“Literature,” as the word is most often used, means written works: poetry, fiction, prose. The term itself, derived from the Latin word for “letter of the alphabet,” enshrines a particular notion of what literature involves—namely texts. The concept of a nonwritten, oral “literature,” therefore, might seem a contradiction in terms. Nevertheless, before modern literate culture valued one form of language (written) above the other, before there was even any one word such as “literature” to cover the disparate forms of verbal art often tied to social functions, there existed poems, songs, dramas, and narratives. In contemporary nonliterate societies, there are many examples of flourishing “literary” forms, while even in modern Western society, the most popular verbal artistic modes are “oral” in that they are transmitted without the use of writing. How many people, for example, read the text of a popular hit song, a Broadway play, or a television show?
The fundamental orality of all literature, then, can be seen to reassert itself, even in the most literate of all cultures. Indeed, the audiovisual revolution has helped broaden the notion of literature; no longer does one limit it to that which can be printed and cataloged in libraries. Consequently, it has become possible to conceive of a traditional oral literature that lies at the roots of modern written Western literature. This overview surveys monumental works of that tradition in the light of research on all kinds of oral literature, explains how and why these works might be called “oral,” and draws out the implications of their “oral” character. Finally, some aspects of the influence of oral tradition on later written work will be examined.