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EPICS are extended narrative poems that establish for their hearers and/or readers a particular universe of the imagination by means of cosmogonic and sacrificial mythologies, chronicles of kings and nobles, religious and philosophical teachings, and, above all, the heroic exploits of a past age. Where a living oral tradition persists, this bygone age of gods, goddesses, and heroes may be reactualized and experienced anew each time an epic is recited or sung and performed in ritual, festival, or secular contexts. The capacity of an oral epic to change is definitive, for it is continually re-created by singers, actors, audiences, and environments, and the sequence and length of its episodes remain fluid. By contrast, epics that have passed from oral to written poetry or heightened prose with no surviving performance traditions, and epics such as Vergil's Aeneid that were first composed in writing, have become records of particular worldviews, histories, and religious attitudes that now are modified only by various interpretations of them.

Because they are indeed "epic" in scope, there is scarcely a dimension of human experience that may be excluded from these versified repositories. The Sanskrit Mahābhārata, longest of oral-literary epics with its 100,000 verses in eighteen books, serves as a vast library of mythology, folklore, religion, and philosophy, compiled from oral traditions during a period of eight centuries in the formative age of classical Hinduism. Major narrative portions are still recited in Sanskrit all over India, and various regions have vernacular versions, as is the case also with the other great Sanskrit epic, the Rāmāyana. In the nearly sixty thousand verses of the Persian Shāh-nāmah, the poet Firdawsi, working from older sources, undertook nothing less than the history of Iran from creation to the Arab conquest in the seventh century. The effort required thirty-five years, but one poet produced the Persian national epic. Even the shortest of epics, folk or classical, oral or literary, suspends in its episodes the details of a worldview. A worldview may be articulated directly or obliquely, within the context of individual heroic quests or in the intricate relations of a diverse range of characters and subcultures, in a close-knit set of episodes and locales or on a heterogeneous scale that spans generations of time and worlds of space. Some epics speak directly from living religious traditions, although the faith of contemporary singers and audiences may vary markedly from that of distant epic origins. Other epics are cryptic memorials or vague signposts to religious traditions only dimly apprehended in their narratives, as is the case with suspected Anatolian expressions fossilized, but still undeciphered, in the linguistic, folkloric, and symbolic strata of Homer's Iliad.

Oral epics emergent to literary forms have almost everywhere been influenced and more or less reshaped by new religions, as well as by new literary tastes and conventions. Certain themes in ancient India persisted in oral form side by side with, but unrepresented in, the thousand-year textual production of Vedic religion, then surfaced in classical Sanskrit and Tamil epics, where they were given structure and redefinition by sectarian Hinduism. Similarly, mythic themes of Iran's ancient heritage, disguised by the monotheistic reforms of Zoroaster, found new expression in the epic of Firdawsi and other Persian narrative poetry, although this time within an Islamic ethos. And as Christian tradition rides lightly on the surface of the ancient heroic mythology preserved in Beowulf, so too does Muslim tradition appear only marginally in the Mandingo (Malinke) epic Sundiata of the Mali Empire.

Some epics, such as the vast Kirghiz cycle known as Manas, declare mythicized history, while others, such as the Aeneid, display cores that are historicized myths. But almost every epic immerses its hearers and readers in the largest of human questions: human nature and its destiny; the structure of society with its hierarchies and tensions; the character of supernatural beings and powers, of gods, goddesses, demons, and of the proper human response to each of them in ritual, devotion, propitiation, or defiance; the problems of evil and good, insurrection and authority, guilt and innocence, cowardice and valor, suffering and reward. Because epics are frequently dramas of great migrations and violent conflicts in the divine and human worlds, questions of theology and history, eschatology and fate, death, regeneration, and salvation are often posed in the context of cosmic warfare (the Akkadian epic Enuma elish ), or cultural confrontations (the Iliad ), or dynastic strife (the Japanese Heike monogatari ), or a melding of all of these, as in the Mahābhārata, where the complex destinies of the heroes are assumed into the sacrifice and regeneration of the cosmos itself.

The great majority of known epics, whether oral in composition, oral-literary, or solely literary, have been heroic ones. They are dominated by heroes (rarely heroines) whose actions and fates not only dramatize particular human emotions, predicaments, and responses, but whose destinies reinforce essential religious statements and paradigms. Among these paradigms are certain roles of the hero as shaman, sorcerer, or warrior (or combinations of these); certain concepts of space, order, time, and deity; as well as all-important expressions of the meaning of death and salvation.

Shamans and Journeys of the Soul

The hero as shaman-sorcerer and the religious significance of the journey of the soul are well known in the oral epics of northern and central Asia and appear in such diverse characters as Grandfather Qorqut in the oldest epic of the Oghuz Turks, the Kitabi Dedem Qorqut; Volkh or Vseslav in the epic song form known to Russian singers as starina (bylina); and Gesar in the Tibetan epic that bears his name. The sage Väinämöinen journeys as a serpent to Tuonela, the netherworld, and this magical transformation in a northern Eurasian shamanic episode survives into the late compilation of the Finnish national epic, the Kalevala.

Several scholars have noted that sources of epic poetry may in part be sought in the narratives of shamanic visions, ecstatic journeys, and initiatory ordeals. As Mircea Eliade has shown in The History of Religious Ideas (vol. 1, Chicago, 1978, p. 80), Gilgamesh undergoes several ordeals of an initiatory type, and the Epic of Gilgamesh, "the first masterpiece of universal literature," may be understood from one perspective as the dramatization of a failed initiation. His journey to the bottom of the sea to find the plant that restores youth, a plant he then loses to a serpent in the discovery of his mortal destiny, has numerous parallels in other epics in which heroes learn of their fates in descents to the underworld and combats with chthonic powers, or in magical flights to celestial realms. The popularity of such motifs in the epic genre has carried them far from the traditional loci of Asian shamanism.

Despite reworking in the direction of medieval romance conventions, the Germanic epic Nibelungenlied retains such a quest in narratives of Siegfried, better known as a warrior-hero, and one with older analogues in the Scandinavian Eddas and sagas. Siegfried journeys to the land of the Nibelungen and there discovers the sword and treasure that, like Gilgamesh's plant, hold not immortality but his fate. He also gains a magic cape, as well as invulnerability, from bathing in the blood of the dragon he has dispatched in combat. And in one of South India's great store of living folk epics, the Telugu Epic of Palnāu, a performance tradition eight centuries old, continues to dramatize with a mélange of shamanic motifs the heroes' prescient skills, their ascents by magical beasts, cosmic trees, or turbans; initiatory dismemberment and reconstitution by healing; descent to the underworld; combat with monsters; trance states; nurturance by and guises as animals. These motifs in the Palnāu and certain other South Asian and Southeast Asian oral epics and songs are all the more arresting in the context of contemporary performances in which individuals emulating the heroes undergo spirit possession and séances of self-immolation and regeneration. In a word, their ancient heroes, in roles as either shaman-redeemers or warriors, are alive today in ritualized epic time.

Warriors and Decisive Battles

More common in epic narrative than the high calling of the shaman who journeys to the other world and establishes defenses against demons, diseases, and death is the role of warrior in this world, often a hero of "outsiderhood" who must overcome great odds to gain or regain a heritage or position denied him or stolen from him. Strength, courage, and personal honor are his major assets. While the resourceful shamanic hero engages in fabulous struggles with death, the warrior hero stands up to its blood-red realities. At times the warrior seems to be locked in combat with himself as well as designated demons and enemies. This-worldly aspirations, the ambiguities of his morals and actions, limitations placed upon him by nature, fate, divine or human treachery, all balance out his superhuman traits and heroic pedigree (semidivine or miraculous birth, surrogate parenting by animals, discovery by shepherds or fisherfolk, precocious skills and strengths), and render him more accessible to the epic audience. There is a recognizable trajectory to his career after his astonishing youth, including confrontation with established authority, exile, return and conquest, heroic status, frequently an early death, and apotheosis. The popularity of the cult that succeeds this life cycle proves the value of his tragic death and the repeated singing of it.

It is sometimes stated that violent cultural changes and social upheavals attendant upon warfare and great migrations were productive of epic themes in a "heroic age." The history of China, however, as turbulent and war-scarred as that of any long, cumulative civilization, produced no surviving epic tradition, and only a few lines of the classic Shi jing (Book of poetry) recall the exploits of heroic ancestors. By contrast, a brief period of epics in the thirteenth century emerged directly from the brutal succession of wars that devastated early medieval Japan. These poetic-prose war tales (gunki monogatari ), a genre with no counterpart in Chinese literature, were composed in the same period as the chansons de geste of medieval Europe and various regional battle epics of South Asia. More important than the common factor of war may have been a particular cultural glorification of the warrior. While China gave him little recognition in a social hierarchy that established the scholar-bureaucrat above peasants, artisans, and merchants, it was the epic age of medieval Japan that produced a warrior aristocracy, the samurai, and an elaborate warrior code eventually known as Bushido.

The best known of warrior cults, and prolonged epics in which their traditions are displayed, remain the Indo-European ones, and these derive from a deep and complex mythological base. Comparative studies, in particular those of Georges Dumézil and Stig Wikander, have revealed the religious significance of a Proto-Indo-European warrior tradition. Reconstruction from mythic and epic details dispersed from Iceland to India permits a vision of the parent culture as it may have existed six or seven thousand years ago, a culture in which the warrior occupied a key median position in a three-class hierarchy between the dominant priestly-sovereign class and that great bulk of society in the third estate, the producers.

Continuities between a divine tripartite trifunctional hierarchy and this human social hierarchy allowed for homologies between gods and heroes and, later, between mythic and epic themes. The fact that both the mythic human heroes and the epic warrior heroes are narrative continuations of the mythic warrior god is significant and enables us to understand certain configurations of the Proto-Indo-European warrior cult and mythology. The warrior enters, for example, a state of intoxication or heated fury, becoming invincible like fire, or he terrorizes enemies by assuming the form of a wolf or a bear, subsequent to initiatory ordeals undergone for acceptance into the warrior society. Combat with a three-headed monster, first sacrifice, and ritualized cattle raids are a part of this myth-ritual complex, as Bruce Lincoln has demonstrated for the Proto-Indo-Iranian tradition that is the backdrop to many themes of the later epics in India and Iran.

Many important themes have moved with the currents from Indo-European mythic to epic genres and surfaced in diverse regional literatures and languages (including some non-Indo-European ones), from the twelfth-century Danish historian Saxo Grammaticus's Gesta Danorum to Russian, Rajasthani, or Tamil oral poetry. One of Dumézil's special contributions to an ongoing profile of the warrior's "destiny" has been his study of the hero's programmatically untoward behavior that leads to self-destruction. The warrior may commit three successive sins against the three functional classes: betrayal of sovereign trust, strikingly uncharacteristic acts of cowardice within his own echelon, and crimes of avarice or rape. As a consequence he suffers successive losses of his spirituality, force of arms, and beauty or form, and dies the warrior's typical early, tragic death. Another recurrent theme is a tension between two types of warrior figures, one superhuman and aristocratic, a warrior who fights with proper weapons and, ideally, a code of chivalry (Arjuna, Sigurd, Aeneas), the other a subhuman, animalistic or monstrous hero who fights brutal, solitary battles without standard weapons or code (Bhīma, Starkad, Turnus). Still another characteristic Indo-European theme is the special relationship that may develop between the warrior and a goddess or heroine-goddess. Herakles and Hera or Athena, Camillus and Matuta, Arjuna and Draupadi (Śrī) have all provided complex illustrations of this liaison.

Divine warrior heroes such as Marduk in the Akkadian epic Enuma elish, the Canaanite Baal, the Hittite Taru, Zeus of the Theogony, or Indra of the gveda are all, in their re spective single combats with Tiamat, Yamm, Illuyanka, Typhon, and Vtra, involved variously in cosmogonic acts or paradigmatic contests for celestial sovereignty. Human warrior heroes, by contrast, are most often revealed in epic action in medias res, preparing to defend a tribe or a nation in jeopardy. Such epics program their episodes toward decisive battles in which warrior heroes are driven to fulfill their destinies. Necessity becomes a standard impulse, as in Diomedes' terse proclamation in the Iliad when he and the Achaeans are backed up to the sea, their best warriors and leader Agamemnon disabled: "Let us return to the battle, wounded as we are. We must." This necessity bears the stamp of the mythic heritage: The hero, semidivine or blessed by divine guidance and the powers of order and justice, opposes an enemy, semidemonic or impelled by a hand from the powers of evil and chaos, and the tribe or nation defended represents the created world.

Spaces, Times, and Authority

The notion of founding the world anew, reestablishing world space, time, and order through the holocaust of battle, is a widespread epic theme. Numerous cycles have been labeled "national epics," for they are the songs of peoples establishing identities, legitimizing traditions of particular places and events, and carrying an authority, certified by the blood of heroes, from past to present. In the singing of the epic, episode by episode, all of the true points of the world are connected once again. As Gene Roghair has said of the people who preserve the Palnāu epic, it "is the history of their land" and "seems largely sufficient to satisfy the local need for knowledge of the past" (Roghair, 1982, p. 70). All the features of the local villages, temples, crop fields, rivers, and roads have epic associations, and a rock inscription, for example, may be ascribed to a particular Palnadu hero, or to something done, quite simply, in "that time."

The recognition of the local region or kingdom as ordered space, and local history as ultimate time, leads also to the designation of outside space and time as disordered, wild, threatening. W. T. H. Jackson has considered the inside-outside dichotomy in European epics from Homer to The Cid as a theme of paradigmatic conflict between the intruder hero as mobile, active, unpredictable outsider and challenger, and the older, established king as settled, passive, predictable insider. Achilles and Agamemnon, Beowulf and Hrothgar, Siegfried and Gunther are among his examples, to which could be added for an enriched set of subthemes Arjuna and Yudhihira, Rostam and Shāh Kāvus, the legendary Cyrus and Astyages, and others, as well as discussion of that seminal tension in Proto-Indo-European mythology between the sovereign and warrior ethos. Much of this conflict, according to Jackson, turns on the movement from an ageing king who upholds the social order to a challenger hero whose aims are personal honor and glory. What seems equally important in the structure of Indo-European epic tradition is the alliance of both ruler and heroes over against the agriculturalist-producers, and the resultant hierarchy of three ranked estates in interdependence under an ideal hero-king and divine mandate.

One of the richest themes concerning the values of space and time is that of the epic hero or heroine in exile. Banished to the wilderness or the seas, deprived of lands, family, status, and pride, the hero in exile is literally outside, in nature apart from culture. Gilgamesh as questing hero journeys outside purposefully, but the hero in exile is a wanderer. Rāma and Sītā, the Pāavas in their forest exile, and Odysseus during his nineteen years on the seas are such wanderers. The Bible, too, has been discussed in themes of exile (slavery in Egypt, the Babylonian captivity, Jesus in the wilderness or the tomb) and restoration (delivery, return, resurrection), occurring in what some have seen as a grand epic cycle of narratives moving from creation to apocalypse, and including the quest of the hero (Messiah-Christ), his early death, and apotheosis.

The importance of remembering exemplary events of the past was no doubt of central importance in the creation and preservation of epics. The compilation of the Mahābhārata was to some extent furthered by the demand for great cycles of songs in which local kings, performing Vedic royal sacrifices such as the Aśvamedha or the Rājasūya, were equated with victorious heroes and kings of past ages. Albert Lord's hypothesis that "the special, peculiar purpose of oral epic song at its origin was magical and ritual before it became heroic" (Lord, 1960, p. 66) may not be provable, but nevertheless is cogent. In many regions of Africa and Asia today, particular epics are linked to seasonal festivals such as sowing or harvesting. Others involve not cosmic but personal time, such as those performed at life-cycle rites, in which births, puberty ceremonies or initiations, marriages, and deaths become the foci for narratives culled from mirror episodes in the life cycles of epic heroes and heroines.

Deaths and Regenerations

It is India once again that provides the strongest drama of epic warfare as sacrifice, even cosmic destruction and renewal, although several sacred texts from Scandinavia and Iran also reveal the theme of final cataclysm. Behind them, as Wikander has shown, is a Proto-Indo-European eschatological myth in which the forces of evil and good confront one another in the decisive time. The Battle of Brávellir, an episode in Icelandic sagas and in Saxo's narratives, is the Scandinavian heroic parallel to the Mahābhārata eschaton.

And it is Ka in the Mahābhārata, sometimes the detached, transcendent deity Viu, beyond the tensions of battle and reconciliation, sometimes imminent counselor, involved in human time and space, who are reminders of the broad range of roles taken by deities in epics, from distant observers to randomly intrusive actors, and to immediate saviors and redeemers. Apollo moves once to restore the fallen Hektor, but cannot deter the moment of his fate. The Kirghiz Manas is in the act of prayer when his destiny traces him and, armorless, he is dispatched. Once served by fate, however, heroes may, like the world itself, be regenerated, and this is the special talent of Hindu gods and goddesses in both classical and regional epics. In the best known of Tamil literary epics, the Cilappatikāram, the heroine-become-goddess Kaaki restores her wrongfully executed husband, the hero Kōvala, by destroying the city (world) of injustice.

This sacrificial regeneration is perhaps the strongest of many links between classical and folk epics of South Asia and is reinforced by numerous active cults of heroes and heroines from the Sanskrit epics and uncounted regional ones. These include the enshrinement and ritual use of heroes' weapons and the sacrality of spirit residences such as caves and are reminiscent of ancient cults of heroes in Greece in which relic bones, weapons, and ships were preserved in sanctuaries, as the bones and weapons of medieval heroes and saints were kept in the churches of Europe. Unlike immortal gods, the heroes have died significant deaths and then have conquered time; their weapons are still a vivid point of contact for the religious experience of their return and, in the case of several oral epics of South India, spontaneous possession of members of the audience, whose dramatic "deaths" and revivifications while the epic is under way are undeniable proof of the living presence of the heroes.

The nearly universal appeal of the epic must reside in the charisma of an old and much-loved tale well told and the glimpse it provides into definitions of human existence. During its performance, the channels are open to a time and space that remain powerful, accessible, and paradigmatic. Heroes and heroines challenge, and thereby define, limitations placed by gods, fate, or self-absorption, as well as those social, political, economic, religious, and sexual roles by which humans divide themselves. To the audience the resolution may be clear at the outset, but the telling of the drama of transformation, sung now as it was in "that time," is itself a powerful form of renewal.

See Also

Enuma Elish; Flight; Gilgamesh; Heroes; Mahābhārata; Quests; Rāmāyaa; Shamanism; War and Warriors.


Brief surveys by fifteen specialists and bibliographies for major epic traditions, including texts, translations, and studies, may be found in Heroic Epic and Saga, edited by Felix J. Oinas (Bloomington, Ind., 1978). Discussions of background traditions by twelve other specialists in epics are in Traditions of Heroic and Epic Poetry, vol. 1, The Traditions, presented by Robert Auty and others under the editorship of A. T. Hatto (London, 1980). Jan de Vries's Heroic Song and Heroic Legend (London, 1963) is a short, readable overview. The Growth of Literature, 3 vols. (Cambridge, 19321940), by H. Munro Chadwick and Nora Kershaw Chadwick remains a valuable resource despite sections now dated; particularly useful are chapters on Turkic, Russian, and Yugoslav epics.

Where comparative studies of epics are concerned it is largely the Indo-Europeanists who have been productive for the history of religions. All of the many works of Georges Dumézil have relevance for epic research. Parts of Mythe et épopée, 3 vols. (Paris, 19681973), have appeared in English translation as The Destiny of a King (Chicago, 1973); Camillus: A Study of Indo-European Religion as Roman History, edited by Udo Strutynski (Berkeley, Calif., 1980); and The Stakes of the Warrior, edited by Jaan Puhvel (Berkeley, Calif., 1983). See also the untranslated first volume of Mythe et épopée and The Destiny of the Warrior (Chicago, 1970). Bruce Lincoln has summarized the Indo-Iranian warrior and priestly traditions that provide much of the background to the Sanskrit and Persian epics in Priests, Warriors, and Cattle (Berkeley, Calif., 1981). Alf Hiltebeitel, in The Ritual of Battle: Krishna in the Mahābhārata (Ithaca, N. Y., 1976), has continued the pioneering efforts of Dumézil, Stig Wikander, and Madeleine Biardeau in relating the Mahābhārata to other Indo-European mythic and epic narratives.

An older effort accomplished in the myth-ritual context is Gertrude R. Levy's The Sword from the Rock (London, 1953), a broad comparative discussion of the Mesopotamian, Sanskrit, and Homeric epics. Although lacking attention to mythic themes or Indo-European studies on kingship and warrior traditions, W. T. H. Jackson provides a suggestive analysis of the confrontation between intruder-hero (individual) and establishment-king (society) in the works of Homer and Vergil and in the medieval European epics in his The Hero and the King: An Epic Theme (New York, 1982).

A basic discussion of epic poetry in oral composition is the work of Milman Parry and Albert B. Lord, summarized in Lord's The Singer of Tales (Cambridge, Mass., 1960). Theories generated by their studies of epic singers in Yugoslavia are applied to the Iliad and the Odyssey. Among recent studies of South Asian oral epics, the most complete is that of Gene H. Roghair, The Epic of Palnāu (Oxford, 1982), a translation and study of a recitation of a Telugu epic in Andhra. Farther south in India, Brenda E. F. Beck has investigated a Tamil epic in The Three Twins: The Telling of a South Indian Folk Epic (Bloomington, Ind., 1982). The image of the hero in a dozen sub-Saharan oral epics, and the usefulness of the Parry-Lord hypothesis, are the subjects of Isidore Okpewho in The Epic in Africa: Toward a Poetics of the Oral Performance (New York, 1979).

Jeffrey H. Tigay's The Evolution of the Gilgamesh Epic (Philadelphia, 1982) is a study of the Old Babylonian epic as it emerged from older Sumerian tales, myths, and folklore. On folkloric motifs in the Iliad and the Odyssey, see Rhys Carpenter's Folk Tale, Fiction and Saga in the Homeric Epics (Berkeley, 1946). Despite a Frazerian style of compilation, Martti Haavio provides important shamanic-folkloric backgrounds to themes in the Kalevala in Väinämöinen, Eternal Sage (Helsinki, 1952).

New Sources

Alles, Gregory D. The Iliad, the Ramayana, and the Work of Religion: Failed Persuasion and Religious Mystification. University Park, 1994.

Belcher, Stephen Paterson. Epic Traditions of Africa. Bloomington, 1999.

Hiltebeitel, Alf. Rethinking India's Oral and Classical Epics: Draupadi among Rajputs, Muslims, and Dalits. Chicago, 1999.

Hodder, Alan D., and Robert E. Meagher. The Epic Voice. Westport, Conn., 2002.

Honko, Lauri. Religion, Myth, and Folklore in the World's Epics: The Kalevala and its Predecessors. Berlin, 1990.

Jackson-Laufer, Guida M. Encyclopedia of Traditional Epics. Santa Barbara, 1994.

Johnson, John William, Thomas A. Hale, and Stephen Paterson Belcher, eds. Oral Epics from Africa: Vibrant Voices from a Vast Continent. Bloomington, 1997.

Patton, Laurie L., and Wendy Doniger, eds. Myth and Method. Charlottesville, Va., 1996.

Schein, Seth L., ed. Reading the Odyssey: Selected Interpretative Essays. Princeton, N. J., 1996.

David M. Knipe (1987)

Revised Bibliography