An epic is a long narrative poem, elevated in style and large in scope and effect, that is concerned with the great deeds of great men. The word is derived from the Greek epos, which originally meant "word", later "speech" or "song," and, finally, poetry about heroes outstanding for their nobility, magnanimity, and prowess. In its scope the epic ranges freely and with authority over the natural and human order, over history and legend, and even over the fantastic and supernatural worlds. The epic is responsive to, yet finally transcends, the ethos of its time and place. Its most distinctive characteristics are heroic action, the celebration of human greatness, and the encounter between the hero's greatness and his mortality.
In most ages, the epic dominated both literature and culture. Homer, creator of the Iliad and the Odyssey, was for centuries the supreme teacher of ancient Greece, and his epics were regarded as epitomes of art and knowledge. For Western civilization down to the Renaissance, Vergil's great Latin epic the Aeneid is second only to the Bible in the importance of its influence. Regarded as the supreme poet, an omniscient magician, and (even though he lived before Christ) a Christian seer, Vergil became the preeminent model for later poets and a major source of knowledge, literary taste, ideals, and conduct. In 14th century Italy, Petrarch's aspiration to write a great epic was simply taken for granted, for the epic was regarded as the noblest achievement of the human spirit. Critics and poets as diverse as Dante, Vida, Sidney, Tasso, Dryden, and Pope identified the epic as the highest art.
For the Greeks, the epic had didactic authority; for the Romans, it had literary and moral authority; for the Christians, it was a vehicle for revaluation of the classical world; and for the Renaissance, it embodied the ideals of humanism. From the earliest times, major poetry aspired to the condition of the epic.
Oral and Written Epic
Distinctions used to be made between natural, primitive, or primary epics and literary, artificial, or secondary epics. Derived from romantic age preconceptions, these distinctions had little basis in the poetry. However, viable distinctions can be made between the oral and written epic. The earliest epics (whether in heroic-age Greek or Teutonic cultures or in contemporary undeveloped cultures) were apparently oral, developed from earlier poetry.
According to the American scholar A. B. Lord, oral poetry means poetry composed in oral performance by unlettered bards. It depends on improvisation with the help of formulas, but formulas are not to be understood as actual phrases. They are rather patterns for the poetry- syntactic, metric, even acoustic patterns. The work itself is a rehearsing or recomposition rather than a performance of memory. The sung epic relied heavily on what Lord called the generic song. This is the essential core of ideas that survive performances and reinterpretations- such as the motif of the return (nostos) of the hero, as in the Odyssey. The singer himself was considered to be inspired by the Muses.
Early written epics took their point of departure from oral poetry, so that Homeric formulas and conventions were widely adopted. In time, however, the written epic found its own norms and developed a vital independent tradition.