Ancient Epics

Odysseus, the great teller of tales, launched out on his own story…. “Come let me tell you about the voyage fraught with hardship Zeus inflected on me homeward bound from Troy.”—The Odyssey, Book Nine

When I wrote my November 2019 post, I looked at storytelling from various angles, most of which could have independently filled an entire post, if not a book. So I decided then and there that I should blog at least once a year about storytelling.

The beginning seemed like a reasonable place to start, especially since I listened last summer to Robert Fitzgerald’s translation of Homer’s Iliad, which is about the Trojan War, and Odyssey, which is about Odysseus’s return to his home in Ithaca after the war. I’m not an expert on either ancient literature or storytelling, but I thought I could develop a few points that might be intriguing or potentially useful for contemporary storytelling. 

In developing these points, I found it helpful to read the introduction by Bernard Knox in the Penguin Classics deluxe edition of the Odyssey translated by Robert Fagles (ISBN 978-014-026886-7).

The Odyssey
Much like Russian nesting dolls, the Odyssey contains stories within stories.

Telling starts in media res

Epics generally start, not at the beginning, but in media res, or the middle of things. For example, after invoking the muse and introducing Odysseus, the Odyssey starts in the tenth year of the hero’s ten-year journey following the ten-year-long Trojan War. Athena pleas with her father, Zeus, to allow her to aid Odysseus in getting home at last. She makes a plan and begins to execute it. “If the poet had begun at the beginning and observed a strict chronology, he would have been forced to interrupt the flow of his narrative as soon as he got his hero back to Ithaca, in order to explain the extremely complicated situation he would have to deal with in his house.”

Stories were first told and heard, not written and read

I felt like something of a slacker for listening to instead of reading the epics until my older son, who has degrees in the classics, pointed out that’s the way the original audiences would have encountered the tales. In general, the audiences weren’t literate and characters in the epics are never shown writing or reading.

Homer’s role is uncertain

Scholars don’t agree entirely about the origins and authorship of the Iliadand Odyssey. Many stories likely evolved over a period of centuries in various locations. Even if Homer composed these epics, scribes were probably the ones who committed them to papyrus around the eighth century B.C.

Scribes were highly respected

Writers in the ancient world obviously didn’t enjoy modern technology. They earned respect as they wrote in columns on papyrus rolls. Only capital letters were used with no spacing between words. In his introduction, Knox speculates that each of the twenty-four books of the Iliad and the twenty-four Odyssey may have been written on one roll. The works received renewed attention during the Renaissance after the first printed edition of Homer came out in 1488.

It’s Greek to me.

According to Knox, Homer (or his scribes) wrote in the epic meter, the dactylic hexameter. Knox writes, “The syllables are literally long and short; the meter is based on pronunciation time, not, as in our language, on stress.” Since I don’t read Greek, this is a little lost on me. 

Stories are found within stories.

The Iliad and Odyssey reflect the high value ancient Greeks placed on good stories well told, whether through poetry, song, or prose. Each epic includes a proliferation of stories, some of which contain other stories within them like Russian nesting dolls. Some are told through the narrator and others through characters. Odysseus, who tells the story of about his journey home after the Trojan War, is the foremost storyteller, but other notable raconteurs include “the inspired bard Demodocus,” who appears in Book Eight. In the tremendous carnage described in Book Twenty-three, only the bard and herald were spared. 

Ornamental epithets are functional

The attributes that describe characters were often chosen, not so much for their content, but because they fit the meter. Knox writes that American scholar Milman Parry “drew attention to the so-called ‘onamental epithets,’ those long, high-sounding labels that accompany every appearance of a hero, a place, or even a familiar object. Odysseus, for example, is ‘much-enduring, ‘a man of many schemes,’ ‘godlike’ and great-hearted.” Knox continues, “…the epithet chosen by the poet may have nothing to do with, for example, whether Achilles is ‘brilliant’ or ‘swift-footed’ at this particular point in the poem—the choice depends on which epithet fits the meter.”

Repetition was a handy device

Knox explains that oral poets used repetition to their advantage, as repeating a familiar refrain could give them time to think of what they’d say next. He writes, “Whole lines, once honed to perfection by the bards of the tradition, became part of the repertoire: they are especially noticeable in recurring passages like descriptions of sacrifice, of communal eating and drinking. Such passages give the oral singer time to concentrate on what is coming next and, if he is a creative oral poet, to elaborate his own phrases mentally as he recites the formulas that he can sing without effort.”

Hospitality was lavish

Throughout the stories, partly through repeated refrains, listeners hear much about common practices, such as tending livestock, tanning hides, engaging in warfare (especially in the Iliad), and rowing boats. Women were often busy weaving and sometimes praised for the quality of their work. As an Airbnb host and one who grew up enjoying and providing Southern hospitality, I particularly liked hearing about the lavish hospitality shown to wanderers. Typically, guests were welcomed, offered a bath or fresh clothing, fed well, questioned about themselves, entertained, and provided with comfortable bedding. Hosts bestowed gifts on their guests and provided them with safe passage home.

Odysseus was a sly liar

Some of his tales were long on strategy but short on truth. Disguised as a beggar when he reached Ithaca, the “master improviser” told about a night during the Trojan War when the cold might have made “a corpse of him” if he hadn’t received a cloak. On hearing this, his host in Ithaca not only provided a cloak for “the great teller of tales,” but complimented him, saying, “That was a fine story and well told—not a word out of place, not a pointless word. No, you’ll not sleep cold for lack of a cover or any other comfort that one should give a needy guest.” 

Ancient epics inspired modern works

The Odyssey, in particular, has been retold in other contexts. The first one that comes to mind is the 2000 Coen brothers’ movie O Brother, Where Art Thou? The film, which is set in 1937 in rural Mississippi, starred George Clooney showcased old-time folk music. Another was James Joyce’s Ulysses, which debuted in 1918 and is set in 1904 Dublin, Ireland.

Besides not being an expert in ancient literature or storytelling, another challenge I faced with this post was that good stories are generally much more compelling than writing about stories. So, I’ll keep this post short, leaving more time for writing, telling, reading, and listening to stories. 

Like just about everybody, I love stories. If you’d like me to help you in writing yours, please contact me at

The editor–or beta reader–for this post was Louisiana engineer-turned-writer David Grouchy, who authors technical and humorous articles for trade and general publications.