European Oral and Epic Traditions Analysis


(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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(Critical Explorations in Poetry)

Modern Western culture, for which “illiterate” is a pejorative word, takes writing for granted as something both necessary for civilization and good in itself. However, those who set out to read ancient Greek literature must divest themselves of this, among many other modern attitudes, and think themselves back into a culture which, while it valued speech above most things, did not have at all the same regard for the written word. Ancient Greece was an oral culture, and its early literature is oral literature; it is only when one understands the exigencies of oral composition and the expectations of an audience attuned to the oral art that Greek epic and lyric poetry—even history, oratory, and drama—become fully intelligible.

In Plato’s dialogue Phaedros (c. fourth century b.c.e.; Phaedrus, 1804), Socrates relates the story of the invention of writing; his account provides a good starting point from which to examine Greek attitudes to written art. As Socrates tells it, in the Egyptian region of Naucratis lived the god Thoth, inventor of numbers, geometry, astronomy, and writing. Thoth once asked Thamus, king of the land, to pass on these arts to the citizens, for the good of all. “My discovery will enable the Egyptians to become wiser and better at remembering,” said Thoth, when talk came to the new craft of writing. Thamus refused, however, saying, “This will make men forget, seeing that they will neglect memory and remember things not from within themselves but by faith in the exterior signs.” Writing, concluded the king, would give Thoth’s pupils only the appearance of wisdom; they would lack true teaching (the sort Socrates practiced by dialogue).

Plato’s myth of Thoth focuses attention on three important aspects of oral culture: the role of the performer, that of the audience, and the inevitable effects on both brought about by the technological innovation of writing. Even if widespread literacy is not assumed, writing has a powerful impact. In Plato’s time, the art probably belonged strictly to an educated elite. In the period surveyed in this essay, the Archaic Age (750-490 b.c.e.), even fewer Greeks are likely to have known how to use writing in daily life; writing was, after all, a recent invention, having been introduced by Phoenicians in the eighth century b.c.e. The attitude expressed by the Egyptian Thoth is consistent with early Greek notions about the role of writing as an aid rather than an end in itself, and even then, as an aid appropriate only for certain activities. It was certainly useful for inscriptions, to mark tombs or objects to be dedicated at temples, or to record laws—these are, in fact, the first recorded uses of the art of writing in Greece. The two oldest inscriptions, from the eighth century b.c.e., comprise some verses scratched on ceramic ware: “Whoever of all the dancers now sports the most, gets this,” says a line on a jug found at Dipylon. A drinking vessel says, “Nestor’s cup is good to drink from,” then adduces, by means of a favorable contrast, its own capacity for giving wine. Whereas the first mention of a book comes in the late fifth century b.c.e. and the oldest actual surviving manuscript dates to a century later, writing intended to show possession or to memorialize had long been in use. Entertainment and instruction were the province of oral performers, not of written texts.

Thus, Phaedrus reflects the status of writing and oral performance in early Greek society. Thoth’s conception of writing resembles that of Archaic Age Greeks, who thought in terms of one-way communication directed toward an unspecified audience, including future generations. For example, the Dipylon vase could be passed on, like some modern athletic trophies, annually, without change, its general statement always appropriate to the occasion of a dance contest. The attitude of Thamus, on the other hand, would match archaic modes of thinking about poetry as entertainment: It is an oral performer’s attitude.

It is known from twentieth century fieldwork that oral poetry always involves interaction between performer and audience. Even if the audience does not interrupt to make specific requests or suggestions about the poet’s tale, the poem is shaped by the context of the performance: the time available, the occasion (whether ritual or secular), and, especially, the poet’s perception of what the audience wishes to hear. They may want the “good old stories” or, as Telemachus says in the Odyssey, they may desire “the latest song.” “Old” and “new” are relative terms; the poet’s method of composing remains the same. He relies on his store of memorized traditional material, including both verbatim phrases and large plot structures, to create “new” compositions for each new audience. Every poem is both old—in the sense that each poet’s repertoire comes to include only audience-tested material—and new, since the oral poet always competes with others in the craft and with himself as well, attempting to hone and polish his own compositions.

All of these observations are based on scholarship concerning composition techniques of oral poetry as it exists in many parts of the world today (principally Africa, the Balkans, and Asia), but Archaic Greek poetry makes explicit reference to the same techniques. A principal example is the poet’s reliance on memory. Archaic Greek poetry consistently invokes the Muses, mythological daughters of Mnmosun (memory, or reminding). In Homer, as well as in lyric poetry, the Muses are viewed as the repository of all traditions, precisely because they are immortal goddesses and therefore were eyewitnesses to past events (as Homer says in calling on them to remind him of the catalog of ships in the Iliad, book 2). From the Greek standpoint, all poetry is therefore impossible without divine aid in the form of a divinized memory; the poet is automatically a religious figure and his art an act of faith, although the Greeks never make this formulation explicit.

What does the Greek poet remember? The simplest answer is “tradition,” taking that word to mean traditional lore about heroes, ancestors, gods, and events, and also traditional expressions—unusual old words and noncurrent word endings (compare the -th third-person singular verb ending of English “poetic” language), as well as the traditional adjectives attached to certain nouns. These latter adjective-noun combinations preserve a traditional way of looking at reality, and many are extremely old; for example, Homer often describes “fame” (kleos) as “unwithering” (aphthiton). Since the same adjective is frequently used of natural phenomena, a Greek audience would be attuned to think of “fame” as somehow growing like a plant. This perception is not the poet’s invention, but rather an inherited piece of tradition. Sanskrit, a language related to Greek, preserves in its old poetry the exact equivalent of this phrase, in cognate words (savas ạḳsitam). Because Sanskrit and Greek speakers had split from a unified group and taken up residence in their respective lands by 2000 b.c.e. at the latest, this agreement in poetic language must go back to the time when both languages had a common dialect and common art; this is an Indo-European poetic tradition, as modern scholars believe. The idea of “undying fame”—what Achilles in the Iliad seeks and wins—is preserved because this phrase reflects the very ideology of the poetry itself: Personal heroic reputations are undying because they are recalled and renewed through generations of poets and audiences.

To put this in other terms and to return to the example of Plato’s Thoth, one might say that for an oral poet to reject or pit himself against his tradition would be a contradiction in terms. The poet lives by tradition, as it lives through him. The powerful invention of writing, however, begins to erode tradition, offering a competing means of ordering reality, one which purports to be more authoritative. As the work of Albert Lord and others has shown, oral poetic technique begins to die out when a region’s poets begin to accept the idea of writing and of “songbooks.” Plato’s Thamus, then, is absolutely correct in reprimanding the inventor of writing. The unease produced by the introduction of writing into ancient Greece appears in subtle hints near the end of the Archaic Age, when poets such as Xenophanes begin to criticize traditional concepts of the gods and the idea begins to take hold that myth is something subversive, false, or marginal. In contrast, for Homer, at the beginning of the Archaic Age, the word muthos is simply an authoritative speech act: a word, tale, or command.

A word should be added about the oral audience. Far from being primitive consumers of art who merely wished to hear the names of famous ancestors, they were doubtless so familiar with oral art in everyday life that a high standard of criticism could evolve among them. The author of the Hymn to Apollo (third century b.c.e.), one of the so-called Homeric hymns, commends his poem to the audience in the personal note intruded at the end of the composition and bids the audience to compare his work with that of others which they hear, to spread his fame. A group of listeners valued for the potential favor they might do a poet, preserving his reputation, would always be treated to the height of a performer’s art. Such interaction between artist and audience nourished the high art of Homer.

Iliad and OdysseyHomer;OdysseyOdyssey (Homer)

Any discussion of traditional Western poetry should begin with Homer, because the study of the monumental poems attributed to him has continued throughout the Western literary tradition and first sparked the rediscovery of oral literature’s distinctive techniques. From antiquity, there have been questions about the date, composition, and authorship of the two epics. In essence, the Homeric Question (as this collection of uncertainties has come to be called) grows from a lack of knowledge concerning a certain period in Greek history, the Dark Age, which extended from the fall of Mycenaean civilization (c. 1600-1100 b.c.e.) to the eighth century b.c.e., when writing in alphabetic form came to Greece from the Phoenicians and when Greek social institutions assumed their classical shapes.

The Homeric poems can be dated to the eighth century b.c.e. through certain indications of language and content (for example, mention of an oracle at Delphi, of iron, of seated statues). Why not assume, then, that a gifted literate poet of the eighth century, perhaps living in a Greek colony of Asia Minor (as tradition maintained), realized the usefulness of the newly imported alphabet for recording poetry and set himself to write one or two lengthy heroic poems about nearly mythical events of four hundred years before, the siege and fall of Troy? More is currently known, however, about the Mycenaean Age than about the Dark Age. The remains of a great city close to the traditional site of Troy were found at the end of the nineteenth century by Heinrich Schliemann. In 1952, Michael Ventris, a British linguist, finally deciphered the language of the clay tablets found at Mycenaean Age sites on Crete and mainland Greece and discovered that it was an early form of Greek, used to record details of palace administration. These discoveries indicated that Homer’s poems contain exact reminiscences of the heroic age they celebrate: a boar’s tooth helmet in the Iliad, book 10, a body shield in the Iliad, book 6, and many other objects that are known to have gone out of use by 1000 b.c.e. are matched by real objects actually dug from Greek earth....

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Non-Homeric oral poetry

(Critical Explorations in Poetry)

Although the earliest extant Greek lyric poetry postdates Homer, one cannot assume that epic poetry was “invented” before lyric; indeed, it is clear from the Iliad and the Odyssey that Homer knew other genres of poetry. He pictures the social use of genres which were to become familiar from later poets. Wedding songs can be paralleled in the work of Sappho in the late seventh and early sixth century b.c.e.; laments are the first songs in a long oral tradition that is alive today in rural Greece; choral maiden songs were composed later by Alcman and Pindar; and hymns to the gods were later elaborated as long narrative poems such as the Homeric hymns. It must be assumed that these...

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Choral poetry

(Critical Explorations in Poetry)

A discussion of the unique combination of public and personal which defines early Greek poetry would not be complete without mention of choral poetry, that elaborate art form that used words, music, and dance to celebrate important community rites. The earliest representative of the form, Alcman, active in Sparta in the seventh century b.c.e., displays the characteristics marking this increasingly important poetry. In his parthenion (maiden song), for example, the local mythology of Sparta combines with gnomic utterances (“Do not try to fly to heaven; no one should try to wed Aphrodite”) and details of the immediate occasion, such as the praise of the local maidens through extensive...

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Other issues

(Critical Explorations in Poetry)

Although not discussed here, other oral traditions are rich, if not as thoroughly documented in Western literature. A fuller account of the sources and methods of oral traditional narrative poetry is needed. Even if it were to be restricted to Europe, such an account would have to examine Russian poems such as Slovo o polku Igoreve (c. 1187; The Tale of the Armament of Igor, 1915), the large field of Romance poetry other than The Song of Roland and the Poem of the Cid; and nonepic genres such as Greek and Irish praise poetry (Pindar and Bacchylides, bardic verse) and Icelandic skaldic compositions.

Of interest too is the relation between written and oral forms: It is clear that the two modes interact; it is equally certain that there is no one sure marker of oral or written style, since copying goes on from one sort to the other. However, while there has been much work done to “prove” that certain works have roots in oral traditionals, the student of modern literature would benefit most from the study of the figure of “speech” in known written literature. Repetition of words, motifs, themes—all of these in written works, such as the novel, are in fact the heritage of a “literature” that was not written but spoken to an audience that responded to such symmetries. What is the true written work—the epistolary novel? How deeply is the idea of speech and hearing ingrained in all literature? These are questions that an interplay of oralist and modern critical methods might have a better chance to solve.


(Critical Explorations in Poetry)

Acker, Paul. Revising Oral Theory: Formulaic Composition in Old English and Old Icelandic Verse. New York: Garland, 1998. Places oral-formulaic analysis within the larger context of folklore and mythology theory, concentrating on Eddic poetry, Beowulf, and Old Norse rune poetry.

DuBois, Thomas A. Lyric, Meaning, and Audience in the Oral Tradition of Northern Europe. Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 2006. By looking at the ways lyric songs are interpreted by various Northern European cultures, the author points out significant differences between audiences and notes the characteristics they have in common....

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