Epic Poetry Vocabulary

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 term; further research is always encouraged.

Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres - Achilles Receiving the Ambassadors of Agamemnon, 1801.jpg
A bard, or an early singer of oral epic poetry. Homer’s depiction of Demodocus in the Odyssey is an aoidos.
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.”
The excellence or moral virtue of a hero.
Literally “excellence,” this is when an epic hero reaches his finest moments in battle.
The “best people,” the nobility or aristocrats. Sharing the same root as arete, the aristos are the heroes of the Homeric epics.
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.
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]
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 professional performer of epic poetry in the fifth and fourth centuries bce.
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.