The Epoch of Epics: Gilgamesh, Achilles, Beowulf, and Other Super Heroes in Verse
Before Twitter, YouTube, Hulu, Farmville and W.o.W, before cable television's five-hundred channels of nothing-much-on-tonight-Honey, before Howdy Doody and Uncle Miltie, before Marconi, Edison, Bell, and Morse, before Tristram Shandy and Robinson Crusoe, before Shakespeare and all those titled mouth-breathers (one of whom must have been the "real" Shakespeare because the single greatest writer in the English language just cannot possibly be a lower-middle-class bumpkin-slash-actor), before Copernicus and Gutenberg, before Punch and before Judy, before Gothic cathedrals rose as Christian parables in stone and light, before half-frozen monastics copied and recopied by hand the surviving works of antiquity, there was the verse epic—part origin myth, part history, part cinematic blockbuster, part propaganda and ego-stroke for the powers that be, and part owners’ manual for the collective soul.
Many of them are lost, having never been preserved in the pseudo-permanent medium of ink, now no more than the faintest swirls of dust within some forgotten bard’s hollow and time-burnished skull within some forgotten ossuary. Some have mutated and humbled to the outlines of folktales. But once upon a time the verse epic was the psychic lifeblood of cultures--vast narratives memorized and passed down. Verse was the first flash drive or memory card--a technology designed to retain and transmit knowledge.
Below are some of the great epics that have come down to us. I'm sure I left something out, so drop me a line if you see any glaring (or non-glaring) omissions. Next week we will dig further into these long-format poems both ancient and modern.
Aeneid / Virgil
Illiad / Homer
Illiad / Homer
Odyssey / Homer
Big thanks to Richard D, Reference Librarian at our Atascocita Branch and intrepid reader of this blog, for suggesting this week's topic.
Photo Credit: Achilles Statue by MuntyPix