Epic Poetry: Definition, Heroes & Stories

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  • 0:02 Epic Poetry
  • 0:47 The Epic of Gilgamesh
  • 3:57 The Iliad
  • 6:53 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Mary Deering

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.

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.

The Epic of Gilgamesh

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

According to the poem, Gilgamesh was an arrogant and inexperienced ruler. The Babylonian gods were displeased with the way Gilgamesh treated his people, 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 that 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

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 down 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 sent 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.

The Iliad

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.

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