in Epic Poeoty

anthromorphism: The description of non-human items in terms of human characteristics and activities, especially the description of divine beings.

arete: The Greek concept of excellence which over the course of time was applied to all the virtues they idealized, including skill in battle, public speaking and sports, intellectual and moral excellence, etc.

convention: Any arbitrary rule, practice or device employed to achieve some end.

dactylic hexameter: A line of verse containing six feet, each consisting of one accented (or long) syllable, followed by two unaccented (or short) syllables. Dactylic hexameter was the standard meter for epic poetry in both Greek and Latin (e.g. the Odyssey, the Nature of the Universe). English example - Longfellow's Evangeline:

This is the / forest pri- / meval the / murmuring / pines and the / hemlocks.

epic: A long narrative poem recounting the deeds of a legendary or historical hero, having a serious theme, and written in a dignified style.

epic retardation: Stopping the action at a critical point to tell a more or less relevant story. Its purpose is to create suspense or to relieve tension.

epic simile: An explicit comparison used by epic poets, containing a phrase such as like, as, as when, even as, etc.

Example: "---and having so said she (Athene) went, suddenly and elusively as a sea bird goes."

formula: A ready-made phrase, varying in length from a word or two to several lines, already adapted to the meter and capable of being adapted instantaneously to the poet's subject-matter.

(N.B. About 1/5 of the Homeric poems is composed of lines which are wholly repeated from one place to another. And in 28,0000 lines, there are some 25,000 repeated phrases. It is repetitionwhich turns a phrase into a formula and the process is determined both by a time element and the usefulness of a given phrase.)


(1) Epithet: A characterizing word or phrase joined constantly with the name of a person or thing.

Examples: long-haired Achaeans, wine-dark sea, rosy-fingered dawn, ox-eyedHera.

(2) Formulaic phrase: A set form of words used in describing a ceremony, custom, or repeated action.

Examples: "when they had put away their desire for eating and drinking" (Lattimore)

"Not till desire for food and drink had left them..."


"But when the sun went down and the sacred darkness came over," (Lattimore)

(3) Theme: A general incident, story, or description with a specific structure, which the poet may use as is or may elaborate as his telling of the story demands.

Example: the Agamemnon-Orestes theme

The hospitable reception of a guest

xenia: guestfriendship. The bond of friendship between host and guest is permanent and assumes obligations on the part of both host and guest. For the importance of guestfriendship in the Homeric epics, see the confrontation between Diomedes and Glaukos at Iliad  VI:102-236, the interaction between Odysseus and the Phaiakians in Odyssey 6-13, and, especially, the suitors in the Odyssey.

in medias res (English translation: into the middle of things): The epic device of beginning the narrative with an important event rather than the first event in time. Events prior to that chosen as the starting point of the epic are recounted later, in the form of flash-backs or retrospective narrative.

elaborate description: a detailed description of an object, usually of great importance to the plot, such as Agamemnon's sceptre, Odysseus' scar, Nestor's cup, etc.

invocation: The opening lines of the poem, which contain the author's request for inspiration and guidance from a deity (often a Muse).

personification: A description of anything inanimate or abstract (e.g. an aspect of nature, a vice or a virtue) as though it were a human being.

aristeia:  a scene in which the military deeds of a single warrior are described and celebrated.

androktasia: description of the death of a warrior

These definitions of important terms in epic poetry have been used for many years by Professor Tom Sienkewicz in his courses at Howard University and at Monmouth College in Monmouth, Illinois. If you have any questions, you may contact him at

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