Epic genre: what it is, meaning, definition, origin, characteristics and more


What is the epic genre?

The epic genre, also known simply as epic, is the oldest classification on record that, although it combines aspects from the narrative genre, has achieved a very important place in the history of literature, so that it has been distinguished as a separate genre that includes other sub-genres that we will talk about in a moment.

The epic is one of the most important genres of literature, since it is considered to be one of the first elements that were used for the first writings, among which we find works by authors such as Homer, who is distinguished as the main exponent of this genre with his works in verse in which he narrates the exploits of heroes either historical or that are part of ancient mythology.

Meaning of the epic 

As for the etymology of the word epic or epic, it comes from the Greek -epikós-, which refers to narration in verse, a form in which the exploits of heroes of the time were told, which could belong to reality or be part of Greek mythology.

Definition of the epic genre 

Ultimately, the epic can be defined as a literary genre that narrates in verse the historical exploits of real or mythological heroes, whose deeds star a being that may have superhuman abilities and that is constructed in such a way that it configures the ideal of the human being to be followed.

A fundamental aspect of this genre is that it has allowed us to access very important historical information from the Greek poets who leave a record of the daily life, thought and culture of the time.

History and origin: How did the epic genre arise?

The origin of the epic genre or epic is located in the seventh century B.C., time of which is recorded by the appearance of the first text of the genre written by Homer, one of the most important Greek poets in history and who is considered the main representative of the epic genre with crucial works such as The Odyssey and The Iliad, since from this time begin to write many more works with the characteristics raised.

Thus, with its evolution, the epic reaches the Middle Ages to produce relevant works that will become, with the passage of time, exponent figures of literature, among which we find the Divine Comedy, a text written by Dante Alighieri.

Characteristics of the epic genre

Having seen the above, it is time to start delving into the epic from its main characteristics. These are:


The central theme of the epic is the exploits of a hero, since its narrative will take a journey that allows the reader to closely observe the life and deeds that the hero has achieved. Often the narrative can be real or inspired by Greek mythology. This is known as a war theme, which can also include the development of a military conflict or war, a space in which the hero is placed.

Objective of the epic

It is important to consider that the epic, due to the themes it handled in its beginnings, became a literary genre that sought to instruct society through the teaching and exposition of the virtues of a hero or human ideal to be followed and imitated. In this sense, defects and punishments are condemned with the construction of a tragic and irreversible destiny for the character.

The hero

It is important to bear in mind that in the narrative, although the exploits are highlighted in detail, in many cases, what is intentionally sought is that the hero appears in the works in an idealized form, a figure or model that should be followed, since he has exemplary virtues within the ideal human, attributing characteristics such as bravery, ethics, loyalty, strength and above all, being a good citizen.

Supernatural aspects

The epic and its compositions always contain a great amount of supernatural elements within all its narration, a visible aspect in the most important epic works. Supernatural elements can be, for example, the presence of mythical characters such as angels, demons or gods, among others. Thus, the narrative, with its actions and texts, also includes a great amount of moral meanings that have the objective of instructing the citizens, a subject that allowed them to be able to guarantee better citizens.

Religious element

Religion is one of the most frequent elements within the poems of the epic genre, since it is based fundamentally on the gods, figures that represent and develop a very important role within the plot, since they decide and define the actions and consequences that the main character carries. In addition to this, they influence the moral aspect, since they are the ones who judge the actions committed by human beings and their teaching is the instruction for citizens.

What is the epic genre

Form of composition of the epic

Another key aspect of epic is that its writings are narrated in verse form, which enhances the tone and cult of the epic genre in literature. This is especially because the genre could only be carried by educated people, given that it was narrative poems where the exploits of a hero were expounded. It is a narrative in the past tense.

It should be noted that the narrator may or may not appear in the work, prose narration can also be handled, it often includes other genres such as lyric, dramatic and didactic genre, which you will find in our Literature section.

The epic subgenres that exist

In the epic we find the following subgenres: the epic, the epic poem, the canto de gesta, the romances, the book of chivalry, the pastoral novel, and finally the epilion or epilion.

Song of Gesta

It is a subgenre that is composed of several popular poems in which the stories of historical or legendary characters of a given region are referred to. In other words, the cantar de gesta narrates the exploits of a figure or hero of great importance, as well as the virtues that allowed him to reach the victory of his struggle. It is a type of composition that emerged and developed mainly during the Middle Ages. Its content was recited or sung.


Known among the epic subgenres also as epilion, it refers to a literary composition that developed mainly during the Hellenistic period, an important moment of literary evolution. It is a short poem that is usually of amorous character, although there are others that focus on mythology. It is composed of a single episode that is usually part or fragment of a longer work. It is structured on the basis of hexameters.


It is one of the best known subgenres of the epic genre. It is mainly characterized by narrating the exploits or actions developed by a character distinguished in the cultural or historical context for his heroic attitude. Another important aspect of the epic is the presence of supernatural elements in the adventures it presents. Thus, it is a work with fictional and mythical touches that is usually of long length. It focuses on the illustration of important actions for a certain people to whom it tells the stories of the personality.

Book of chivalry

It is often referred to as a novel of chivalry and is distinguished because it is a type of work that focuses on the exploits of a knight, hence its name. The book of chivalry tells stories with a free structure through which it highlights the virtues of the knight in his journey, facing conflicting situations, obstacles and problems. It is written in prose and reveals other aspects such as the character’s courage, the idealization of love, the importance of commitment to his people, among others.


This subgenre is developed mainly during the Renaissance, although it will also reach an important recognition in the Golden Age. It is distinguished because it tells the story of a shepherd or peasant, through which the pastoral novel, as it is also known, allows us to see important events in which it idealizes, often on issues of sentimental relationships in most cases. It can also focus on pastoral or peasant life.

Epic poem

It is a type of story in which the content focuses on the history and heroic deeds of a character. One of its main characteristics has to do with the fact that, besides being of an important extension, it presents in an objective way the facts that can be real or a product of the imagination. It usually has a narrator who is present in the story, and it can be written to be recited or sung. Among the most recurrent events it is possible to find travels, divine interventions, supernatural events, among others.


It is one of the best known sub-genres of the epic genre. The romance is a type of work written in prose in which a story of great extension and often of fictitious character is developed. The romance takes place in a world created by the author in which the characters face fantasy events. In general, it is a poetic narrative work that can deal with a wide variety of themes and is narrated by artists in exchange for money or food.

Authors and most important works 

The two most important works of the epic in literature are fundamentally “The Iliad” and “The Odyssey”, texts written by the maximum representative of the epic genre during antiquity. We also find other works such as The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri, The Aeneid by Virgil, The Song of Mio Cid, among others.

Example of the epic genre

The following is a fragment of the work The Odyssey, presumably written by Homer, being one of the main works of the epic:

Meanwhile the solid ship in her light course

confronted the Sirens: a happy breeze impelled it

but suddenly that breeze ceased, a profound calm

was felt all around: some god was smoothing the waves.

Then my men stood up, folded up the sail, dropped it to the bottom of the ship and let it fall to the bottom of the ship,

dropped it to the bottom of the boat and, sitting at the oar,

they whitened the sea of foam with the polished paddles.

I meanwhile took the sharp bronze, cut a loaf of wax, and, breaking it into pieces

and, breaking it into small pieces, I pinched them with my sturdy hand.

with my sturdy hand: they soon softened, for my fingers were

and the fire of the sun from above were powerful.


One by one I covered the ears of my men with them

and, in their turn, they tied my legs and hands

and hands to the mast, straight, with strong ropes,

and then, lashing with the oars, they returned to the foaming sea.

Already the coast was no more than a shout away.

and the cruising ship was flying, but the Mermaids perceived

the Sirens perceived its passage and raised their sonorous song:

“Come hither, of the Danaans honor, most glorious Odysseus!

“Hold back the ardor of your march to hear our song,

for no man in his black vessel passes here without heeding this voice

to this voice that in honey sweetness flows from our lips.

Whoever listens to it happily gets to know a thousand things:

the works we know that there by the Troade and its fields

of the gods imposed the power to Trojans and Argives

and even that which happens everywhere in the fertile land”.

Such they said, exhaling the sweetest voice and in my chest

I longed to hear them.