Characteristics of an Epic

1. Characters are beings of national importance and historical or legendary significance.

Odysseus takes on a larger-than-life quality in the story.  These are not the deeds of a normal man.

2. The setting is grand in scope, covering nations, the world, or even the universe.

The Odyssey is a journey that involves a large number of places and nations.  Odyseeus, himself a prince, must concern himself with the suitors of other great houses once he returns home.

3. Action consists of deeds of great valor and courage.

For example, Odysseus must again and again prove his ability to fight his way out of trouble, to cunningly use words, and to bravely face extreme odds.  Both his wanderings and his return home to face the suitors are deeds of valor and courage.

4. Style is sustained in tone and language.

Read the initial conversation between Zeus and Athena.  The conversation has a high tone and depth of detail that give it a gravity even when involving petty matters.

5. Supernatural forces interest themselves in human action and often intervene directly.

Several of the gods are involved in Odysseus' wanderings: Hera and Poseidon keep Odysseus from returning home for several years, Zeua and Hermes at points come to Odysseus' rescue, and Athena especially interests herself in every stage of Odyseeus' journey home.

The following are often (but not always) present:

1. An invocation to the Muse for inspiration in the telling of a story.

Each of the following examples shows us a poet who requests divine help in portraying the epic story he has to tell:

  • Iliad (A) – 1.1-9
  • Odyssey (A) –1.1-31
  • Aeneid (A) –1.1-16
  • Paradise Lost (C) –1.1-25 (Note this Christian example. Here, Milton's invocation is to the Holy Spirit.)

2. Epics tend to start in medias res. "In the middle of the action."

The Odyssey begins near the end of Odysseus' journey, which began with his ships' flight from the shores of Troy. The events that set his wanderings in motion become clear as the story progresses.

3. Epic catalogues list warriors, armies, etc.

Look at the following examples (8.115-125--a list of participants in the games) and (11.241-364--a catalog of beautiful women of the past ).

4. Dialogues tend to be extended, formal speeches.

Look at the extensive speeches between Odysseus and Alkinoos in books seven and eight.

5. Epic similes are frequent.

epic simile: "a long, grand comparison which is so vivid that it temporarily displaces the object to which it is compared.



"All manner of thing shall be well/ When the tongues of flame are in-folded/ Into the crowned knot of fire/ And the fire and the rose are one." -- T.S. Eliot, Little Gidding