9 Most Famous Epic Poems of All Time
Epic poems come in the form of lengthy stories, usually in metered verses, about an astonishing event in a time that called on a heroic individual or group of individuals to exhibit steel of courage and wits in the face superhuman forces. The goal of an epic poem is to show how lessons can be taken from those heroic activities that more often than not influenced the world or universe.
A quick look at the ancient texts and one immediately realizes that almost all societies have some form of either written or oral epic traditions that talk about the exploits of their heroes. And often times, those heroes are based partly on actual historical events and figures.
From ancient Indian epics such as Mahabharata and Rāmāyaṇa to the Greek Odyssey, World History Edu present the most famous epic poems of all time.
Homer’s Iliad, along with the Homeric poem Odyssey, is considered one of the cornerstones of the Western literature. The epic narrates the events that occurred during the Trojan War – a legendary war in Greek mythology that saw the city of Troy pitted against the Greeks.
According to the story, tensions boiled over to an all-time high when a Trojan prince by the name of Paris eloped with Helen, the wife of Menelaus, king of Sparta.
The Iliad explores the characters of many warriors on both sides, particularly the famous Greek warrior and demigod Achilles and Trojan commander Hector. It follows the events of the ten-year siege of Troy by a fierce alliance of Greek city-states. It also tells about how a number of Greek gods and goddesses took sides during the war. For example, Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of beauty and love, took the side of the Trojans.
The Iliad is famed for introducing literary phrases and concepts such as “Achilles’ Heel” and “the Trojan horse”. The former, a phrase used to depict the most vulnerable part of an individual or a system, was the body part Achilles’ mother failed at making invincible, hence the hero dying after an arrow was short into his heels by Trojan Prince Paris.
Epic of Gilgamesh
Owing to how ancient the Epic of Gilgamesh is, historians struggle to pinpoint the year it was first written. The widely accepted view is that it was written in Sumerian language on a clay tablet between 2100 BC and 1200 BC (during the Third Dynasty of UR or the Neo Sumerian Empire).
This Mesopotamian epic poem recounts the heroic exploits of King Gilgamesh, the ruler of the Sumerian city of Uruk, and his companion Enkidu. According to the Sumerian King List, Gilgamesh ruled Uruk for 126 years in the 27th century BC.
Gilgamesh, a being who was two-thirds god and one-third man, was considered a just and wise ruler. He was famously credited with building a number of magnificent infrastructures in Uruk, including the wall built around Uruk to keep off invaders.
The Epic of Gilgamesh tells about how the Mesopotamian gods created a beastly man called Enkidu to bring an end to what they perceived as Gilgamesh’s autocratic rule over the people of Uruk. On his way to the city of Uruk, Enkidu interacts with a temple prostitute (Shamhat) and has a life-changing experience which takes away his aggression and wild instincts. Upon arriving at the city, Enkidu straight up challenges Gilgamesh to a contest and loses.
In the end, the two men become good friends and set out on a journey to the Cedar Forest. Over there, they defeat Humbaba the Terrible, the guardian of the forest. However, just before they could leave, they chop down a holy cedar tree. In the course of doing so, Gilgamesh snubs the advances from Ishtar, the Mesopotamian goddess of love and beauty, incurring her wrath. The goddess decides to punish Gilgamesh by dispatching the Bull of Heaven. Both Gilgamesh and Enkidu remain brave and successfully defeat the bull. Further enraged, the gods sentence Enkidu to death.
Heart broken by the death of his companion, Gilgamesh embarks on a quest to find the meaning and secret to an immortal life. After years of travelling, he comes to a realization that the gods allowed death to be part and parcel of human existence.
Did you know: As at the time that King Gilgamesh ruled the city of Uruk, the city was considered the largest in the world with close to 50,000 inhabitants?
The Odyssey is an ancient Greek epic poem composed by the Greek poet Homer. Along with the Iliad (also presumably written by Homer), the Odyssey is arguably the most prominent epic poem to emerge from ancient Greece.
The Odyssey deploys a style called In medias res, i.e. a poem that starts in the middle of the story and then uses flashbacks to develop a full-fledged story.
This Homeric poem follows the amazing adventures of Odysseus (known as Ulysses in ancient Rome), the ruler of Ithaca, one of the seven Ionian Islands in western Greece. In the poem, Homer narrates how Odysseus, one of the heroes of the Trojan War, spends about 10 years with his comrades face adversity after adversity around the environs of the Aegean Sea.
His adversity began after offending (i.e. blinding) the Cyclops Polyphemus, the son of the Greek god of the Sea, Poseidon. In frustration, Polyphemus cries out to Poseidon to curse the Greek hero. Poseidon obliges and curses Odysseus to roam the Peloponnesian sea.
In his absence, his wife, Penelope, becomes the recipient of several advances from men suitors wanting her hand in marriage. To make matters worse, those suitors make their home in Odysseus’ house, drinking, eating and even wearing his finest robes.
Upon his return to his kingdom, he teams up with his son Telamachus and destroys (kills) all those suitors. Odysseus successfully restores order in his household and the kingdom as well.
Historians reason that since Homer was probably an illiterate 8th or 9th century epic poet, the Odyssey started off as an oral epic but was later modified by others, perhaps centuries after Homer’s death.
Scholars that dispute Homer’s authorship of the Odyssey or the Iliad state that the term Homer was perhaps used by ancient Greeks to refer to a wandering blind poet. What this means is that there could have been several Homers over the centuries so to speak. Those poets then retold and made some modifications to the poems over the centuries before it was eventually written down (between the 7th and 8th centuries BCE).
John Milton’s Paradise Lost
As a result of masterpieces like Paradise Lost, English poet John Milton ranks up there as one of the greatest poets of all time. This epic is a brilliant retelling of how one of God’s most favorite angels Lucifer (Satan) fell and how humanity lost the grace of god by succumbing to the deceptions of Lucifer.
In his epic poem, Paradise Lost, Milton sets the scene at the dawn of humanity. It goes slightly back to a time when according to Christians Satan or Lucifer mounted a rebellion against the Creator. Although unsuccessful in his quest to unseat God, Satan was able to convince God’s first creations – Adam and Eve – to eat that one particular fruit God had explicitly forbidden them from eating.
As a result of Adam and Eve’s disobedience, they are cast out of their home in the Garden of Eden and made to toil and sweat for the rest of their lives.
Also known as the great Protestant Epic, Milton’s Paradise Lost takes the reader on a journey filled with the greatest theme in Christianity – obedience to the will of God. Its use of similes is very admirable as it sheds light on how the sins (original sin) of the parents get passed on to their offspring, i.e. all of humanity.
In ancient India, the Mahabharat was a very famous Sanskrit epic, along with the Rāmāyaṇa, that helped in the development of Hinduism. It provides Hindus with lessons concerning moral law and history.
The story talks about a family feud involving two groups of cousins – the Kauravas and the Pandavas – in the Kurukshetra War. The two groups, who are members of the ruling Kuru clan, are caught in a bitter conflict over the throne of Hastinapura.
The Kauravas are the senior and feel that they should be the ones to sit on the throne. However, Duryodhana, the eldest Kaurava is younger than Yudhishthira, the eldest Pandava.
After a long and bloody war, which took place on the field of Kurkshetra (north Delhi), the Pandavas emerge the victors. The war saw complex alliances formed where loyalty took precedent over standing up for the truth. The war also witnessed the death of Krishna, god of protection, compassion and love, marking the end of Krishna’s dynasty. The five surviving Pandava brothers then set their course to Indra’s heaven; however, only Yudhisthira makes it to the gate of heaven. In the end, he, along with his brothers and Kauravas cousins, live happily ever after in heaven.
The story from the Mahabharata symbolizes the beginning of the Kali Yuga, the fourth Hindu age and final age of humankind that is characterized by the demise of values and noble ideas. Owing to how it is full of conflict and sin, the age is considered the worst of the four yugas in the Yuga Cycle.
The sage Vyāsa – also known as “the one who classified the Vedas” – is widely held as the author of the Mahabharata. Vyāsa is also a major character in the story, as he acts as the grandfather of the Kauravas and the Pandavas.
The Mahabharata is famed for being the longest written epic poem ever. It has over 100,000 slokas (couplets) and over 200,000 verse lines. At a total of 1.8 million words, the poem is the equivalent of twice the length of Persian Shahnameh. It is about seven times the length of the Iliad and the Odyssey combined.
Although it was described by some 20th-century European Indologists, including Hermann Oldenberg, as very unstructured and chaotic, it still remains a remarkable work of literature.
Dante’s Divine Comedy
In his birth country, Italy, Dante Alighieri was nicknamed il Sommo Poet, meaning “the Supreme Poet”. His brilliant masterpiece Divine Comedy (1308-1321) was just one of the reasons why he is often considered the greatest Italian poet.
Divine Comedy, a narrative poem, follows the exploits of the chief character, most likely Dante himself, on a perilous journey through Hell, Purgatory and Heaven. The poem is divided into three sections, with each section tackling one phase of the character’s journey through – Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso.
During his journey through the Inferno (Hell) and Purgatorio (Purgatory), he is accompanied by a supporting character named Virgil. The character Beatrice is the one who leads the protagonist to Paradiso (Heaven).
Obviously, the poem was Dante’s way of allegorically depicting the journey the human soul takes in order to get to the Divine Creator. It had a major impact on Medieval Roman Catholic theology and philosophy. It is considered a game-changer in not just Italian literature but literature across Europe as well. Famous American essayist, poet and playwright T.S. Eliot was full of praise for the masterpiece, describing it the pinnacle of poetry in the Western world.
In Old English literature very few epic poems could rival Beowulf, a critically acclaimed vernacular epic that was probably composed in the 7th century AD. It still remains one of the most translated poems of Old English literature.
The poem is primarily in two parts set in pagan Scandinavia around the 6th century AD. The first part, which is set in Denmark, sees the hero of the story Beowulf journey to the Danish king Hrothgar’s palace. The poem goes on to say that Beowulf upon hearing how a fierce monster by the name of Grendal constantly terrorized Hrothgar’s mead hall in Heorot, offered his services to the king. Every night Grendal would come to the hall and seize one of Hrothgar’s warriors.
Prince Beowulf successfully slays the Grendal and is received by the king as a hero. The following night Grendel’s mother comes to the mead to avenge the death of her son. She manages to kill one of Hrothgar’s men before slipping out of the mead. The next morning Beowulf and his men search a cave and finds Grendel’s mother at the bottom of a lake. In the ensuing duel, Beowulf emerges victorious, killing Grendal’s mother and other swamp creatures.
The hero Beowulf then returns home. After some time, King Hygelac of the Geats and his son die in battle, leaving Beowulf to succeed to the throne. He rules for half a century before tragedy strikes again. Beowulf was called into action once again as he faced the fire-breathing dragon who had left much of the land destroyed. Old and frail, Beowulf still manages to stand against the dragon. He does it all by himself because his retainers had all abandoned him. In some accounts, he was helped by his kinsman Wiglaf. In the end, Beowulf slays the dragon; however he suffers many mortal wounds and dies shortly after. His people give him a befitting funeral and build a gigantic tower in his honor.
At the time of its composition, the poem had no title. It would later get named Beowulf, after a famous Scandinavian legendary hero, whose exploits were seen in similar light as the main character in the poem. There is an original manuscript dated to between 10th and 11th centuries AD. Because the author was unknown, the term “Beowulf poet” often gets used as the author.
The poem, which is made of about 3,000 alliterative lines, is wrapped around themes of loyalty to one’s ruler and getting back at one’s enemies. Beowulf is depicted as an altruistic hero willing to use his skills to protect the society from hideous monsters. He is more or less portrayed as a savior whose tragic death was honored as a sacrifice.
As stated above, the Rāmāyaṇa is one of the two greatest epic poems of ancient India. Similar to the Mahabharata, the Rāmāyaṇa was written in Sanskrit, the dominant language (Old Indo-Aryan language) used in writing poems and hymns in ancient India.
The poet and Hindu sage Valmiki is widely claimed as the person who authored Rāmāyaṇa. This epic poem is made up of more than 20,000 couplets shared among seven books.
The poem delves into the birth Rama, the Hindu deity who embodies virtue and valor. According to the Rāmāyaṇa, Rama, the seventh incarnation of Vishnu, was born in the kingdom of Ayodhya (in south-central Uttar Pradesh state in northern India). It also sheds light on how Rama won the heart of Sita, King Janaka’s daughter, by bending Lord Shiva’s bow.
Just as things seem to be going on well, Rama and his wife Sita are banished from the palace. The couple make a forest their home for about 14 years. Tragedy strikes when Sita is kidnapped by Ravana, the evil king of Lanka. Ravana had sent a golden deer to the forest to distract Rama and his half-brother Lakshmana while he abducted Sita.
Rama and his brother seek the help of the monkey-general Hanuman in freeing Sita from Ravana’s captivity. Aided by Vibhishana, Ravana’s brother, Rama and his colleagues successful defeats Ravana and frees Sita. To prove that she was not unfaithful during her captivity, Sita is put through a series of tests, which she passes.
Reunited with Sita, Rama returns to Ayodhya to take his rightful place on the throne. However, his courtiers are not fully convinced of Sita’s honor; so Rama is left with no other option than to evict her from the palace. While in exile in the forest, Sita, who is heavily pregnant with two of Rama’s children at the time, encounters a sage called Valmiki. A few years later, Sita and her children are reunited with Rama. However, with doubts still cast at her, Sita descends into the earth and is received by her mother.
Did you know: In some accounts, the author Valmiki was a notorious thief who went by the name Ratnakara prior to becoming sage?
The Aeneid, which was composed by Augustan era Roman poet Virgil, tells about the story of Aeneas, a Trojan hero during the Trojan War. As it was similarly stated in the Iliad (by the poet Homer), Aeneas was born to the Greek goddess of love and beauty Aphrodite (Venus) and prince Anchises. Imbued with demigod features, Aeneas fought bravely in defending Troy from the 10-year Greek siege. Unlike other Trojan heroes like Hector and Paris, Aeneas was not killed during the Trojan War, neither was he enslaved like many Trojans after their city was overran by the Greeks.
According to Aeneid, the Trojan hero fled just in time before all hell broke loose in Troy. Along with some of his Trojan companions, Aeneas safely made his way to present-day Italy, where he founded a new city that would flourish into Rome.
Virgil’s Aeneid is made up of twelve books, with the first half explaining how Aeneas led a Trojan army to vanquish the Latins. The latter part explores his time in Carthage, where he got romantically involved with Queen Dido before abandoning her to head for Italy.
The structure and artistic style of the Aeneid has received incredible praises ever since it was composed during the reign of Roman Emperor Augustus, making it rank as one of the greatest writings in Latin literature.
Facts about famous epic poems in world history
The word ‘epic’ was derived from the Latin word ‘epicus’, which in turn, was derived from the ancient Greek word ‘epos’ (ἔπος), which means “story” or “poem”. The ancient Greeks basically saw epics as all forms of poetry, including the ones written by Homer, Hesiod or even statements made by the Delphic oracle.
Prior to the invention of writing, the ancient world had epics that were in the form of oral traditions and songs composed and performed by bards. Ancient composers made the epics in such a way that they could easily be memorized and therefore passed on from one generation to another. Often times, the oral epic traditions were composed in short verses, allowing for easier memorization.
It is probable that Homer’s and the various ancient Greek epics were derived from oral epic traditions. As time passed, those oral epics became the pillars upon which Western literature formed.
As human civilizations and societies got more advanced, and with the invention of writing, those oral history and oral epic traditions were put in writing. They served as a conduit for the transmission culture from one generation to another, and from one society to another.
The Sumer people, an ancient Mesopotamian civilization, are widely accepted as the people to first have an epic – i.e. the Epic of Gilgamesh.
Read More: 9 Great Cities of Ancient Mesopotamia