An epic poem is an extremely long narrative poem describing the triumphs and travails of an epic hero as he embarks on some sort of massive quest, journey, or other endeavor.
Epic poems often incorporate elements of mythology, divine intervention in human affairs, and conflicts between clearly delineated forces of good and evil. As the term "epic" has come to connote, epic poems tend to be truly epic in their scope, featuring hordes of secondary characters enacting numerous digressions and subplots in a variety of settings on a scale that may encompass the entire known world or even the whole universe.
The epic poem as a poetic form has its origin in the oral traditions of preliterate societies, and indeed almost all preliterate societies have had some sort of tradition of epic poems. As a consequence of originally being a product of an oral tradition, many epic poems are marked by their use of repeated catchphrases, long formulaic lists, and rhythmic mnemonic devices to aid the speaker in recalling and accurately reproducing such a long poem from memory.
As preliterate societies have transitioned into postliterate societies, many epic poems that were once only oral tradition have been written down and thus become frozen in a certain version for all time. In some cases, these epic poems come to be so closely identified with the shared values and culture of a certain nation-state that they come to be considered the "national epic" of that nation.
From very early on in history, poets in postliterate societies began copying the form of epic poem from preliterate oral traditions. Vergil's Aeneid for example, was a conscious copy of the epic poems of Homer, and since that time numerous modern poets have tried their hand at the epic poem form.
In the 20th century, the traditional epic poem and its protagonist, the epic hero, came to be the subject of extensive scholarly attention, most famously from the psychologist Carl Jung and his many disciples, who believed that in identifying a "heroic cycle" common to the epic poems of all of the world's cultures, they may have in fact found evidence of a "universal unconscious."
Some of the most famous epic poems from across the world include: