Five epic poems from around the world

April is Poetry Month! So I will be sharing lots of poetry suggestions to help you find more poetry that you enjoy.

Like most forms of art, poetry is subjective and very personal. It can take time to find what you like. I want to remind you that you don’t have to like the poetry that people say you should, but I would encourage you to keep exploring poetry until you find what you enjoy.

For this week, I wanted to focus on epic poems. Epic poems are very long narrative poems, so basically a story told in verse. They often follow the typical hero or journey arc, but can be on any theme.

I think one of the most well-known epic poems in the western world would be The Odyssey or The Iliad by Homer. But there are so many more than that, and from many different parts of the world.

My last post talked about some of the most influential epic poems and for this post I want to focus on some lesser known, but fascinating, epic poems. I’ve included examples from around the world to show how diverse the options are, and also because it seems like most areas of the world have a history of epic poems.

Personally, I wonder if epic poems were common in the past because they were an easier way to share and remember the stories orally due to the rhythm, structure, and rhyming. I imagine it could be similar to how we memorize song lyrics.

I know for most of human history storytelling was primarily oral and any kind of written content was limited to “elites”, those either with lots of money, power or part of a religious order.

It’s amazing to think of how much more accessible the written word is today. Anyone can put their thoughts down on paper (or a digital document) and share it with anyone else. I think that’s beautiful.

I know nowadays epic poems are rarely the form of choice, but epic poems can be found in the literature of most cultures throughout history. And today I want to share with you a few that you might not know or realize were a poem.

Photo by areej fateyma on Unsplash

Five epic poems from around the world

Here’s a list of five epic poems from around the world.

  1. Beowulf by Anonymous / Unknown (975-1025 CE)
  2. Shahnameh by Ferdowsi (977-1010 CE)
  3. The Five Great Epics by Tamil Jains and Tamil Buddhists (no specific individuals) (5th-10th century CE)
  4. Ramakien (13th century)
  5. The Song of Kiều by Du Nguyên (1820)

Keep reading to find out more about each one. I’ve listed them in the general order of when they were “published”.

Beowulf (975-1025 CE)

by Anonymous / Unknown

  • Year Published:975-1025 AD
  • Language: Old English
  • Storygraph Categories:
    fiction, classics, fantasy, poetry, adventurous, medium-paced
  • One of the most often translated and important works of Old English

Composed toward the end of the first millennium, Beowulf is the elegiac narrative of the adventures of Beowulf, a Scandinavian hero who saves the Danes from the seemingly invincible monster Grendel and, later, from Grendel’s mother. He then returns to his own country and dies in old age in a vivid fight against a dragon. The poem is about encountering the monstrous, defeating it, and then having to live on in the exhausted aftermath.


Shahnameh (977-1010 CE)

(Persian: شاهنامه, ‘The Book of Kings’, also transliterated Shahnama)
by Ferdowsi

  • Year Published: 977-1010 CE
  • Language: Persian
  • Storygraph Categories:
    nonfiction, classics, history, poetry, challenging, informative, reflective, slow-paced
  • One of the longest epic poems in the world, and the longest written by a single individual
  • Considered a literary masterpiece and important to Persian literature

Among the great works of world literature, perhaps one of the least familiar to English readers is the “Shahnameh: ThePersian Book of Kings,” the national epic of Persia. This prodigious narrative, composed by the poet Ferdowsi between the years 980 and 1010, tells the story of pre- Islamic Iran, beginning in the mythic time of Creation and continuing forward to the Arab invasion in the seventh century. As a window on the world, “Shahnameh” belongs in the company of such literary masterpieces as Dante’s “Divine Comedy,” the plays of Shakespeare, the epics of Homer- classics whose reach and range bring whole cultures into view. In its pages are unforgettable moments of national triumph and failure, human courage and cruelty, blissful love and bitter grief.


The Five Great Epics (5th-10th century CE)

(Tamil: ஐம்பெரும்காப்பியங்கள் Aimperumkāppiyaṅkaḷ)
by Tamil Jains and Tamil Buddhists (no specific individuals)

  • written over the 5th-10th century CE
  • Language: Tamil
  • Storygraph Categories:
    fiction, classics, literary, poetry, adventurous, slow-paced
  • Are a source of historical information on the Tamil people, including their society, religion, culture and academic life

Names of all five epics:
1. Cilappatikāram 
2. Manimekalai
3. Cīvaka Cintāmaṇi
4. Valayapathi 
5. Kundalakesi

Cilappatikāram Summary

One of the world’s masterpieces, The Cilappatikaram (5th century ce) by Ilanko Atikal is India’s finest epic in a language other than Sanskrit. It spells out in unforgettable verse the problems that humanity has been wrestling with for a long time: love, war, evil, fate and death.

The Tale of an Anklet is the love story of Kovalan and Kannaki. Originating in Tamil mythology, the compelling tale of Kannaki—her love, her feats and triumphs, and her ultimate transformation to goddess—follows the conventions of Tamil poetry and is told in three phases: the erotic, the heroic and the mythic. This epic ranks with the Ramayana and the Mahabharata as one of the great classics of Indian literature and is presented for the first time in a landmark English verse translation by the eminent poet R. Parthasarathy, making it accessible to a wider audience.


Ramakien (13th century)

(Thai: รามเกียรติ์, ’Glory of Rama’; sometimes also spelled Ramakian)

  • Year Published: 13th century
  • Language: Thai
  • One of Thailand’s epic poems and
  • It is considered Thailand’s version of the Ramayana as it shares most of same the tales, but has been adjusted to the culture of Ayutthaya

Ramakien tells the story of the battle between Tosakanth (king of the demons) and a human, King Rama. Tosakanth kidnaps Queen Sida, wife of King Rama, with the hope that she will fall in love with him. The battle over Queen Sida has Tosakanth and his relatives and friends on one side, against King Rama, his loyal brother Phra Lak and an army of monkey warriors, including Hanuman the demi-god white monkey.


The Song of Kiều (1820)

The original title in Vietnamese is Đoạn Trường Tân Thanh (斷腸新聲, “A New Cry From a Broken Heart”), but it is more commonly known as Truyện Kiều (傳翹, “Tale of Kiều”)
by Du Nguyên

  • Year Published: 1820
  • Language: Vietnamese (written in Chữ Nôm – Chinese characters)
  • Storygraph Categories:
    fiction, classics, poetry, emotional, reflective, sad, medium-paced
  • Most famous Vietnamese poem and a Vietnamese literature classic

A stunning new translation of the legendary Vietnamese epic poem, now for the first time in Penguin Classics

Considered the greatest literary achievement in Vietnamese, The Song of Kieu tells the story of the beautiful Vuong Thuy Kieu, who agrees to a financially profitable marriage in order to save her family from ruinous debts, but is tricked into working in a brothel. Her tragic life involves jealous wives, slavery, war, poverty, and time as a nun. Adapted from a seventeenth-century Chinese novel, Jin Yun Qiao, written by an unknown writer under the pseudonym Qingxin Cairen, author Nguyen Du upended the plot’s traditional love story by conveying the social and political upheavals at the end of the 18th century in Vietnam.


Final thoughts

I hope you found something of interest in this list of epic poems.

I’m always looking for more suggestions of what to read. I’d love to know which poems you love or that you would recommend. Let me know in a comment below!

Have you read any of these epic poems, or a part of one? What did you think of it?

I’d love to hear your thoughts in a comment below.