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Epic Poetry: Definition, Heroes & Stories

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Taught by

Mary Fogle

Mary has a Master's Degree in History with 18 advanced hours in Government. She has taught college History and Government courses.

Learn about epic poetry in the ancient world. Explore two epic poems, 'Gilgamesh' and 'The Iliad,' and discover the information these poems contain about the cultures that created them.

Epic Poetry

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. Many ancient writers used epic poetry to tell tales of intense adventures and heroic feats. Some of the most famous literary masterpieces in the world were written in the form of epic poetry.

Examples of Epic Poetry

Epic poems were particularly common in the ancient world because they were ideal for expressing stories orally. These works continue to be well-regarded today. Many high school students read famous examples of epic poetry such as Gilgamesh and The Iliad.

An Ancient Babylonian Epic

The epic story of the Babylonian hero Gilgamesh is one of the first recorded examples of an epic poem. 'Gilgamesh' was written on clay tablets in cuneiform by a priest named Sin-leqi-unninni. Many scholars believe that Sin-leqi-unninni was inspired by Babylonian and Sumerian tales about a real-life king who ruled between 2700 and 2500 B.C.E.

A tablet with the story of Gilgamesh carved on it
A tablet with the story of Gilgamesh carved on it

According to the poem, Gilgamesh was an arrogant and inexperienced ruler. The Babylonian gods were displeased with the way Gilgamesh treated his people and so they sent a hero named Enkidu to guide Gilgamesh and help him become a better leader. Enkidu and Gilgamesh initially fought; however, Gilgamesh soon realized the Enkidu was a stronger man and a better warrior. The two became fast friends and went on many adventures together.

An illustration of Enkidu fighting a lion
An illustration of Enkidu fighting a lion

One day the Babylonian goddess Ishtar saw Gilgamesh, and she was so enamored with the handsome ruler that she asked him to marry her. Ishtar offered Gilgamesh gold, jewels, and storm demons to pull his chariot. She promised that all the kings of the earth would bow before him. Despite all of these promises, Gilgamesh was uninterested. He reminded Ishtar that she had killed or maimed all of her previous lovers. Ishtar became angry and send the Bull of Heaven against Gilgamesh. With the help of Enkidu, Gilgamesh defeated the bull and confronted Ishtar. Enkidu was especially angry that Ishtar had tried to kill his friend and he cursed the goddess. A few days later, Enkidu became ill and died as a result of his curse on the sacred goddess.

Gilgamesh was devastated at the death of his companion and began to fear his own death. Gilgamesh sought out Utanapishtim, who had survived the great flood that swept over Mesopotamia. Utanapishtim told Gilgamesh that the great flood had been caused by an angry god who wanted to drown out the clamor of humanity. The god Ea was distressed at the idea that all humans would drown, so he told Utanapishtim that he must build a large boat and gather all of the animals into it to survive the flood.

After he survived the flood the gods gave Utanapishtim and his wife eternal life. Although Utanapishtim was unable to give Gilgamesh eternal life, his stories helped Gilgamesh to become a wiser ruler. His adventures with Enkidu and the knowledge he gained from Utanapishtim helped turn an arrogant young man into a wise and understanding ruler.

The transition of a young hero into a wise ruler is a common theme in epic poetry. Another common theme in many epic poems is the tale of a flood. Many ancient cultures in the Middle East had a flood story. Historians believe that there may have been a real flood in the area that inspired flood stories in Babylonian mythology, Sumerian mythology, and the Bible.

An Ancient Greek Epic

The Iliad is another example of an epic poem. The Iliad and its companion work The Odyssey were probably based on real life events that occurred in ancient Greece. Homer, a Greek writer, is usually credited with writing both epic poems.

The Iliad begins with a love story. Paris, a young prince, fell in love with Helen, the wife of King Menelaus of Sparta and the most beautiful woman in the world. The pair decided to run away together, leaving Helen's 9-year-old daughter behind. When he learned that his wife had run away with young Paris, Menelaus and Agamemmnon, his brother, set out with their armies to try and take Helen back.

An illuminated manuscript showing the meeting of Paris and Helen
An illuminated manuscript showing the meeting of Paris and Helen

Paris and Helen fled to the city of Troy, which was ruled by Paris' brother Hector. During the battle, many Trojans died in order protect Helen and Paris from her vengeful husband, including Hector, their king. When he was finally killed in battle, the Greeks drug Hector's lifeless body behind a chariot around and around the city walls, displaying their contempt for the Trojans inside the city walls.

A vase showing Paris and Menelaus in battle, from the Louvre Museum
A vase showing Paris and Menelaus in battle, from the Louvre Museum

Eventually, Paris was also killed in battle; however, his brother Deiphobus married Helen and the war continued. After the war had raged around the city of Troy for several years, Athena, the goddess of war, offered the Greeks a solution. She told Menelaus to build a massive wooden horse and hide the best of his warriors inside. The Greeks left the giant wooden horse outside the gates of Troy and hid on a nearby island. The Trojans believed that they had won the war and carted the great wooden horse inside the city and regarded it as a treasure. That night while the Trojans slept, the Greeks inside the horse crept to the gates of the city and opened them for the rest of the Greek army. The Greeks quickly subdued the city of Troy and reclaimed Helen. Menelaus killed Deiphobus and many of the other Trojan warriors.

According to the tale in The Iliad, thousands of Trojans died so that two people in love could be together. This epic poem displays the value that the ancient Greeks placed on love and on beauty. Helen's status as the most beautiful woman in the world led to her abduction by Paris and the pursuit of her first husband Menelaus. In addition, the tale of Paris and Helen clearly indicates the benefit of caution in both love and in warfare. If the Trojans had been more cautious about bringing the strange giant horse into their city, the war would have continued and the Trojans might have eventually won. This tale is also the origin of the phrase 'beware of Greeks bearing gifts.'

Lesson Summary

Epic poems are long, narrative poems that were common in the ancient world. These poems often tell the story of a hero and his or her adventures. The ancient Babylonian priest, Sin-leqi-unninni, recorded the tale of Gilgamesh, a young hero who gains wisdom through his adventures. In ancient Greece, Homer wrote the tale of an epic war over a beautiful woman. In each of these examples, we can observe the cultural norms of the poets who recorded the epic poems for posterity.

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