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The first literary achievements of most ancient cultures, strictly speaking, usually are not literary at all, because they originate in oral rather than written form. Recited in a culture without an alphabet or a system of writing (the tools with which a literate culture preserves information), oral literature emerges in verse, simply because the devices associated with poetry -- rhyme, rhythmic stress, repetition -- facilitate memory. The original function of oral literature is primarily to commemorate, and its original form is a performance, an enactment by a professional poet, a minstrel or bard (in Anglo-Saxon England, a scop; in West Africa, a griot). Thus oral poetry gives the recorded events great immediacy. Each repetition of oral poetry -- out loud, in front of an audience -- recreates its subject matter, involving the listeners as if the events described were happening anew.

Modern scholars recognize certain features common to oral poetry that often seem strange to readers. The key to all these so-called formulas is repetition, that indispensable prod to memory. In the Homeric epics, for example, long verse paragraphs recounting the details of sacrifice, the proffering of gifts, the naming of participants may be repeated almost word for word. Descriptive epithets repeatedly accompany characters' names: "the swift-footed brilliant Akhilleus" or "Hektor, breaker of horses" or "the grey-eyed goddess Athena."

Because we read these works in translation rather than hear them performed in the original language, we fail to understand how these repetitions gave the bard a second to remember his place in the narrative. If we were listeners rather than readers, we would also hear how the exact words in the repeated formulas vary according to the rhythmic requirements of the line in which they appear.

In addition to jogging the bard's memory and maintaining a musical beat, repeating these epithets provided a sense of continuity for listeners and bard alike, since the length of epic poems precluded a performance of the whole in one sitting. These oral formulaic devices, then, glued a massive narrative together, permitting feats of memory which readers in the computer age are more likely to associate with data banks than with poets.

Epic Poetry

The generic label "epic" comes from the Greek "epos," which means "word," referring to the feeling and ethical intent of the speaker rather than to form or subject matter. An epic poem tells a story of deep feeling and ethical significance. This intent may be felt in the stock epithets and traditional phrases mentioned above. To speak of "Dawn with finger tips of rose," as Homer often does, instead of saying, "the sun came up," charges the natural world with personality, suggesting its involvement in human affairs. Imbued with such perceptions, the minstrel was an indispensable member of society, and no festive gathering was complete without his song. Accompanied by a stringed instrument, the epic song was both the most popular form of entertainment in the ancient world and the repository of a people's cultural tradition and history. It is telling that the highest heroes are endowed with a talent for music; we see Achilles play his lyre when not engaged in battle, for example, much as the biblical David composes psalms as devotedly as he defeats enemies.

Epic poems start as commentaries on current events; as memories fade, subsequent generations of minstrels alter the original saga by emphasizing the values implicit in the original historical narrative, until the old story takes on a new form. Not simply a saga of past deeds, it tells a story that indirectly answers the questions, "Who are we and what do we believe?"

Of supreme importance for defining their respective cultures are a group of ancient poems, including Homer's Iliad and Odyssey and the Sanskrit Mahabharata and Ramayana, as well as a group of medieval poems, including the Old English Beowulf, the Germanic Nibelung Saga, the French Song of Roland, and the Spanish Poem of My Cid. These oral epics, recorded centuries ago, have long been acknowledged throughout the world as masterworks; only recently have the oral traditions of Africa, typified by the various versions of the epic Sundiata, become available to a reading public.

Epic and the Heroic Ideal

Most epic heroes have supernatural forces on their side, with many counting at least one god among their forefathers. Rama, the hero of the Indian epic Ramayana, is actually an incarnation of the god Vishnu, who assumes human form to save the universe from evil. Others, like the African hero Sundiata, can tap magical powers. In traditional stories such as these, palpable demons and spirits inhabit the world; yet neither parentage nor divine protection guarantees heroic stature. Ultimately, all epic heroes must prove themselves on their own.

This emphasis on self-sufficiency particularly is evident in the Homeric poems; the gods participate in both the Iliad and the Odyssey, but their influence has its limits. Homer's epics are typically Western in their tendency to relegate the forces of the supernatural to the background and bring the forces of nature to the foreground. Heroes in the Homeric tradition are the men who act despite their awareness that they are subject to death, the most implacable force of nature. Nowhere is that knowledge more immediately present than on the battlefield, and rare is the epic poem in any culture that does not define heroism at least partly as the courage to fight. Heroes distinguish themselves from the rest of us by using their energy to defend what they hold dear in the face of death; the point is not so much to avoid death as it is to die well. The English word "hero" comes from the Greek; indeed, the Iliad has been central to the development of the heroic ideal in Western culture.

More than the story of the wrath of Achilles, the poem is also an anthology of heroic episodes, each devoted to the aristeia (the brilliant achievements in battle) of one hero after another. The root aristo-, which means "the best" or "excellence," reminds us that the original definition of heroism assumed an aristocracy. Hardly ever in this poem about armies at war do we look at the feelings or sufferings of those whom we would call enlisted men, not officers. Aristocrats have aristeias: class status was considered a prerequisite to heroic action as it was achieved in Homer's world. This Greek will to be the best also surfaces in the athletic rituals (the same races and contests that today remain the core of Olympic competition) that, to some readers' surprise, mark the many funerals described in Homer's poems. This intense competitiveness, of course, is not the only component of heroism. Different cultures spawn different heroic ideals, and even the Homeric tradition recognizes a wide range of heroic styles. Achilles and Odysseus, the two main Homeric heroes, embody completely opposite conceptions of heroism. Yet Odysseus fights in the Trojan War and, whatever his own personal preferences, seems to subscribe to the same martial ethic that moves all the participants in the war.

Because Achilles and Odysseus have such specific and powerful personalities, their very individuality obscures the basic beliefs about heroic behavior. Such beliefs probably are articulated best in the Iliad by two relatively minor characters, Sarpedon and Glaucus, who fight on the side of the Trojans. In the following speech, delivered by Sarpedon after he and his companion Glaucus breach the wall built by the Greeks to protect their ships, he explains why heroes expose themselves to the terrors of war:

"Glaukus (2), why is it you and I are honoured before others
with pride of place, the choice meats and the filled wine
cups in Lykia, and all men look on us as if we were immortals,
and we are appointed a great piece of land by the banks of Xanthos,
good land, orchard and vineyard, and ploughland for the planting of wheat?
Therefore it is our duty in the forefront of the Lykians
to take our stand, and bear our part of the blazing battle,
so that a man of the close-armoured Lykians may say of us:
'Indeed, these are no ignoble men who are lords of Lykia,
these kings of ours, who feed upon the fat sheep appointed
and drink the exquisite sweet wine, since indeed there is strength
of valour in them, since they fight in the forefront of the Lykians.'
Man, supposing you and I, escaping this battle,
would be able to live on forever, ageless, immortal,
so neither would I myself go on fighting in the foremost
nor would I urge you into the fighting where men win glory.
But now, seeing that the spirits of death stand close about us
in their thousands, no man can turn aside nor escape them,
let us go on and win glory for ourselves, or yield it to others."
                                                                           (Trans. Richmond Lattimore, Iliad, XII.310-28)

This speech offers partial answers to the questions, "Who are we and what do we believe?" Indeed, it contains two different justifications for heroic behavior, one based on a sense of social obligation and the other on a more fatalistic understanding that glory is achieved only through death. A modern reader might want to examine these ideas in a critical spirit: do we believe in heroism of this kind today? What have been the consequences of the quest for glory that the Iliad celebrates?

The Conventions of European Epic

The Iliad and the Odyssey, called "primary" epics because they first established a way of narrating long stories, dominated the literate production of the "secondary" epics written by Homer's successors. Thus the formulaic repetitions necessary to the oral poet were adopted by the first-century Roman Virgil, the seventeenth-century Englishman John Milton, and scores of other writers who so admired Homer's work that they borrowed many of its most prominent features, features essential to oral poetry but of little consequence to written verse.

Each literary genre develops strategies, called conventions, for recording and commenting on human experience. Oral formulaic devices are conventional strategies for dealing with the special challenge of performing a long narrative from memory. Other Homeric conventions echoed by later epic poets also betray their oral origins, but as responses to challenges common to all artists, these conventions have survived the special conditions of oral composition. Two of the most familiar conventions of European epic address problems central to the creative process: what is the source of the artist's inspiration? and how can the import of the artist's subject be communicated?

Invoking the Muse

We have all probably experienced that wonderful moment when an idea seems to spring from nowhere. In beginning the Iliad and the Odyssey, Homer asks a goddess, the Muse, to sing of his subject, implying that his voice serves merely as a instrument for knowledge channeled through him. The ideas are not his, the invocations indicate, but neither do they appear out of nowhere. For the Greeks, the source of inspiration was conventionally ascribed to the Muse.

Homer's great contemporary, Hesiod, gives the fullest description of the nature of the Muse in the Theogony, "the origin of the gods." According to Hesiod, there were nine muses, daughters of Zeus, the chief god, and the less important Mnemosyne, the goddess of memory. (The English word for a code that helps us remember something, like "i before e except after c" is a mnemonic device, after Mnemosyne.) Greek poets traditionally began by calling on--invoking--the appropriate muse to help them with their formidable task of oral recitation. Each of the nine muses oversaw a particular form of artistic expression, including dance, tragedy, history, lyric, and epic, a list that indicates the importance of these forms for the culture of ancient Greece. (The English word "museum" means a temple of the muses, a place celebrating the arts they inspired.) The poet's need for introductory self-justification in a way resembles Sarpedon's: poetry, like heroism, matters in this world.

Epic Similes

Once the bard launched his subject, like every artist in whatever medium, he had to worry about making his subject intelligible to his audience. One device that almost all poets rely on is comparison, most familiar in two central tools of literature, simile, which compares two items explicitly (using the connective words "like" or "as"), and metaphor, which omits the explicit comparison. In Homeric epic, the basic comparative figure of speech is the large-scaled epic simile. Metaphors and similes deepen the reader's understanding of their primary subject by comparing it to something else. Often the comparisons themselves are of such interest that they take on an independent life; the epic simile, for instance, expands the scope of the poem by establishing contact with another world. The Iliad, a poem about wrath and its violent consequences on the field of battle, habitually stops to remind the audience of a natural landscape which continues to exist in a timeless realm, untouched by human passions. To describe the force of men fighting each other, for example, Homer uses this construction: "As when rivers. . . running down from the mountains throw together the weight of their water. . . , such, from the coming together of men, was the shock and the shouting" (Iliad IV.452-456). For a moment, the rivers and their powerful weight divert our attention, reminding us of the natural scene that dwarfs human problems.

Reading Within a Literary Tradition

Writers of secondary epics continued to evoke the natural landscape incorporated in Homer's epic similes in their own, and in the process transformed the nature of these figures of speech. Because the comparisons they drew referred more to Homer than to the world their audiences knew, the function of their similes subtly shifted. Rather than modestly serving to facilitate audience understanding by comparing x with y, the similes of secondary epic complicate the task of understanding. Readers who do not recognize the Homeric ancestor of a simile will miss some of its impact, although they still have the benefit of an extended comparison to help them understand the subject of the simile.

Hundreds of examples in the major European languages might be offered here to illustrate the way a tradition is built; we will look at three versions of a comparison initiated in the second book of the Iliad when their leader summons the Greek troops to test their willingness to continue fighting. In the following simile, we watch from an elevated perspective as the fighters assemble. Seen from above, the warriors do not seem so mighty; instead, they are like bees.

Like the swarms of clustering bees that issue forever
in fresh bursts from the hollow in the stone, and hang like
bunched grapes as they hover beneath the flowers in springtime
fluttering in swarms together this way and that way,
so the many nations of men from the ships and the shelters
along the front of the deep sea beach marched in order
by companies to the assembly, and Rumour walked blazing among them,
Zeus' messenger, to hasten them along.
                                        (Trans. Richmond Lattimore, Iliad, II.87-93)

Let us analyze this as a model of figurative language: why does the poet not simply say, "the troops assembled," and then get on with the story? The simile shows, without preaching, that members of a group lose their individual qualities and become a mass. Here, at least, they do not become a mob, because the connotations of the comparison are so positive: we generally approve of springtime and grapes, and the "fluttering" motion attributed to the warriors by the translator makes them seem light, even gentle and, oddly enough for bees, inoffensive. Then we are told that Rumor is pushing the warriors, or, as we might say, they are gossiping, eager to learn why they have been called to a meeting. With the personified figure impelling the warriors' movement, the simile heightens the impression of the impersonality of the troops. What we have, then, is a group of fighters, pushing forward to find out what is happening. The comparison of men to bees gives us a vivid picture while it reminds us of a certain loss of humanity in mass action.

Apparently impressed by this simile, Virgil consciously echoed it in the Aeneid, when the invisible Aeneas looks down on the workers of Carthage building their city.

They are like bees
In early summer over the country flowers
When the sun is warm, and the young of the hive emerge,
And they pack the molten honey, bulge the cells
With the sweet nectar, add new loads, and harry
The drones away from the hive, and the work glows,
And the air is sweet with bergamot and clover.
"Happy the men whose walls already rise!"
Exclaims Aeneas, gazing on the city,
And enters there, still veiled in cloud--a marvel!--
And walks among the people, and no one sees him.
                            (Trans. Rolfe Humphries, Aeneid, Book I.447-57)






The changes introduced here might be seen as an index of the difference between the Homeric and the Virgilian epic. In place of warriors, we have builders; in place of an anonymous viewer, we have Aeneas himself, the hero of the poem, looking down on the bee-like movements below. The description of the bees themselves has been expanded, so the connotations of the simile proliferate: these bees are no aimless, fluttering swarm, but rather efficient and productive workers. The weather is still beautiful and the air itself smells wonderful, but it is the bees' activity, rather than the random operation of nature, that stimulates the odors to emerge. Everything about Virgil's simile demonstrates a sense of purpose, the kind of purpose Aeneas will need to build his city, Rome. Significantly, Aeneas himself fulfills the role played by the anonymous figure of Rumor, walking among the people; still invisible, however, he moves among them in order to observe their work more closely, not to push them on. He is more involved yet less powerful than the equivalent figures in Homer's simile.

Seventeen hundred years later, John Milton remembered both similes when he wrote Paradise Lost. In his version of the simile, the bee-like figures are rebellious angels thrown out of heaven before the creation of man. Both warriors, like Homer's Greeks, and builders, like Virgil's Carthaginians, Milton's figures are building hell:

As bees
In spring time, when the sun with Taurus rides,
Pour forth their populous youth about the hive
In clusters; they among fresh dews and flowers
Fly to and fro, or on the smoothed plank,
The suburb of their straw-built citadel,
New rubbed with balm, expatiate and confer
Their state affairs. So thick the airy crowd
Swarmed and were straitened; till the signal given,
Behold a wonder! they but now who seemed
In bigness to surpass Earth's giant sons,
Now less than smallest dwarfs, in narrow room
Throng numberless . . .
                                  (Paradise Lost, I.768-80)

Milton's bees display even more purposefulness than Virgil's; not only do they build, they also plan. Nevertheless, this version of the simile diminishes its subject. Homer compares warriors to bees to emphasize their swarming solidarity; Virgil compares workers to bees to emphasize their busy-ness. But Milton is writing a Christian epic about the fall of man, and he adapts the classical simile to make a moral comment on the pettiness of the fallen angels. The development of the simile in Paradise Lost also reveals the poem's essentially modern, urban context: these devil-bees, like greedy developers turning open land into a suburban shopping mall, have cooperated in an unethical enterprise that ends with their crowding into a space too small for any free exercise of motion. Like Virgil, Milton has added an ideological agenda to Homer's simple figure of speech.

This way of reading closely, watching for subtle nuances of language, is the product of a literate culture. The Homeric simile strives to make its listening audience see; the Virgilian and Miltonic similes want to make their reading audiences think, not only about their subjects who may be compared to bees, but also about the poems' relation to the Homeric original as well. Over the centuries, Homer's poems acquired so much authority that later writers purposely draw their readers' attention to their own right to be judged in the same terms as those used to judge the great original. When we study texts within a literary tradition, one of the basic aims is to discover how each writer's deliberate references to earlier works add to a text's range of meanings. Thus epic poems, which emerge from history, have complex histories themselves.


1. Homer was supposedly blind; in one of the Greek dialects, the word homerous means blind. That may signify thet "Homer" was not literate, rather than that he could not see.

2. Differing versions of Greek names appear in this text because some translators prefer Latinate forms, using the letters c or e, for example, where others choose k or i. No attempt has beeen made to normalize these and other such differences.