Are these the best epic poems?
Epic poetry has been a part of literature from the beginning, as the following selection of ten of the greatest epic poems demonstrate. Spanning nearly four millennia, each of these classic works of epic poetry tell us something about the human condition, the struggle to overcome the dark forces of the world, and the nature of heroism.
Anonymous, Epic of Gilgamesh. Often referred to as the earliest great work of literature that has survived into the modern age, the Epic of Gilgamesh dates from nearly 4,000 years ago and nearly a whole millennium before Homer (see below). It was composed in ancient Mesopotamia (modern-day Iraq) and contains many of the features we encounter in later great epic poems: the quest motif (in the second half of the narrative, the hero, King Gilgamesh, goes in search of eternal life), what Christopher Booker calls the ‘overcoming the monster’ motif (Gilgamesh and his companion, the wild man named Enkidu, face down several beasts), and divine intervention in human affairs.
Homer, The Iliad. The first great epic poem in Western literature, the Iliad concerns the Trojan War between the Greeks (although they’re not referred to as such) and the Trojans, following the abduction of Helen of Troy by the Trojan prince Paris. (‘Ilium’ is another name for Troy.) Surprisingly, a number of the most famous incidents from the myth of the Trojan War don’t appear in Homer’s poem: there’s no Trojan Horse, and Achilles’ heel isn’t the only vulnerable part of his body (at one point he’s wounded in the elbow). Read the rest of this entry
In his latest Dispatches from the Secret Library, Dr Oliver Tearle considers Apollonius of Rhodes’ classic tale of Jason and the Golden Fleece
In the world of classical Greek epic poetry, two poems are universally renowned: The Iliad and The Odyssey. Both, of course, are attributed to Homer – whoever he may have been. But there is another classical epic poem, written a few centuries later, which has been largely forgotten – although the story it tells is one of the most celebrated tales from Greek mythology. This poem is The Argonautica, an epic poem about Jason and the Argonauts’ search for the Golden Fleece. Its author was a rather intriguing poet named Apollonius of Rhodes.
Well, he’s known as ‘Apollonius of Rhodes’, although here we come upon our first problem. He was more closely associated with Alexandria, it would seem, than Rhodes – and, indeed, rose to become the chief librarian at the famed Library of Alexandria. He also began his life in Alexandria. The story goes that Apollonius, while living at Alexandria rather than Rhodes, wrote a much longer epic poem about Jason and the Argonauts, for which he received a fair bit of flack. Later in life, when he had moved to Rhodes, he revised the poem – and, according to one theory, drastically cut it down to create the much shorter work we now have – and was hailed as a genius. He later returned to Alexandria, where, his reputation secure, he was made director of the great Library of Alexandria. In the realm of epic poetry, it would seem, Apollonius was the first great exemplar of the dictum Less is more. Read the rest of this entry
The best epics by women
The Iliad, The Odyssey, Paradise Lost – these are some of the titles that immediately spring to mind when we think of epic poetry. But this ignores the contributions made to epic poetry by women writers over the millennia. Here are seven of the best classic epic poems written by women.
Enheduanna, The Descent of Inanna. This is not just the oldest female epic; it’s the oldest work of poetry written by any named poet, male or female. Enheduanna was a Sumerian high priestess who lived in the 23rd century BC – that’s around 1,500 years before Homer. Enheduanna lived in the city of Ur (in modern-day Iraq), and was a priestess of the Sumerian moon god Nanna. This poem describes the goddess Inanna’s descent into the underworld – Inanna being the daughter of Nanna, and the Sumerian goddess of love, beauty, fertility, and wisdom, among other things. Although it’s a short work (it runs to little over 400 lines), it contains many of the elements we associate with epic poetry, and elements of the story are found in the later myths of the descent of Ishtar and the Greek story of Persephone and Hades. You can read a modern English translation of Enheduanna’s poem here. Read the rest of this entry