An epic poem is a long, narrative poem that is usually about heroic deeds and events that are significant to the culture of the poet. Ancient epic poetry usually talks about extraordinary men and women who dealt with the Gods and other supernatural forces to give shape to the world for their descendants. The Epic of Gilgamesh, an epic poem from ancient Mesopotamia, is often regarded as the earliest surviving great work of literature. However, the date of ancient Indian epics Mahabharat and Ramayan is not known with certainty. In the Western world, the most famous among the oldest surviving epic poems are the works of Homer: the Iliad and the Odyssey. Paradise Lost by John Milton and Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri are among the best known epics from the Middle Ages. Pan Tadeusz by Polish poet Adam Mickiewicz is generally regarded as the last great epic in European literature. Here are the 10 most famous epic poems of all time.
Year: 29–19 BCE
Publius Vergilius Maro, known as Virgil, was an ancient Roman poet of the Augustan period who wrote some of the most famous poems in Latin literature. Regarded as the masterpiece of Virgil, the Aeneid tells the story of the legendary Trojan hero Aeneas. Also mentioned in Homer’s Iliad, Aeneas was the son of the prince Anchises and the goddess Aphrodite (Venus). He was not killed or enslaved when Troy fell during the Trojan War. Instead, he flee with a group of people who traveled to Italy and became progenitors of Romans. The first six of the twelve books of the Aeneid focus on the wanderings of Aeneas from Troy to Italy. The second part of the book tells the story of Aeneas leading the Trojans to victory over the Latins. Virgil thus used the association of Aeneas with the foundation of Rome and wrote a compelling national epic that tied Rome to the legends of Troy. Aeneid is widely regarded as one of the greatest works of Latin literature.
The gates of hell are open night and day;
Smooth the descent, and easy is the way:
But to return, and view the cheerful skies,
In this the task and mighty labor lies.
#9 Epic of Gilgamesh
Year: c. 1800 BCE
Gilgamesh was most probably an actual King in ancient Mesopotamia who later became associated with legendary deeds. Among other things, he is mentioned in the Sumerian King List, which lists the kings of Sumer and their supposed reign lengths. He is said to have ruled Uruk for 126 years. The Epic of Gilgamesh begins with five Sumerian poems about Gilgamesh dating from 2100 BCE. It is believed that independent stories of the legendary king were later used as source material to form a combined epic. The first half of the poem tells about the contest of Gilgamesh with Enkidu, a man created by the gods to stop Gilgamesh from oppressing the people of Uruk. After the contest, which Gilgamesh wins, the two become friends. However, Enkidu is sentenced to death by the Gods. The second half of the epic focuses on the long and perilous journey which Gilgamesh takes to find the secret of eternal life. The Epic of Gilgamesh is often regarded as the earliest surviving great work of literature. It has been translated into numerous languages and continues to enjoy popularity.
What could I offer
the queen of love in return, who lacks nothing at all?
Balm for the body? The food and drink of the gods?
I have nothing to give to her who lacks nothing at all.
You are the door through which the cold gets in.
You are the fire that goes out. You are the pitch
that sticks to the hands of the one who carries the bucket.
You are the house that falls down. You are the shoe
that pinches the foot of the wearer. The ill-made wall
that buckles when time has gone by. The leaky
water skin soaking the water skin carrier.
#8 Divine Comedy
Poet: Dante Alighieri
Dante Alighieri was an Italian poet who is widely regarded as the greatest poet in the Italian language and, in Italy, he is referred to as il Sommo Poeta (“the Supreme Poet”). His most famous work, Divine Comedy, is a long narrative poem which describes the journey of a man, assumed to be Dante, through Hell, Purgatory and Heaven. It is thus divided into three parts: Inferno (Hell); Purgatorio (Purgatory); and Paradiso (Heaven). The traveler has two guides during his journey: Virgil, who leads him through the Inferno and Purgatorio; and Beatrice, who introduces him to Paradiso. Allegorically, the poem represents the journey of the soul towards God from recognition and rejection of sin (Inferno); followed by penitent Christian life (Purgatorio); followed by soul’s ascent to God (Paradiso). The poem is heavily influenced by medieval Roman Catholic theology and philosophy. The Divine Comedy is considered a landmark in Italian literature and as one of the greatest works of all European literature.
Through me you pass into the city of woe:
Through me you pass into eternal pain:
Through me among the people lost for aye.
Justice the founder of my fabric moved:
To rear me was the task of power divine,
Supremest wisdom, and primeval love.
Before me things create were none, save things
Eternal, and eternal I shall endure.
All hope abandon, ye who enter here.
#7 Pan Tadeusz
Poet: Adam Mickiewicz
Adam Mickiewicz is regarded as national poet in Poland, Lithuania and Belarus. He holds a central position in Polish literature and is widely regarded the greatest poet in his nation. His greatest masterpiece, Pan Tadeusz, focuses on the feud between two noble families complicated by the love between the titular character Tadeusz and a daughter of the rival family named Zosia. This setting serves as a backdrop for discussion of issues of Polish national unity and the struggle for independence. Pan Tadeusz is regarded as the national epic of Poland and it is compulsory to read the book in Polish schools. Moreover, it has been translated into 33 languages and adapted into TV and film versions. A 1999 film directed by Andrzej Wajda, titled Pan Tadeusz: The Last Foray in Lithuania, was critically acclaimed and won a number of awards. Pan Tadeusz is deemed as the last great epic poem in European literature. In 2014, it was incorporated into Poland’s list in the UNESCO Memory of the World Programme.
O Lithuania, my homeland! thou art like health;
Only he can truly appreciate thy worth
Who has lost thee. Now I see and sing thy beauty
In all of its glory, because I long for thee.
Published: c. 1000 CE
Beowulf is written in Old English or Anglo-Saxon, the earliest historical form of the English language. It is the oldest surviving long poem in Old English. In the poem, King Hrothgar, the ruler of the Danes, is troubled by a demon named Grendel. Beowulf, a young Geat warrior, comes to the aid of Hrothgar. He fights and defeats Grendel. The demon has a mother who tries to avenge her son but she is also defeated by Beowulf. Beowulf then returns to his land. He later becomes king of the Geats and rules for a period of fifty years. The Geats are then attacked by a dragon. Beowulf is able to defeat the dragon but he is mortally wounded in the battle. Beowulf is regarded as the highest achievement of Old English literature. It has been much analyzed over the years and scholars debate almost every aspect about this epic poem.
Beowulf answered, Ecgtheow’s son:
“Grieve not, O wise one! for each it is better,
His friend to avenge than with vehemence wail him;
Each of us must the end-day abide of
His earthly existence; who is able accomplish
Glory ere death! To battle-thane noble
Lifeless lying, ’tis at last most fitting.
#5 Paradise Lost
Poet: John Milton
Paradise Lost is regarded as the major work of John Milton which has established his reputation as one of the greatest English poets of his time. The poem takes place at what Christians believe to be the beginning of human history. It begins after Satan’s unsuccessful rebellion and the creation of the universe. Paradise Lost primarily focuses on the Biblical story of the Fall of Man, i.e. the story of the first man and woman, Adam and Eve, being tempted by Satan to eat the forbidden fruit, leading to their expulsion from the Garden of Eden. The primary theme of Milton’s epic is Man’s disobedience to God’s will, implying not only Adam’s disobedience, but of all mankind from first to last. Apart from sin, other prominent themes of the poem include fate, free will, pride, revenge and deceit. A widely read and analyzed masterpiece, Paradise Lost is perhaps the most famous epic poem in the English language.
The mind is its own place, and in it self
Can make a Heav’n of Hell, a Hell of Heav’n.
What matter where, if I be still the same,
And what I should be, all but less then he
Whom Thunder hath made greater? Here at least
We shall be free; th’ Almighty hath not built
Here for his envy, will not drive us hence
Year: 8th century BC
Odyssey is an ancient epic poem, attributed to Homer, which primarily focuses on the Greek hero Odysseus, known as Ulysses in Roman myth. After the 10 year Trojan War, Odysseus, king of Ithaca, is unable to return home. It is assumed that he is dead and his wife Penelope and son Telemachus are pestered by a group of suitors, who compete for Penelope’s hand in marriage. The epic primarily focuses on the long journey of Odysseus to Ithaca and the challenges he has to face. The primary reason for which Odysseus has to face so much trouble is that he blinds the Cyclops, Polyphemus, who is a son of the Greek God Poseidon. Moreover, Odysseus foolishly reveals his name to the Cyclops as he boasts about fooling the Cyclops. Polyphemus then prays to his father to curse Odysseus to wander the sea for ten years. Odyssey is highly valued as a classic and is regarded as one of the most important works in Western literature.
Men are so quick to blame the gods: they say
that we devise their misery. But they
themselves- in their depravity- design
grief greater than the griefs that fate assigns.
Year: 8th century BC
In Greek mythology, the Trojan War was waged against the city of Troy by the Greeks after Paris of Troy took Helen from her husband Menelaus, king of Sparta. Iliad is an ancient Greek epic poem which focuses on the Trojan War with the Greek warrior Achilles being its primary focus. It is set during the ten-year siege of Troy by a coalition of Greek states. It recounts some of the significant events of the final weeks of the Trojan War. It mentions or alludes to many of the Greek legends about the siege; the earlier events; and the causes of the war. It also talks about events prophesied for the future, such as Achilles’ imminent death and the fall of Troy. Along with its sequel, the Odyssey, the Iliad is among the oldest extant and best known works in Western literature. Moreover, its impact on Western culture may be seen even today with numerous works in various art-forms being based on incidents and characters from the poem.
Like the generations of leaves, the lives of mortal men. Now the wind scatters the old leaves across the earth, now the living timber bursts with the new buds and spring comes round again. And so with men: as one generation comes to life, another dies away.
Ramayan or Ramayana is an ancient Indian epic poem written in the Sanskrit language and attributed to legendary Maharishi (“Great Sage”) Valmiki. It narrates the story of Rama, the prince of the city of Ayodhya in the Kingdom of Kosala. Rama is the eldest son of King Dasharatha. However, his step-mother Kaikeyi wants the kingdom for her son Bharata. Thus on the behest of Kaikeyi, Dasharatha is forced to unwillingly send Ram to a fourteen year exile to the forest. During the exile, Rama’s wife, Sita, is kidnapped by Ravana, the powerful king of Lanka. With the assistance of his brother Lakshmana and his devotee Hanuman, Rama then wages war against Ravana. With a length of 24,000 verses, the Ramayana is one of the largest ancient epics in world literature. Read by millions of people every year, it is also one of the most influential texts ever written. Among other things, the characters of the poem, including Rama, Sita, Lakshmana, Bharata, Hanuman and Ravana are all fundamental to the cultural consciousness of the nations of India, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Cambodia, Malaysia and Indonesia.
O King, abundant are yes-men, always pleasant spoken,
Rare are the speakers and listeners of the unpleasant but medicinal
Poet: Veda Vyasa
Mahabharat or Mahabharata is an ancient Indian epic composed in the Sanskrit language by legendary Maharishi Vyasa. It primarily focuses on the struggle between two groups of cousins, the Kauravas and the Pandavas, for the throne of the kingdom of Hastinapura. They are led by their eldest brothers Duryodhana and Yudhishthira respectively. The conflict culminates in the Great Battle of Kurukshetra, where numerous ancient kingdoms align themselves with one of the sides. The story of Mahabharata has numerous themes, the most prominent of which include Dharma, the duty and responsibility of an individual; and Karma, the action of an individual and its repercussions. The Mahabharata was transferred through oral tradition for centuries before it was finally put to text. It is the longest known epic poem ever written consisting of over 200,000 individual verse lines. Roughly, this is ten times the length of the Iliad and the Odyssey combined. Mahabharat contains numerous texts within it like the Bhagavad Gita, which has influenced many great thinkers, including Mahatma Gandhi, Aldous Huxley, J. Robert Oppenheimer and Nikola Tesla.
You have the right to work, but for the work’s sake only. You have no right to the fruits of work. Desire for the fruits of work must never be your motive in working. Never give way to laziness, either.
Perform every action with you heart fixed on the Supreme Lord. Renounce attachment to the fruits. Be even-tempered in success and failure: for it is this evenness of temper which is meant by yoga.
Work done with anxiety about results is far inferior to work done without such anxiety, in the calm of self-surrender. Seek refuge in the knowledge of Brahma. They who work selfishly for results are miserable.