The oldest known story in human history is not a novel, play, or even a folk tale—the oldest piece of literature known is a poem, an epic poem, to be precise. The Epic of Gilgamesh is a poem written in the earliest known civilization, ancient Sumer, almost 3000 years ago. This epic poem was the ancient world’s version of a modern day blockbuster. So, what is epic poetry?
Storytelling is a tradition that is as old as civilization. For thousands of years, epic poetry was the dominant form of entertainment. So, in this article, we will look at what makes an epic poem, its features, its significance, its place in history, and how an epic poem is different from other forms of poetry and storytelling.
Let’s get into it!
What is an Epic Poem?
An epic poem is a book-length work of fiction, written in verse and retelling the heroic deeds of an extraordinary person or group of people. Epic poetry is one of the oldest forms of storytelling. The word epic derives from the ancient Greek epos meaning word or poem. One of the earliest known epics, The Epic of Gilgamesh, dates to 2100 BCE.
Epic poems tell the stories of heroic, often superhuman, protagonists such as gods, demi-gods, or other extraordinary characters. These heroes’ fates are often tied to the future of their nation, tribe, or people.
For example, The Iliad, an ancient Greek epic, features Achilles, whose mother dipped him in the River Styx, making him immortal. Achilles fights in the Trojan war on the side of the Greeks, and he is their champion. He is like a mascot for the Greeks, making it all the more devesting when he dies.
Epic Poetry Definition
An epic poem is a book-length narrative, told in verse, that usually recounts the heroic adventures of extraordinary characters.
What are the characteristics of Epic Poetry?
Epic poetry is written in a formal, elevated style — These poems take place across a vast setting and feature diverse terrains — The plot often involves supernatural elements — Use of a third person, the omniscient narrator — Poems transmit culture and traditions across generations — Plots often detail myths, histories, or religious tales — The story centers around the feats, strength, or courage of an epic hero.
The heroes of epic poetry are extraordinary individuals who possess superhuman capabilities. These characters are legendary figures who inspire fear and respect through their incredible prowess.
Characteristics of the Epic Hero
- Supernatural or noble birth- these heroes are born of noble or divine parents
- Strength- they possess otherworldly power or talent
- Supernatural aid- epic heroes often rely on magical assistance such as Odysseus calling on Athena for advice.
- Courage- these characters are not afraid of a challenge and often lead in battle
- Arrogance- epic heroes are often used to winning and will ignore their character flaws. This ignorance can lead to their downfall in some cases.
Examples of Epic Heroes
Gilgamesh, Epic of Gilgamesh
Gilgamesh is the king of Uruk. He is described as two parts god and one part man. Early in the poem, Gilgamesh is a brutal king who enslaves his people. The gods create Enkidu, a primitive man equal to Gilgamesh in strength. The two men battle but eventually become friends and battle the gods together.
Prince Rama is an incarnation of the god Vishnu. He is a virtuous character who is loved by his people but finds himself exiled by his stepmother. In exile, his bride, Sita, is kidnapped by king Ravana and Rama gathers an army of monkeys to rescue her.
Siegfried, The Nibelungenleid
Siegfried is a figure of enormous strength and courage. He is a prince who also possesses a magic cloak that grants him extraordinary power and invisibility. He does battle with and slays a dragon.
Invocation of the Muse
In Greek mythology, the muses were goddesses of the arts, such as music and poetry. Ancient poets believed these goddesses could inspire writers and musicians by lending their creative gifts.
Many epic poems will start with a preamble where the poet will appeal to their muse. The poet will ask the muse to help them compose the poem. This invocation also acts as a prologue and will preview the significant events of the poem.
In practical terms, the invocation is a way of foreshadowing events of the plot for the audience and hooking their interest. You can think of the invocation as the ancient version of the cold open or a way to preview the story’s action.
Here is an example of the invocation of the muse from The Odyssey:
“Tell me, muse, of the man of many ways, who was driven
far journeys, after he had sacked Troy’s sacred citadel.
many were they whose cities he saw, whose minds he learned of,
many the pains he suffered in his spirit on the wide sea,
struggling for his own life and the homecoming of his companions.”The Odyssey, Homer
History of the Epic Poem
Epic poetry dates back to the earliest known civilizations, and the form is still used today. These epic poems were prevalent across several geographically and culturally diverse societies.
Some of the earliest known epic poetry originated in the Middle East and told stories of legendary kings who ruled over Mesopotamia lands. Three of the first epic heroes in recorded history are Enmerkar, Lugalbanda, and Gilgamesh. It’s believed that many of these early epic heroes, such as Gilgamesh, are based on real kings.
Out of these early Summarian epics, the Epic of Gilgamesh is the most influential. The Epic of Gilgamesh consists of five poems and tells the story of King Gilgamesh as he battles and then befriends the primitive man, Enkidu. The two men embark on adventures together, and after Enkidu dies, Gilgamesh takes on an unsuccessful quest for immortality.
Greek and Latin Epics
Asian and Middle Eastern traditions heavily influenced Greek epics. The Greek and Middle Eastern cultures, such as the Hittites, were economic trade partners. This eastern influence is seen in early Greek epics such as The Theogony, which parallels the Hittite Hurrian myth. The Iliad and Odyssey also borrow some aspects from the Epic of Gilgamesh.
The early Roman poet Livius Andronicus translated the Odyssey from Greek into Latin verse. The Roman poet Virgil began writing the unfinished epic Aeneid during the first century. Virgil borrowed heavily from the Greek poet Homer in his work.
Some of the earliest Indian epics were written in Sanskrit. The two primary Sanskrit epics are Ramayana and Mahabharata. Together these two epics compose the canon of Hindu scripture.
The Ramayana tells the story of Prince Rama. Scholars believe it dates somewhere between the 4th and 7th centuries BCE by the poet Valmiki. The Ramayana is not only a poem, but it is instructive of Hindu ideals.
Characters in the Ramayana represent ideal Hindul versions of fathers, servants, and kings. Rama is also an ideal character. Not only is Rama an avatar of the god Vishnu, but his life is a model of the dharma.
The most influential Japanese epic is the Medieval poem, Heike Monogatari or The Tale of the Heike. This poem is based on the real-life historical struggles between the Taira and Minamoto families, which plunged Japan into civil war for many years.
The Heike Monogatari is as important to Japanese culture as the Iliad is to the west. The poem is written in verse and chanted with the accompaniment of a four-stringed lute. A central theme of the poem is the impermanence of all things.
We can’t discuss the history of epic poetry without discussing Beowulf. This piece is one of the oldest known Old English epic poems. An unknown poet wrote Beowulf in the tradition of the Germanic heroic legend during the 11th century. However, many scholars believe that poets were reciting the epic as early as the 8th-century.
Beowulf tells the story of the warrior, Beowulf, and three battles with monsters throughout his life. The King of the Danes, Hrothgar, calls on Beowulf for help after the monster Grendel attacks his mead hall. Beowulf battles and kills the beast with his bare hands.
Beowulf would later fight Grendel’s mother, become king of the Geats, and battle with a dragon.
Folk Epic and Literary Epic: The Two Types of Epics
A Folk Epic is also known as a Primary Epic. These epics were not written down but passed down orally over several generations. This oral tradition meant that their narrative would change over time.
Eventually, poets would try to preserve these Folk Epics by writing them down. The poems would often change based on who was recording them. Authorship of Folk Epics is usually unknown. Folk Epics represent ideas and mythology of the culture of their origin rather than the ideas of a single author.
Examples of Folk Epics:
- The Iliad
- The Odyssey
- The Epic of Gilgamesh
Literary Epics are also known as Secondary Epics or Art Epics. These poems are written by a single author and use the conventions and style of Folk Epics. Literary Epics usually have a tighter structure and narrative than Folk Epics. This conciseness is because Folk Epics pass down orally. However, a single poet will write and publish a literary epic.
Examples of Literary Epics
- The Divine Comedy by Dante
- Paradise Lost by John Milton
- Don Juan by Lord Byron
- The Cantos by Ezra Pound
|Folk Epic||Literary Epic|
|Also known as a Primary Epic||Also known as a Secondary or Art Epic|
|Passed down orally over several generations||Written by a single author|
|These epics change over time through repeated retellings||These epics have a tighter structure than Folk Epics|
|Written by unknown authors||Written by a single author with the conventions and style of Folk Epics|
|Represent the mythology of their culture||Published rather than passed down orally|
Examples of Epic Poetry
We’ve talked a lot about many of these texts, but I encourage you to read them. Lucky for us, most of these text are old enough that they are decidedly within the public domain. So, I’ve linked the text of fourteen well-known epic poems below. check them out!
- Read The Epic of Gilgamesh
- Read Ramayana
- Read Mahabharat
- Read The Iliad by Homer
- Read The Odyssey by Homer
- Read Aeneid by Virgil
- Read The Nibelungenlied
- Read Beowulf
- Read Heike Monogatari
- Read Metamorphoses by Ovid
- Read Paradise Lost by John Milton
- Read Don Juan by Lord Byron
- Read The Cantos I by Ezra Pound
- Read The Divine Comedy by Dante
The Difference Between an Epic Poem and Ballad
Both Ballads and Epics are narrative poems written to tell a story. However, epic poems are long-form and written in an elevated, formal style, while ballads are in short verse. Ballads use a rhyme scheme called a quatrain.
Another critical difference between epic poems and ballads is theme and subject matter. Epic poems deal with cultural legends, morality, and the deeds of a superhuman hero.
Ballads focus on universal themes that are either romantic or tragic. Ballads use short verses so people can sing or recite these poems easily.
Ballads use simple, colloquial language, while epic poems use an elevated style of speech. Epics and ballads are both poems with a long history passed down from generation to generation. Ballads, like epics, often have unknown authorship.
As you can see, epic poetry is one of the most effective forms of storytelling, as old as civilization, yet still popular today. We see the legacy of epic poems in modern superhero films like Batman or the Marvel Universe. Larger-than-life characters perform superhuman feats in these stories and defend virtues like truth and justice. But, remember, before there was an Ironman, there was Gilgamesh, Prince Rama, and Achilles.
If you enjoyed this article check you should check out my other articles on story structure like Dan Harmon’s Story Circle or The Hero’s Journey! Or, if you’re more into poetry, then I’ve got a section dedicated to poetry right here!
Continued reading on epic poems: