Five influential epic poems

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 every corner of the world.

This week I want to focus on some of the most influential epic poems from around the world.

Many historical epic poems tend to reflect religious symbolism from their region or may even be considered a religious text. I find it fascinating to see how interwoven creative expression (like poetry) is with religion throughout history. It makes sense, as religion was a huge part of people’s lives, but I do find our modern society forgets how much art was both a part of religion while also challenging religious views.

The five epic poems shared below are historic and have influenced religions, cultures, people, and literature around the world.

I believe it’s important to understand the context of our world, and part of that is how literature shaped our societies and understanding of the world. You’ll never know everything, but I think it’s important to continue learning about the world, especially areas that are new to you.

So without further ado, here are some very influential epic poems.

Photo by Vaibhav Raina on Unsplash

Five influential epic poems

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

  1. Gilgamesh by Anonymous / Unknown (18th century BCE)
  2. Ramayana by Vālmīki (~8th century BCE)
  3. The Odyssey by Homer (8th or 7th century BC)
  4. Mahabharata by Vyāsa (3rd century BCE–4th century CE)
  5. The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri (1321)

Keep reading to find out more about each one. I’ve put them in order of when they were “published”. Many of the dates are vague as it’s hard to know exactly when these were written.

Gilgamesh (18th century BCE)

by Anonymous / Unknown

  • Year Published: 18th century BC
  • Language: Akkadian (from Mesopotamia)
  • Storygraph Categories:
    fiction, classics, poetry, adventurous, fast-paced
  • Considered the oldest heroic epic in the world, and a foundational text for heroic sagas and religious texts.

Miraculously preserved on clay tablets dating back as much as four thousand years, the poem of Gilgamesh, king of Uruk, is the world’s oldest epic, predating Homer by many centuries. The story tells of Gilgamesh’s adventures with the wild man Enkidu, and of his arduous journey to the ends of the earth in quest of the Babylonian Noah and the secret of immortality. Alongside its themes of family, friendship and the duties of kings, the Epic of Gilgamesh is, above all, about mankind’s eternal struggle with the fear of death.

The Babylonian version has been known for over a century, but linguists are still deciphering new fragments in Akkadian and Sumerian.


Ramayana (~8th century BCE)

by Vālmīki

  • Year Published: 8th century BCE–3rd century CE
  • Language: Sanskrit
  • Religion: Hinduism
  • Storygraph Categories:
    fiction, classics, poetry, religion, adventurous, challenging, slow-paced
  • One of the largest ancient epics (nearly 24,000 verses)
  • Influenced both Sanskrit poetry and Hindu and Buddhist cultures

The Ramayana is, quite simply, the greatest of Indian epics – and one of the world’s supreme masterpieces of storytelling ‘Almost every individual living in India,’ writes R. K. Narayan in the Introduction to this new interpretation, ‘is aware of the story of The Ramayana. Everyone of whatever age, outlook, education or station in life knows the essential part of the epic and adores the main figures in it – Rama and Sita. Every child is told the story at bedtime . . . The Ramayana pervades our cultural life.’ Although the Sanskrit original was composed by Valmiki, probably around the fourth century BC, poets have produced countless variant versions in different languages. Here, drawing his inspiration from the work of an eleventh-century Tamil poet called Kamban, Narayan has used the talents of a master novelist to recreate the excitement and joy he has found in the original. It can be enjoyed and appreciated, he suggests, for its psychological insight, its spiritual depth and its practical wisdom – or just as a thrilling tale of abduction, battle and courtship played out in a universe thronged with heroes, deities and demons.


The Odyssey (8th or 7th century BC)

by Homer

  • Year Published: 8th or 7th century BC
  • Language: Homeric Greek
  • Storygraph Categories:
    fiction, classics, poetry, adventurous, slow-paced
  • Considered one of the most significant works of the Western canon, with re-imaginings continuing to be produced till today.

The epic tale of Odysseus and his ten-year journey home after the Trojan War forms one of the earliest and greatest works of Western literature. Confronted by natural and supernatural threats – ship-wrecks, battles, monsters and the implacable enmity of the sea-god Poseidon – Odysseus must test his bravery and native cunning to reach his homeland and overcome the obstacles that, even there, await him.ody


Mahabharata (3rd century BCE–4th century CE)

by Vyāsa

  • Year Published: 3rd century BCE–4th century CE
  • Language: Sanskrit
  • Religion: Hinduism
  • Storygraph Categories:
    fiction, fantasy, historical, emotional, informative, reflective, medium-paced
  • The longest epic poem known at over 200,000 individual verse lines ( approximately 10x the length of the Iliad and Odyssey combined)
  • One of the two major Sanskrit epics of ancient India revered in Hinduism (the other is Ramayana)

Dispute over land and kingdom may lie at the heart of this story of war between cousins the Pandavas and the Kouravas but the Mahabharata is about conflicts of dharma. These conflicts are immense and various, singular and commonplace. Throughout the epic, characters face them with no clear indications of what is right and what is wrong; there are no absolute answers. Thus every possible human emotion features in the Mahabharata, the reason the epic continues to hold sway over our imagination. In this superb and widely acclaimed translation of the complete Mahabharata, Bibek Debroy takes on a great journey with incredible ease.


The Divine Comedy (1321)

by Dante Alighieri

  • Year Published: 1321
  • Language: Italian
  • Religion: Christian / Catholic
  • Storygraph Categories:
    fiction, classics, poetry, challenging, dark, reflective, slow-paced
  • Represents the soul’s journey towards God using Catholic theology and philosophy
  • Considered a key work in Italian literature and one of the greatest works of Western literature.

Belonging in the immortal company of the great works of literature, Dante Alighieri’s poetic masterpiece, The Divine Comedy, is a moving human drama, an unforgettable visionary journey through the infinite torment of Hell, up the arduous slopes of Purgatory, and on to the glorious realm of Paradise; the sphere of universal harmony and eternal salvation.

Now, for the first time, John Ciardi’s brilliant and authoritative translations of Dante’s three soaring canticles The Inferno, The Purgatorio, and The Paradiso have been gathered together in a single volume. Crystallizing the power and beauty inherent in the great poet’s immortal conception of the aspiring soul, The Divine Comedy is a dazzling work of sublime truth and mystical intensity.


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 epic poems you love or that you would recommend. Let me know in a comment below!

Have you read any of these poems (or even part of them)? What did you think of it?

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