Select your language

Suggested languages for you:
Log In Start studying!
StudySmarter - The all-in-one study app.
4.8 • +11k Ratings
More than 3 Million Downloads

All-in-one learning app

  • Flashcards
  • NotesNotes
  • ExplanationsExplanations
  • Study Planner
  • Textbook solutions
Start studying

Epic Poetry

Save Save
Print Print
Edit Edit
Sign up to use all features for free. Sign up now
English Literature

Epic-ness. While this is certainly a term we would use to describe poetry and literary works, an epic poem has another meaning entirely in literary fields. One may think that to call a poem epic would be because of its huge size and the fantastic and heroic feats of characters, and in many ways that would be a correct assessment! Let's take a look further to define epic poetry and its characteristics.

What is Epic Poetry?

Today people say 'epic' to describe something that is extraordinary or massive, but where does it come from? Epic is a poetic genre where the poems are of considerable length (massive!) and involve a narrative involving the supernatural (extraordinary). They are heroic tales of adventure. Epic poetry is thought of as one of the oldest forms of literature and some even predate writing and are traditionally told orally. The word 'epic' originates from the Greek word Epos, meaning word, or song.

The Origins of Epic Poetry

The earliest known example of epic poetry is 'The Epic of Gilgamesh', a Mesopotamian poem thought to be over 4000 years old, with historians believing it was written in 2100 (BCE). It tells the story of the Sumerian king Gilgamesh and his quest for immortality, meeting all kinds of obstacles on the way. Its author is unknown and is written in a language known as Akkadian. It was discovered written on clay tablets in modern-day Iraq.

Perhaps the most famous epic poems are those that are credited to Homer, a major influence on western literature. These are the epic poems 'The Iliad' and 'The Odyssey'. ''The Iliad' tells the story of the Trojan war in its tenth year. 'The Odyssey' tells the story of the hero Odysseus and his journey back from Troy after the events of 'The Iliad', and in some sense its sequel. Unlike 'The Epic of Gilgamesh', these poems were not written down in Homer's time but would be recounted by poets known as rhapsodes or bards and were performed in the style of a song. The use of repetition and metre would help the poets to better memorise the tales.

Narrative in Epic Poetry.

Heroic tales of swords, gods and monsters... there are many familiar tropes to the epic poem narrative.

EpicPoetry Comic StudySmarterSuperheroes we see today, how similar are they to the ancient heroes of epic poetry?

Although epics have appeared all over the world in different periods of history, their narratives can often be remarkably similar. Normally an epic poem will involve a hero (usually male) who sets off on a journey, more often than not a physical journey like 'The Odyssey' or 'The Epic of Gilgamesh'. Sometimes the journey can be more psychological, in 'The Iliad', the hero Achilles goes through an immense emotional journey.

Our heroes, across their journeys, will more than often find themselves coming across a variety of terrifying obstacles. Sometimes in the form of wild beasts and sometimes from the many gods and goddesses who tended to meddle in the lives of ancient heroes. These obstacles feature often in epic poems as a chance to show the audience how brave, strong or noble the poem's hero is. On rare occasions, an epic poem may use an obstacle to expose a flaw or weakness in the hero, this would normally occur towards the beginning of a poem, to show how the hero grows on their journey.

One motivating factor for these heroes is that of fame and glory, epic heroes wish to be remembered for eternity. As a result, they defy the gods and fight monsters, leaving home for lengthy periods hoping to return and be adored. The lives of these heroes are often short but their aim is to be remembered for their outstanding acts of bravery by later generations. Have they succeeded?

Differences between Epic and Lyric Poetry

Both epic and lyric are poetic genres that are almost two of the most popular forms in poetry. But there are key differences between the two.

Narration and character

Traditionally the epic poem is told through third-person narration, typically following the hero through a series of adventures. In the lyric form, the poems are normally told in the first person and don't follow a series of events but consist of the narrator speaking of an emotional experience about one thing.

Form and Length

Epic poems, though originating in different parts of the world during different periods, usually include a familiar poetic form. Sometimes this can be rhyme or meter, like in 'The Iliad', or alliterative verse as in the Olde English epic of 'Beowulf'. Many lyrical poems are written in free verse, though some may follow traditional poetic forms it is not necessary for the genre. Epic poetry is normally composed at great length, with poems nearly equalling the size of today's novels. Lyrical poems tend to be much shorter, not often no longer than a page.

One similarity is that both genres of poetry were performed as songs in Ancient Greece. The word lyric stems from the Greek word 'Lyre', a popular instrument in Ancient Greece.

Alliterative Verse is a form of poetry that uses alliteration to show its metrical form. Using similar sounds at the beginning of words rather than the end of lines like rhyme.

Free Verse is poetry that includes no rhyme or rhythm.

Examples of Epic Poetry

There are so many epic tales from across the globe, here we'll look at four of the most famous ones!

'The Epic of Gilgamesh' (c. 2100–1200 BC)

'The Epic of Gilgamesh' follows the hero Gilgamesh, the King of Uruk, on his quest for eternal life. Gilgamesh encounters gods and monsters on his journey. It is the oldest known example of epic poetry and one of the first examples of written text.

'The Iliad' (c. 8th century BC)

'The Iliad' is a Greek poem thought to be authored by the poet Homer. It tells the story of the Trojan War, it starts not at the beginning of the war but in its ninth year, the war lasted ten years in total. The war is between the Greeks and the city of Troy, Achilles, a greek, is the hero in this story and the poem follows his trials and tribulations during the war.

'The Odyssey' (c. 8th century BCE)

'The Odyssey' is another poem by Homer. It is set just after the Trojan War and follows the hero Odysseus on his ten-year journey back to Ithaca. On this journey, Odysseus overcomes many obstacles by using his cunning, rather than strength.

'Beowulf' (8th century)

'Beowulf' is a poem written in Old English, roughly thought to be written in the 8th century (AD). The hero of the poem is Beowulf, King of the Geats, who travels to what is now known as Denmark to fight the monster Grendel. The poem takes the reader through the hero Beowulf's life, including his battles with a dragon!

Other notable examples

  • 'The Aeneid' (19BC) - Virgil
  • 'The Song of Roland' (11th Century AD) - Author Unknown
  • 'The Divine Comedy' (1472) - Dante Alighieri
  • 'Paradise Lost' (1676) - John Milton

Characteristics of Epic Poetry

Let's look in more depth at some of the characteristics of epic poetry and where we might find them.


Epic poetry is a narrative written using a formal style, but what does that mean? When people speak of poetry in a formal style, they usually mean poems that follow standard rules concerning rhyme and rhythm. Epic poems would usually use strict meters such as Dactylic Hexameter or Alliterative verse to structure their stories. The poets often used rhythm and repetition to help memorise the often lengthy stories in the poems.


As mentioned previously, epic poems would more often than not feature third-person narration, that narrator would also be omniscient. This allowed the narrator the follow the hero on vast journeys and make the reader aware of what dangers may lie ahead of them.

The fire-dragon had destroyed with flames the stronghold of the people, the land bordering the sea, the fortress of the nation. For that the war-king, the prince of the Weders, planned terrible vengeance."- Example of third-person narration in Beowulf.

In this quote from 'Beowulf', the reader can see that the fire-dragon is planning vengeance on the hero, who is unaware of the danger heading towards them.

Muses and gods

A muse in Greek mythology is a goddess of the arts, like music, dance or poetry. Often at the start of epic poetry, the narrator would call upon a muse to help retell the story. Muses were not the only gods who intervened with the heroes journey, in 'The Epic of Gilgamesh' the goddess Ishtar proposes to the hero Gilgamesh, in 'The Iliad', Zeus, Aphrodite and Apollo all involve themselves in the trojan war.

EpicPoetry Zeus StudySmarterBust of the Greek God Zeus, often found in Greek epic poetry.

Journeys and the supernatural

Epic poetry follows a hero through a journey; on that journey the hero encounters obstacles that are often supernatural. Heroes such as Odysseus had to find a way past a cyclops (a giant one-eyed monster) and sirens (mysterious sea demons). Beowulf had to fight a dragon and Gilgamesh had to fight a hideous beast known as Humbaba. It is a defining feature of epic poetry that the hero will come across something supernatural on their travels.

Thinking of these characteristics, is there a story, maybe a film or video game that has a lot of similar features? Being able to recognise relatable stories will help you define epic poetry easier.

Epic Poetry

Epic poetry's influence on the world today is far-reaching. Words like 'epic' are used to describe something that is large or extraordinary. Many of today's films are based on superheroes, who, like the heroes in epic poetry, possess great strength or smarts. The Greek epics of Homer in particular are considered to be a huge influence on western literature. The world of fiction may be a very different place if there was no epic poetry,

Epic Poetry - Key Takeaways

  • Epic is a poem of considerable length and involves a narrative
  • The oldest example of epic poetry is 'The Epic of Gilgamesh', over 4000 years old
  • The poems were told orally and repetition was used to help poets memorise the stories
  • Almost all epic poetry tell stories of a hero on a journey, where they face obstacles like gods and monsters testing their strength.

Epic Poetry

Epic is a poetic genre of considerable length and involves a narrative

  • The poems were told orally and repetition was used to help poets memorise the stories

Examples of epic poetry are 'The Iliad', 'The Odyssey', 'The Epic of Gilgamesh' and 'Beowulf'

Five characteristics of epic poetry are that they are told in a formal style, they include a hero on a journey that involves the supernatural, gods and monsters.

The earliest known example of epic poetry if 'The Epic of Gilgamesh', over 4,000 years old.

Final Epic Poetry Quiz


What does epic mean in poetry?

Show answer


Epic means a poem that is long and has a narrative.

Show question


What is the purpose of repetition in epic poetry?

Show answer


Repetition is used to help poets retell the poems

Show question


What is the oldest known epic poem?

Show answer


The oldest known epic poem is The Epic of Gilgamesh, which is over 4,000 years old.

Show question


What is the meaning of the Greek word 'Epos'?

Show answer


The Greek word 'epos' means word or song.

Show question


The Iliad tells the story of which war?

Show answer


The Iliad tells the story of the Trojan War.

Show question


What is the common narrative in epic poetry?

Show answer


The common narrative in epic poetry is that of a hero going on a journey.

Show question


Who is the hero of the epic poem The Odyssey?

Show answer


Odysseus is the hero of the epic poem The Odyssey.

Show question


What kind of narration is used in epic poetry?

Show answer


Third-person narration is used in epic poetry

Show question


What is a muse?

Show answer


A muse is a goddess of the arts. Such as music or dance.

Show question


Beowulf visits which modern-day country to defeat Grendel?

Show answer


Beowulf travels to modern-day Denmark to defeat the monster Grendel.

Show question


Before epic poems were written, how were the stories told?

Show answer


Epic poetry was originally told orally by poets known as bards.

Show question

More about Literary Devices

of the users don't pass the Epic Poetry quiz! Will you pass the quiz?

Start Quiz

Discover the right content for your subjects

No need to cheat if you have everything you need to succeed! Packed into one app!

Study Plan

Be perfectly prepared on time with an individual plan.


Test your knowledge with gamified quizzes.


Create and find flashcards in record time.


Create beautiful notes faster than ever before.

Study Sets

Have all your study materials in one place.


Upload unlimited documents and save them online.

Study Analytics

Identify your study strength and weaknesses.

Weekly Goals

Set individual study goals and earn points reaching them.

Smart Reminders

Stop procrastinating with our study reminders.


Earn points, unlock badges and level up while studying.

Magic Marker

Create flashcards in notes completely automatically.

Smart Formatting

Create the most beautiful study materials using our templates.

Sign up to highlight and take notes. It’s 100% free.