What epic elements do you find in Homer's Iliad?


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The structure and themes of Homer's epic poem the Iliad have become the exemplar for many of the subsequent epic poems in the Western literary canon. For your assignment, consider the following "epic elements" and how they appear in the poem:

1. An epic usually begins in media res, a Latin phrase meaning "in the midst of things." The Iliad opens in the final days of a decade-long war, in the encampment of the Achaeans, who are suffering from a mysterious plague. Homer provides no formal prologue explaining how and why the Achaeans have come to this place, nor when the plague started, nor introductions of any characters. He instead goes directly to the scene which catalyzes the action of the poem, the argument between Achilles and Agamemnon:

Begin, Muse, when the two first broke and clashed,
Agamemnon lord of men and brilliant Achilles.

This is because epics weave together many elements of myth and folklore into a larger narrative. The context that is missing from Homer's opening scene would already have been known to his audience, in the same way that, for instance, the legends of King Arthur or stories from the Bible are known to modern Western audiences.

2. The natural and the supernatural together make up the setting of an epic, so that the action in the story takes place not just on earth, but also in the heavens and the underworld. In the Iliad, the events on the battlefield are often affected by the events on Mount Olympus, and gods, demi-gods, nymphs, and nature spirits all help and hinder the human characters in various ways throughout the poem.

3. The main characters of an epic are larger than life, sometimes of divine or otherwise supernatural parentage, and often possessed of superhuman abilities. The Iliad's main character, Achilles, is the son of a mortal king and a sea-goddess. He is the pre-eminent warrior of all the Achaeans, referred to as "brilliant," "godlike," and "swift-footed." His Trojan counterpart, Hector, is fully human, but also described as "godlike" and "mighty," the crown prince of Troy and his city's valiant defender. Both Achilles and Hector are characters of legendary status whose virtues and faults have tremendous impact on the course of narrative. The events of the Iliad will finally bring them face-to-face at the climax of the poem, and the clash of these two heroes determines the fates of their respective armies.

4. The structure of an epic poem is a key aspect of what makes it an epic. Epics often contain epithets, descriptive phrases attached to specific people, places, or things. These were used as mnemonics by poets in the oral traditions from which the Iliad arose, and the Iliad is full of them. Examples include "gray-eyed Athena," "rosy-fingered Dawn," "Tiryns of the mighty walls," "Zeus of the lightning bolt," and "Hector, breaker of horses." Epics also tend to contain long similes describing people, places, or things; the most famous simile in the Iliad is that of Achilles's shield, which takes up the whole of Book 18. Digressions into personal histories, genealogies, and related myths are also part of the fabric of an epic, enriching the main narrative with a large amount of background information.

If you review the text with these elements in mind, you will find many more examples than the few I've given here.

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The Iliad is one of the first epics and so became a model that followers have imitated for more than two thousand years. Some elements of the epic in this work include:

It begins with with an invocation to the muses.

It begins in media res: this means it begins in the middle of the action. The Iliad begins near the end of the raging Trojan War. 

It uses epithets, which are metaphors or descriptive terms repeatedly applied to a person or thing: an example would be swift-footed Achilles or rosy-fingered dawn.

The main characters are noble figures or figures with high status in society. The stars of an epic are not everyday people, fumbling fools or peasant farmers. The Iliad features the top people in the society: kings, princes, commanders and warriors. The main character, such as Achilles, is a hero. 

The hero embodies the values of the culture: Achilles is the exemplary brave and strong warrior of a warrior culture. He also has to choose between two of his culture's main values: homecoming or fame. He begs not to have to make the choice but ultimately chooses fame. 

The gods are directly involved in the action of an epic. This is definitely true of the Iliad. For instance, Hera and Athena are angry at Paris, a Trojan, so actively side against Troy in the war. And the list goes on.

It contains epic catalogues or lists. The Iliad contains a famous Catalogue of Ships and the Trojan Battle Order.

It contains long speeches.

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Your technique for working on this assignment should begin with a review of your class notes on the nature of epic. Next, you should make a list of those things which your instructor says are characteristic of epic. As you read Homer, you can then note down occurrences of those elements. The most popular book of the Iliad in antiquity was Book 2, and it displays many of the traditional epic elements.

First, the Iliad was written in dactylic hexameter, the traditional meter of Greek epic. It uses epic epithets, descriptive formulae repeated in fixed metrical positions. It shows some elements of formular economy, where only a limited number of epithets applicable to an individual noun can be found in a specific metrical position. Epithets reflect the characteristic of the person being described rather than the specific situation, as when the epithet "laughing" is applied to Aphrodite when she is crying.

The Iliad is typical of the epic genre in its depiction of nobles and heroes engaged in agonistic behavior. It incorporates and passes down many of the important traditions and customs of the culture in which it was composed. It displays homeostasis in, for example, the incorporation of archaic military technology into a Mycenaean setting.

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