Epic Poems Base on the Characteristics and Relevance of the Image of the Epic Hero

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Published on International Journal of Art, Language & Linguistics
Publication Date: July 18, 2019

Adukpo, John
Department of Languages, Dambai College of Education

Journal Full Text PDF: Epic Poems Base on the Characteristics and Relevance of the Image of the Epic Hero (In the Epic Poems “Torgbui Sri & Sunjata”).

The study analyses two epic poems ‘Sunjata and Torgbui Sri’ based on the characteristics and relevance of the image of epic heroes. The study employs qualitative approach and purposive sampling technique to select the two epic poems. The study reveals that both Torgbui Sri and Sunjata are epic heroes. The Epic poems Torgbui Sri and Sunjata covered from Notsei, Togo up to the Volta Region in Ghana and Sunjata covers the whole of Old Mali Empire. Also both heroes operate with supernatural forces which help in their operations. The heroic figure also had an impact in the society they operate. The study recommends that other scholars can look at these epic poems from the points of their composition and performance with the aid of Oral formulaic theory.

Keywords: epic poems, Sunjata and Torgbui, characteristics and relevance, heroic figure, impact in the society & Oral formulaic theory.

This paper seeks to do analysis of epic poems based on their characteristic and the relevance of the image of the epic heroes as postulated by Okpewho (1975). Epic is one the genres of the oral poetry which all falls under Oral Literature. According to Agyekum (2007) oral literature is a literature delivered by word of mouth before an audience. According to him this word of mouth medium of presentation implies that a particular oral literature must make an appeal first through sounds of the words that reach the ears of the audience. One main characteristics of oral literature is performance. To Agyekum performance is the enactment or the way and manner a performer presents an oral piece before the audience. An epic is a very long and heroic narrative poem that is presented in an elevated style. According to Okpewho (1975:34) an oral epic is a fundamentally a tale about a fantastic deed of a man or men endowed with something more than normal human context and it is of significance in portraying some stage of the cultural or political development of the people. It is usually narrated or performed to the background of music by an unlettered singer working alone or with some assistance from a group of accompanists. Okpewho argues that, one main difference between an oral epic and another oral genre is that oral epic has a heroic figure. It has characters of high esteem who hold higher positions. Epics without recognizable authors are referred to as folk epics. Some of the most renowned epics are The Iliad and The Odyssey by Homer. Epic like other narrative poems tells a story and also has a plot. According to Finnegan (1997) there are three ways epic like other oral poetry possess. These three ways are composition, its mode of transmission and its related performance. These three ways guide any oral poet in dealing with his poem. Epic poems are sometimes performed with drama and dance. For example, in the Mwindo Epic, the narrator dances pointedly as he sings the various chants in the tale and also uses gesticulation to indicate an effect of number. According Nketia (1958) this also happens among the Akan of Ghana where the heroic recitation is done to good dramatic effect. Nketia again points out that the delivery of these poems are expressive.
The following questions are formulated to guide the study:
a. What are the characteristics of epic heroes in epic poems?
b. How do these characteristics make epic poems distinct from other genres?
c. What are the importance of epic poems?
This study seeks to:
a. Analyse epic poems based on the characteristics of the hero.
b. Identify how these characteristics make epic poems different other genres.
c. Identify the importance of epic poems.
The study is limited in the sense that it will only do analysis on epic poem with regards to the features, characteristics and the relevance of the image of epic heroes in Sunjata and Torgbui Sri.
The paper is significant in the sense that it will add to the literature epic. It will serve as a good source of research information on epic. Researchers who are in the area of Oral Literature especially on epic will find this paper as a good foundation on which other research can be conducted.

This part takes into consideration to review some works on this topic. The review was done based on the following thematic areas. Definition of epic, importance of epic and situations that call for epic, characteristics of epics and characteristics of epic heroes.

This aspect looks at some definitions of the epic poems.
Definition and background of epic poems according to Okpewho (1975) an oral epic is a fundamentally a tale about a fantastic deed of a man or men endowed with something more than normal human context and it is of significance in portraying some stage of the cultural or political development of people. To Okpewho, oral epics are usually narrated or performed to the background of music by an unlettered singer working alone or with some assistance from a group of accompanist.
Agyekum (2007) defines epic as a very long and heroic narrative poem that is presented in an elevated style.
According Oxford Dictionary (2005), epic is a lengthy narrative poem, ordinarily concerning a serious subject containing details of heroic deeds and events significant to culture or nation. Parry M. and Lord A. (1954) have argued that the Homeric epic is the earliest works of western literature and these are fundamentally an oral poetic form. These works form the basis of the epic genre in western literature.
According to them, nearly all western epic including Virgil’s Adenoid and Dante’s Divine comedy self-consciously presents itself as a continuation of the tradition begun by those poems. Classical epic employs dactylic hexameter and recounts a journey, either physical as typified by Achilles in the Iliad.
Epics also tend to highlight cultural norms and to define or call into question cultural values particularly as they pertain to heroism. Parry and Lord opine that these oral epics one fundamentally transmitted to the audience and from performer to performer by purely oral means.
Parry and Lord demonstrate the mode used in composing oral epics. From their demonstration, it had been found that oral epics tend to be constructed in short episodes each of equal status, interest and importance. This facilitates memorization, as the poet is recalling each episode in turn and using the completed episodes to recreate the entire epic as he performs it. Parry and Lord also showed that the most likely source for written texts of the epics of Homer was dictation from an oral performance.
Harmon and Holman (1999) also define epic poem as a long narrative poem in elevated style presenting characters of high position in adventures forming and organic whole through their relation to a central heroic figure and through their development of episodes important to the history of a nation or race.
Harmon (1999) proposes ten ways in which epic poems are composed. According to him epic begins in media res, it has a vast setting and covering many nations, the world or the universe, it also begins with an invocation to a muse. Epic poems begin with a statement of the theme. They include the use of epithets thus a glorified nick name.
Epics contain long lists called an epic catalogue, which is a long detailed list of objects, places or people that is characteristic of epic poetry. These epics poems feature long and formal speeches. They are also composed to show divine intervention on human affairs. Epic poems also feature heroes that embody the values of the civilization. Apart from the above points, epic poems feature the tragic hero’s decent into the underworld or hell. The hero generally participates in cyclical journey or quest, faces of adversaries that try to defeat him in his journey and returns home significantly transformed by his journey. The epic hero illustrates traits, performs deeds and exemplifies certain morals that are valued by the society the epic originates from. Many epic heroes are recurring characters in the legends of their native culture.

This aspect of the discussion talks about the characteristics of epic poems. Agyekum (2007) proposes the following characteristics of epic poems.
a. The epic hero is a figure of an imposing stature, who is of national, or international importance or both. The hero also has a historical or legendary importance.
b. The scope of the events and actions is very wide covering great nations, the world or the universe.
c. The actions are very complex and wonderful and hence require some supernatural courage and efforts to handle.
d. They involve the use of supernatural beings which are either gods, angels, demons, fairies or monsters which are strongly linked and interested in the actions and therefore intervene from time to time.
e. In terms of style epics use elevated, grand, simple and sustained style.
f. The deeds and events embarked by the heroes are recounted in very objective manners.
g. The main characters are assigned long formal speeches.
According to Okpewho (1975) African epic tales have consistently observed that an entire epic is seen in largely episodic terms either each episode is first sung and then narrated and dramatized or the entire is punctuated with songs that bring together deathly the major incidents which are involved in the various segment of the narration.
The song mode is thus distillation, an attempts to encompass in a lyrically convenient feature which brings out the major moment of the hero’s career.
Okpewho again argues that one main characteristic of African epic is that the narrative mode is more or less an explication of the neat packaged of incidents reflected in the songs which are used in the epic poems. He continued that a handful of songs can summarize all that would have taken a whole evening to narrate. For example, in the Ozidis “slaughter song” thus rather telling the story into details is about the fight between the hero and Badoba the song was sung eloquently demonstrating that all the narrative might have been narrated.

This part will focus on characteristics of epic hero, his image and his relevance in the society. According Okpewho (1975) one of the characteristics of epic hero must be approached from the hero’s origin to see if there is anything in his lineage that promises a noble career and materials for glorification.
Based on this consideration in all African epics, the heroes are from the ruling or noble houses of the community or the society they originate from. This also means that historically these houses are full of martial action which is one of the most popular subjects of epic poems. This particular feature is seen in the take among the Dan of the Ivory Coast, which says that when God (Zra) first created the chief he gave him a griot.
Another characteristic of epic hero according to Okpewho is that, epic hero usually has the advantages of birth that set him above the rank and file. For instance, Sunjata is the son of a king and later himself a mansa (emperor). His mother, Sogolon is the “buffalo woman” and thus brings to the hero all mystic force of her totemic personality.
Similarly, Achilles, one of the epic heroes is amyrmidon prince, son of king Peleus and the goddess. Thetis a sea nymph.
As part of the characteristics of the epic hero, there is something in the birth and early youth of the hero that sets him apart from the natural course of life and inspires awe and veneration. In the African myths, it is indeed at this stage of the hero’s life that the foundations of his formidable career are laid; the hero song, which is in many ways a tale of terror.
Another characteristic of the epic hero as written by Okpewho is the advent of the hero in the world is marked by some awe or mystery, some portentous event. This is exemplified by the coming of Sunjata is prophesied by a hunter who visits the king, his father from the unknown and enjoins him to marry the strange buffalo woman” from Do.
To add to the above features of the hero’s image the growth and development of the epic hero is also generally extra ordinary. He would hardly be a fit subject for glorification if the progress of his career were not different from the norm.
In Africa, the heroic career starts right from infancy. For instance, as a baby, Silakama does not blink when a gadfly sucks blood from his face, the fly, gorged, falls and died. The most noticeable feature of the hero’s image is his preeminence among his fellows. This particular feature takes the form of outstanding good looks or sheer force of personality.
For example, at the age of ten years Sunjata’s arms had the strength of ten and his biceps inspired fears in his companions. This physical strength of the hero is also matched by strength of the mind.
Epic hero has an exaggerated notion of his worth. He claims precedence above everyone else, his elders included and expects others to recognize his greatness. The hero also involves in the well-being of his community. Despite the care he takes to place himself above the rank and file of society, he is very much a communal man. The hero is also a deliverer of his people. This is seen the epic about Torgbui Sri among the Ewes who delivered the Ewes from the wicked and tyrannical rulership of king Agorkoli.

Toohey (1999) identities some types or sub-genres of epic. They are mythological epic, miniature epic, history and the chronicle epic, history and commentary epic, didactic epic and comic epic. I will discuss these sub-genres of epic below.

This sub-genre of epic represents the classical epic such as Homer’s Illiad and Virgil’s Aeneid. The mythological epic concerns the heroic actions which are mythological which has to do with divine powers and also has to do with elevated style. It is written in hexameter which is an ostensible glorification of the past often achieved by repetition of description by catalogues and by fixed description formulas. There are shared technical features such as similes, battles, set speeches, invocation of the muses, councils of the gods and of the leaders and also there is description of shields and other artefacts in this genre of epic.

This is the type of epic which is composed in a small scale. This miniature epic employs small number of lines only. Compare to the other types of epic poems which are composed of 500 to 200 lines long.
This type sub-genre of epic is written about history (Ziegler, 1934). The chronicle epic is also termed as annalistic epic. It purports to offer a year-by-year narrative. The chronicle epic had a long life and it characterized by a large time frame that is events usually take place over several generations and by a concentration on the fortunes of a single city or region rather than an individual hero. Such epics also describe heroes and battles but these heroes and battles have a reasonable claim to historical veracity.
Mythological and chronicle epic have many shared characteristics in the sense that both contain narratives concerning heroic actions and the relation between these heroes and gods. Chronicle epics like the mythological variety are usually long, of elevated style and have as their metre.

This epic is limited to a short time-span; it is not like chronicle or annalistic epic. It concentrates on wars and generals. For instance, Lucan’s poem, the civil war is an instance of this epic. The time frame in Lucem is limited.

This type of epic teaches morals and it is called teaching epic (Cok, 1969). This epic is made up of religious writings.

This kind of pic is written for amusement purposes. This comic epic is also associated with Homers name and this provides inspiration for the readers.

Heroism is the heart of all mythological and historical epic. There is praise of the glory of the heroes in epic poems which is the basis of the concept of heroism. The heroes have parents. Their relationship with their fathers is continuously stressed. For example, Achilles regularly alludes to his father Peleus.
Again, a religion matters in epic poetry Achilles has no shame before his gods. He contemplates his actions in the River Saunters. There is also a theme of nostalgia and glorification of bygone eras which are at least quasi historical. The nostalgia accounts, in many ways appeal of the poems which present a sort of continuation or even a fulfillment of the past.

Epic poems help to maintain a record of a specific culture. They serve as a brief a poem that reviews an event of historical importance. They also serve as entertainment. They also instill valour in the younger generation that they can also be strong and copy what their fathers have done in the past. Epic poems also recount the history of the people and the whole community at large.

This part of the study discusses the methodology that will be used in respect with the present study. The work is compartmentalised into seven thematic areas. To begin, research methodology according to Creswell (2009) involves the forms of data collection procedure, research design, population, sampling procedures, analysis and interpretation of data.
The research approach that will be employed for this study is qualitative. According to Dornyei (2007) qualitative research makes use of analysis of corpus data and words it does not make use of numerals and statistical analysis. This research is qualitative in approach in the sense that it will dwell on corpus which are made up of words no statistical tool. This will analyse characteristics and the image and heroic figure in epic poems which epic about Torgbui Sri I and Sunjata. The analysis will be done based on the characteristics and relevance the image of the hero as postulated by Okpewho (1975).

This paper adopts textual analysis as the research design for the study. Textual analysis is a method of analysis that interrogates content of text especially the structure, discourse and many more. This study employs textual analysis to analyse the image and the relevance of the hero in two epic poems; Torgbui Sri and Sunjata.
Research population talks about the people and where the data will be collected from. My study uses epic poems about Torgbui Sri and Sanjata sources. The researcher chooses purposive sampling to select the two epic poems from Ewe and Old Mali in Africa.
The data that was used for this research solely focused on Sunjata and Torgbui Sri.The researcher analyses two epic poems thus Torgbui Sri and Sunjata. These poems were analysed based on the characteristics and the relevance of the image of the epic hero.

This part analyses two epic poems thus Torgbui Sri and Sunjata. These poems were analysed based on the characteristics and the relevance of the image of the hero propounded by Okpewho (1975). The researcher also analysed the two poems simotenously thus Sunjata and Torgbui Sri. This analysis was done based on the characteristics of hero and his image which are evident in the poems.
From the above discussion we are made aware that epic poems are long narrative poems which elevate a hero in a particular community. Both poems thus Sunjata and Torgbui Sri are long narratives epic poems. Both poems employed heroic figure thus Sunjata and Torgbui Sri. These poems also took place in vast area. This is evident in Torgbui Sri. The impact of the poem is felt throughout Nostsie to Ghana. They travelled from and spent number of months on the way before they reached where they are in the present day. In the case of Sunjata the activities took place in the whole area of Old Mali.
From Okpewho characteristics and the relevance of the hero’s image in an epic poem, the hero must come from a noble house of the community. Looking at this criterion, both Sunjata and Torgbui Sri hailed from royal family. In the case of Sunjata his father is a king and in the case of Torgbui Sri, he is the chief of the Ewes and he is able to lead them from Notsie to the Anlo land. Even in the present day Volta Region there is that chieftaincy title called Torgbui Sri in Anlo land.