Structures of Epic Poetry (German Research Foundation)

The German Research Foundation (DFG) supports a project on narrative patterns in epic poetry at the Heinrich Schliemann-Institut für Altertumswissenschaften at the University of Rostock under the direction of Professor Christiane Reitz and Dr Simone Finkmann with 250.000€ for a period of three years.

The research project, an international collaboration of over 50 researchers from 10 countries, analyses type scenes and structural elements in Graeco-Roman epic.

Epic poetry throughout its long tradition from Homer until the Modern Era is characterized by recurrent type scenes and narrative patterns, such as situations and scenes from the everyday life of ordinary men and heroes, like banquet scenes, the donning of armour, the hero’s journey to the underworld, but also structural patterns like catalogues, similes, proems or the invocation of the Muse as well as elements that seem to bring the narrative to a temporary halt like descriptions of works of art (ekphrasis).

These structural patterns have been combined and analysed under the term ‘type scene’ or ‘motif’ in the context of the oral tradition of the Homeric epics and their performance. Especially the intertextual similarities (loci similes) between Homer, Vergil and their epic successors have received great attention. More recent studies have since specialized in the discussion of individual authors and periods.

Our project tests the hypothesis that recognizable structural patterns and elements undergo diverse variations and are frequently embedded in different novel contexts to convey a new meaning. These only seemingly traditional and fixed recurring elements, as this study will show, are the source of and subject to innovation, variation, and generic shifts. As the overall structure is familiar to the recipients, they notice even small alterations and deviations from the traditional concept, and even more so the overlapping and crossing of generic elements. Examples for this type of variation are the relocation of the divine council scene to places other than the Olympus or a generic blending of the teichoscopy and the catalogue of troops.

The project will develop a detailed technical terminology for these structural elements. The individual type scenes and narrative patterns and their diachronic development are discussed at great length in expert essays. The analysis is supported by a new innovative approach to the subject matter that allows for the identification of intertextual similarities and differences while focusing on the overarching questions at the centre of the project.

All contributions follow a similar format. They start with a detailed definition of the individual narrative pattern. A close reading of the type scene and a discussion of its diachronic development from Homer to Late Antiquity ensue. The qualitative analysis is accompanied by a comprehensive list of the pattern’s occurrence as well as an extensive bibliography. The essays on ancient epic poetry, which form the body of the discussion, are preceded by a thorough introduction to the preconditions and the theory of epic poetry, especially intertextual and narratological theories. Papers on the tradition of structural elements and type scenes in medieval and neo-Latin epic complete the study.

The final product, a compendium in three volumes will provide scholars and students of literary studies with a comprehensive overview of type scenes and narrative patterns for a deeper understanding of the structures of epic narratives, especially their place in the epic tradition, their flexibility, and the development they undergo from Homer to the Modern Era.