Poems are the earliest form of literature. They have been entertaining us for more than four millenniums now. There are many types of poetry available to soothe our creative sensibilities. Out of all, epic poems have been here for the longest period of time. Now, you may be wondering what is epic poetry. Originating from the word epos, epics are long narrative poems that usually follow a hero as he undertakes a journey to fulfill brave quests. Along the way, he comes face to face with the Gods and other supernatural powers. The deeds of these heroes somehow affect the world and its inhabitants.
Ancient epic poems are all spectacular works that are masterpieces in their own right. Though we seldom spend our time reading these poems anymore, it is undeniable that some of the epic poems are still as relevant today as they were a few millenniums ago. That is why you would find a plethora of modern-day films, plays, novels, and TV series based on ancient epics.
This Poetry Day, let us have a look at 6 of the oldest epic poems that have still managed to stand the test of time.
The Epic of Gilgamesh
Period: 2100 – 1200 BC
The Epic of Gilgamesh is not only the oldest epic but also the earliest work of literature discovered to date. Originating in the Sumerian Civilization, The Epic of Gilgamesh is about 4,000 years old, predating Homer’s works. It became widely known around the world after a copy of it was unearthed near the city of Mosul in Iraq in the 19th century. The story revolves around the legendary Sumerian King Gilgamesh who is said to have ruled over Uruk for 126 years. The epic begins with the demi-god king being challenged by Enkidu, a Wildman sent by the Gods to end Gilgamesh’s reign of terror. Unexpectedly, the two become friends and slay many forest-dwelling monsters. This does not sit well with the Gods. So, they end Enkidu’s life. A devastated Gilgamesh then journeys the world in his quest for immortality. Friendship, adventure, heroism, and morality are the recurring themes of The Epic of Gilgamesh. Though ancient, the story still has universal appeal.
Period: 2nd century BC – 2nd century AD
Penned by Sage Valmiki, the Ramayana chronicles the story of Lord Rama, an incarnation of Lord Vishnu. Rama, the eldest son, of King Dashratha of Ayodhya, was exiled for 14 years at the behest of his stepmother, Queen Kaikeyi. He is accompanied by his wife, Sita, and brother, Lakshmana. When Sita is abducted by the demon King Ravana, a great battle ensues. Consisting of over 24,000 lines, the Ramayana is one of the most-readpieces in the world. Rama, Sita, Lakshmana, Bharata, Hanumana, and Ravana among others play key roles in the religious consciousness of many countries including India, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Malaysia, Thailand, Cambodia, and Indonesia. It is no wonder that there are thousands of adaptations of the Ramayana. One of my favorites is the anime rendition of the great saga.
Period: 3rd century BC – 3rd century AD
With more than 200,000 verse lines, Sage Vyasa’s Sanskrit epic, Mahabharata, is the largest piece of literature of all time. It can be said that it is ten times the length of both the Iliad and the Odyssey together. The seminal Bhagavad Gita is also a part of the Mahabharata. The Indian epic predominantly focuses on Kurukshetra, the war between two groups of cousins, the Pandavas and the Kauravas, for the throne of Hastinapur. Just like the World Wars, most of the ancient kingdoms of the land align themselves with one side or the other bringing the war to culmination. Lord Krishna, the reincarnation, of Lord Vishnu, plays a key role. Dharma, one’s duty and responsibility, and Karma, the repercussions of one’s actions, are the main themes of this epic saga. It is believed that all of life’s mysteries are unraveled in the Mahabharata. One just needs to look.
Period: 8th century BC
Every literary enthusiast has heard of the Iliad. Also known as the Song of Ilion or the Song of Ilium, Home’s Iliad is considered to be the first epic poem of Western Literature. Consisting of more than 15,000 lines and divided into 24 books, the epic chronicles the final year of the Trojan War that was waged by the Greeks when the Trojan Prince Paris abducted the beautiful Helen of Sparta. Many great heroes like Achilles and Hector were part of this Great War. Even the Gods played a key role. The Olympian Gods almost appear human with their endless plotting and intervention in Homer’s depiction. The Iliad is bound to make you cry tears of frustration and anger at the many betrayals and needless deaths. At the same time, it would leave you awe-struck by the heroic portrayals of valor and love. It is no wonder that the Iliad is still studied in detail all over the world. We also have many on-screen renditions of this great epic.
Period: 8th century BC
Penned near the end of the 8th century, the Odyssey is the sequel to the Iliad. In the Odyssey, Homer depicts the Greek hero Odysseus’ return journey to his wife, Penelope, and son, Telemachus, in Ithaca, after the Trojan War. Odysseus’s journey is not easy. It is fraught with many obstacles. Odysseus and his men have to overcome storms, monsters, sirens, and even a Cyclops before they can go back home. No wonder, it takes them over twenty years. Along with Odysseus’ adventures, Homer also brings to us vivid descriptions of the ancient Mediterranean lands. Consisting of more than 12,000 lines, the Odyssey is indeed a masterpiece that continues to delight adventure fans even today.
Period: 29 – 19 BC
Virgil’s Aeneid is the creation story of the mighty Roman Empire. The epic revolves around Aeneas, a minor character in Homer’s Iliad. Son of Prince Anchises and Aphrodite, the Trojan hero managed to flee Troy after his fall and went on to establish the great Roam Empire. The first part of the Aeneid follows Aeneas and his men as they journey from Troy to Italy. In the second half, they triumph over the people of the Italian peninsula. Virgil’s inclusion of historical events like the Punic Wars, along with his meshing of Greek and Roman mythology, makes Aeneid one of its kind. It is the foundational work of Roman history and is a must-read for everyone. Unsurprisingly, Virgil’s Aeneid served as an inspiration to many literary stalwarts, including Dante Alighieri.
Epics are grand pieces of poetry that depict the rise and fall of entire civilizations. War, betrayal, romance, sacrifice, and adventures among a plethora of others are some of the predominant themes of epic poetry. Ancient epics are a class of their own. They not only give us a glimpse into the lives of people who lived centuries before us but also portray the indomitable spirit of humanity in the face of crisis.
Do comment and let us know which of the ancient epics hold your attention.