyssey, attributed to the Greek poet Homer. In these two poems, mythology and history intersect as gods and monsters interfere in the affairs of humans.

The Iliad is centered around the Trojan War, notably the death of the Trojan king Hector. Hector is killed by the semi-divine Achilles, a great warrior obsessed with developing an immortal reputation. The Odyssey takes place after the Trojan War and follows the character Odysseus as he attempts to travel home. After making enemies with the god of the sea, Poseidon, this journey takes him ten years and costs the life of all his men. These stories are full of themes about human emotions, and the dangers of vanity, pride, lust, and dishonor, which result in setbacks and disasters for the characters.

Still, even these setbacks are legendary in size and scale, making these stories incredibly awesome. In other words, epic.

Learning Outcomes

After you have finished this lesson, you should be able to:

  • Describe epic poetry
  • Name the author of the Iliad and the Odyssey
  • Summarize the stories of both epic tales

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