11 Ancient Epic Poems


They tell us the myths, legends, and stories of the ancient world, often serving as founding documents of national and international literary traditions. These ancient epics make up some of the earliest surviving works of literature for many cultures and world literature at large.


Often descended from oral history, many of these works are preserved as poetry reminiscent of the earlier songs, chants, and recitations that were used to hand them down via oral tradition. While these poems don’t always have our modern sense of rhyme due to being written in often long-dead languages, they still provide us unique insight into ancient cultures and beliefs as well as have continued to shape literature afterwards.


Epic of Gilgamesh

Written: c. 2100 BCE

Location: Sumer/Mesopotamia (Modern-Day Iraq)

The oldest surviving work of literature from any civilization, the epic of Gilgamesh was written around 2100 BCE. However, the first largely intact version of the narrative only dates to 1800 BCE and the most used version for modern translations are the Akkadian version that dates to around 1200 BCE, famously edited by the ancient scholar Sîn-lēqi-unninni. Even while the oldest written sources for the epic date back to 2100 BCE, there is some evidence that earlier versions of the written epic as well as older oral versions of the story once existed.

Rediscovered in 1853 and translated in several forms using surviving examples of the epic from various eras, five earlier Sumerian poems about adventures of Gilgamesh that probably stood alone before the collection of the main epic have been recovered in primitive versions. However, all versions of the tale follow the adventures of the quasi-historical demi-god king Gilgamesh who ruled the Sumerian city-state of Uruk and was the major hero of ancient Mesopotamian culture not unlike the Greek Heracles, the Roman Aeneas, or the English Beowulf.


The second part of the story begins as Gilgamesh expresses anguish over Enkidu’s death at the hands of the gods, which makes the king decide to find the secret to eternal life. To his disappointment, he learns that the gods will not let mankind escape death but finds he can create a more poetic sense of immortality by becoming a good and wise king who builds great monuments and projects that make his name live on long after his death. Just like in the story, the name of Gilgamesh has been preserved throughout the ages because of this story being written down in various forms by the people of Sumer.

There is evidence that Gilgamesh was an actual king before he became deified after his death through the epic depicting his adventures and in other types of art and literature. Gilgamesh probably ruled sometime between 2800 and 2500 BCE, which was part of the era known as the Early Dynastic Period. He became a major figure in Sumerian legend from between 2112 and 2004 BCE, also known as the Third Dynasty of Ur. Outside of the epic poem that bears his name, Gilgamesh also appears in writings by other kings of Sumerian city-states and was listed on the Sumerian King List. Allegedly, the people of Uruk so revered Gilgamesh that they diverted the Euphrates River to bury him in the river bed.


Various elements of the epic of Gilgamesh appear in the Hebrew Bible such as the Garden of Eden, the flood narrative and the character of Noah, and a lot of the content in Ecclesiastes. The madness of Nebuchadnezzar in the Book of Daniel is also very similar to the story of Enkidu. The epic may have also had an influence on Homer whose Iliad and Odyssey draw on similar styles of narrative and themes. After it was rediscovered, the Epic of Gilgamesh also influenced modern literature and has been retold in numerous forms.


Enûma Eliš

Written: c. 1900 - 1600 BCE

Location: Babylonia (Modern-Day Iraq)

Like the Sumerians, the ancient civilization of Babylonia spoke the Akkadian language and was based in an area of Mesopotamia that is now within present-day Iraq. The Babylonians began to rise in prominence just as the days of the Sumerians were ending, but the two cultures exchanged much ranging from language to religion and at one point, Babylonia conquered many of Sumer’s former lands. While the Sumerians had their Epic of Gilgamesh, the Babylonians created their own epic work: the Enûma Eliš.

A bas-relief thought to be of Marduk and Tiamat from a temple at Nimrud dates the legend to at least the reign of Ashurnasirpal II (883-859 BC)

Written sometime between 1900 and 1600 BCE at the height of Babylonia’s power, the Enûma Eliš wasn’t rediscovered until 1849 in fragmentary form. Since then more fragments and excavations have led to the uncovering of near complete versions of the text. The largest surviving collection of the poem shows that it was written in seven clay tablets holding between 115 and 170 lines of Sumero-Akkadian cuneiform with only the fifth tablet largely missing. The work provides insights into Babylonian culture.


The story is that of the creation myth, detailing a battle between the gods that led to the supremacy of Marduk who would eventually create mankind. Marduk’s main rival is Tiamat, who scholars believe may also stand in for Ashur who was the primary god of the Babylonian’s rivals the Assyrians. The first tablet deals with the creation of the gods themselves, the second and third detail be war between the gods, the fourth Marduk being given lordship over all the gods, the fifth how Marduk created much of the world, the sixth the creation of man, and the seventh is a list of phrases to praise Marduk.

Neo-Assyrian cylinder seal impression from the eighth century BCE identified by several sources as a possible depiction of the slaying of Tiamat from the Enûma Eliš.

Several versions of stories featured in the Enûma Eliš have been found predating the Enûma Eliš and stories of the tales main villain, Tiamat, date back even earlier than any references to Marduk the hero. Some scholars believe that the Enûma Eliš epic or at least the form that gives Marduk a central role was created as part of both a political and religious agenda just as the Babylonian empire was reaching its zenith.


The first versions of the epic with Marduk as the starring character begin to appear at the same time Marduk became the national god of Babylonia rather than just the primary god of the city of Babylon. As a result, scholars believe that the promotion of Marduk as both a national hero and religious hero was part of a political ploy by Babylonia’s most famous king, Hammurabi, who also begins his famous set of laws known as the Code of Hammurabi with an invocation to Marduk. By giving all of the people of Babylonia a central hero and myth to follow, it would be easier to unite them together against larger forces like the Assyrians and for Hammurabi to consolidate his power not just as the king of Babylon but of the whole state of Babylonia. In a way, the Enûma Eliš morphs various stratified stories that all existed in Babylonia into one epic narrative that creates a new national identity.


The Story of Sinuhe

Written: c. 1800 BCE

Location: Egypt

One of the most well-known works of Egyptian literature, The Story of Sinuhe is like the Epic of Gilgamesh in that there are several sources written in different periods that tell the story. One of the largest is a limestone ostracon - a type of pottery or stone fragment - that reaches more than a yard long and is considered one of the largest ostracons in existence. Written in a type of cursive writing used by the ancient Egyptians known as Hieratic, the story was most likely composed sometime between 1875 and 1800 BCE but is set during Egypt’s Twelfth Dynasty sometime between 1960 BCE and 1975 BCE, featuring actual historical figures from that time.

Sanehat Meeting the Tenu

The story focuses on an Egyptian official named Sinuhe who is charged with accompanying the prince Senurset, who was also the co-regent of Egypt with his father, Amenemhat I, to a campaign in Libya. While in Libya, Sinuhe finds out that Amenemhat I has been assassinated by his own guards in Egypt. Fearful for his life - historically this may have been because he was involved in the plot or knew someone who was - Sinuhe flees to modern-day Syria where he is taken in by a Bedouin tribe.


He becomes son-in-law to the Bedouin chief Ammunenshi and has several sons who become chiefs in their own right. He brings together rebellious tribes, but he is not entirely happy with his existence. As an old man, he wishes nothing more than to return to Egypt and die there. He receives an invitation from Senurset allowing him to return. He spends the rest of his days in royal favor and eventually is laid to rest in a beautiful tomb in an Egyptian necropolis.

Senusret I

The Story of Sinuhe is unique in that it is told as an epic poem rather than short story or folk tale, more of which survive from this period and ancient Egypt at large such as the narratives Eloquent Peasant and Tale of the shipwrecked sailor. It is often published today accompanied by other shorter examples of ancient Egyptian poetry. Many scholars have also noted how Sinuhe’s story is very much a mirror to the biblical journey of Joseph where the figure flees from the modern-day area near Syria into Egypt instead of the other way around. In different versions, Sinuhe comes under the protection of different gods or manifestations of these gods including Hathor, Maat, and others. His name also means “son of the sycamore,” and the sycamore was the tree of life in ancient Egyptian culture.


In addition to being translated in the modern era, the Story of Sinhue continues to have an influence on modern Egyptian culture. Egyptian Nobel Prize-winning writer Naguib Mahfouz published a short story titled Awdat Sinuhi or The Return of Sinhue as part of a larger collection of short stories. The story also inspired a 1945 novel by Finnish writer Mika Waltari that was used as the basis for a 1954 film, both called The Egyptian. However, this version sets the story during the rule of Akhenaten, the father of perhaps Egypt’s most famous king Tutankhamun.


The Legend of Keret

Written: c. 1500-1200 BCE

Location: Ugarit (Modern-Day Syria)

The ancient city-state of Ugarit is not the most famous of the civilizations to come out of the Middle Eastern region known as the Fertile Crescent, but this small empire with connections to the Hittites and ancient Egyptians played an important role in literature, history, and the human imagination. Ugarit was one of the many city-states and small civilizations undone by the Sea Peoples, a mysterious group that may be related to the lost civilization of Atlantis, as well as one of many civilizations destroyed during a period known as the Late Bronze Age Collapse when civilizations that could not keep up with advances in technology found themselves disintegrating.

An example of the Ugaritic language in which the Legend of Keret was written. The ruins of the civilization are located near the modern city of Ras Shamra in Syria, which was found in the 1930s.

One of the most enduring and few surviving literary examples from the Ugaritic civilization is the Legend of Keret, an epic poem detailing the myth of the legendary Ugaritic king Keret of Hubur. The term Hubur is actually an ancient Sumerian term for the river that leads to the underworld and there is some suggestion that the Legend of Keret was also influenced by the stories of Tiamat that appeared in ancient Babylonia. Like the Enûma Eliš, the Legend of Keret is also written on clay tablets and not all of it survives.


The story opens detailing the misery of King Keret, the son of the great god El. Keret was one of eight sons his mother had yet he was the only one who died. Keret also had seven wives but they all either died of disease, in childbirth, or deserted him. As a result, Keret has no surviving children or heirs to his throne. His dynasty in ruin, he prays to the god El for an heir and the god advises him to go to war with the neighboring kingdom of Udum to take the daughter of its king as a wife. Keret follows this advice, praying to the goddess Athirat on the way for safe passage and promising gold and silver if this is granted. He succeeds in war and marries the princess Hariya who gives him two sons and six daughters.

A depiction believed to be that of the sea goddess Athirat found in the ruins of Ras Shamra.

However, Keret forgot his promise to the goddess Athirat who makes him sick. Keret’s daughter Tatmanat then prays to the gods to spare her father. This creates an issue for the gods. They understand Athirat’s desire to punish Keret but being that he is the son of a god it seems cruel to kill him in this way. When none of the other gods are willing to cure his son, El himself creates a mysterious creature to do it. During his father’s illness, Keret’s oldest son Yassub has decided his father is no longer worthy of the throne and when Keret recovers demands he abdicates. Keret casts curses on Yassub, killing the boy. The rest of the legend is unknown, but many scholars believe that Keret ends up leading to the deaths of all of his children save Tatmanat.

Today, most scholars believe that Keret is a mythological or allegorical figure rather than an actual ruler of the Ugarit. Many scholars have also seen similarity in the story to that of the ancient Greek tales of Helen of Troy as well as to biblical figures like Job. The Ugarit people also worshiped Baal as evidenced by one of their other major surviving literary cycles, the Baal Cycle. This storm god was worshiped throughout the Levant and even into Egypt as well as appears as a pagan god several times in the Hebrew scriptures.


Ramayana

Written: c. 700-400 BCE

Location: India

A central document in the Hindu, Buddhist, Sikh, and Jain religions, the Ramayana exists in numerous forms and has become part of the cultural and literary traditions of not just India but also Sri Lanka, Nepal, Thailand, Cambodia, Malaysia, and Indonesia. Considered one of the longest epics in world literature, the ancient text consists of nearly 24,000 verses set in the Shloka metre and is divided into about 500 sargas or chapters. Along with the Mahabharata, it forms the Hindu Itihasa, or history. In addition to laying out religious foundations, this poem also details much of the history and legend of ancient India.

In the Hindu tradition, the Ramayana takes place in a period known as the Treta Yuga or a period of time that lasted 3,600 years to the gods and nearly 1.3 million to human beings. During this period, humans are losing power as they grow more materialistic and less inclined toward spirituality, leading to war and climate change. To counteract this, the gods gave humans understanding of forces of nature such as agriculture and mining as well as certain social norms. The poem was written by poet Valmiki who is referred to sometime as the Adi Kavi or first poet and the Ramayana is considered by many in the Hindu tradition as the first poem or the first epic poem. It includes numerous religious and philosophical allegories.


The Ramayana tells the story of the prince Rama from city of Ayodhya in the kingdom of Kosala. Things are going well in Rama’s life until his father the king is forced to exile him. Rama takes this well and goes with his wife Sita and brother Lakshmana to live in the forest where the two brothers take up a job as demon hunters. However, the demon Ravana hears of Sita’s beauty and kidnaps her. To get her back, Rama and Lakshmana - also known in various versions as Saumitra, Ramanuja, or Bharatanuja in other versions - form an alliance with the monkey king Sugriva, also known as Hanuman in some versions. After Sita is returned, Rama is concerned she was not faithful and so puts her on trial by fire where she proves her chastity. They then return home. While this is the basic version of the story, other versions promoted by other religions and in other countries do differ.

Ravana is meeting Sita at Ashokavana. Hanuman is seen on the tree.

North and South India also have different tellings of the story and there are numerous regional variations compiled by other authors based on oral traditions. The oldest intact version of the Ramayana was actually found in Nepal and the story has become a national epic there as well as in Cambodia’s Khmer culture, in several Indonesian cultures, in Myanmar, in Thailand, and of the Maranao people of the Philippines.


A critical edition of the text was compiled in India during the 1960s and 1970s utilizing dozens of versions of the manuscript collected from across India and Southeast Asia. An English language translation of this version was completed in 2016. Beyond being one of the most important literary works of the region, the Ramayana has influenced court life, temple worship, and other art forms like dance, ballet, architecture, music, stage plays, film, and on television.


Mahabharata

Written: c. 600-400 BCE

Location: India

The companion to the Ramayana and the other major epic poem of Sanskrit literature, the Mahabharata was written later on and is often attributed to the author Vyasa, an avatar or incarnation of the god Krishna. This is the same author who most of the Sanskrit Vedas or major religious texts are attributed to as well. Like the Ramayana, the Mahabharata is a bit of a mesh of religious mythology, folklore, tradition, and actual historical events interspersed with devotional and philosophical material. The Bhagavad Gita,t he story of the Damayanti, and an abbreviated version of the Ramayana are all part of the Mahabharata. Presented both as a history and a frame story, the Mahabharata - not unlike the Ramayana - probably existed as an oral tradition before it was written down.

Manuscript illustration of the Battle of Kurukshetra

This is perhaps more evident in the Mahabharata, which contains various layers and stories that are not necessarily connected. Like the Ramayana, it is also one of the longest epic poems in history with a core of 24,000 verses but versions that exist with as many as 100,000 verses in them. These verses are typically divided into 18 parvas or books that tell different parts of the story.


The main focus of the story is the struggle for the throne of Hastinapura, a kingdom ruled by the Kuru clan. Two branches of the same family - the Kaurava and the Pandava - are battling for the rule with the Kaurava being the senior branch of the family. However Yudhishthira, the eldest member of the Pandava family, is older than the oldest Kaurava member Duryodhana and thereby feels he has more right to the throne. The Pandavas are ultimately victorious at the great battle of Kurukshetra and ends with the beginning of the fourth and final age of mankind in the Hindu religion known as Kali Yuga.

Just like with the Ramayana, a critical version of the Mahabharata using various versions collected from around the world was compiled by scholars between 1919 and 1966. This critical edition is 19 volumes of text on 13,000 pages and is usually used in Indian for studies of the text. Other regional versions exist in Tamil literature and Indonesia.


A Persian version was even translated in the 1700s. Numerous English editions also exist written both by English-native scholars and Indian scholars writing for English audiences. Most of the English versions are condensed but a full, unabridged version is also in the works. Several pieces of literature in India are also derived directly from the Mahabharata that shed further light and clarity on specific incidents in the larger epic. Plays, novels, songs, dances, comic books, films, and television series have also been developed around the various versions of the story.


The Iliad

Written: c. 800 BCE

Location: Greece

Literally translated as The Story of Troy which was known as Ilium to the ancient Greeks, this epic poem is not only one of the traditional documents of Greek literature but also a founding epic poem in the literary tradition of much of the Western world. Scholars who studied ancient Greek well into the Enlightenment era often translated this work and it is still taught in schools throughout the Western world. Like a lot of epic poems, the Iliad began as oral tradition but the Greek poet Homer is given credit for writing the version that best survives today. Homer lived sometime between 800 and 700 BCE with his other work, The Odyssey, dating to later on in that century. However, both works are believed to be set sometime between 1260 and 1180 BCE.

The story begins with an invocation to the Muses and then launching straight into the middle of the story where the Greeks are besieging the city of Troy. After the Greeks will not return the daughter of Chryses, a Trojan priest of Apollo, Chryses prays to the god who then visits a plague for nine days upon the Greek army. The three major leaders of the Greek contingent - Achilles, Agamemnon, and Odysseys - convene and Achilles convinces Agamemnon to give back Chryses daughter to end the plague.


Agamemnon only agrees if he can take one of Achilles’ high profile captives, leading to Achilles to question why he is involved in the battle at all. It is later revealed that the cause of the war is the fact that Agamemnon’s sister-in-law Helen, wife of his brother Menelaus, has run off with Paris, the son of the King of Troy Priam and she is giving advice to the Trojans to defeat their Greek rivals. However, it is the Greek hero Achilles whose exploits are largely the focus of the story. The intervention of the various gods who support different factions leads to the fighting becoming protracted until Zeus, seeing that the conflict will go on forever with the gods involved, bans the gods from helping their favorites.

Achilles Slays Hector, by Peter Paul Rubens (1630–35).

Eventually, its seems like the Greeks might be defeated until the goddess Hera seduces Zeus allowing the god Poseidon to intervene and aid the Greeks in the interim. After losing his lover Patroclus to the Trojans, Achilles becomes enraged and is able to break down the entrance to Troy as the gods fight among themselves. However, the famed story of the Trojan horse that most recognize today never appears in the Iliad, instead being briefly mentioned in its sequel the Odyssey and the more fully explored in the Roman Aeneid.


The story deals with themes such as fate, glory earned in heroic battle, pride and the failures it can cause, respect and honor between mine, and the destructive nature of anger and wrath. Many believe the story is handed down from oral traditions that chronicle the collapse of numerous civilizations in what is now known as the Late Bronze Age collapse, a period also known as the Greek Dark Ages before the Greeks started to become a predominant power. Outside of its literary value, the poem also gives insight into Greek military life and combat styles.


The Odyssey

Written: c. 850 BCE

Location: Greece

Often characterized as a sequel to the Iliad though both works can be read independently, the Odyssey follows the adventures and setbacks faced by the Greek hero Odysseus as he attempts to navigate his way home from the Trojan War. Waylaid in various ways because he has angered the sea god Poseidon, the Odyssey was also handed down via oral tradition before it was first written down. It is also attributed to the Greek poet Homer who wrote the Iliad. Likewise, the Odyssey is also a founding piece of literature for not just Greek literature but for much of Western literature as a whole as it was translated and read by scholars for centuries after the fall of the Greek empire.

A Roman mosaic depicting a maritime scene with Odysseus (Latin: Ulysses) and the Sirens, from Carthage, 2nd century AD, now in the Bardo Museum, Tunisia

The Odyssey begins right after the ten-year long Trojan War that was depicted in the Iliad and focuses on the 20-year journey it takes Odysseus to get back to his home in Ithaca. While Odysseus attempts to get home, his 30-year-old son Telemachus is trying to help defend his mother against the 108 “suitors” who have come to marry Penelope and claim Odysseus’ throne for themselves.


Despite having angered Poseidon, Odysseus and his family have the support of the goddess Athena, who appears in several guises throughout the story. Like the Iliad, the Odyssey opens in media res and is also written in the dactylic hexameter common of ancient Greek poetry. It also serves as a frame story with various incidents being told through flashbacks. The use of flashbacks and frame stories in the Iliad and Odyssey would later be echoed in other epic style poems ranging from Virgil’s Aeneid to the works of Alexander Pope.


Penelope questions Odysseus to prove his identity.

Major themes of the work include homecoming and Odysseus’ desire to return to his home life. The adventures and wanderings that keep Odysseus from reaching his home are also a major theme, leading to descriptions of real places in the ancient world and offering semi-mythical, semi-historical explanations of people, places, and things that would have been familiar to readers and travelers in ancient Greece as well as later readers in ancient Rome.


Tests of loyalty also appear frequently as well as people hiding their identity. Odysseus himself gives false names and shows up at home in disguise while Athena disguises herself as Mentor to aid Telemachus. Omens, particularly those involving bids, are also frequently used as devices in the poem. The omens are also symbols of connections between certain characters and certain Greek gods.


Aeneid

Written: 29-19 BCE

Location: Rome, Italy

When the Romans conquered much of Europe and parts of North Africa, they were conquering territories that largely had been part of the ancient Greek empire. Along with their conquest of Greece, The Romans adopted the Greek gods, legends, myths, and much of Greek culture. While the Romans did take the Iliad and Odyssey into their culture, they found that they needed their own national epic to connect them to the Greek culture and the wars of Troy that they read about. It was the famed Roman writer Virgil who stepped up to this plate, combining Roman legends and stories together to provide the Roman connection to the battle of Troy.

Aeneas Flees Burning Troy, by Federico Barocci (1598). Galleria Borghese, Rome, Italy

The Aeneid follows the life of Aeneas, a hero of Troy who manages to escape with his family after the fall of the city at the hands of the Greeks and sets out on a journey similar to that of Odysseus to find a new kingdom for his people. After traveling throughout the Mediterranean - including encountering his own Circe like character in the Carthaginian queen Dido - he finally comes to Rome and is linked up with the Julio-Claudian dynasty who was ruling Rome at the time Virgil was writing.


The Aeneid is divided up into 12 books. The first six detail Aeneas’ journey to Italy from the sack of Troy to the arrival of Aeneas in Sicily. The last six books detail the wars of Aeneas and others to civilize and establish the Roman civilization, ranging from the legendary founding of Rome by Romulus and Remus to the establishment of the Roman Empire under Julius Caesar. While considered the greatest work of Latin literature, the Aeneid was actually not complete with Virgil died. He allegedly died on his way to Greece to gain more material for further revisions of the story.

Roman bas-relief, 2nd century: Aeneas lands in Latium, leading Ascanius; the sow identifies the place to found his city

Even in its own day and despite being adopted as the national epic of Rome, there was and still is some debate over whether or not Virgil actually intended for the Aeneid to be a celebration of the Julio-Claudian Dynasty or a subversive text criticizing the Augustan era. Augustus has instituted a new era of prosperity in Rome but had also handed down severe rules on moral and social customs. The depiction of Aeneas was said to reflect Augustus and his aims at restoring Rome to a culture where loyalty to Rome rather than to oneself.


Outside of its immediate political, literary, and social context, the Aeneid continued to be a powerful force long after the fall of Rome, preserved as a way to teach Latin in the days of the early church and thereby influencing writers throughout the generations who also used it as a way to learn about the ancient Romans and their languages. Sequels, spin-offs and reinterpretations of the story of Aeneas and the other characters in the poem have been authored by everyone from Renaissance and medieval poets to modern day sci-fi and fantasy authors.


Silappadikaram

Written: c. 200 CE

Location: Tamilakam (Modern-Day Southern India)

A major language, literature, culture, and ethnic group of Southern India, the Tamil are one of the larger groups of people in the subcontinent and their language is one of the dozen official languages of the country. The Silappadikaram is the first of five epic poems known as the Aimperumkāppiyaṅkaḷ or Five Great Epics that are the cornerstone of Tamil literature tradition and Sangam literature. The Silappadikaram is often titled The Tale of An Anklet in English translations and the book is allegedly written by prince Ilango Adigal, the younger brother of the famous warrior king Senguttuvan.

A depiction of a Tamil jewelry merchant around the time the Silappadikaram would have been written. Many of the characters depicted in the story are worshiped in Tamil culture as demigods or as incarnations of other deities.

The Silappadikaram was written during a period of intense political turmoil in the ancient Tamil empire, which encompasses the modern-day states of Kerala and Tamil Nadu. A new group called the Kalabhras had invaded the region and replaced the oldest of the three major dynasties ruling the area, also bringing in Buddhism and Jainism to the region. Ilango Adigal who wrote the text was one of the Jain or Buddhist authors who lived at the time this was happening and probably wrote the book to advocate for this new way of life being introduced to the area.

However, the Silappadikaram is set during the period immediately preceding this invasion, chronicling the three prior major dynasties of the Chera, Chola, and Pandya. It also gives great details into what Tamil society was like during this period. The story focuses Kovalan, the youngest son of a wealthy caravan trader, who is married to Kannagi, the chaste daughter of a wealthy sea merchant. Kovalan becomes involved with courtesan dancer Madhavi, who leads him to separate from his wife and eventually separates Kovalan from his wealth. He reunites with his wife but the couple are too proud to go to their parents and admit all their money has been squandered. Kovalan decides to sell some jewelry they have only to be accused of stealing it from the queen. Kannagi eventually rescues her husband.

Beyond being the first major epic poem produced in Tamil culture, the Silappatikaram is the first example of the intermingling of prose and poetry in Tamil literature as well as sets up several literary conventions now found commonly in Tamil literature, such as beginning works with praise of a particular deity, the poetic metre known as aicirucappu or “the verse of teachers” and the use of monologues. The poem preserves folk songs and some folk traditions that were prominent at the time it was written.


Modern scholars believe the story might have some basis in fact or at least earlier legend and lore. In the Sangam age, there was a Velir chieftain who deserted his queen Kannagi and lived with a courtesan until his wife appealed to a poet for help. The poet them allegedly brokered a peace between the king and queen and reunited them. The Silappatikaram remains a popular tale in Tamil culture and has been turned into films, television series, novels, and epics from the perspective of other characters in the story.


Mahavamsa

Written: c. 500 CE

Location: Pyu (Modern-Day Sri Lanka)

Literally meaning “The Chronicle,” the Mahavamsa is an epic poem that was written in the Pali language during the Pyu civilization in modern-day Sri Lanka. The story follows the legendary beginnings of Sri Lanka up to around the rule of Mahasena of Anuradhapura around 302 CE and was most likely composed by a Buddhist monk from Anuradhapura around 500 CE. In addition to chronicling heroes and kings, the poem also details the visit of Buddha to the island. The first major epic poem of Pali literature, it is often paired up with the older historical chronicle the Dipavamsa or “Chronicle of the Island” that is the oldest known historical record and piece of literature in Sri Lanka total and was written about a century before.


Relief from Sanchi, showing Ashoka on his chariot, visiting the Nagas at Ramagrama

The Mahavamsa can be divided largely into four major categories. The first chronicles the visit of Buddha to Sri Lanka and how he drove away demonic creatures like yakkhas and nagas as well as delivered a prophecy outlining the island’s important role in Buddhist religion. The second section outlines the genealogies and lineages of ancient kings with notes about incidents in their reigns. It is possible this section is derived from earlier oral lineage recitations. The third section details a mission to plant a bodhi tree and found the monastery at Mahavihara under the direction of Emperor Ashoka.


This section also gives some of the first details the earliest accounts of Buddhist councils, religious worship, and the development of Buddhism in Sri Lanka. While some of the Mahavamsa is taken from other texts that existed at the time, the first and third section dealing with Buddhism are largely unique to the Mahavamsa. The fourth and final section of the chronicle details the immigration of King Vijaya from India and the subsequent wars, succession disputes, major construction projects, and other notable events leading up to the era in which the chronicle was published.

Statue of Buddha erected in Sri Lanka around the same period as the Mahavamsa was first published.

Buddhist monks had been chronicling the history of Sri Lanka dating back to around 300 BCE but it wasn’t until about 500 CE that they began combining this information into a single, organized document.It wasn’t until 1809 that the text started to attract the attention of European readers with the chief justice of the British colony in Sri Lanka - then known as Ceylon - began sending copies of it back to Europe for publication.


The document today is still a valuable resource for historians and scholars, providing unique insight into this time period and excavations of Sri Lankan and southern Indian sites as the chronicle also contains valuable information about neighboring kingdoms and dynasties. It has also become an important document as far as helping Sri Lanka form its own sense of national identity after the end of the British colonial period, giving modern-day Sri Lankans a connection to both an older sense of nationhood as well as an identity as a country that has long been associated with the major religion of Buddhism in the region.



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