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Speak, Memory
The Orality of Epic Poetry

Speak, Memory
  • The Iliad (by )
  • An Old Babylonian Version of the Gilgame... (by )
  • Mahabharata : the Epic of Ancient India (by )
  • A Handbook to Literature (by )
  • The Aeneid (by )
  • Metamorphoses (by )
  • The Odyssey (by )
  • The Ballad of the White Horse (by )
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Long before the visual epics of our time and the written epics before that, stories were passed from mouth to ear to mouth again. It was the time of oral epics, products of oral history traditions and preliterate times, where culture and cultural truths were preserved and passed down through epics.

Around 2100 BC, the first known epic, the Babylonian Gilgamesh, was told. Told in two parts, Gilgamesh tells the a story of an initially oppressive king named Gilgamesh. It relates his struggles against godly interventions, an adversary turned friend named Enkidu, and Gilgamesh’s quest for immortality. Not only is it the first recorded epic poem, it is also one of the earliest works of literature.

Epic poetry is a classic, long form of narrative poetry. The ancient epics were often composed in short episodes, with varying types of metrical and rhetorical devices like repetition, alliterative verse, and dactylic hexameter in order to facilitate memorization. Homer’s The Iliad and The Odyssey, the foundations of Western literature, are told in dactylic hexameter, as well as later epic poems Metamorphoses by Ovid and Aeneid by Virgil.
Hugh Holman outlines ten common characteristics of an epic in A Handbook to Literature:
  • Begins in medias res.
  • The setting is vast, covering many nations, the world or the universe.
  • Begins with an invocation to a muse.
  • Begins with a statement of the theme.
  • Includes the use of epithets and epic similes.
  • Contains long lists, called an epic catalogue.
  • Features long and formal speeches.
  • Shows divine intervention on human affairs.
  • Features heroes that embody the values of the civilization.
  • Often features the tragic hero's descent into the underworld or hell. (p. 175)
The Mahābhārata, one of the two major epics of ancient India, is by far the longest epic poem of the classics. It is often referred to as the longest poem ever written, divided into over 100,000 sections called ślokas, which are 16-syllable couplets. Scholars believe that teachers passed down these slokas through gamaka, a form of storytelling that involved melody and music that matched the emotion of the poem.

The oral tradition of epic storytelling faded with the spread of literacy, but epic poems continued in various forms. Modern variations include Paradise Lost and Paradise Regained by John Milton, G.K. Chesterton’s The Ballad of the White Horse and J.R.R. Tolkein’s The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrún

By Thad Higa

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