The Epic Cycle and Homer's Debt

The Epic Cycle is the collection of epic poems, known to the ancients and sometimes attributed to Homer, which tell of the history of man from his creation to the end of the heroic age. All have now been lost (with the exception of a total of 120 lines), but are known to us through the summaries of their contents made by Proclus. On the one hand, there is the whole Trojan cycle, which details the Trojan War from its origin to the return of the Greek heroes. On the other, there is the Theban cycle, which details the life of Oedipus and his sons. In addition, we find stories about the start of the world. It is from the Trojan and Theban cycles that the tragedians of the fifth century BC took their stories and, if we consider the Iliad and the Odyssey to be the result of an oral poetic tradition, we have to be aware that the events of both are, to a great extent, drawn from a communal mythological background that had provided the subjects for poetry for generations. We do not know for certain whether the poems of the Epic Cycle were written before or after the two Homeric poems, but there is much in them that is alluded to in Homer. Thus, even if they were written after, much of the material must be older.

The Trojan cycle, which includes both the Iliad and the Odyssey, comprises eight poems. The Cypria, in eleven books, began with Zeus planning to bring about the Trojan War, leading to the dispute between the goddesses; the judgement of Paris; the seduction of Helen; the organisation of the Greek expedition; and the first part of the war. The Aethiopis dealt with Achilles' success in defeating the Amazons; his love for Pentheseleia, their queen, after having killed her; and his death after the fall of Troy. The Little Iliad, in four books, related the suicide of Ajax after Achilles' arms had been granted to Odysseus and he, in a fit of Athena-induced madness, had slaughtered a pack of animals thinking them to be Odysseus' men; the story of Philoctetes who had Heracles' bow, which, it was prophesied, the Greeks needed at Troy if they were to be successful; the tale of the Wooden Horse and of Sinon's cunning. The Iliu Persis covered the debate about the Horse; the supposed sacrilege of Laocoon; the sack of Troy; the death of Priam; the recovery of Helen, the story of Cassandra; and the departure of the Greeks. The Nostoi told of the returns home of the Greek heroes, focussing particularly on the death of Agamemnon and the vengeance of his son, Orestes. The Telegony concerned itself with the son that resulted from the union of Odysseus and Circe that occurred during his one year stay on her island. It related how this son, Telegonus, searched for Odysseus, came to Ithaca, started ravaging the place, and eventually, when confronted by Odysseus, ended up killing him. The body of Odysseus was then taken to Circe's island, where Penelope finally married Telegonus, and Telemachus finally married Circe. In addition to these six Trojan epics, we have the poems of Homer, both of which are far longer than the others.

Knowledge of the contents of the other poems in the Epic Cycle is useful, because it enables us to see the full picture. Both Homeric poems, but particularly the Iliad, focus only on very brief periods of time within the whole Trojan cycle. They rely on the audience's/reader's knowledge of the rest of the story. Dramatic tension, irony and foreshadowing are built up within the limited timescale of the poems, and such devices are dependent on the audience's / reader's ability to pick up on them. There can be very little doubt that the poet created the Iliad and the Odyssey with the knowledge that those for whom he was writing were aware of all the other stories in the Trojan cycle, if not in the specific form in which they appear in the other poems of the Epic Cycle, then at least in some form inherited from previous generations.

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