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Epic poetry was a form of oral poetry that was first practiced in ancient India. In time, it spread to Ireland, Wales and Greece. South Indian bards were, perhaps, the first epic poets in history. It is generally believed by historians that the first epic poem to have been created is the Epic of Gilgamesh. This poem is part of the Mesopotamian mythology and was first recited during the 20th to 10th century BC. Of course, this is a speculation as other poems might have been recited before, even if no mention of them survived to present times.
The European epic tradition began in Greece during the 8th century BC with the works of Homer, The Iliad and The Odyssey. In time other epic poets followed such as Hesiod, Apollonius, Ovidius, Lucan, and Statius. Below we present four of the most famous epic poems that survived to present times.
Image source: germanicmythology
1. Beowulf, the Anglo-Saxon epic poem
Beowulf is an Old English heroic epic poem set in Scandinavia. It is one of the most important works of Anglo-Saxon literature. Its manuscript is one of the oldest, fully preserved manuscripts in the world.
Beowulf is a hero of the Gets from Scandinavia. In the poem he comes to the aid of Hroðgar, the king of the Danes, who halls are attacked by a giant called Grendel. In the end the hero manages to slay both Grendel and the giant’s mother. Victorious, he returns to Getland and becomes King of the Gets.
2. The Iliad and The Odyssey by Homer
The Iliad and The Odyssey are perhaps the best known epic poems. Parts of them are studied in schools. The Iliad tells the story of the Trojan War and the ten year siege of the city of Troy. It recounts the battle and events between the Greeks and the Trojans that culminate with the destruction of Troy.
The Odyssey continues the story by telling the tale of Odysseus, the Greek hero that came up with the idea of the Trojan horse and his long voyage home. Because of the wrath of the Gods, Odysseus’s journeys span ten years before he is finally able to return home to his wife and son.
3. The Nibelungenlied or the Song of the Nibelungs
Nibelungenlied is an epic poem in Middle High German. It tells the story of the dragon-slayer Siegfried who is murdered at the court of the Burgundians. Enranged, his wife Kriemhild vows to revenge him and does not stop until all those responsible for her husband’s death are killed.
Nibelungenlied is based on events from the 5th and 6th centuries AD. However, the oldest surviving manuscripts date from the 13th century. It is unknown exactly how old is the first version of this epic poem.
4. The Poetic Edda, a collection of Old Norse epic poems
The Poetic Edda is a collection of Old Norse epic poems. It is preserved in the Icelandic medieval manuscript Codex Regius. Alongside the Prose Edda, it is the most important source of Norse mythology that has survived to present times. Although the Codex was written in the 13th century, the myths are much older. Many poets and prose authors have been inspired by the Poetic Edda. Among them we count: Vilhelm Ekelund, August Strindberg, J.R.R. Tolkien, Ezra Pound and Karin Boye.
Have you read any of these epic poems?
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