Heroic Age (literary theory)

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In 20th-century studies of oral poetry and traditional literature, the Heroic Age was postulated as a stage in the development of human societies likely to give rise to legends about heroic deeds. According to some theorists, oral epic poetry would be created at the same period, and would be transmitted, by singers who displayed less creativity, through later periods. Scholars who adopted the theory of a heroic age include:

A widely shared view was that each society would pass through a heroic age only once. This apparently explains why, in the Chadwicks' world survey of oral and traditional poetry, The Growth of Literature, medieval European epics such as the French Chansons de geste and the Spanish Cantar de Mio Cid are omitted: those societies are taken to have passed through a heroic age earlier.

Bryan Hainsworth has suggested that in the various so-called Heroic Ages named by modern scholars "what is described is a by-product ... of the tendency of heroic poetry to congeal into cycles, often ... around a signal event" (1993, p. 40).

Historicity of the Ages[edit]

Oral tales have been formed into classic literature centuries later so that the historicity of the events is left to uncertainty. The Greek Heroic Age as described in the Iliad is dated to historic events in 1460 to 1103 BC according to the chronology of Saint Jerome.

The Germanic Heroic Age as reflected in the Nibelungen can be dated to the 5th century picking up scenes from the foundation of Germanic kingdoms in Western Europe near the end of the first phase of the Völkerwanderung. The literature characters may refer to the historic Brunhilda (543–613) and Gundobad (480–516).

The Tamils of South India have an extensive literature describing their Heroic Age (the Sangam period). The Sangam poems share common themes with their Greek and German counterparts, such as glory, victory, fate and honour. The Sangam age is dated to between the 3rd century B.C.E and 2nd century C.E. However, the events described have been transmitted from orally from an earlier period. This is evidenced by the oral nature of the poems which (like the Iliad and Odyssey) use epithets and other metrical devices common in oral poetry.


  • C. M. Bowra, Heroic poetry. London: Macmillan, 1952.
  • H. M. Chadwick, The Heroic Age. London, 1912.
  • H. Munro Chadwick, N. Kershaw Chadwick, The growth of literature. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1932-40.
  • J. B. Hainsworth, The Iliad: a commentary. Vol. 3: books 9-12. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993.