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An epic (from the Ancient Greek adjective ἐπικός (epikos), from ἔπος (epos) "word, story, poem") is a lengthy narrative poem, ordinarily concerning a serious subject containing details of heroic deeds and events significant to a culture or nation. 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 Western epic (including Vergil's Aeneid and Dante's Divine Comedy) self-consciously presents itself as a continuation of the tradition begun by these poems. Classical epic continues to employ dactylic hexameter and centers its plots around the theme of a journey, either physical (as typified by Odysseus in the Odyssey) or mental (as typified by Achilles in the Iliad) or both. Epics tend also to highlight cultural norms and to define or call into question cultural values, particularly as they pertain to heroism.
Another type of epic poetry is epyllion (plural: epyllia), which is a brief narrative poem with a romantic or mythological theme. The term, which means "little epic", came into use in the nineteenth century. It refers primarily to the erudite, shorter hexameter poems of the Hellenistic period and the similar works composed at Rome from the age of the neoterics; to a lesser degree, the term includes some poems of the English Renaissance, particularly those influenced by Ovid. The most famous example of classical epyllion is perhaps Catullus 64.
Early twentieth-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 showed that the most likely source for written texts of the epics of Homer was dictation from an oral performance.
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. (Harmon and Holman)
An attempt to delineate ten main characteristics of an epic:
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 culture.
Conventions of epics:
Poets in literate societies have sometimes copied the epic format. The earliest surviving European examples are the Argonautica of Apollonius of Rhodes and Virgil's Aeneid, which follow both the style and subject matter of Homer. Other obvious examples are Nonnus' Dionysiaca, Tulsidas' Sri Ramacharit Manas.
(The date of compositions of Babylonian epics is often hard to determine, as they may survive on manuscripts that are much later than the first composition. There is also the complication that they underwent successive revisions and redactions.)
The dates of origin of these Hindu epics are hard to determine, as they existed for a long time in history as oral traditions with numerous versions and also in different regions of India and South Asia.
The following poems pertaining Greek mythology were written during this period but they are known only through fragments