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(Russian epos, in its narrow sense, designating a specific genre or group of genres), a heroic narrative about the past that comprises an integrated picture of the life of a people and represents the harmonious unity of a certain heroic world and its epic heroes.
The heroic epic may be in book form or may be transmitted orally. Most of the great epic works recorded in writing had their source in folklore; in fact, the distinctive features of the genre took shape during the folkloric stage, and the heroic epic therefore is often called a folk epic. This designation, however, is not completely accurate, inasmuch as epic works that are in book form have their own distinctive style and sometimes even a distinctive ideology, whereas the folk epics proper—such as ballads, traditional historical accounts, songs, and folk novels—may only with important reservations be called heroic epics.
The heroic epic has come down to us in the form of the epopee—whether in book form (the Iliad, the Odyssey, the Mahabharata, the Ramayana, and Beowulf) or as an oral account (Dzhangar, Alpamysh, and Manas)—as well as in the form of brief “epic songs” (such as the Russian byliny, the South Slavic heroic songs, and the Poetic Edda), which were sometimes grouped into cycles, and more rarely in the form of a prose narrative (such as the saga and the narty epic).
The heroic folk epic (or “folk epic”) is based on the traditional mythological epic literature and heroic folktale as well as on the traditional historical accounts and in part on the panegyrics of later times. The folk epic came into being during the disintegration of the primitive communal system, and it continued to develop in ancient and feudal society, when patriarchal relations and patriarchal notions were to some extent still in force; under such conditions, the depiction of social relations as blood or clan relations—as they were characteristically portrayed in the heroic epic—may have been an as yet unconscious artistic device.
In the archaic epic forms (such as the Karelian and Finnish runes, the heroic narrative poems of the Turkic and Mongolian peoples of Siberia, the narty epics, the oldest portions of the Babylonian Gilgamesh and Poetic Edda, and the epics David of Sasun and Amirani), the heroic elements are still clothed in mythological and folktale garments, the heroes being presented not only as strong in battle but also as possessing “shamanistic” power, and epic foes appearing in the guise of fantastic monsters; the principal themes are the battle against the monster, the hero’s marriage to the “promised bride,” and the family feud.
In the classical epic forms, the heroic leaders and warriors represent a historical nationality (narodnost’), while their enemies are often identified with historical “invaders” or foreign oppressors with different religious beliefs, such as the Turks and Tatars in the Slavic epics. Here the “heroic age” is no longer the mythical age of the world’s creation but rather the glorious historical past at the dawn of the history of nations.
The most ancient forms of the political state—for example, Mycenae in the Iliad, the Kievan state of Prince Vladimir in the byliny, or the state of the four Oirots in Dzhangar—seem to represent a national and social utopia whose face is turned toward the past. The classical epic forms are celebrations of historical (or pseudohistorical) persons and events, although the portrayal of historical realities was in fact subordinated to traditional plot designs; such works sometimes made use of ritual and mythological models.
The epic background was usually created by the struggle between two epic tribes or nationalities, more or less corresponding to actual historical ones. The central event was frequently a military exploit—either an actual historical event (such as the Trojan War in the Iliad, the battle at Kurukshetra in the Mahabharata, and the battle of Kosovo Polje in Serbian epic songs) or, more rarely, a mythical encounter (for example, the battle for Sampo in the Kalevala). Power is usually concentrated in the hands of an epic prince, such as Vladimir in the byliny or Charlemagne in La Chanson de Roland; but the action is carried forward by the bogatyri, or brave warriors, whose heroic character is generally marked not only by boldness but also by independence, stubbornness, and even violent rage (as is the character of Achilles in the Iliad and that of Il’ia Muromets in the byliny). Sometimes their stubbornness brings them into conflict with authority (or, in the archaic epics, into struggle against the divine will); for the most part, however, the direct social nature of the heroic deeds and the commonality of patriotic goals ensure the harmonious resolution of the conflict.
Epics are primarily portrayals of the heroes’ actions, or behavior, and not of their inner feelings; but the plot of the story as such is supplemented by numerous static descriptions and ceremonial dialogues. The stable and relatively homogeneous world of the epic is matched by the unchanging background and often by the smoothly flowing rhythm of epic verse. At the same time that it concentrates on individual episodes, the epic narrative retains its integrity.
REFERENCESZhirmunskii, V. M. Narodnyi geroicheskii epos. Moscow-Leningrad, 1962.
Meletinskii, E. M. Proiskhozhdenie geroicheskogo eposa. Moscow, 1963.
Meletinskii, E. M. “Narodnyi epos.” In Teoriia literatury, book 2: Rody i zhanry literatury. Moscow, 1964.
Grintser, P. A. “Epos drevnego mira.” In the collection Tipologiia i vzaimosviazi literatur drevnego mira. Moscow, 1971.
Tekstologicheskoe izuchenie eposa. Moscow, 1971.
Lord, A. The Singer of Tales. Cambridge, Mass., 1960.
E. M. MELETINSKII