The epic instinct: examining Beowulf, the Epic of Gilgamesh and the Ramayana

Why do we tell stories? This question has occupied literary scholars, historians, and authors alike for centuries. One approach to finding an answer has been to study epic poetry, which has been defined by as ‘an extensive poem…that [examines] a pivotal epoch in the past of a particular people, and that endures because it both entertains its audiences and educates them on issues of ultimate importance’. But it may be the case that epic poetry does something more than entertain and educate – that there is a deeper, instinctual motivation to create that is intrinsic to us humans.

The quest for immortality

Epic poems exist all over the world, and have done as early as 2100 BC, when the Epic of Gilgamesh is thought to have been first recorded in Ancient Mesopotamia (modern-day Iraq). Gilgamesh is the king of the city-state Uruk, and the story follows his quest to find immortality following the death of his closest friend, Enikdu. Similarly to the Iliad, in which heroes seek to achieve great feats in battle to be remembered when they die, The Epic of Gilgamesh deals with the existential problem of what happens to us after death – reflecting the human desire to leave a mark on the world which people will remember for centuries to come.

Gilgamesh eventually gives up on his quest for immortality and decides to dedicate his life to carrying out virtuous deeds, writing down the story of his life on lapis lazuli tablets for later generations to find and learn from. (3) In the Iliad, Achilles chooses a short but heroic life, knowing that he will be sung about as part of the klea andron (the glorious deeds of men) and in doing so, will achieve immortality.

Gods, monsters, and mead

However, epic poetry is not just about life and death – it deals with everything that comes in between, often drawing on folklore, previous oral storytelling traditions and religion for its inspiration.

In Beowulf, an epic written in old English which dates back to the 8th century, the titular hero faces three monsters – Grendel, a troll-like monster believed to be descended from Cain, the Biblical son of Adam and Eve who murdered his brother Abel; Grendel’s mother, a similar beast who seeks to avenge her son’s death, and a fire-breathing dragon (if those two weren’t enough). In the first half of this epic, Beowulf takes it upon himself to slay Grendel, who has been terrorising the great hall known as Heorot in Denmark, where local warriors go to drink mead and engage in general merriment.

Beowulf is not native to this kingdom, and in fact hails from far-off Geat (modern-day Sweden) but is celebrated by Denmark’s King Hrothgar for his services and showered with praised by many in his homeland.

Perhaps then, epic poetry is way to seek reassurance, when faced with forces of darkness in unstable times. This is true for the hero of the Ramayana, composed in India between 200 BC and 200 AD, at a time when political instability saw the rise of numerous corrupt rulers.

Rama, the hero of the 24,000-verse epic, his wife Sita and brother Lakshman must face many demons and even a deceitful monkey-king during Rama’s 14-year exile from his kingdom, and though the two brothers manage to fend off the demons unleashed on them after Rama refuses the advances of their sister, Surpanakha, they cannot prevent Sita from eventually being kidnapped by the malevolent Ravana. The subsequent kanda (chapters) detail the rescue mission for Sita and involve a daring siege of the island of Lanka, where Sita is being held prisoner. Rama’s self-control and calm nature contrasts the chaotic evil of the antagonists in the poem, demonstrating the necessity for a heroic figurehead in whom people can believe and trust.

It is often forgotten that much of the epic poetry that exists across the globe originated from a much earlier oral tradition: the theory that the Iliad and Odyssey were not composed by one singular author, but rather are the work of groups of travelling bards or ‘rhapsodes’ who performed their tales to the music of the lyre, is gaining more and more traction in the scholarly world thanks to the work of classicist Milman Parry. Parry came up with the ‘Oral-Formulaic Hypothesis’, which suggests that the formulaic aspects of the Homeric poems – such as the repeated stock phrases like ‘swift-footed Achilles’ and ‘wine-dark sea’ and scenes with a repetitive structure, like feasts or sacrifice- were a way for bards to memorise long poems and perform them fluently to their audiences.

Both the Ramayana and Beowulf, along with countless other epics, are thought to have originally been inspired by oral tradition – even today, much of the stories and fairy tales I remember from early childhood are not those I read in a book, but those which were spoken or performed. Perhaps there is something intrinsic to our psychology which motivates us to memorise and pass down stories – as a way of understanding the world around us, coming to terms with our own mortality, making sense of the gods above, and affirming our core cultural values. Epics frequently describe heroes who are strong, brave, self-sacrificing – but also fundamentally human. Achilles is portrayed as stubborn, refusing many rich gifts and offerings out of spite, and launching sporadically into tirades of self-pity. Gilgamesh is relentless in his pursuit of immortality, which leads him to the very ends of the earth and the deep recesses of the ocean. Beowulf, an old man by the end of the epic, is drawn to a fight which he knows deep down will either end in defeat or his own demise. It is perhaps these fallible qualities in the heroes which also draw us to the epic form, and inspire us to write and re-write these stories, as we see them reflected in ourselves – albeit on a less grandiose scale. According to Amanda Gorman, author of The Hill We Climb, ‘we are made more human because we tell stories.’ Epics, then, are one of the highest forms of engagement with our own humanity.

Further reading

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