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Genre of the Epic Poem

The Iliad is an epic poem and part of the ancient Greek oral tradition. Homer’s audience was an illiterate culture, and Homer himself was most likely illiterate. Many critics believe that the composition of the Iliad predated any form of writing in the Greek culture. There are some critics, however, who believe that the Iliad must have existed in writing, given its length and complexity. It would have been nearly impossible to maintain such a coherent form by oral transmission alone. This does not mean, however, that it existed in the form that we now know it, or that it was accessible to the general public. If writing did exist, it is thought to have been practiced only by a few storytellers. These “Men of Words” would write down their best tales for their own use and to train their apprentices. They would not be seen by anyone else. Because of the enormous effort of writing, these books would become very valuable possessions, and would be passed down from the storyteller to his successor (Murray, 95-96).

The poets themselves were highly regarded by their contemporaries and treated as fellow workers who attempted to bring beauty to life. The purpose of the tales was both to eloquently preserve the history of a people and to entertain. The stories consisted of a mix of common history borrowed from past poets and embellishments added by the poet. Because these poems were delivered orally, they were adapted and elaborated with each telling, and were never the same twice. Whether written or not, the elaborate tales were recited by professional oral poets as entertainment at banquets, festivals, and fairs. It is known, for instance, that the Iliad was performed yearly at the Panathenaea in Athens, a great fair held every four years and lasting several days. At this festival, the Iliad was performed in relay fashion by many storytellers competing against each other. Each bard would attempt to make his portion of the poem more entertaining than the others. This resulted in some stretching and embellishment of facts. These were permitted as long as the teller did not deviate too far from known history.

A poet would rely on several routine devices to remember the core events of the narrative. These included the following:

1) Epic Hero—a virtuous and noble figure, proven in battle, who represents his nation, culture, or race.

2) Length—while each episode was designed to be recounted in a single evening, the entire work is quite long.

3) Lofty Style—the tone of the work is primarily serious, and the style is exalted—worthy of the subject.

4) Epic Similes—the poem contains extended comparisons between one element or character and something foreign to the poem. The simile helps the reader to see the object in a different way, and says a great deal with fewer words than would otherwise be necessary.

5) Catalogs/Genealogies—the work usually contains long inventories or catalogs of characters, equipment, or other elements. Also included are elaborate genealogies of major characters, underlying their history and importance.

6) Supernatural Involvement—the main action of the work always includes involvement of the gods to either help or hinder the hero.

7) Invocation—most poems begin with an invocation to the Muses, or to some other higher power, requesting guidance. One Muse often invoked is Calliope, the Muse of epic poetry. The invocation serves as an introduction to the action that is about to be recounted.

8) In Medias Res—it is not uncommon for an epic poem to begin in the middle of the action and proceed to fill in details of events that occurred earlier.

9) Voyage Across the Sea—most epic poems include a sea voyage by the hero or other major character. This convention gives the poet an opportunity to test the hero in unfamiliar circumstances.

10) Trip to the Underworld—many epics also contain a dangerous visit to the underworld, where the hero gathers advice and information from the dead.

11) Epic Battles—another feature is accounts...

(The entire section is 9,063 words.)