History of  Literature



Myth and Mystery


William Morris

Queen Guinevere





Homer  "Iliad", "Odyssey"

Apollonius "Argonautica", "Jason and the Golden Fleece"  BOOK 1, 2, 3, 4

Hesiod "Works And Days

"The Epic of Gilgamesh"

Greek and Roman mythology
Berens E.M. "Myths and Legends of Ancient Greece and Rome"
Hamilton Edith. Timeless Tales of Gods and Heroes


Chansons de geste "Song of Roland"

Sir Thomas Malory  "King Arthur and of his Noble Knights"
"Sir Gawain and the Green Knight"
Knowles James  "The Legends of King Arthur"  PART I, PART II, PART III, PART IV
Illustrations by Lancelot Speed

The Sacred Mountain
Amaterasu Hides Away
Redesdale Freeman-Mitford "Tales of Old Japan"
Murasaki Shikibu "The Tale of Genji"

Legends of Quetzalcoatl
The Hero Twins

Kalevala : the Epic Poem of Finland   PART I, PART II
Illustrations by Akseli Gallen-Kallela



In medieval Icelandic literature, any type of story or history in prose, irrespective of the kind or nature of the narrative or the purposes for which it was written. Used in this general sense, the term applies to a wide range of literary works, including those of hagiography (biography of saints), historiography, and secular fiction in a variety of modes. Lives of the saints and other stories for edification are entitled sagas, as are the Norse versions of French romances and the Icelandic adaptations of various Latin histories. Chronicles and other factual records of the history of Scandinavia and Iceland down to the 14th century are also included under the blanket term saga literature.

In a stricter sense, however, the term saga is confined to legendary and historical fictions, in which the author has attempted an imaginative reconstruction of the past and organized the subject matter according to certain aesthetic principles. Using the distinctive features of the hero as principal guideline, medieval Icelandic narrative fiction can be classified as:

(1) kings’ sagas,

(2) legendary sagas, and

(3) sagas of Icelanders.

The origin and evolution of saga writing in Iceland are largely matters for speculation. A common pastime on Icelandic farms, from the 12th century down to modern times, was the reading aloud of stories to entertain the household, known as sagnaskemmtun (“saga entertainment”). It seems to have replaced the traditional art of storytelling. All kinds of written narratives were used in sagnaskemmtun; secular, sacred, historical, and legendary. The Icelandic church took a sympathetic view of the writing and reading of sagas, and many of the authors whose identity is still known were monks or priests.

Nonfictional saga literature


European narratives were known in Iceland in the 12th and 13th centuries and undoubtedly served as models for Icelandic writers when they set out to form a coherent picture of early Scandinavian history. Translations of lives of the saints and the apostles and accounts of the Holy Virgin testify to the skill of Icelandic prose writers in handling the vernacular for narrative purposes from the 12th century onward. Histories were also adapted and translated from Latin, based on those of the 7th- and 8th-century Anglo-Saxon writer Bede, the 7th-century Spanish historian St. Isidore of Sevilla, and others; on fictitious accounts of the Trojan wars, notably, one of the 5th century attributed to Dares Phrygius and one of the 4th century attributed to Dictys Cretensis; on the 12th-century British chronicler Geoffrey of Monmouth; and on the 1st-century Roman historians Sallust and Lucan. In the 13th century, Abbot Brandr Jónsson wrote a history of the Jews based on the Vulgate, on the 10th-century biblical scholar Peter Comestor, and on other sources.

In the 13th century, saga literature was also enriched by Norwegian prose translations of French romance literature. These soon found their way into Iceland, where they were popular and a strong influence on native storywriting. Probably the earliest, Tristrams saga (the story of Tristan and Iseult), was translated in 1226. Most of the themes of French romance appear in Icelandic versions; e.g., Karlamagnús saga was based on Charlemagne legends.


Native historical accounts

Icelandic historians seem to have started writing about their country’s past toward the end of the 11th century. Saemundr Sigfússon, trained as a priest in France, wrote a Latin history of the kings of Norway, now lost but referred to by later authors. The first Icelander to use the vernacular for historical accounts was Ari Thorgilsson, whose Íslendingabók (or Libellus Islandorum [The Book of the Icelanders]) survives. It is a concise description of the course of Icelandic history from the beginning of the settlement (c. 870) to 1118. Ari seems to have written this book about 1125, but before that date he may already have compiled (in collaboration with Kolskeggr Ásbjarnarson) the so-called Landnámabók (“Book of Settlements”), which lists the names and land claims of about 400 settlers. Because this work survives only in 13th- and 14th-century versions, it is impossible to tell how much of it is Ari’s. Both books gave the Icelanders a clear picture of the beginning of their society; both works served to stimulate public interest in the period during which events recounted in the sagas of Icelanders are supposed to have taken place.

Other factual accounts of the history of Iceland followed later: Kristni saga describes Iceland’s conversion to Christianity about the end of the 10th century and the emergence of a national church. Hungrvaka (“The Appetizer”) contains accounts of the lives of the first five bishops of Skálholt, from the mid-11th century to the third quarter of the 12th century; the biographies of other prominent bishops are in the Biskupa sǫgur. Though some of these have a strong hagiographical flavour, others are soberly written and of great historical value. The period c. 1100–1264 is also dealt with in several secular histories, known collectively as Sturlunga saga, the most important of which is the Íslendinga saga (“The Icelanders’ Saga”) of Sturla Thórdarson, who describes in memorable detail the bitter personal and political feuds that marked the final episode in the history of the Icelandic commonwealth (c. 1200–64).

Legendary and historical fiction

From Heimskringla, the Saga of Saint Olaf, by Halfdan Egedius.

Kings’ sagas

After Saemundr Sigfússon, Icelandic and Norwegian authors continued to explore the history of Scandinavia in terms of rulers and royal families, some of them writing in Latin and others in the vernacular. Broadly speaking, the kings’ sagas fall into two distinct groups: contemporary (or near contemporary) biographies and histories of remoter periods. To the first group belonged a now-lost work, written in about 1170 by an Icelander called Eiríkr Oddsson, dealing with several 12th-century kings of Norway. Sverris saga describes the life of King Sverrir (reigned 1184–1202). The first part was written by Abbot Karl Jónsson under the supervision of the King himself, but it was completed (probably by the Abbot) in Iceland after Sverrir’s death. Sturla Thórdarson wrote two royal biographies: Hákonar saga on King Haakon Haakonsson (c. 1204–63) and Magnús saga on his son and successor, Magnus VI Lawmender (Lagabřter; reigned 1263–80); of the latter only fragments survive. In writing these sagas Sturla used written documents as source material and, like Abbot Karl before him, he also relied on the accounts of eyewitnesses. Works on the history of the earlier kings of Norway include two Latin chronicles of Norwegian provenance, one of which was compiled c. 1180, and two vernacular histories, also written in Norway, the so-called Ágrip (c. 1190) and Fagrskinna (c. 1230). The Icelandic Morkinskinna (c. 1220) deals with the kings of Norway from 1047–1177; an outstanding feature of it is that it tells some brilliant stories of Icelandic poets and adventurers who visited the royal courts of Scandinavia.

The kings’ sagas reached their zenith in the Heimskringla, or Noregs konunga sǫgur (“History of the Kings of Norway”), of Snorri Sturluson, which describes the history of the royal house of Norway from legendary times down to 1177. Snorri was a leading 13th-century Icelandic poet, who used as sources all the court poetry from the 9th century onward that was available to him. He also used many earlier histories of the kings of Norway and other written sources. Heimskringla is a supreme literary achievement that ranks Snorri Sturluson with the great writers of medieval Europe. He interpreted history in terms of personalities rather than politics, and many of his character portrayals are superbly drawn. Two of the early kings of Norway, Olaf Tryggvason (reigned 995–1000) and Olaf Haraldsson (Olaf the Saint; reigned 1015–30), received special attention from Icelandic antiquarians and authors. Only fragments of a 12th-century Ólafs saga helga (“St. Olaf’s Saga”) survive; a 13th-century biography of the same king by Styrmir Kárason is also largely lost. (Snorri Sturluson wrote a brilliant saga of St. Olaf, rejecting some of the grosser hagiographical elements in his sources; this work forms the central part of his Heimskringla.) About 1190 a Benedictine monk, Oddr Snorrason, wrote a Latin life of Olaf Tryggvason, of which an Icelandic version still survives. A brother in the same monastery, Gunnlaugr Leifsson, expanded this biography, and his work was incorporated into later versions of Ólafs saga Tryggvasonar. Closely related to the lives of the kings of Norway are Fœreyinga saga, describing the resistance of Faeroese leaders to Norwegian interference during the first part of the 11th century, and Orkneyinga saga, dealing with the rulers of the earldom of Orkney from about 900 to the end of the 12th century. These two works were probably written about 1200. The history of the kings of Denmark from c. 940 to 1187 is told in Knýtlinga saga.


Legendary sagas


The learned men of medieval Iceland took great pride in their pagan past and copied traditional poems on mythological and legendary themes. In due course some of these narrative poems served as the basis for sagas in prose. In his
Edda (probably written c. 1225), Snorri Sturluson tells several memorable stories, based on ancient mythological poems, about the old gods of the North, including such masterpieces as the tragic death of Balder and the comic tale of Thor’s journey to giantland. Snorri’s book also contains a summary of the legendary Nibelungen cycle. (A much fuller treatment of the same theme is to be found in Vǫlsunga saga and Thidriks saga, the latter composed in Norway and based on German sources.)

Other Icelandic stories based on early poetic tradition include Heidreks saga; Hrólfs saga kraka, which has a certain affinity with the Old English poem Beowulf; Hálfs saga ok Hálfsrekka; Gautreks saga; and Ásmundar saga kappabana, which tells the same story as the Old High German Hildebrandslied. The term legendary sagas also covers a number of stories the antecedents and models of which are not exclusively native. These sagas are set in what might be called the legendary heroic age at one level and also vaguely in the more recent Viking age at the other, the action taking place in Scandinavia and other parts of the Viking world, from Russia to Ireland, but occasionally also in the world of myth and fantasy. It is mostly through valour and heroic exploits that the typical hero’s personality is realized. He is, however, often a composite character, for some of his features are borrowed from a later and more refined ethos than that of early Scandinavia. He is in fact the synthesis of Viking ideals on the one hand and of codes of courtly chivalry on the other.

Of individual stories the following are notable: Egils saga ok Ásmundar, which skillfully employs the flashback device; Bósa saga ok Herrauds, exceptional for its erotic elements; Fridthjófs saga, a romantic love story; Hrólfs saga Gautrekssonar; Göngu-Hrólfs saga; and Halfadanar saga Eysteinssonar. There are many more. The legendary sagas are essentially romantic literature, offering an idealized picture of the remote past, and many of them are strongly influenced by French romance literature. In these sagas the main emphasis is on a lively narrative, entertainment being their primary aim and function. Some of the themes in the legendary sagas are also treated in the Gesta Danorum of the 12th-century Danish historian Saxo Grammaticus, who states that some of his informants for the legendary history of Denmark were Icelanders.

Egill Skallagrímsson in a 17th-
century manuscript of Egils Saga

Sagas of Icelanders

In the late 12th century, Icelandic authors began to fictionalize the early part of their history (c. 900–1050), and a new literary genre was born: the sagas of Icelanders. Whereas the ethos of the kings’ sagas and of the legendary sagas is aristocratic and their principal heroes warlike leaders, the sagas of Icelanders describe characters who are essentially farmers or farmers’ sons or at least people who were socially not far above the author’s public, and their conduct and motivation are measurable in terms of the author’s own ethos. These authors constantly aimed at geographic, social, and cultural verisimilitude; they made it their business to depict life in Iceland as they had experienced it or as they imagined it had actually been in the past. Though a good deal of the subject matter was evidently derived from oral tradition and thus of historical value for the period described, some of the best sagas are largely fictional; their relevance to the authors’ own times mattered perhaps no less than their incidental information about the past. An important aim of this literature was to encourage people to attain a better understanding of their social environment and a truer knowledge of themselves through studying the real and imagined fates of their forbears. A spirit of humanism, sometimes coloured by a fatalistic heroic outlook, pervades the narrative. The edificatory role, however, was never allowed to get out of hand or dominate the literary art; giving aesthetic pleasure remained the saga writer’s primary aim and duty.

Nothing is known of the authorship of the sagas of Icelanders, and it has proved impossible to assign a definite date to many of them. It seems improbable that in their present form any of them could have been written before c. 1200. The period c. 1230–90 has been described as the golden age of saga writing because such masterpieces as Egils saga, Víga-Glúms saga, Gísla saga, Eyrbyggja saga, Hrafnkels saga Freysgoda, Bandamanna saga, Hœnsa-Thóris saga, and Njáls saga appear to have been written during that time. Although a number of sagas date from the 14th century, only one, Grettis saga, can be ranked with the classical ones.

The sagas of Icelanders can be subdivided into several categories according to the social and ethical status of the principal heroes. In some, the hero is a poet who sets out from the rural society of his native land in search of fame and adventure to become the retainer of the king of Norway or some other foreign ruler. Another feature of these stories is that the hero is also a lover. To this group belong some of the early-13th-century sagas, including Kormáks saga, Hallfredar saga, and Bjarnar saga Hítdaelakappa. In Gunnlaugs saga ormstungu, which may have been written after the middle of the 13th century, the love theme is treated more romantically than in the others. Fostbraeda saga (“The Blood-Brothers’ Saga”) describes two contrasting heroes: one a poet and lover, the other a ruthless killer. Egils saga offers a brilliant study of a complex personality—a ruthless Viking who is also a sensitive poet, a rebel against authority from early childhood who ends his life as a defenseless, blind old man. In several sagas the hero becomes an outlaw fighting a hopeless battle against the social forces that have rejected him. To this group belong Hardar saga ok Hólmverja and Droplaugarsona saga; but the greatest of the outlaw sagas are Gísla saga, describing a man who murders his own brother-in-law and whose sister reveals his dark secret; and Grettis saga, which deals with a hero of great talents and courage who is constantly fighting against heavy odds and is treacherously slain by an unscrupulous enemy.

Most of the sagas of Icelanders, however, are concerned with people who are fully integrated members of society, either as ordinary farmers or as farmers who also act as chieftains. Hrafnkels saga describes a chieftain who murders his shepherd, is then tortured and humiliated for his crime, and finally takes cruel revenge on one of his tormentors. The hero who gives his name to Hœnsa-Thoris saga is a man of humble background who makes money as a peddler and becomes a wealthy but unpopular landowner. His egotism creates trouble in the neighbourhood, and after he has set fire to one of the farmsteads, killing the farmer and the entire household, he is prosecuted and later put to death. Ölkofra tháttr (the term tháttr is often used for a short story) and Bandamanna saga (“The Confederates’ Saga”) satirize chieftains who fail in their duty to guard the integrity of the law and try to turn other people’s mistakes into profit for themselves. The central plot in Laxdœla saga is a love triangle, in which the jealous heroine forces her husband to kill his best friend. Eyrbyggja saga describes a complex series of feuds between several interrelated families; Hávardar saga is about an old farmer who takes revenge on his son’s killer, the local chieftain; Víga-Glúms saga tells of a ruthless chieftain who commits several killings and swears an ambiguous oath in order to cover his guilt; while Vatnsdœla saga is the story of a noble chieftain whose last act is to help his killer escape.

In the sagas of Icelanders justice, rather than courage, is often the primary virtue, as might be expected in a literature that places the success of an individual below the welfare of society at large. This theme is an underlying one in Njáls saga, the greatest of all the sagas. It is a story of great complexity and richness, with a host of brilliantly executed character portrayals and a profound understanding of human strengths and weaknesses. Its structure is highly complex, but at its core is the tragedy of an influential farmer and sage who devotes his life to a hopeless struggle against the destructive forces of society but ends it inexorably when his enemies set fire to his house, killing his wife and sons with him.

Hermann Pálsson



long narrative poem recounting heroic deeds, although the term has also been loosely used to describe novels, such as Tolstoy’s War and Peace, and motion pictures, such as Eisenstein’s Ivan the Terrible. In literary usage, the term encompasses both oral and written compositions. The prime examples of the oral epic are Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey. Outstanding examples of the written epic include Virgil’s Aeneid and Lucan’s Pharsalia in Latin; Chanson de Roland in medieval French; Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso and Tasso’s Gerusalemme liberata in Italian; Poema (or Cantar) de mio Cid in Spanish; and Milton’s Paradise Lost and Spenser’s Faerie Queene in English. There are also seriocomic epics, such as the Morgante of a 15th-century Italian poet, Pulci, and the pseudo-Homeric Battle of the Frogs and Mice. Another distinct group is made up of the so-called beast epics—narrative poems written in Latin in the Middle Ages and dealing with the struggle between a cunning fox and a cruel and stupid wolf. Underlying all of the written forms is some trace of an oral character, partly because of the monumental persuasiveness of Homer’s example but more largely because the epic was, in fact, born of an oral tradition. It is on the oral tradition of the epic form that this article will focus.

General characteristics
An epic may deal with such various subjects as myths, heroic legends, histories, edifying religious tales, animal stories, or philosophical or moral theories. Epic poetry has been used by peoples all over the world and in different ages to transmit their traditions from one generation to another, without the aid of writing. These traditions frequently consist of legendary narratives about the glorious deeds of their national heroes. Thus scholars have often identified “epic” with a certain kind of heroic oral poetry, which comes into existence in so-called heroic ages. Such ages have been experienced by many nations, usually at a stage of development in which they have had to struggle for a national identity. This effort, combined with such other conditions as an adequate material culture and a sufficiently productive economy, tend to produce a society dominated by a powerful and warlike nobility, constantly occupied with martial activities, whose individual members seek, above all, everlasting fame for themselves and for their lineages.

Uses of the epic
The main function of poetry in heroic-age society appears to be to stir the spirit of the warriors to heroic actions by praising their exploits and those of their illustrious ancestors, by assuring a long and glorious recollection of their fame, and by supplying them with models of ideal heroic behaviour. One of the favorite pastimes of the nobility in heroic ages in different times and places has been to gather in banquet halls to hear heroic songs, in praise of famous deeds sung by professional singers as well as by the warriors themselves. Heroic songs also were often sung before a battle, and such recitations had tremendous effect on the morale of the combatants. Among the Fulani (Fulbe) people in The Sudan, for instance, whose epic poetry has been recorded, a nobleman customarily set out in quest of adventures accompanied by a singer (mabo), who also served as his shield bearer. The singer was thus the witness of the heroic deeds of his lord, which he celebrated in an epic poem called baudi.

The aristocratic warriors of the heroic ages were thus members of an illustrious family, a link in a long chain of glorious heroes. And the chain could snap if the warrior failed to preserve the honour of the family, whereas, by earning fame through his own heroism, he could give it new lustre. Epic traditions were to a large extent the traditions of the aristocratic families: the Old French word geste, used for a form of epic that flourished in the Middle Ages, means not only a story of famous deeds but also a genealogy.

The passing of a heroic age does not necessarily mean the end of its heroic oral poetry. An oral epic tradition usually continues for as long as the nation remains largely illiterate. Usually it is after the heroic age has passed that the narratives about its legendary heroes are fully elaborated. Even when the nobility that originally created the heroic epic perishes or loses interest, the old songs can persist as entertainments among the people. Court singers, then, are replaced by popular singers, who recite at public gatherings. This popular tradition, however, must be distinguished from a tradition that still forms an integral part of the culture of a nobility. For when a heroic epic loses its contact with the banquet halls of the princes and noblemen, it cannot preserve for long its power of renewal. Soon it enters what has been called the reproductive stage in the life cycle of an oral tradition, in which the bards become noncreative reproducers of songs learned from older singers. Popular oral singers, like the guslari of the Balkans, no doubt vary their songs to a certain extent each time they recite them, but they do so mainly by transposing language and minor episodes from one acquired song to another. Such variations must not be confounded with the real enrichment of the tradition by succeeding generations of genuine oral poets of the creative stage. The spread of literacy, which has a disastrous effect on the oral singer, brings about a quick corruption of the tradition. At this degenerate stage, the oral epic soon dies out if it is not written down or recorded.

The ancient Greek epic exemplifies the cycle of an oral tradition. Originating in the late Mycenaean period, the Greek epic outlasted the downfall of the typically heroic-age culture (c. 1100 bc) and maintained itself through the “Dark Age” to reach a climax in the Homeric poems by the close of the Geometric period (900–750 bc). After Homer, the activity of the aoidoi, who sang their own epic songs at the courts of the nobility, slowly declined. During the first half of the 7th century, the aoidoi produced such new poems as those of Hesiod and some of the earlier poems of what was to become known as the Epic Cycle. Between 625 and 575 bc the aoidoi gave way to oral reciters of a new type, called rhapsodes or “stitchers of songs,” who declaimed for large audiences the already famous works of Homer while holding in their hand a staff (rhabdos), which they used to give emphasis to their words. It seems probable that these rhapsodes, who played a crucial role in the transmission of the Homeric epic, were using some sort of written aids to memory before Homeric recitations were adopted in 6th-century Athens as part of the Panathenaic festivals held each year in honour of the goddess Athena.

(Homer  "Iliad", "Odyssey"
APOLLONIUS "Argonautica", "Jason and the Golden Fleece"  (BOOK 1, 2, 3, 4)
Hesiod "Works And Days")

Verbal formulas
To compose and to memorize long narrative poems like the Iliad  and the Odyssey, oral poets used a highly elaborate technical language with a large store of traditional verbal formulas, which could describe recurring ideas and situations in ways that suited the requirements of metre. So long as an oral epic tradition remains in its creative period, its language will be continually refined by each generation of poets in opposite directions, refinements that are called scope and economy. Scope is the addition of new phrases to express a larger number of recurrent concepts in varying metrical values fitting the possible positions in a verse. Economy is the elimination of redundancies that arise as gifted poets invent new set phrases that duplicate, both in a general sense and in metrical value, the formulas that already exist in the traditional stock.

Nowhere has this refinement proceeded any nearer to perfection than in the language of the Homeric epic. As has been shown by statistical analysis, it exhibits a remarkable efficiency, both in the rareness of unnecessarily duplicative variants and in the coverage of each common concept by the metrical alternatives useful in the composition of the six-foot metric line the Greeks used for epic poetry.

Thus, for example, if the idea of a ship has to be expressed at the end of a line of verse, the ship may be described as “well-trimmed” (nēos eisēs), “curved” (nēos amphielissa), or “dark-prowed” (nēos kyanoprōiros), depending entirely on the number of feet that remain to be filled by the phrase in the hexameter; if the phrase has to cover the two final feet of the verse and the words have to be put in the dative case, the formula “of a well-trimmed ship” will be replaced by “to a black ship” (nēi melainē). The sole occurrence of “Zeus who gathers lightning” (steropēgereta Zeus), which is an exact metrical equivalent of the more common “Zeus who delights in thunder” (Zeus terpikeraunos), constitutes one of the very few actual duplications of such formulas found in Homer.

Finally, some of the typical scenes in the heroic life, such as the preparation of a meal or sacrifice or the launching or beaching of a ship, contain set descriptions comprising several lines that are used by rote each time the events are narrated.

This highly formalized language was elaborated by generations of oral poets to minimize the conscious effort needed to compose new poems and memorize existing ones. Because of it, an exceptionally gifted aoidos, working just prior to the corruption of the genre, could orally create long and finely structured poems like the Iliad and the Odyssey, and those poems could then be transmitted accurately by the following generations of rhapsodes until complete written texts were produced.

Oral heroic poetry, at its origin, usually deals with outstanding deeds of kings and warriors who lived in the heroic age of the nation. Since the primary function of this poetry is to educate rather than to record, however, the personages are necessarily transformed into ideal heroes and their acts into ideal heroic deeds that conform to mythological or ideological patterns. Some of these patterns are archetypes found all over the world, while others are peculiar to a specific nation or culture. Thus, in many epic traditions, heroes are born as a result of an illegitimate union of a maiden mother with a divine or supernatural being; they are exposed at birth, fed by an animal, and brought up by humble foster parents in a rustic milieu; they grow up with marvellous speed, fight a dragon—in their first combat—to rescue a maiden whom they marry, and die young in circumstances as fabulous as those that surrounded their birth.

In the traditions of Indo-European peoples a hero is often a twin, who acquires soon after his supernatural birth an invulnerability that has one defect, generally of his heel or of some other part of his foot, which ultimately causes his death. He is educated by a blacksmith, disguises himself as a woman at some time in his youth, and conquers a three-headed dragon, or some other kind of triple opponent, in his first battle. He then begets, by a foreign or supernatural woman, a child who, reared by his mother in her country, becomes a warrior as brave as his father. When this child meets his unknown father, the latter fails to recognize him, so that the father kills his own child after a long and fierce single combat. The hero, himself, usually dies after committing the third of three sins.

In Japan, to take another example, renowned members of the warrior aristocracy of the past, who have acquired the status of popular heroes, are in many cases supplied in their legend with four exceptionally brave and faithful retainers called their shi-tennō, the guardians of the four cardinal points; these form the closest entourage of their lord—who is usually depicted as excelling in command but not in physical strength—and defend him from dangers. The retainers reflect a mythological model, taken from Buddhism, of four deva kings, who guard the teaching of the Buddha against the attack of the devils.

A striking pattern for a number of epic traditions has been found in a so-called “tripartite ideology” or “trifunctional system” of the Indo-Europeans. The concept was based on the discovery of the remarkable philosophy of a prehistoric nation that survived as a system of thought in the historic Indo-European civilizations and even in the subconsciousness of the modern speakers of Indo-European tongues.

This philosophy sees in the universe three basic principles that are realized by three categories of people: priests, warriors, and producers of riches. In conformity with this philosophy, most Indo-European epics have as their central themes interaction among these three principles or functions which are: (1) religion and kingship; (2) physical strength; (3) fecundity, health, riches, beauty, and so forth. In the long Indian epic the Mahābhārata, for example, the central figures, the Pāṇḍava brothers, together with their father Paṇḍu, their two uncles Dhṛtarāṣṭra and Vidura, and their common wife, Draupadī, correspond to traditional deities presiding over the three functions of the Indo-European ideology.

During the first part of their earthly career, the Pāṇḍava suffer constantly from the persistent enmity and jealousy of their cousins, Duryodhana and his 99 brothers, who, in reality, are incarnations of the demons Kālī and the Paulastya. The demons at first succeeded in snatching the Kingdom from the Pāṇḍava and in exiling them. The conflict ends in a devastating war, in which all the renowned heroes of the time take part. The Pāṇḍava survive the massacre, and establish on earth a peaceful and prosperous reign, in which Dhṛtarāṣṭra and Vidura also participate.

This whole story, it has been shown, is a transposition to the heroic level of an Indo-European myth about the incessant struggle between the gods and the demons since the beginning of the world. Eventually, it results in a bloody eschatological battle, in which the gods and the devils exterminate each other. The destruction of the former world order, however, prepares for a new and better world, exempt from evil influences, over which reign a few divine survivors of the catastrophe.


Early patterns of development

The Deluge tablet of the Gilgamesh epic in Akkadian

("The Epic of Gilgamesh")

In the ancient Middle East

The earliest-known epic poetry is that of the Sumerians. Its origin has been traced to a preliterate Heroic Age, not later than 3000 bc, when the Sumerians had to fight, under the direction of a warlike aristocracy, for possession of this fertile Mesopotamian land. Among the extant literature of this highly gifted people are fragments of narrative poems recounting the heroic deeds of their early kings: Enmerkar, Lugalbanda, and Gilgamesh. By far the most important in the development of Mesopotamian literature are the five poems of the Gilgamesh cycle. This epic tells the odyssey of a king, Gilgamesh, part human and part divine, who seeks immortality. A god who dislikes his rule, fashions a wild man, Enkidu, to challenge him. Enkidu first lives among wild animals, then goes to the capital and engages in a trial of strength with Gilgamesh, who emerges victorious. The two, now friends, set out on various adventures, in one of which they kill a wild bull that the goddess of love had sent to destroy Gilgamesh because he spurned her marriage proposal. Enkidu dreams the gods have decided he must die for the death of the bull, and, upon awakening, he does fall ill and die. Gilgamesh searches for a survivor of the Babylonian flood to learn how to escape death. The survivor shows him where to find a plant that renews youth, but after Gilgamesh gets the plant it is snatched away by a serpent. Gilgamesh returns, saddened, to his capital.

The legend of Gilgamesh was taken over by the Babylonians, who developed it into a long and beautiful poem, one of the masterpieces of mankind.

Another Babylonian epic, composed around 2000 bc, is called in Akkadian Enuma elish, after its opening words, meaning “When on high.” Its subject is not heroic but mythological. It recounts events from the beginning of the world to the establishment of the power of Marduk, the great god of Babylon. The outline of a Babylonian poem narrating the adventure of a hero named Adapa (“Man”) can be reconstructed from four fragmentary accounts. It shares with the Epic of Gilgamesh the theme of man’s loss of an opportunity for immortality.

Among clay tablets of the 14th century bc, covered with inscriptions in an old Phoenician cuneiform alphabet, from Ras Shamra (the site of ancient Ugarit), in northern Syria, there are important fragments of three narrative poems. One of these is mythological and recounts the career of the god Baal, which seems to coincide with the yearly cycle of vegetation on earth. As was usual with the death of gods in the ancient Mediterranean world, Baal’s end brings about a drought that ceases only with his resurrection. Another fragment, about a hero named Aqhat, is perhaps a transposition of this myth of Baal to the human level. Just as the death of Baal is avenged on his slayer by Baal’s sister Anath, so is the murder of Aqhat, which also causes a drought, revenged by his sister Paghat. Since the end of the poem is missing, however, it is not known whether Paghat, like Anath, succeeded in bringing her brother back to life.

The third fragment, the Ugaritic epic of Keret, has been interpreted as a Phoenician version of the Indo-European theme of the siege of an enemy city for the recovery of an abducted woman. This theme is also the subject of the Greek legend of the Trojan War and of the Indian epic Rāmāyaṇa. The fragmentary text does not reveal, however, whether the expedition of Keret, like that of the Achaean army against Troy, was meant to regain the hero’s wife or to acquire for him a new bride.

Peter Paul Rubens

Perseus and Andromeda

The Greek epic

(Greek and Roman mythology
Berens E.M. "Myths and Legends of Ancient Greece and Rome"
Hamilton Edith. Timeless Tales of Gods and Heroes)

Eastern influences

In its originative stage, especially, the Greek epic may have been strongly influenced by these oriental traditions. The Greek world in the late Bronze Age was related to the Middle East by so many close ties that it formed an integral part of the Levant. At Ugarit a large quarter of the city was occupied by Greek merchants, whose presence is also attested, among other places, at the gate of Mesopotamia, at Alalakh, in what is now Turkey. Thus, it is no surprise that, for example, the Greek myth about the succession of the divine kingship told in the Theogony of Hesiod and elsewhere is paralleled in a Hittite version of a Hurrian myth. In it, Anu, Kumarbi, and the storm god respectively, parallel Uranus, Cronos, and Zeus in the Theogony. The Hittites had continuous diplomatic relations with the Achaeans of Greece, whose princes went to the royal court at Hattusa to perfect their skill with the chariot. The Greeks, therefore, had ample opportunity to become familiar with Hittite myths.

The Epic of Gilgamesh was then well-known in the Levant, as is indicated by discoveries of copies of it throughout this wide area. Many parallels with the Epic of Gilgamesh have been pointed out in the Odyssey; the encounters of Odysseus with Circe and Calypso on their mythical isles, for instance, closely resemble the visit by Gilgamesh to a divine woman named Siduri, who keeps an inn in a marvellous garden of the sun god near the shores of ocean. Like the two Greek goddesses, Siduri tries to dissuade Gilgamesh from the pursuit of his journey by representing the pleasures of life, but the firm resolution of the hero obliges her finally to help him cross the waters of death. In the Iliad, Patroclus, who dies as a substitute for his king and dearest friend, Achilles, and then gives Achilles a description of the miserable condition of man after his death, bears striking similarities to the friend of Gilgamesh, Enkidu.

The heroic life

If these are indeed borrowings, it is all the more remarkable that they are used in Homer to express a view of life and a heroic temper radically different from those of the Sumerian epic of Mesopotamia. Gilgamesh persists in his quest of immortality even when Siduri shows him the vanity of such an ambition, but Odysseus shuns a goddess’s offer of everlasting life, preferring to bear his human condition to the end. The loss of a beloved friend does not make Achilles seek desperately to escape from death; instead he rushes into combat to revenge Patroclus, although he knows that he is condemning himself to an early death, and that the existence of a king in Hades will be incomparably less enviable than that of a slave on earth. The Mesopotamian mind never tires of expressing man’s deep regret at not being immortal through stories about ancient heroes who, despite their superhuman strength and wisdom, and their intimacy with gods, failed to escape from death. A decisively different idea, however, is fundamental to the Greek heroic view of life. It has been demonstrated that the Greek view is derived from an Indo-European notion of justice—that each being has a fate (moira) assigned to him and marked clearly by boundaries that should never be crossed. Man’s energy and courage should, accordingly, be spent not in exceeding the proper limits of his human condition but in bearing it with style, pride, and dignity, gaining as much fame as he can within the boundaries of his moira. If he is induced by Folly (Ate, personified as a goddess of mischief) to commit an excess (hybris) with regard to his moira, he will be punished without fail by the divine vengeance personified as Nemesis.

At the beginning of the Iliad, a plague decimates the Achaean army because its commander in chief, Agamemnon, refuses to return a captive, Chryseis, to her father, a priest of Apollo who offers a generous ransom. By unjustly insulting Achilles, Agamemnon commits another excess that causes the defeat of his army. Achilles, in the meantime, lets Ate take possession of his mind and refuses, to the point of excess, to resume his fight. He thus brings about a great misfortune, the loss of his dearest companion, Patroclus. Patroclus, however, also contributes to his own death by his hybris in pushing his triumph too far, ignoring Achilles’ order to come back as soon as he has repulsed the enemy far from the Greek ships. The death of Hector also results from his hybris in rejecting the counsel of Polydamas and maintaining his army on the plain after the return of Achilles to combat. After so many disasters caused by the mischievous action of Ate among men, the last book of the Iliad presents a noble picture of Priam and Achilles, who submit piously to the orders of Zeus, enduring with admirable courage and moderation their respective fates.

On the other hand, at the beginning of the Odyssey, Zeus evokes the ruin that Aegisthus will have to suffer for having acted “beyond his due share” by marrying Clytemnestra and murdering Agamemnon. This sets an antithesis to the story of the wise Odysseus, who, to accomplish his destiny as a mortal hero, never changes his purpose trying always to make the best of his countless misfortunes. He earns by this the favour of Athena and succeeds eventually in regaining Ithaca and punishing the wooers of Penelope for their hybris during his long absence. Present scholarship inclines to the view that such admirably well-structured poems as the Iliad and the Odyssey could have been created only by a single highly gifted poet whose name was Homer. This position contrasts with the extreme skepticism that marked all phases of Homeric criticism during the previous century. Yet the personality of Homer remains unknown and nothing certain is known about his life.

In comparison, information derived from his own works is fairly plentiful about the other great epic poet of Greece, Hesiod. He produced them presumably around 700 bc, while tilling a farm in Askra, a small village of Boeotia. The social and geographical background of his poems, called didactic because of their occasionally moral and instructive tone, differs from the aristocratic society of Ionian Asia Minor that Homer addressed. Despite their different style, subjects, and view of life, however, Hesiod’s Theogony and the Works and Days illustrate the same basic conception of justice as the Homeric epic. The Theogony describes a long sequence of primordial events that resulted in the present world order, in which man’s inescapable lot is assigned to him by Zeus. The Works and Days explains, through a series of three myths, why the lot of man is to work hard to produce riches. Man has to shut his ears to the goddess who causes wars and lawsuits, listening only to the goddess who urges him to toil more laboriously than his neighbour to become richer. Pain and suffering have become unavoidable since Pandora opened the fatal jar containing all the ills of mankind at Prometheus’ house in conformity with the will of Zeus. Moreover, the age of the race of iron has arrived when the fate of human beings is not to pass their lives in perpetual banquets or warfare, as did the preceding races, but to suffer constantly the fatigue and misery of labour. As long as the goddesses Aidos (a personification of the sense of shame) and Nemesis (a personification of divine retribution) stay with mankind, however, helping people observe their moira without committing excesses, man can still gain riches, merits, and glory by the sweat of his brow. Only if he knows how to avoid all faults in doing his daily work will he not offend Justice (Dikē), the sensitive virgin daughter of Zeus. This is why it is so vitally important for a farmer to know all the rules listed in the rest of the poem about seemingly trivial details of his work.

Later variations

The Latin epic

Latin epic poetry was initiated in the 3rd century bc by Livius Andronicus, who translated the Odyssey into the traditional metre of Saturnian verse. It was not until the 1st century bc, however, that Rome possessed a truly national epic in the unfinished Aeneid of Virgil (70–19 bc), who used Homer as his model. The story of Aeneas’ journey, recounted in the first six books, is patterned after the Odyssey, with many imitative passages and even direct translations, while the description of the war in the last six books abounds with incidents modelled after those from the Iliad. More basically, however, Virgil made use of another model, Rome’s own national legend about the war fought under Romulus against the Sabines. This legend preserves, in a historical disguise, an original Indo-European myth about a primitive conflict between the gods of sovereignty and war and the gods of fecundity, ending with the unification of the two divine races. In the development of this theme by Virgil, Aeneas and the Etruscans can be seen as representing the gods of sovereignty and war, and the Latins representing the gods of fecundity. Aeneas, who has brought the Trojan gods to Rome, is forced to fight with the help of the Etruscans against the Latins. It is the destiny of Aeneas to rule, and it is the fate of the Latins to share their land and women with the invaders and to accept Aeneas as their king. This resembles the unification of the warring races that climaxes the Indo-European myth.

The power exercised by the Indo-European ideological pattern on the Roman mind even under the empire is seen in the Pharsalia of Lucan (ad 39–65). In this historical epic, Cato, Caesar, and Pompey are depicted respectively as moral, warlike, and popular in a way that gives the story a clear trifunctional structure.

Germanic epics


A typical Heroic Age occurred during the wanderings of the Germanic tribes from the 3rd to the 6th centuries ad. Out of this, too, came a rich oral tradition, from which developed in the Middle Ages many epic poems. One of the greatest of these is the Old English "Beowulf", written down in the 8th century. Archetypal Indo-European themes also reappear in these epics. For example, the theme of the fatal fight between father and son is recounted in the German Hildebrandslied, of which a 67-line fragment is extant. Again, an heroic version of the Indo-European myth about the rescue of the Sun Maiden from her captivity by the Divine Twins, which also provided the basic plot of the Greek Trojan cycle and the Indian Rāmāyama (
"The Ramayan of Valmiki"), is found in the German Gudrun (c. 1230).

Roland pledges his fealty to Charlemagne;
from a manuscript of a chanson de geste.

Chansons de geste

Chansons de geste "Song of Roland")

The French chansons de geste are epic poems whose action takes place during the reign of Charlemagne and his immediate successors. The Chanson de Roland , probably written down about the end of the 11th century, is by far the most refined of the group. The story of the poem had developed from a historical event, the annihilation of the rear guard of Charlemagne’s army at Roncesvalles in the Pyrenees in 778 by Basque mountaineers. The Basques, however, are transformed in the epic to the Saracens, who to a later generation typified France’s enemies in Spain. The other chansons de geste, none of which is comparable to Roland as a literary work, have been classified into three main cycles. The cycle of Guillaume d’Orange forms a biography of William (probably a historical, count of William of Toulouse, who had, like the hero of the epic, a wife called Guibourg and a nephew, Vivien, and who became a monk in 806). Guibourg, the most faithful of wives, and the noble Vivien take prominent roles in the epic. The so-called Cycle of the Revolted Knights groups those poems that tell of revolts of feudal subjects against the emperor (Charlemagne or, more usually, his son, Louis). The Cycle of the King consists of the songs in which Charlemagne himself is a principal figure.

Arthurian Romance

Sir Thomas Malory  "King Arthur and of his Noble Knights"
"Sir Gawain and the Green Knight"
Knowles James  "The Legends of King Arthur"  PART I, PART II, PART III, PART IV
Illustrations by Lancelot Speed

The Arthurian Romance seems to have developed first in the British Isles, before being taken to the Continent by Bretons, who migrated to Brittany in the 6th and 7th centuries. The core of the legend about Arthur and his knights derives from lost Celtic mythology. Many of the incidents in the former parallel the deeds of such legendary Irish characters as Cú Chulainn, an Ulster warrior said to have been fathered by the god Lug, and Finn, hero of the Fenian cycle about a band of warriors defending Ireland, both of whom are gods transformed into human heroes. The earliest extant works on Arthurian themes are four poems of Chrétien de Troyes, written in French between 1155 and 1185: Erec, Yvain, Le Chevalier de la Charette (left unfinished by Chrétien and completed by Godefroy de Lagny), and an unfinished Perceval. In German, after 1188, Hartmann von Aue (who also wrote two legendary poems not belonging to the Arthurian cycle, Gregorius and Poor Henry) modelled his Erec and Iwein on those of Chrétien. The story of Perceval was given a full account by Wolfram von Eschenbach (c. 1170–1220) in his Parzival and in the unfinished Titurel. Another incomplete work of Wolfram, Willehalm, deals with the legend of William of Orange. Tristan of Gottfried von Strassburg is based directly on the older French version of Thomas of Britain (c. 1170–80). The romance proper, however, although it has similarities to the epic, differs in its lack of high purpose: fictions are told for their entertainment value rather than as models for national heroism. Developed in France in the Middle Ages, the romance is usually an adventure story with a strong love interest, intimately associated with the “courtly love” tradition of that time.


The epic in Japan

(The Sacred Mountain
Amaterasu Hides Away
Redesdale Freeman-Mitford "Tales of Old Japan"
Murasaki Shikibu "The Tale of Genji")

In Japan, there were in ancient times families of reciters (katari-be) whose duty was to hand down myths and legends by word of mouth and to narrate them during official ceremonies and banquets. After the introduction of Chinese letters, however, from the 4th century ad onward, these traditional tales were put in writing and the katari-be professional gradually died out. By the end of the 7th century, each clan of the ruling aristocracy seems to have possessed a written document that recounted the mythology and legendary history of Japan in a form biassed in favour of the clan concerned. These family documents were collected at the command of the emperor Temmu (672–686) and were used as basic materials for the compilation of the first national chronicles of Japan, the Koji-ki (712) and the Nihon shoki (720). The myths and legends that are contained in the earlier parts of these two books derive, therefore, from the oral tradition of katari-be. Although no document preserves those narrations in their primitive form, it is generally assumed that they were originally in the form of poems. Many scholars believe that they were genuine epic poems, which were produced during a period of incessant warfare around the 4th century. At that time mounted aristocratic warriors of the future imperial family struggled to extend its power over the larger part of Japan. Exploits of warriors, such as the emperor Jimmu or Prince Yamato-Takeru, in the earliest extant texts—the Koji-ki and Nihon shoki of the 8th century—probably derive from a heroic epic about the wars of conquest of the first emperors, whose legendary feats were transformed into those of a few idealized heroic figures.

The middle of the Heian period (794–1185) saw the emergence of a new class of warrior known as samurai. They attached a greater importance to fame than to life. The battles they fought became the subject of epic narratives that were recited by itinerant blind priests to the accompaniment of a lute-like instrument called a biwa.

In the early part of the 13th century, tales about the wars of the preceding century, fought between the two strongest families of samurai, the Genji, or Minamoto, and the Heike, or Taira, were compiled in three significant war chronicles. The Hōgen monogatari and the Heiji monogatari deal with two small wars, the Hōgen (1156) and Heiji (1159), in which the Genji and Heike warriors fought for opposing court factions. The structure of the two works is roughly the same. Each celebrates the extraordinary prowess of a young Genji warrior, Minamoto Tametomo in the Hōgen monogatari and Minamoto Yoshihira in the Heiji monogatari; each hero fights to the finish in exemplary manner not so much to win, for from the beginning each foresees the defeat of his own side, as for the sake of fame; and the consummate courage of the two heroes forms a striking contrast to the cowardice of court aristocrats. The bitterly fought Gempei War (1180–85), in which survivors of the Genji family challenged and defeated the Heike, is recounted in detail in the Heike monogatari, the greatest epic of Japanese literature. The sudden decline and ultimate extinction of the proud Heike, whose members had held the highest offices of the imperial court, illustrates the Buddhist philosophy of the transitory nature of all things; it invites the readers to seek deliverance from the world of sufferings through a faith that will take them to a land of eternal felicity at the moment of their death. The work is filled with tales of heroic actions of brave warriors. The most conspicuous is Minamoto Yoshitsune, one of the chief commanders of the Genji army: the legend of this man of military genius continued to develop in later literature, so that he has become the most popular hero of Japanese legend.

Quetzalcoatl as depicted in the Codex Borbonicus.

Aztec and Maya

(Legends of Quetzalcoatl
The Hero Twins)

Perhaps the most highly elaborated aspect of Aztec culture was the religious system. The Aztec derived much of their religious ideology from the earlier cultures of Meso-America or from their contemporaries. This was particularly true during the final phase of their history, when their foreign contacts broadened. Indeed, much confusion about Aztec religious ideology stems, in part, from the fact that Aztec civilization was still in a process of assimilation and reorganization of these varied religious traditions. Moreover, as the empire expanded and Tenochtitlán evolved into a heterogeneous community, the religious needs correspondingly changed from those of a simple agrarian society. The ruling class, particularly, demanded a more intellectual and philosophical ideology.

The Aztec approach to contact with the supernatural was through a complex calendar of great ceremonies, which were held at the temples and were performed by a professional priesthood that acted as the intermediary between the gods and human beings. Many of these were public in the sense that the populace played the role of spectators. Elements in all the ceremonies were very similar and included ritual ablutions to prepare the priests for the contact; offerings and sacrifices to gain the gods’ favour; and theatrical dramas of myths by masked performers in the form of dances, songs, and processionals. Each god had his special ceremony that, considering the richness of the pantheon, must have filled the calendar. These ceremonies must have played a significant recreative function, as do ceremonies held in honour of patron saints in present-day Mexico.

Aztec religion heavily emphasized sacrifice and ascetic behaviour as the necessary preconditions for approaching the supernatural. Priests were celibate and were required to live a simple, spartan life. They performed constant self-sacrifice in the form of bloodletting as penitence (by passing barbed cords through the tongue and ears). This pattern of worship reached its climax in the practice of human sacrifice; it was in this aspect of Aztec culture that religion, war, and politics became closely related. Ideologically at least, Aztec warfare was waged for the purpose of obtaining sacrificial victims. The tribute lists, of course, demonstrate that there was a more mundane purpose as well, and it would be a serious mistake to think of Aztec warfare as functioning primarily in the religious sphere.

The cult of the gods required a large professional priesthood. Spanish documents indicate that the priesthood was one of the most elaborate of Aztec institutions. Each temple and god had its attendant priestly order. At Tenochtitlán the high priests of Tlaloc and Huitzilopochtli served as heads of the entire priestly organization. Within the orders were priests in charge of ceremonies, of the education of novices, of astrology, and of the temple lands. (These consisted of specific rural communities assigned by the state to particular temples.) Furthermore, there were several grades of priests. As noted above, the priests maintained a number of schools, or calmecacs, where sons of the nobility and certain commoners were given instruction. Most of the novices ultimately left the priesthood and carried out economic and political functions; others remained, joined the priesthood on a permanent basis, and lived at the calmecac.

Much of Aztec religion probably was practiced at home at special household altars. Common archaeological artifacts are small baked-clay idols or figurines, representing specific gods apparently used in these household ceremonies, along with incense burners.

"Sammon puolustus" (The defending of the Sampo) by Akseli Gallen-Kallela

The later written epic

(Kalevala : the Epic Poem of Finland   (PART I, PART II)
Illustrations by Akseli Gallen-Kallela)

The vitality of the written epic is manifested by such masterworks as the Italian Divine Comedy of Dante (1265–1321) and the great Portuguese patriotic poem Os Lusíadas of Luiz de Camőes (1524–80), which celebrates the voyage of Vasco da Gama to India.

In more recent times, novels and long narrative poems written by such major authors as
Scott, Byron, Tennyson, William Morris, and Melville were patterned, to some extent, on the epic. Their fidelity to the genre, however, is found primarily in their large scope and their roots in a national soil; their distance from the traditional oral epic tends to be considerable.

Among the epics written in modern times, the Finnish "Kalevala" (first ed. 1835; enlarged ed. 1849) occupies a very special position. This is because its author, the Finnish poet-scholar Elias Lönnrot (1802–84), who composed this masterpiece by combining short popular songs (runot) collected by himself among the Finns, had absorbed his material so well and identified himself so completely with the runo singers. He thus came close to showing what the oral epic, which he could study only at its degenerative stage, might have been at its creative stage, on the lips of an exceptionally gifted singer.

Atsuhiko Yoshida


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