An epic poem, or simply an epic, is a lengthy narrative poem typically about the extraordinary deeds of extraordinary characters who, in dealings with gods or other superhuman forces, gave shape to the mortal universe for their descendants.
The English word epic comes from Latinepicus, which itself comes from the Ancient Greek adjective ἐπικός (epikos), from ἔπος (epos),
"word, story, poem."
In ancient Greek, 'epic' could refer to all poetry in dactylic hexameter (epea), which included not only Homer but also the wisdom poetry of Hesiod, the utterances of the Delphic oracle, and the strange theological verses attributed to Orpheus. Later tradition, however, has restricted the term 'epic' to heroic epic, as described in this article.
Originating before the invention of writing, primary epics, such as those of Homer, were composed by bards who used complex rhetorical and metrical schemes by which they could memorize the epic as received in tradition and add to the epic in their performances. Later writers like Virgil, Apollonius of Rhodes, Dante, Camões, and Milton adopted and adapted Homer's style and subject matter, but used devices available only to those who write.
The oldest epic recognized is the Epic of Gilgamesh (c. 2500–1300 BCE), which was recorded in ancient Sumer during the Neo-Sumerian Empire. The poem details the exploits of Gilgamesh, the king of Uruk. Although recognized as a historical figure, Gilgamesh, as represented in the epic, is a largely legendary or mythical figure.
The longest epic written is the ancient Indian Mahabharata (c. 3rd century BC–3rd century AD), which consists of 100,000 ślokas or over 200,000 verse lines (each shloka is a couplet), as well as long prose passages, so that at ~1.8 million words it is roughly twice the length of Shahnameh, four times the length of the Rāmāyaṇa, and roughly ten times the length of the Iliad and the Odyssey combined.
The first epics were products of preliteratesocieties and oral history poetic traditions.Oral tradition was used alongside written scriptures to communicate and facilitate the spread of culture.
In these traditions, poetry is transmitted to the audience and from performer to performer by purely oral means. Early 20th-century study of living oral epic traditions in the Balkans by Milman Parry and Albert Lord demonstrated the paratactic model used for composing these poems. What they demonstrated was that oral epics tend to be constructed in short episodes, each of equal status, interest and importance. This facilitates memorization, as the poet is recalling each episode in turn and using the completed episodes to recreate the entire epic as he performs it. Parry and Lord also contend that the most likely source for written texts of the epics of Homer was dictation from an oral performance.
Milman Parry and Albert Lord have argued that the Homeric epics, the earliest works of Western literature, were fundamentally an oral poetic form. These works form the basis of the epic genre in Western literature. Nearly all of Western epic (including Virgil's Aeneid and Dante's Divine Comedy) self-consciously presents itself as a continuation of the tradition begun by these poems.
In his work Poetics, Aristotle defines an epic as one of the forms of poetry, contrasted with lyric poetry and with drama in the form of tragedy and comedy.
Epic poetry agrees with Tragedy in so far as it is an imitation in verse of characters of a higher type. They differ in that Epic poetry admits but one kind of meter and is narrative in form. They differ, again, in their length: for Tragedy endeavors, as far as possible, to confine itself to a single revolution of the sun, or but slightly to exceed this limit, whereas the Epic action has no limits of time. This, then, is a second point of difference; though at first the same freedom was admitted in Tragedy as in Epic poetry.
Of their constituent parts some are common to both, some peculiar to Tragedy: whoever, therefore knows what is good or bad Tragedy, knows also about Epic poetry. All the elements of an Epic poem are found in Tragedy, but the elements of a Tragedy are not all found in the Epic poem. – Aristotle, Poetics Part V
Harmon & Holman (1999) define an epic:
A long narrative poem in elevated style presenting characters of high position in adventures forming an organic whole through their relation to a central heroic figure and through their development of episodes important to the history of a nation or race.
The hero generally participates in a cyclical journey or quest, faces adversaries that try to defeat him in his journey and returns home significantly transformed by his journey. The epic hero illustrates traits, performs deeds, and exemplifies certain morals that are valued by the society the epic originates from. Many epic heroes are recurring characters in the legends of their native cultures.
Classical epic poetry recounts a journey, either physical (as typified by Odysseus in the Odyssey) or mental (as typified by Achilles in the Iliad) or both. Epics also tend to highlight cultural norms and to define or call into question cultural values, particularly as they pertain to heroism.
These conventions are largely restricted to European classical culture and its imitators. The Epic of Gilgamesh, for example, or the Bhagavata Purana do not contain such elements, nor do early medieval Western epics that are not strongly shaped by the classical traditions, such as the Chanson de Roland or the Poem of the Cid.
Narrative opens "in the middle of things", with the hero at his lowest point. Usually flashbacks show earlier portions of the story. For example, the Iliad does not tell the entire story of the Trojan War, starting with the judgment of Paris, but instead opens abruptly on the rage of Achilles and its immediate causes. So too, Orlando Furioso is not a complete biography of Roland, but picks up from the plot of Orlando Innamorato, which in turn presupposes a knowledge of the romance and oral traditions.
Epic catalogues and genealogies are given, called enumeratio. These long lists of objects, places, and people place the finite action of the epic within a broader, universal context, such as the catalog of ships. Often, the poet is also paying homage to the ancestors of audience members. Examples:
Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita (A) mi ritrovai per una selva oscura (B) ché la diritta via era smarrita. (A)
Ahi quanto a dir qual era è cosa dura (B) esta selva selvaggia e aspra e forte (C) che nel pensier rinnova la paura! (B)
In ottava rima, each stanza consists of three alternate rhymes and one double rhyme, following the ABABABCC rhyme scheme. Example:
Canto l’arme pietose, e 'l Capitano
Che 'l gran sepolcro liberò di Cristo.
Molto egli oprò col senno e con la mano;
Molto soffrì nel glorioso acquisto:
E invan l’Inferno a lui s’oppose; e invano
s’armò d’Asia e di Libia il popol misto:
Chè 'l Ciel gli diè favore, e sotto ai santi
Segni ridusse i suoi compagni erranti.
The sacred armies, and the godly knight,
That the great sepulchre of Christ did free,
I sing; much wrought his valor and foresight,
And in that glorious war much suffered he;
In vain 'gainst him did Hell oppose her might,
In vain the Turks and Morians armèd be:
His soldiers wild, to brawls and mutines prest,
Reducèd he to peace, so Heaven him blest.
Long poetic narratives that do not fit the traditional European definition of the heroic epic are sometimes known as folk epics. Indian folk epics have been investigated by Lauri Honko (1998), Brenda Beck (1982)  and John Smith, amongst others. Folk epics are an important part of community identities. For example, in Egypt, the folk genre known as al-sira relates the saga of the Hilālī tribe and their migrations across the Middle East and north Africa, see Bridget Connelly (1986). In India, folk epics reflect the caste system of Indian society and the life of the lower levels of society, such as cobblers and shepherds, see C.N. Ramachandran, “Ambivalence and Angst: A Note on Indian folk epics,” in Lauri Honko (2002. p. 295). Some Indian oral epics feature strong women who actively pursue personal freedom in their choice of a romantic partner (Stuart, Claus, Flueckiger and Wadley, eds, 1989, p. 5). Japanese traditional performed narratives were sung by blind singers. One of the most famous, The Tale of the Heike, deals with historical wars and had a ritual function to placate the souls of the dead (Tokita 2015, p. 7). A variety of epic forms are found in Africa. Some have a linear, unified style while others have a more cyclical, episodic style (Barber 2007, p. 50). People in the rice cultivation zones of south China sang long narrative songs about the origin of rice growing, rebel heroes, and transgressive love affairs (McLaren 2022). The borderland ethnic populations of China sang heroic epics, such as the Epic of King Gesar of the Mongols, and the creation-myth epics of the Yao people of south China.
It springs from a historical incident or is otherwise based on some fact;
it turns upon the fruition of the fourfold ends and its hero is clever and noble;
By descriptions of cities, oceans, mountains, seasons and risings of the moon or the sun;
through sportings in garden or water, and festivities of drinking and love;
Through sentiments-of-love-in-separation and through marriages,
by descriptions of the birth-and-rise of princes,
and likewise through state-counsel, embassy, advance, battle, and the hero’s triumph;
Embellished; not too condensed, and pervaded all through with poetic sentiments and emotions;
with cantos none too lengthy and having agreeable metres and well-formed joints,
And in each case furnished with an ending in a different metre –
such a poem possessing good figures-of-speech wins the people’s heart and endures longer than even a kalpa.
^Battles, Paul (2014). "Toward a theory of Old English poetic genres: Epic, elegy, wisdom poetry, and the "traditional opening"". Studies in Philosophy. 111 (1): 1–34. doi:10.1353/sip.2014.0001. S2CID161613381.
Heinsdorff, Cornel (2003). Christus, Nikodemus und die Samaritanerin bei Juvencus. Mit einem Anhang zur lateinischen Evangelienvorlage. Untersuchungen zur antiken Literatur und Geschichte. Vol. 67. Berlin, DE / New York, NY. ISBN3-11-017851-6.
Jansen, Jan; Henk, J; Maier, M.J., eds. (2004). Epic Adventures: Heroic narrative in the oral performance traditions of four continents. Literatur: Forschung und Wissenschaft (in German). Vol. 3. LIT Verlag.