The Origins of Poetry

Discover poetry’s evolutionary origins and the function of poems in early civilizations

Author decides where the lines should end
Spartan Army
A shepherd

What is a Poem?


What makes a piece of writing a “poem”?

In order to account for the variety and multiple experimental forms of poetry that have emerged throughout history, such a definition must necessarily be broad, but must also somehow single out common features distinct from other kinds of text.

A novel, for example, may possess poetic qualities; on the other hand, a rhyming football chant, were it to be written down, may have the technical features and appearance of verse, but would not usually be considered a “poem”.

Navigating these boundaries, the critic Terry Eagleton, with restraint, defines a poem as “a fictional, verbally inventive moral statement in which it is the author, rather than the printer or word processor, who decides where the lines should end.”

His stipulation of a “moral statement”, then, would exclude a football chant; likewise, the requirement of intentional authorial line breaks excludes the text of a majority of novels and short stories.

The Origins of Poetry

The origins of poetry can be traced back to the early stages of human evolution, and several theories have been proposed to explain its development in evolutionary terms:

Mnemonic device: Poetry may have evolved to aid memory and information transmission, using rhyme and rhythm to facilitate memorization of vital stories, laws, or genealogies for group survival and cohesion.


Social bonding and group cohesion: Poetry may have reinforced social bonds and group cohesion through shared experiences of group recitations, songs, and chants, essential for early human survival.

Emotional expression and communication: Poetry could have emerged as a way to express and share complex emotions, ideas, and experiences, fostering social bonding and cooperation.

Mate selection: Evolutionary theorists suggest poetry evolved to showcase verbal and creative skills in mate selection, signaling intelligence, creativity, and social status, increasing attractiveness to potential mates.

These theories are not mutually exclusive, and it is likely that a combination of these factors contributed to the evolution of poetry as a distinct form of human expression.

The Oldest Known Poem

Among the earliest forms of poetry, preserved by generations of oral transmission before being written down, are known as “epics”: long narrative poems that typically revolve around the deeds of heroes, gods, and other legendary figures.

Epics often encompass grand themes, such as the fate of a nation or the origin of a people, conveying the shared history, values, and beliefs of a culture. They make use of elevated language, a geographically expansive setting, and formal structure.


One of the oldest known poems is the *Epic of Gilgamesh,* which dates back to around 2100 BCE. It originated in ancient Mesopotamia, in the Sumerian culture, and was written in cuneiform script on clay tablets. The poem tells the story of Gilgamesh, the king of the city-state of Uruk, and his exploits, including his friendship with Enkidu, a wild man created by the gods, and his quest for immortality.

Homeric Epic

The most famous historical epics are those attributed to the Greek poet Homer: the *Iliad* and the *Odyssey,* (although their authorship and origins remain a subject of scholarly debate). Composed between the late 8th or early 7th century BC, these works are considered foundational texts of Western literature. Both epics were passed down orally by skilled bards who memorized thousands of lines using mnemonic devices such as epithets and formulaic phrases.


Homer’s *Iliad* is set during the final year of the Trojan War, and tells the story of the Greek hero Achilles and his conflict with the king Agamemnon. The epic explores themes of heroism, honor, fate, and the destructive nature of war.

*The Odyssey* follows the adventures of the Greek hero Odysseus as he attempts to return home to Ithaca after the Trojan War, and explores themes such as perseverance, cunning, hospitality, and the relationships between humans and gods.

The Origins of Poetry as Story Telling and Ballads

Oral poetry, transmitted by memory through generations, has also been used by cultures with low levels of literacy to chronicle historical events. Forms such as ballads were often performed or sung. The rhythm, rhyme, and repetition made it easier for both the performer and the audience to remember the stories and preserved their function as both entertainment and education.

One notable example is “The Battle of Maldon” – an Old English poem dating back to the late 10th century, which recounts the historical event of the Battle of Maldon in 991 AD. In this battle, Anglo-Saxon forces led by Earl Byrhtnoth faced off against a Viking army. The poem vividly describes the combat, emphasizing the bravery, loyalty, and determination of the Anglo-Saxon warriors.


Early Martial Uses of Poetry

Early poetry was used not only to memorialize warriors and their exploits, but could also serve a more direct martial function, inspiring and motivating soldiers. Marching songs have been employed to galvanize warriors across many cultures, rousing patriotism and courage, whilst also serving as a tool for synchronizing an army’s steps.

The works of Tyrtaeus, for example – an ancient Greek poet from the 7th century BCE – comprise elegies and war songs that were used to inspire and rally the Spartan army during the Second Messenian War.


His works emphasized themes such as the inevitability of death, and the honor associated with dying in battle. Tyrtaeus extolled the virtues of the ideal Spartan warrior and the ethos of the Spartan society, which valued discipline, self-sacrifice, and martial prowess above all else.

Sacred Texts and the Origins of Poetry

Much of humanity’s earliest surviving poetry is preserved in sacred texts, such as the hymns of *The Rigveda*.

*The Rigveda* is an ancient collection of Sanskrit hymns and one of the four sacred texts of Hinduism, known as the Vedas. It is the oldest and most significant of the Vedas, dating back to approximately 1500-1000 BCE.


*The Rigveda* comprises 1,028 hymns (suktas) divided into 10 books (mandalas), dedicated to various deities, such as Indra, Agni, Varuna, and Soma, and possessing a musical quality suitable for recitation and memorization.

The poetry of *The Rigveda* is characterized by its intricate structure, rich imagery, and composition in specific meters such as the sacred *Gayatri* meter, consisting of three sections of 8 syllables.

One of the most famous hymns from *The Rigveda* is the Nasadiya Sukta or the Creation Hymn (Rigveda 10.129), which ponders the origin of the universe.

The Origins of Poetry as Mode of Expressing Allegorical Religious Ideas

Early poetry was frequently used as a vehicle for expressing allegorical religious ideas, capable of leveraging imagery and symbolism to explore complex theological concepts and deeply held spiritual beliefs.

For example, the Psalms of the Hebrew Bible (or the Old Testament of the Christian Bible), are a collection of 150 songs, prayers, and poems, many of which employ metaphors to express religious ideas. For instance, Psalm 23 uses the metaphor of a shepherd to describe God’s guidance and care for the faithful:

*The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures.*

Another example is *The Dream of the Rood* – an Old English religious poem, dating from around the 8th or 9th century, in which a narrator recounts a dream vision of the cross (or “rood”) on which Jesus Christ was crucified.


The poem presents the cross as a speaking character, which tells its own story of the crucifixion from its perspective. The allegorical representation of the cross as a living, heroic figure serves to emphasize the significance and transformative power of Christ’s sacrifice.

Poetry as Protest


For many centuries, poetry has existed as a form of social protest, capable of bearing hidden political messages within seemingly innocent verses. Some of the best examples of this phenomenon are found in Nursery Rhymes; short, simple poems or songs typically composed for children. They often feature rhythmic patterns, repetition, and rhyme, making them easy to remember and recite.

“Mary, Mary, Quite Contrary” is often speculated to be about Queen Mary I of England, also known as “Bloody Mary.”:

*Mary, Mary, quite contrary,
How does your garden grow?
With silver bells, and cockle shells,
And pretty maids all in a row.*

The “pretty maids” could refer to Mary’s repeated miscarriages, as she was unable to produce an heir to the throne. Another interpretation suggests that it might refer to the execution of Lady Jane Grey, who was a rival claimant to the throne executed during Mary’s reign.

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