Epic Poetry/Glossary

From Gerald R. Lucas

The following vocabulary is important in the study of the epic. This is just a glossary that gives a general idea of the terms; further research is always encouraged.

Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres - Achilles Receiving the Ambassadors of Agamemnon, 1801.jpg
The aoidos was a singer or bard who composed and performed epic poems orally, often accompanying themselves on a musical instrument such as a lyre. The aoidos was primarily responsible for the composition and performance of epic poetry, and they were highly respected for their skill and creativity. The most famous example of an aoidos in Greek literature is Homer, who is credited with composing the Iliad and the Odyssey.
Literally “turning away”,[1] it’s the narrator’s interruption of the narration to directly address to a character or some abstract quality as if it was present.[2] The rhapsode’s traditional invocation to the muse in epic poetry is an example of apostrophe.[3] See “O My Rider.”
Arete is excellence or virtue, particularly moral excellence. In epic poetry, arete is often used to describe the heroic qualities of the central characters, such as their courage, wisdom, and honor. Arete is important in epic poetry because it reinforces the idea of the heroic ideal, which values excellence in all aspects of life. The heroic characters in epic poetry are not just skilled warriors, but also embody moral excellence and virtuous behavior. This concept is particularly important in the Odyssey, where Odysseus is portrayed as not only a skilled warrior but also a wise and honorable leader. Arete is also closely related to the concept of kleos, as the pursuit of excellence and moral virtue contributes to a hero’s legacy and reputation. The heroes in epic poetry seek not only glory in battle (aristeia) but also strive to live virtuous and honorable lives, which contributes to their lasting legacy and kleos.
Aristeia is a warrior’s moment of excellence or glory in battle. It is an important aspect of epic poetry because it highlights the heroic qualities of the central characters, particularly their courage, strength, and skill in battle. Aristeia often involves the warrior achieving extraordinary feats or performing exceptional acts of bravery, such as slaying numerous enemies or defending their comrades against overwhelming odds. Aristeia creates a sense of drama and excitement in battle scenes and keeps the audience engaged with the narrative. Additionally, aristeia serves to reinforce the themes of the epic poem, such as honor, loyalty, and courage, which are central to the heroic ideal.
Aristoi refers to the best or noblest members of society. In the context of epic poetry, aristoi are often portrayed as the most heroic and virtuous characters in the narrative, embodying the highest ideals (arete) of the heroic ideal. Therefore, aristoi serve as models for behavior and embody the values and virtues that the culture values most highly. They often represent the ideal of leadership, embodying the qualities of wisdom, courage, and integrity that are essential to leading others effectively. The concept of aristoi is closely related to arete, as aristoi often embody the highest form of moral excellence and virtue. They are also closely related to the concept of hubris, as their position of privilege and power can sometimes lead them to act with excessive pride or arrogance.
Dactylic hexameter
The meter of epic poetry has six dactyl (a long and two short syllables) feet. This provides the musical rhythm of the verse.
Deus ex machina
Literally translating to “god from the machine,” it refers to a plot device where a seemingly unsolvable problem or conflict is suddenly and abruptly resolved through the intervention of a divine or supernatural entity. In epic poetry, the use of deus ex machina serves various purposes. It can provide a climactic resolution to a complex or seemingly insurmountable situation, offering a sense of closure and tying up loose ends. It may also serve as a reminder of the influence of the divine in human affairs, emphasizing the idea of fate, destiny, or the gods’ control over mortal lives.
Formulaic units used as mnemonic aids and a way to adhere to dactylic hexameter,[4] epithets described characters or things using a characteristic quality, like the “wily Odysseus” or “Pallas Athena.” Homer often used compound adjectives as epithets, like “wine-dark sea” and “rosy-fingered dawn” called Homeric epithets.[5]
Heroic Ideal
The heroic ideal refers to the set of qualities and values that are seen as desirable and admirable in a hero. These qualities include physical strength, courage, skill, intelligence, wisdom, compassion, and moral virtue. The heroic ideal emphasizes the pursuit of excellence in all aspects of life, and it encourages individuals to strive for personal growth and self-improvement. The ideal hero is a well-rounded individual who embodies the highest ideals of a culture and serves as a role model for others to follow.
Hubris, excessive pride, arrogance, or overconfidence, is often the bane of heroic characters who believe themselves invincible and above the gods. This concept is closely tied to the idea of the tragic hero, as the hero’s hubris often leads to their downfall. Examples of hubris can be found throughout Greek epic poetry, such as when Achilles refuses to return Hector’s body to his family or when Odysseus taunts Polyphemus after escaping his cave.
Kleos, or everlasting glory, is individual fame earned through heroic deeds that earns a hero a place in stories and legends. Kleos is closely tied to aristeia, as a warrior’s moment of excellence in battle contributes to their kleos. Kleos is an important motivator for many heroic characters in epic poetry, as they seek to earn a lasting legacy through their deeds.
Mēnis is a term that refers to the concept of divine anger or wrath. It is often used in the context of the gods’ reactions to the actions of mortals, particularly when those actions go against the will of the gods. Mēnis is a significant theme in the Iliad, where Achilles’ wrath serves as a driving force for the narrative. The concept of mēnis is significant in epic poetry because it highlights the tension between mortals and the gods, and the idea that the actions of mortals can have far-reaching consequences beyond their own lives. It also underscores the importance of proper behavior and the avoidance of actions that might anger the gods.
Nostos refers to the theme of homecoming or return in literature, particularly in epic poetry. It is a central theme in many ancient Greek epics, including the Odyssey by Homer. The nostos theme is significant in epic poetry because it represents a universal human experience of longing for home and the desire to return to one's roots. It also reflects the importance of family, community, and one’s homeland in ancient Greek culture. For the Greeks, a successful nostos was not only a physical journey but also a spiritual and moral one, as the hero must demonstrate his worthiness and virtue in order to be reunited with his family and community.
Paideia is an ancient Greek term that refers to the process of education and cultural development. It encompasses a wide range of ideas including the transmission of knowledge, the development of character and morality, and the cultivation of artistic and intellectual pursuits. It was seen as essential for participation in civic life, and heroes in epic poetry were expected to possess not only physical strength and prowess but also intellectual and artistic skills. The concept of paideia has had a lasting impact on Western culture, particularly in the fields of education and philosophy.
Cunning intelligence, or “with many wiles”: with polytropos, another of Odysseus’ epithets. This is Odysseus the strategist.
“Versatile” or with “many twists and turns”: the chief epithet of Odysseus. As Hexter points out, Odysseus’ “creative cunning and manifold misfortunes” are represented by the many poly- adjectives Homer employs to describe him: “Flexibility, adaptability, and trickiness belong to the core of Odysseus’ being.”[6]
The rhapsode was a performer who recited or chanted epic poetry that had already been composed by an aoidos or other poet. The rhapsode was responsible for the interpretation and presentation of the epic poem, often performing it in front of an audience at festivals, competitions, or other public events. The rhapsode was considered an important interpreter and transmitter of epic poetry, and they were highly valued for their skill in performing and conveying the meaning of the poem. Homer’s depiction of Demodocus in the Odyssey is an rhapsode.
Timē refers to the concept of honor or esteem, particularly in relation to social status and reputation. It is earned through various means such as displaying physical prowess in battle, demonstrating moral virtue, or acquiring material wealth. Timē is often inherited through one’s family or lineage, as social status was highly stratified in ancient Greek society. While related to the concept of honor and esteem, timē differs from kleos, which refers to the concept of glory or fame earned through heroic deeds. The concept of timē is central to the narrative of the Iliad, as Achilles’ decision to withdraw from battle is driven in part by his anger at having his timē threatened by Agamemnon.
The code of hospitality or “guest-friendship” exemplified by a pattern of behaviors and expectations between the host and the guest.


Works Cited

  • Cuddon, J. A. (1976). A Dictionary of Literary Terms (Revised ed.). New York: Penguin.
  • Frye, Northrup; Baker, Sheridan; Perkins, George; Perkins, Barbara M. (1997). The Harper Handbook to Literature (Second ed.). New York: Longman.
  • Harmon, William; Holman, Hugh (2003). A Handbook to Literature (Ninth ed.). Upper Saddle Creek, NJ: Prentice Hall.
  • Hexter, Ralph (1993). A Guide to the Odyssey. New York: Vintage.
  • Kennedy, X. J.; Giola, Dana; Bauerlein, Mark (2013). Handbook of Literary Terms: Literature, Language, Theory. Boston: Pearson.