Epic Poems: The Earliest Written Works In Western Literature


Many scholars argue that the earliest written works in Western Literature were fundamentally written to be spoken orally. From the Homeric Epics to the oldest piece of epic western literature: The Epic of Gilgamesh (written c.2150-1400 BC). Virtually all Classical Western epics are presented in this poetic form; everything from Dante’s Divine Comedy to John Milton’s Paradise Lost.

So why were the earliest written works in Western Literature all epic poems? Put simply, according to Milman Parry and Albert Lord, the developers of oral-formulaic theory, the earliest written works were antecedents of literate societies. By using the epic poetry formula the stories could be communicated to the audience from one person to the next.

It is hard to imagine that anyone could recite such extensive poems, let alone memorize them. It wasn’t until the early twentieth century that Milman Parry introduced oral-formulaic theory: an in-depth explanation of how the Homeric Epics could be passed down orally. Parry’s theory seeks to answer two questions: What is the process that enables oral poets to improvise poetry on the spot, and what characteristics do all orally improvised poems share? According to Parry and Lord, back in the day, epic poems tended to be constructed into short episodes (similar to acts in a play) so that the poet/performer could easily memorize the entire epic.

Although Parry’s findings may seem obvious today, with the amount of communication that takes place any given day via texting, songs and books. However, it wasn’t that long ago that this theory was revolutionary in the way we think about oral epics.

Here are 5 of the most famous Epic Poems ever written!

The Epic of Gilgamesh:

Predating the Homeric Epics by c.1500 years, The Epic of Gilgamesh is by far the most famous Epic poem of all time. Based on the semi-mythic King of Uruk, this poem tells the story of the Assyrian King: Gilgamesh. Tackling themes of everything from humanism to mortality, it is no wonder this is one of the greatest oral epics ever told.


The Odyssey:

The Odyssey recounts the 10 year journey home from Troy across the Peloponnesian sea made by the Trojan hero Odysseus. Said to have been written by Homer sometime in the 8th century, The Odyssey is by far one of the most influential poems in Western Literature.

 The Iliad:

Equally as famous, if not more so than Homer’s The Odyssey is his epic poem The Iliad. The Iliad speaks of heroism and deceit, revealing some of the most intriguing characters in Western Literature.


 The Aeneid:

Virgil famous epic was written at the height of Augustine’s reign in Italy. Picking up where the Iliad left off, Virgil’s poem describes the travels of Aeneas’ travel from Troy to Carthage. Known as the great Roman epic, The Aeneid is by far one of the greatest epic poems of all time.


While the Romans had The Aeneid, the British had Beowulf. This famous story follows the character Beowulf: the strongest man to have ever lived, who is hired by Hrothgar to protect his home from the monstrous creature, Grendel. Known for its fantastical elements, Beowulf is celebrated around the world as a classic Epic Poem.


Bio: Zac Kellogg is a history blogger and singer-songwriter from Austin, TX. His blog http://www.rhymingtoremember.com combines history with poetry and song to help people memorize important facts about history.