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 (Approx):||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.
Arms, and the man I sing, who, forc'd by fate, And haughty Juno's unrelenting hate, Expell'd and exil'd, left the Trojan shore. Long labors, both by sea and land, he bore, And in the doubtful war, before he won The Latian realm, and built the destin'd town; His banish'd gods restor'd to rites divine, And settled sure succession in his line, From whence the race of Alban fathers come, And the long glories of majestic Rome. O Muse! the causes and the crimes relate; What goddess was provok'd, and whence her hate; For what offense the Queen of Heav'n began To persecute so brave, so just a man; Involv'd his anxious life in endless cares, Expos'd to wants, and hurried into wars! Can heav'nly minds such high resentment show, Or exercise their spite in human woe?
#9 Epic of Gilgamesh
|Year (Approx):||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
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
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 native land, you are like health--so valued when lost beyond recovery; let these words now stand restoring you, redeeming exile's cost. Holy Virgin, defender of the Shrine at Czestochowa, who illuminates 1 the Ostra Gate in Vilno, whose sign 2 revealed as one of her protectorates the walled Novogrodek--who saved me once with her miraculous glow. My tearful mother entrusted me (it was her only chance, I was near death) so when there was no other cure, she helped to open up my eyes, and once my lids were raised, though weak, I made a pilgrimage to offer thanks and praise.
|Year (Approx):||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.
LO, praise of the prowess of people-kings of spear-armed Danes, in days long sped, we have heard, and what honor the athelings won! Oft Scyld the Scefing from squadroned foes, from many a tribe, the mead-bench tore, awing the earls. Since erst he lay friendless, a foundling, fate repaid him: for he waxed under welkin, in wealth he throve, till before him the folk, both far and near, who house by the whale-path, heard his mandate, gave him gifts: a good king he! To him an heir was afterward born, a son in his halls, whom heaven sent to favor the folk, feeling their woe that erst they had lacked an earl for leader so long a while; the Lord endowed him, the Wielder of Wonder, with world’s renown. Famed was this Beowulf: far flew the boast of him, son of Scyld, in the Scandian lands.
#5 Paradise Lost
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.
OF Mans First Disobedience, and the Fruit Of that Forbidden Tree, whose mortal tast Brought Death into the World, and all our woe, With loss of Eden, till one greater Man Restore us, and regain the blissful Seat, Sing Heav'nly Muse, that on the secret top Of Oreb, or of Sinai, didst inspire That Shepherd, who first taught the chosen Seed, In the Beginning how the Heav'ns and Earth Rose out of Chaos: or if Sion Hill Delight thee more, and Siloa's brook that flow'd Fast by the Oracle of God; I thence Invoke thy aid to my adventrous Song, That with no middle flight intends to soar Above th' Aonian Mount, while it pursues Things unattempted yet in Prose or Rhime. And chiefly Thou, O Spirit, that dost prefer Before all Temples th' upright heart and pure, Instruct me, for Thou know'st; Thou from the first Wast present, and with mighty wings outspread Dove-like satst brooding on the vast Abyss And mad'st it pregnant: What in me is dark Illumin, what is low raise and support; That to the highth of this great Argument I may assert Eternal Providence, And justifie the wayes of God to men.
|Era (Approx):||8th Century BCE|
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.
SPEAK, MEMORY— Of the cunning hero, The wanderer, blown off course time and again After he plundered Troy's sacred heights. Speak Of all the cities he saw, the minds he grasped, The suffering deep in his heart at sea As he struggled to survive and bring his men home But could not save them, hard as he tried— The fools—destroyed by their own recklessness When they ate the oxen of Hyperion the Sun, And that god snuffed out their day of return. Of these things, Speak, Immortal One, And tell the tale once more in our time. By now, all the others who had fought at Troy— At least those who had survived the war and the sea— Were safely back home. Only Odysseus Still longed to return to his home and his wife. The nymph Calypso, a powerful goddess— And beautiful—was clinging to him In her caverns and yearned to possess him.
|Era (Approx):||8th Century BCE|
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.
RAGE: Sing, Goddess, Achilles' rage, Black and murderous, that cost the Greeks Incalculable pain, pitched countless souls Of heroes into Hades' dark, And left their bodies to rot as feasts For dogs and birds, as Zeus' will was done. Begin with the clash between Agamemnon-- The Greek warlord--and godlike Achilles. Which of the immortals set these two At each other's throats? Apollo Zeus' son and Leto's, offended By the warlord. Agamemnon had dishonored Chryses, Apollo's priest, so the god Struck the Greek camp with plague, And the soldiers were dying of it.
|Era (Approx):||Ancient (Not Known)|
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.
To sainted Nárad, prince of those Whose lore in words of wisdom flows. Whose constant care and chief delight Were Scripture and ascetic rite, The good Válmíki, first and best Of hermit saints, these words addressed: “In all this world, I pray thee, who Is virtuous, heroic, true? Firm in his vows, of grateful mind, To every creature good and kind? Bounteous, and holy, just, and wise, Alone most fair to all men's eyes? Devoid of envy, firm, and sage, Whose tranquil soul ne'er yields to rage? Whom, when his warrior wrath is high, Do Gods embattled fear and fly? Whose noble might and gentle skill The triple world can guard from ill? Who is the best of princes, he Who loves his people's good to see?
|Era (Approx):||Ancient (Not Known)|
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.
Wrathful sons of Dhrita-rashtra, born of Kuru's royal race! Righteous sons of noble Pandu, god-born men of godlike grace! Skill in arms attained these princes from a Brahman warrior bold, Drona, priest and proud preceptor, peerless chief of days of old! Out spake Drona to the monarch in Hastina's royal hall, Spake to Bhishma and to Kripa, spake to lords and courtiers all: “Mark the gallant princes, monarch, trained in arms and warlike art, Let them prove their skill and valour, rein the steed and throw the dart.” Answered then the ancient monarch, joyful was his royal heart, “Best of Brahmans and of warriors, nobly hast thou done thy part! Name the place and fix the moment, hold a royal tournament, Publish wide the laws of combat, publish far thy king's consent. Sightless roll these orbs of vision, dark to me is noonday light, Happier men will mark the tourney and the peerless princes' fight. Let the good and wise Vidura serve thy mandate and behest, Let a father's pride and gladness fill this old and cheerless breast.” Then the good and wise Vidura unto his duties bound, Drona, blessed with skill and wisdom, measured out the tourney ground, Clear of jungle was the meadow, by a crystal fountain graced, Drona on the lighted altar holy gifts and offerings placed, Holy was the star auspicious, and the hour was calm and bright, Men from distant town and hamlet came to view the sacred rite. Then arose white stately mansions, built by architects of fame, Decked with arms for Kuru's monarch and for every royal dame, And the people built their stages circling round the listed green, And the nobles with their white tents graced the fair and festive scene. Brightly dawned the festal morning, and the monarch left his hall, Bhishma and the pious Kripa with the lords and courtiers all, And they came unto the mansions, gay and glittering, gold-encased, Decked with gems and rich baidurya, and with strings of pearls be-laced. Fair Gandhari, queen of Kuru, Pritha, Pandu's widowed dame, Ladies in their gorgeous garments, maids of beauty and of fame, Mounted on their glittering mansions where the tints harmonious blend, As, on Meru's golden mountain, queens of heavenly gods ascend! And the people of the city, Brahmans, Vaisyas, Kshatras bold, Men from stall and loom and anvil gathered thick, the young and old, And arose the sound of trumpet and the surging people's cry, Like the voice of angry ocean, tempest-lashed, sublime and high!