Centrepiece of Roman mosaic depicting the muses found in Vichten, Luxembourg. It shows Calliope, the muse of epic poetry, with the poet Homer
Epic poetry is one of the main forms of poetry, with lyrics and drama. Epic poetry tells a dramatic story. There are characters in the story. It is usually long, and takes place in different settings.
Beowulf is a typical example, written in Old English. Gawain and the Green Knight was written later in a dialect of Middle English. Well-known people who wrote epics were Homer, Virgil, Ovid, Dante, Edmund Spenser and Milton. William Wordsworth's Prelude plays with epic ideas though the poem is autobiography.
- Images for kids
Epics have eight main characteristics:
- The hero is outstanding. They might be important, and historically or legendarily significant.
- The setting is large. It covers many nations, or the known world.
- The action is made of deeds of great valour or requiring superhuman courage.
- Supernatural forces—gods, angels, demons—insert themselves in the action.
- It is written in a very special style (verse as opposed to prose).
- The poet tries to remain objective.
- Epic poems are believed to be supernatural and real by the hero and the villain
Conventions of epics:
- It starts with the theme or subject of the story.
- Writer invokes a Muse, one of the nine daughters of Zeus. The poet prays to the Muses to provide him with divine inspiration to tell the story of a great hero. (This convention is restricted to cultures which were influenced by Classical culture: the Epic of Gilgamesh, for example, or the Bhagavata Purana would obviously not contain this element).
- Narrative opens in medias res, or in the middle of things, usually with the hero at his lowest point. Usually flashbacks show earlier portions of the story.
- Catalogues and genealogies are given. These long lists of objects, places, and people place the finite action of the epic within a broader, universal context. Often, the poet is also paying homage to the ancestors of audience members.
- Main characters give extended formal speeches.
- Use of the epic simile.
- Heavy use of repetition or stock phrases.
- It presents the heroic ideals such as courage, honour, sacrifice, patriotism and kindness.
- An epic gives a clear picture of the social and cultural patterns of the contemporary life. Beowulf thus shows the love of wine, wild celebration, war, adventure and sea-voyages.
Images for kids
Tablet containing a fragment of the Epic of Gilgamesh
The first page of the Beowulf manuscript, 8th to 10th century.
Statue of Iranian poet Ferdowsi in Rome, Italy. Ferdowsi's national epic Shahnameh played an important role in revival of Iranian patriotism and the Persian language after both were systematically suppressed by the Arab occupation of Iran
The Knight in the Panther's Skin by Shota Rustaveli, one of the greatest Georgian poets.
Epic poetry Facts for Kids. Kiddle Encyclopedia.
The 20 Greatest Epic Poems of All Time
Few have better expressed the tumultuous rise and fall of civilizations better than the great Epic poets of ancient and modern times.
By combining elevated language with war, betrayal, romance, adventure, and a whole lot of reflection, these twenty lengthy tomes have captured the essence of whole peoples in single (albeit gigantic) works, ranging from semi-fictional accounts of war to satirical mockeries of misguided heroism.
Epic poetry–or heroic poetry, as some of the medieval poets have called it–follows a certain time-tested formula to portray such grand representations of heroes and their followers. Here are a few recurring patterns to keep in mind when considering these texts:
- The invocation of a muse. These poets plea to the gods at the very beginning to grant them the power to tell these stories with a certain forcefulness, though some admittedly pretend to do so to claim they are divinely empowered.
- Many of these begin in medias res, in the middle of the story, and may digress into the past later on in the poem.
- There are many journeys into the underworld.
- There are grand battle-scenes punctuated by extended similes, ambitious analogies that stretch the imagination but strive for literary glory.
- Many will feature the might of armies in long digressions featuring weaponry and war games.
Here is a list of 20 of the greatest Epic poems in the tradition:
1. The Epic of Gilgamesh (~2000 BCE)
Epic issues: epic poetry from the dawn of modernity
Maybe it was the language, architecture, codified legal system, regulated economy, military discipline – or maybe it really was public safety and aqueducts.
Whatever the Romans did for us, their reputation as a civilising force who brought order to the western world has, in the public imagination, stood the test of time remarkably well.
It is especially strong for an Empire that has been battered by close historical scrutiny for almost 2,000 years.
The reputation, of course, has more than a grain of truth to it – but the real story is also more complex.
Not only did the Empire frequently endure assorted forms of severely uncultured political disarray, but for the kaleidoscope of peoples under its dominion, Roman rule was a varied experience that often represented an unsettling rupture with the past.
As Professor Mary Beard put it in her book SPQR: “there is no single story of Rome, especially when the Roman world had expanded far outside Italy.”
So perhaps another way to characterise the Roman Empire is as one of cultures colliding – a swirling melting pot of ideas and beliefs from which concepts that would define western civilisation took form.
This is certainly closer to the view of Tim Whitmarsh, the A. G.
Leventis Professor of Greek Culture at Cambridge, who is the principal investigator on a project that has examined Greek epic poetry during this period.
“This is perhaps the most important period for thinking about where European culture comes from,” says Whitmarsh. “We really are at the dawn of modernity. To tell the story of an Empire which remains the model for so many forms of international power is to tell the story of what we became, and what we are.”
His interest in the Greek experience stems partly from the fact that few cultures under Roman rule can have felt more keenly the fissure it wrought between present and past.
In political terms, Ancient Greek history arguably climaxed with the empires established in the aftermath of the conquests of Alexander the Great (356–323 BCE).
In the period when this poetry was written, from the first to the sixth centuries CE, the Greek world had been annexed by the Romans.
Yet the relationship between the two cultures was ambiguous.
Greek-speaking peoples were subordinate in one sense, but their language continued to dominate the eastern Empire – increasingly so as it became a separate entity centred on Byzantium, as Christianity emerged and as the Latin-speaking west declined.
Greek remained the primary medium of cultural transmission through which these changes were expressed. Greek communities therefore found themselves linked closely to their past, while also coming to terms with a fast-metamorphosing future.
Epic poetry, which many associate with Homer’s tales of heroic adventure, seems an odd choice of lens through which to examine the transformation. Whitmarsh thinks its purpose has been misunderstood.
“In the modern West, we often get Greek epic wrong by thinking about it as a repository for ripping yarns,” he says. “Actually, it was central to their sense of how the world operated.
This wasn’t a world of scripture; it wasn’t primarily one of the written word at all.
The vitality of the spoken word, in the very distinctive hexametrical pattern of the poems, was the single way they had of indicating authoritative utterance.”
It is perhaps the most important tool available for understanding how the Greeks navigated their loss of autonomy under the Romans and during the subsequent rise of Christianity.
In recent years, such questions have provoked a surge of interest in Greek literature during that time, but epic poetry itself has largely been overlooked, perhaps because it involved large, complex texts around which it is difficult to construct a narrative.
Funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council, Whitmarsh and his collaborators set out to systematically analyse the poetry and its cultural history for the first time. “We would argue it’s the greatest gap in ancient cultural studies – one of the last uncharted territories of Greek literature,” he adds.
The final outputs will include books and an edited collection of the poems themselves, but the team started simply by establishing “what was out there”. Astonishingly, they uncovered evidence of about a thousand texts.
Some remain only as names, others exist in fragments; yet more are vast epics that survive intact.
Together, they show how the Greeks were rethinking their identity, both in the context of the time, and that of their own past and its cultural legacy.
A case in point is Quintus of Smyrna, author of the Posthomerica – a deceptive title since chronologically it fills the gap between Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, even though it was written later.
Quintus’ style was almost uber-Homeric, elaborately crafted to create an almost seamless connection with the past. Yet there is evidence that, having done so, he also deliberately disrupted it. “His use of similes is quite outrageous by Homer’s standards, for example,” Whitmarsh says.
The reason could be Quintus’ painful awareness of a tension between the Homeric past and his own present. Conflicted identity is a theme that connects many poems of the period.
The poet Oppian, for instance, who wrote an epic on fish and fishing, provides us with an excellent example of how his generation was seeking to reconceive Greek selfhood in the shadow of Rome.
The work ostensibly praises the Emperor as master over land and sea – a very Roman formula.
Oppian then sabotages his own proclamation by questioning whether anyone truly can command the sea’s depths, a feat that must surely be a journey of the intellect and imagination.
Having acknowledged the Emperor’s political power, he was, in effect, implying that the Greeks were perhaps greater masters of knowledge.
The researchers expected to find that this tension gave way to a clearer, moralistic tone, with the rise of Christianity. Instead, they found it persisted.
Nonnus of Panopolis, for example, wrote 21 books paraphrasing the Gospel of St John, but not, it would seem, from pure devotion, since he also wrote 48 freewheeling stories about the Greek god Dionysus.
Collectively, this vast assemblage evokes parallels between the two, not least because resurrection themes emerge from both. Nonnus also made much of the son of God’s knack for turning water into wine – a subject that similarly links him to Dionysus, god of winemaking.
Beyond Greek identity itself, the poetry hints at shifting ideas about knowledge and human nature. Oppian’s poetic guide to fishing, for instance, is in fact much more.
“I suspect most fishermen and fisherwomen know how to catch fish without reading a Greek epic poem,” Whitmarsh observes.
In fact, the poem was as much about deliberately stretching the language conventionally used to describe aquaculture, and through it blurring the boundaries between the human and non-human worlds.
Far from just telling stories, then, these epic poems show how, in an era of deeply conflicted identities, Greek communities tried to reorganise their sense of themselves and their place in the world, and give this sense a basis for future generations. Thanks to Whitmarsh and his team, they can now be read, as they were meant to be, on such terms.
“The poetry represents a cultural statement from the time, but it is also trying to be timeless,” he adds. “Each poem was trying to say something about its topic for eternity. The fact that we are still reading them today, and finding new things to say about them, is a token of their success.”
Inset image: Wine jar made in Athens around 535 BC. © The Trustees of the British Museum.
Examples of Epics in Literature
Epic literature comes from the oral traditions of ancient civilizations. Epic poems have been created throughout history, up to the present day. Epic poems are included in all three genres of poetry, which include lyric, dramatic, and narrative.
Epic literature belongs to the narrative genre of poetry. A narrative poem will tell a story of societies and heroes. The subject matter includes topics of human interest. Ballads are narrative poems, as well as epics.
Well-known ballads are:
- “Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered weak and weary,/Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore,/While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping,/As of some one gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door./'Tis some visitor,' I muttered, tapping at my chamber door – Only this, and nothing more.'” “The Raven” by Edgar Allan Poe
- The COOK of Londoun, whil the Reve spak,/For joye him thoughte, he clawed him on the bak./”Ha! ha!” quod he, “for Criste passioun,/This miller hadde a sharp conclusioun/Upon his argument of herbergage./Wel seyde Salomon in his langage,/`Ne bryng nat every man into thyn hous,'/For herberwynge by nyghte is perilous./Wel oghte a man avysed for to be,/Whom that be broghte into his pryvetee./I pray to God so yeve me sorwe and care,/If evere sitthe I highte Hogge of Ware,/Herde I a millere bettre yset awerk./He hadde a jape of malice in the derk./But God forbede that we stynte heere,/And therfore, if ye vouche-sauf to heere/A tale of me that am a povre man,/I wol yow telle, as wel as evere I kan,/A litel jape that fil in oure citee.” “The Canterbury Tales” by Geoffrey Chaucer
- “By the shore of Gitchie Gumee,/By the shining Big-Sea-Water,/At the doorway of his wigwam,/In the pleasant Summer morning,/Hiawatha stood and waited.” “Hiawatha” by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
10 of the Best Epic Poems Everyone Should Read
Are these the best epic poems? Selected by Dr Oliver Tearle
Epic poetry has been a part of literature from the beginning, as the following selection of ten of the greatest epic poems demonstrate. Spanning nearly four millennia, each of these classic works of epic poetry tell us something about the human condition, the struggle to overcome the dark forces of the world, and the nature of heroism.
Anonymous, Epic of Gilgamesh. Often referred to as the earliest great work of literature that has survived into the modern age, the Epic of Gilgamesh dates from nearly 4,000 years ago and nearly a whole millennium before Homer (see below).
It was composed in ancient Mesopotamia (modern-day Iraq) and contains many of the features we encounter in later great epic poems: the quest motif (in the second half of the narrative, the hero, King Gilgamesh, goes in search of eternal life), what Christopher Booker calls the ‘overcoming the monster’ motif (Gilgamesh and his companion, the wild man named Enkidu, face down several beasts), and divine intervention in human affairs. We recommend this edition: The Epic of Gilgamesh (Penguin Classics)
Homer, The Iliad. The first great epic poem in Western literature, the Iliad concerns the Trojan War between the Greeks (although they’re not referred to as such) and the Trojans, following the abduction of Helen of Troy by the Trojan prince Paris. (‘Ilium’ is another name for Troy.
) Surprisingly, a number of the most famous incidents from the myth of the Trojan War don’t appear in Homer’s poem: there’s no Trojan Horse, and Achilles’ heel isn’t the only vulnerable part of his body (at one point he’s wounded in the elbow).
And the whole of the Iliad covers only a few weeks in the final stage of the war – and twenty-two of the twenty-four books which make up the poem cover the events of just a few days.
This allows Homer to focus in detail on the individual characters in the war, from Achilles to Ajax, Agamemnon to Hector, Helen to Menelaus. We recommend this edition: Penguin Classics Homer The Iliad
Homer, The Odyssey. The character of Odysseus, or Ulysses in his Roman incarnation, looms large in modern literature: Tennyson wrote a dramatic monologue about his twilight years, while James Joyce used the narrative structure of the Odyssey as the rough basis for his modernist novel Ulysses (1922), which covers the events of one day in Dublin in 1904.
The thing which makes Odysseus such a distinctive character, and the Odyssey such fun to read, is his cunning: known as the ‘man of many wiles’, he outwits the Cyclops Polyphemus, finds a way of hearing the Sirens’ song and living to tell the tale, and manages to make his way home to his wife, Penelope, on Ithaca. One of the first, and greatest, epic poems in all of Western literature. We recommend this edition: The Odyssey (Oxford World’s Classics)
Apollonius of Rhodes, The Argonautica.
Something of a ‘wild card’ in this list of the greatest epic poems, The Argonautica – sometimes known as ‘The Voyage of Argo’ or ‘Jason and the Argonauts’ – tells of Jason’s quest to find the Golden Fleece, as well as his complicated relationship with his wife, Medea.
The romantic plot of this epic, written around the time of Alexander the Great, is credited with moving the epic poem in new directions, and inspired the love story of the next great epic on our list. We recommend this edition: The Voyage of Argo
Virgil, The Aeneid.