Lyric, Epic, and Wisdom Poetry

Greek goddess with lyre

"Of all things that are, the most ancient is God, for he is uncreated; the most beautiful is the universe, for it is God's workmanship; the greatest is space, for it contains everything; the swiftest is the Mind, for it speeds everywhere; the strongest is Necessity, for it masters all; and the wisest Time, for it brings everything to light". - Thales of Miletus.

This section includes poetry from many nations. Egypt is represented by the epic poem, The Drama of Osiris, Cycle of Inaros, Petubastis, Book of the Moringa Tree,The Battle of Kadesh, and many other fine poems. We also have some fine examples of love poetry dating from New Kingdom times. The Babylonian Tale of Creation and the Epic of Gilgamesh are also represented, as is the Ugaritic epics, The Rapiuma and The Epic of Kirta.

The most famous of the Greek epics are Homer's Iliad and Odyssey. Homer may have drawn on an earlier oral tradition that may have gone back to Mycenaean times. This is suggested in the episode in the Odyssey where Odysseus asks the bard, Demodocus, to sing about the Trojan Horse. This suggests that there was a variety of traditional tales that bards could retell. The Iliad and Odyssey may have been written down in the second half of the 8th century BC, perhaps by a bard called Homer. We have many editions of Homer's epic works, including a critical edition of Homer that was compiled by order of the 6th century B.C. Athenian tyrant, Pisistratus.

In addition, the Epic Cycle consisted of epics written in the 7th and 6th centuries BC that could be arranged to provide a chronology of the events of the heroic age. Some were attributed to Homer. The epics were well-known in the 5th and 4th centuries BC but faded from popularity after that time. By the 6th century AD, one writer said that they could no longer be found. Summaries of them, written by Proclus, have survived.

The epics in the Epic Cycle are:

The Trojan Cycle

Cypria, which dealt with the events leading up to the Trojan War.

Aethiopis, which ends with the death of Achilles.

Little Iliad, where the Trojans take the horse into Troy.

Iliupersis (Sack of Troy?)

Nostoi ("home-comings of the heroes") or The Returns, which explores the receptions met by the returning Achaean warriors.

Telegonia, concerning Telegonus.

There was also a Theban cycle, which dealt with the legends of Thebes. The epics included the Thebais. We also have other Greek epics, such as Cinaethon's story of Oedipus.

The Greek poets and tragedians drew heavily from these sources.

The last great epic of the archaic Greeks was an epic about Herakles that was written by Panyassis in the early 5th century BC. Panyassis was a kinsman of Herodotos.

Later epics were more pedantic. Choerilus of Samos wrote the Persica, an epic on a historical topic, the Persian Wars. Antimachus of Colophon also wrote epics. Apollonius of Rhodes wrote the Argonautica in four books in the 3rd century BC.

Early Roman epics, such as Naevius' The Punic War and Ennius' more successful Annales (which covered Rome from Aeneas' flight from Troy to 184 B.C.) are also included. We also have the most successful Roman epic, Virgil's splendid Aeneid. Livius Andronicus' famous Latin translation of the Odyssey is also available.

Quintus of Smyrna wrote the Posthomerica to bridge the gap between the Iliad and Odyssey in the 4th century AD. Nonnus wrote the Dionysiaca in the 5th century AD.

We have the works of many fine Greek lyric poets. We of course have Hesiod's works, including his Theogony (about the origin of the gods), and his Works and Days. We also have poems by early poets of the 7th and 6th centuries B.C., such as Archilochus, Semonides of Amorgos, Alcman, Alcaeus, and the well-known female poet, Sappho. We also have some poetry from the Athenian statesman, Solon. Slightly later poets include Stesichorus, whose long poems were a major source for the classic tragedies, and Anacreon. Classical poets of the 5th century B.C. include Simonides of Ceos, the famous Pindar, whose Odes are well-known, the less well-known Corinna of Thebes (or Tanagra), who defeated Pindar in competition five times, and Bacchylides. We also have Praxilla's Hymn to Adonis. Still later poets include female poets of the 4th century B.C., Erinna and Anyte of Tegea. Other poets include Philetas of Cos, who helped to revive poetry in 320 BC, and Callimachus, whose learned and always surprising works include Aitia ('Origins'), the short epic, the Hecale, and Iambic Poems. Theocritus of Syracuse's works and Apollonius of Rhodes' long Argonautica, about the epic voyage of Jason and the Argonauts, are also well represented. We also have Aratus of Soli's Phaenomena, an account of the constellations in verse.

Roman works include the very early Latin poem Hymn to Juno, from 207 B.C., by Livius Andronics. We also have poems from C. Valerius, the inventive poems of Catullus of Verona, and Lucretius' scientific poem On the Nature of the Universe. We have a large selection of Horace's satirical and lyric poetry, including his Odes, Satires, Epistles, and Epodes, as well as Ovid's Amores, Art of Love, Metamorphoses, Fasti, Tristia, and Letters from Pontus.

Wisdom poetry, or wisdom literature, is a popular genre in the East. We have copies of the Maxims of Ptahhotep (Old Kingdom), the Instruction for Kagemni (Old Kindgom), the Instruction of Any or Ani (New Kindgom), and the Instruction of Amenemope (New Kingdom). We also have Sumerian and Semitic wisdom poetry.


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Last Updated November 20, 2009