Epic Poetry: Origin And History, Characteristics And Works

The epic poetryis a literary genre consisting of a long, serious, and poetic narrative about a significant event, often starring a hero. Before the invention of writing, this genre was strictly oral. In this sense, the term “epic” is derived from the Greek word epos, which means “what is counted.”

For all practical purposes, ancient cultures recorded as epic poems only that which deserved to be remembered. Before the development of writing, epic poems were memorized, and they played an important role in keeping a record of the great deeds and history of a culture.

Epic poetry

The authors made the stories, called epic poems or epics, using metrics that were easy to remember. For their part, those who told them tried to respect their original form.In its beginnings, epic poetry was designed to be performed with music.

The traveling bards interpreted poetry orally; the words were sung and often had musical accompaniment. The tradition of oral storytelling persisted for many years after the advent of writing.

Origin and history

The origins of Greek epic poetry date back to Mycenaean times. The Mycenaean civilization flourished in the Aegean Sea during the period 1600 BC. C. – 1100 a. C.

However, some elements found in Homer’s poetry seem to indicate that its origins date even before that period.

The Iliad and Homer’s Odyssey are the best known of the epic genre. However, the Epic of Gilgamesh and the Indian Sanskrit epics Ramayana and Mahabharata are cited as the earliest works of epic poetry.

Later, with the advent of writing, all the epic poems were transcribed. Additionally, new poems were created in the written format.

Over time, the epic evolved to accommodate changing languages, traditions, and beliefs. Poets such as Lord Byron and Alexander Pope used this genre to create comic works such as Don Juan and The Stolen Curl.


National theme

Each culture has its own epic narrative to extol the actions of its ancestors. Epics featured a hero who embodied the values ​​of a culture.

Also, they framed the actions of that hero within his lineage. In other words, the actions of this character were typical of his ethnic group.

He was a figure of great national or even cosmic importance. By representing the heroic ideal of a culture, he was a role model.

Wide scope

Although the subject is local, the scope of the story is broader. Sometimes the setting of the poem can be global or even larger (universal).

Narration in the past

The very intentionality of the genre —review historical events— forces the use of verbs in the past.

Long verses

In the early days of the epic, singing represented a natural and spontaneous way of expressing the emotions of human beings. Therefore, this form was used to glorify important events.

Exaltation of values

The epic poems were made to be heard by ordinary townspeople. To capture their attention, the events had to represent high values ​​in the protagonists. With this they stimulated the imagination of the listeners or readers.

It was also to reinforce the popular belief that its heroic characters always acted rightly. The stories were built on sharp judgments of good and bad.

Superhuman actions

In these great actions the gods and other supernatural beings took a particular interest or were an active part. Sometimes they took both positions.

Ceremonial style of narration

An epic poem deliberately departs from everyday language. As what is represented is the grandeur of human actions, the style is ceremonial and bombastic.

Relationship of epic poetry with myths

Epic poetry has been used to formally document mythological traditions in many cultures. Such is the case with Norse mythology in Edda, Germanic mythology in Nibelungenlied and, more recently, Finnish mythology with Elias Lönnrot’s Kalevala .

The epic and mythology share several characteristics. Both contain narratives about heroes and heroic actions; the heroes are from real life in the first case, and mythical in the second.

Both epics and myths have the hexameter as their measure. They may also contain common epic features such as battles, speeches delivered, invocations of the Muses, and advice from the gods.

Outstanding works

The Epic of Gilgamesh

The Gilgamesh epic is considered to be the earliest example of an epic. This Assyrian-Babylonian epic poem tells the life story of the Assyrian king Gilgamesh and his adventures in pursuit of immortality.


Several authors participated in the composition of this enormous Indian poem (110,000 stanzas). The work was completed between 400 BC. C. and 400 of d. C. It is considered a true encyclopedia of Indian civilization.

The Iliad

Homer’s Iliad is often considered the earliest work in European literature. It tells part of the state of siege of the city of Troy and the war that took place there. This story had a very important place in Greek mythology.

This poem recounts the advance of the Greeks, enraged by the taking of Helen of Sparta and led by Achilles, to destroy their adversary.

The odyssey

Also composed by Homer, it chronicles Odysseus’ 10-year struggle to return home after the Trojan War. During that time he fights mystical creatures and faces the wrath of the gods.

Zarer’s story

This is a Persian work composed in the 5th century AD. Throughout history, all the struggles that the Persian people had to go through to spread the religion of Zoroastrianism are told.

The poem of Mio Cid

This masterpiece of the Spanish epic tells the life and adventures of Rodrigo Díaz de Vivar, the Cid Campeador. This was a nobleman from Castile who lived in the second half of the 11th century.

The song of the Nibelungs

It is a Germanic work written in the 13th century. It tells the story of Siegfried, a dragon hunter.

Roldán’s song

This epic poem, composed at the end of the 11th century, recounts the defeat of Charlemagne’s army at the battle of Roncesvalles (778). In the framework of history, the death of Roldán, nephew of Charlemagne, is also told.


  1. Yoshida, A. (2018, January 05). Epic. Taken from britannica.com.
  2. Toohey, P. (s / f). Epic: The Genre, Its Characteristics. Taken from firstyear.barnard.edu.
  3. Poets.org (2014, February 21). Epic: Poetic Form. Taken from poets.org.
  4. Lacroix, R. (2005-2006). Characteristics of Epic Poetry. Taken from staffweb.plattscsd.org.
  5. History and biographies. (2014, December 02). What is epic poetry: characteristics and hero characters. Taken from historiaybiografias.com.

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