European Oral and Epic Traditions Definitions


(Critical Explorations in Poetry)

Oral literature comprises a vast range of verbal products, including modern blues lyrics, African drum songs, ancient Greek epic poetry, urban legends, the latest jokes or limericks, ballads, folk songs, folktales, children’s rhymes, and streetcorner games such as the “dozens” (a series of rhyming insult verses that can be extended to any length by improvisation). On one hand, it is quite useful for an investigator to know about all of these genres of oral literature, to take the term at its most inclusive, so that one can learn by comparison exactly what makes each given composition “oral” and therefore different from its written counterpart. On the other hand, some restriction of the term is needed to examine in any detail the workings of such literature. This essay, then, focuses on one narrow area of oral literature that has exerted influence of a disproportionate magnitude. While at times referring to African and Asian literature, most of the essay discusses Western literature. Unfortunately, this means excluding such great compositions as the Babylonian Gilgamesh (c. 2000 b.c.e.) story, the Iranian Shhnma (1010 c.e.), and the Sanskrit Rmyaṇa (c. 500 b.c.e.; The Ramayana, 1870-1874) and Mahbhrata (c. 400 b.c.e.-200 c.e.; The Mahabharata, 1834), as...

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