Why are Epics Important

By Milana Carse

Epics are almost culturally universal. From Japan’s Tale of Genji to the Mesopotamian Epic of Gilgamesh, it seems as though almost every major culture since ancient times has developed an epic. Epics were vital parts of the mythology and religion of countless societies, explaining their origins and beliefs through generations, as well as creating a shared cultural touchstone and vocabulary. Though the civilizations that created epics such as The Iliad are long gone, these stories are still taught and discussed in the modern day. However, it’s worth asking: are the epics of these extinct societies still important?

Homer’s most important contribution to Greek culture was to provide a common set of values and social standards. In addition to providing entertainment in their telling, myths were often
cautionary tales, and justified social expectations and norms. Mythology helped maintain order in society. Interestingly, they also promoted stability of the existing social structures, as they
were often interwoven with the religious traditions, each reinforcing the primacy of the other. The Indian epics the Mahabharatha and Ramayana are integral and foundational to the Hindu
religion, for example, as both epics and Hinduism involve the same cast of characters and deities. In this way, Hinduism and mythology are inseparable, each supporting the authority of the lessons taught by the other.

Aside from their historical importance and their function as windows into the civilizations that wrote them, epics contain valuable lessons that still resonate today. Although much of this wisdom is thousands of years old, it is often still applicable to the modern day. Epics such as the Mahabharata and the Iliad teach universal lessons and are timeless in their nature. They have relevance to religion, ethics, and morals in the modern world. Myths and epics of these sorts help answer the age-old questions that man has about his world: “Why am I here?” “What is our duty to others and ourselves?” Questions such as these provided a common set of values for ancient societies, and can serve a similar purpose today.

Due to their heroic nature, epics usually raise questions of honor: what it is, and how it is achieved. Characters in epics face difficult decisions that require them to determine what is right. Though life in the modern day is unrecognizable from that of thousands of years ago, people still experience these conflicts through a modern lens: if modern readers squint a little, then can often relate the choices of the heroes of old to their own problems.

Mythologies have always had a great impact on human societies across the world and on the literature produced by these societies. According to Robert Graves, an eminent mythology critic,
mythology has two main functions. “The first is to answer the sort of awkward questions that children ask: who made the world? How will it end?” Myths also “justify an existing social system
and account for traditional rites and customs.” The importance of the study of mythology today rests on the fact that humans have faced the same basic problems and asked the same questions. People want to know why they exist and how the world works, and others’ interpretations of the connections between cause and effect, right and wrong, the “how” and “why” of the universe.