The Iliad as an epic or primary epic

Question: Discuss The Iliad as an epic or primary epic. The Iliad as an epic or primary epic.


An epic is a long narrative poem on a grand scale about the deeds of warriors and heroes, kings, and is majestic both in theme and style. The epic is a polygonal heroic story incorporating myth, legend, folktale, religion, and historical events of a national or universal significance and also a cultural mirror with a fixed ideological stance.

Genre of epic

Epic poetry falls into two distinct groups- primary or folk epic and literary or secondary epic. Homer’s “The Iliad” written in Mid-8th Century BC belongs to the former. A primary epic is written in oral tradition having some fundamental features. “The Iliad” which is usually considered to be the earliest work and one of the best known and loved stories of all time is limned as a primary epic.

 Media res or starting from the middle

A primary epic commences in media res. Media res is a Latin phrase that stands for in the midst of things. “The Iliad” begins in the final days of decade long war when the Achaean forces suffer from a mysterious plague and have flashbacks to explain action leading up to the point. Homer does not give an introduction and starts from the scene of the poem an argument between Agamemnon and Achilles.

“Begin, Muse, when the two first broke and clashed,
Agamemnon lord of men and brilliant Achilles”

Invocation to the Muse

Like another primary epic, “The Iliad” also opens with an invocation to a god or gods. The poet who recited epic in those days believed that the called upon god or muse came into them. It means really that it was not the poet who recited but the god in the poet’s body and therefore the poets were considered very sacred that is why they invoked the muse. In the case of the beginning of this very poem, the poet says something like:

“Sing, goddess of epic poetry, the story of the anger of Achilles.”

Declaration of the theme at the outset

In the epic poem, the theme is usually stated at the beginning of the poem as such poems are so long and complex. The central interest or theme of “Iliad” is the wrath or anger of Achilles which has been stated at the beginning.

Use of many epithets

A primary epic usually has many epithets. These epithets are named after the characters, gods, or things by stock phrases. An example of the renaming of Agamemnon and Menelaus is “Atreus’ two sons” or “The twin eagles”.

Use of supernatural agents

It is a must for epic supernatural agents and “Iliad” is not devoid of this. Homer has used the Olympian gods and goddesses who take part in the poem separating into two parts. The most powerful gods and goddesses are equally balanced in the two groups such as Aphrodite and Apollo in support of Trojans and Hera, Athena, and Hephaestus in support of the Achaeans.

The heroes larger than life

The main characters of an epic are larger than life which refers to that they possess superhuman abilities. The main characters of “The Iliad”, Achilles and Hector are characters of legendary status whose virtues and faults have a tremendous impact on the plot of the poem. So, they are the power machine and larger than life.

Vast setting

The setting of an epic is vast. The setting of The Iliad is also vast encompassing both the Greek and Trojan islands.

Use of Epic simile or Homeric simile

According to Aristotle, an epic must have a majestic language which is apt to several parts of the narrative. Homer has used his simile that has made his language majestic. An epic simile is a long comparison of two different things for the purpose of clarifying an image vividly. A nice example can be found in the long comparison of Paris Alexander to a fine horse that has been manager fed a long time in a stable. When the horse is released to pasture, it races out with quick and proud strides. So, Paris ran to the battle.

A number of similes are available in the illustrious epic which describes the image vividly. Achilles shield has been compared in the following manner:

“The massive shield flashing far and wide like a full round moon”


Therefore, we see that as an epic The Iliad fulfills almost all the requirements of a primary epic.

Biswazit Kumar
Biswazit Kumar
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