Poetry takes many forms. One of the oldest is the epic poem, a very long poem that tells a story, or narrative. Epic poetry often deals with heroic subjects, and many are considered to be the cultural heart of some nations. The earliest epic poem is the Epic of Gilgamesh, a Mesopotamian tale that dates to the 18th century BCE.
Epic poetry emerged out of the oral storytelling tradition of pre-literate human societies. Epic poems were created by paratactic, a technique that divided the story into equal parts that facilitated memorization. It was only later, after humans invented writing that these tales were inscribed. Homer’s epics The Iliad and The Odyssey were written down sometime between the 8th and 6th centuries BCE, but the stories they tell date to the earlier Bronze Age, around the 12th century BCE.
The Romans also produced epic poems, including Virgil’s Aeneid and Ovid’ Metamorphoses. The epic technique can also be found in “pagan” culture, such as the ancient Celts and Vikings. Beowulf, written in the 8th century AD, is often considered to be the first great work of literature in English.
Many modern poets have attempted to tackle the epic form, including Goethe’s Faust (1806), Byron’s Don Juan (1824), Tennyson’s Idylls of the King (1874), and even the epic poem/song cycle Celebration of the Lizard by Jim Morrison, which was largely performed live at Doors shows in the late 1960s.