Saturday , May 21 2022

Oral Tradition! The Nature and Kinds of Oral Literature

This is a comprehensive piece on Oral tradition by the Center for Hellenic Studies, Harvard University. Read it.

1. The Nature and Kinds of Oral Literature

Epics, ballads, prose tales, ritual and lyric songs, as genres, existed orally before writing was invented. We do not have a special word to designate them before they were manifested in writing, so we are left with the paradox of “oral literature.” But if literature can be defined as “carefully constructed verbal expression,” carefully structured oral verbal expression can surely qualify as literature. This is common sense. People did not wait until there was writing before they told stories and sang songs. Moreover, when these genres first appeared in writing, their metric base, their poetic and compositional devices, were already fully developed and none of them could have been invented by any one person at any one time. They are too complicated for that. Oral literature, then, consists of the songs and stories, and other sayings, that people have heard and listened to, sung and told, without any intervention of writing. The creator or transmitter did not write the song or the story but sang or told it; the receiver did not read the song or story but heard it. These stories and songs are, therefore, not only oral but also aural; they are not only told, they are also heard.
Beginning with oral traditional epic, I should like to focus on the “performance,” at the moment of performing in a traditional setting and with a traditional audience. The word traditional is important in the phrase oral traditional epic (or literature), implying, as it does, a depth of meaning set into that literature, from its origin, by previous generations. Text and context are inseparable. Without a sympathetic knowledge of context, the text may be misunderstood. Yet it is not sufficient to study performance and contextuality without an understanding of the tradition underlying them.
I prefer the term listeners instead of “audience,” because “audience” seems {1|2} to imply a more formal type of event. I want to think of the place and times when a truly traditional singer ordinarily sings epic songs to traditional listeners in his community who ordinarily listen to his and others’ singing of epic. [1] They have listened to him before, and he has sung for them since he first began to sing; some of them are also singers and he has listened to them; they know him and his songs and vice versa; they like to listen to him and he likes to sing to them. They form a small and intimate group; they are the ideal “traditional” group.
The circumstances will be different to some extent in each traditional culture, but speaking for the one that I know best, that of the Slavic Balkans, I would find one of the most normal places for singing to be the house in a small village where neighbors gather for an evening and sit and talk and listen to a singer. Epics are sung also at weddings and to help celebrate the Slava, the family feast for its patron saint. Another informal setting is the coffeehouse in Moslem communities, where men gather, especially during Ramadan, and listen, after a day of fasting, to epic songs that may continue for a whole night. The singers and the listeners are all “insiders”; that is, they are part of the same tradition.
Perhaps these settings do not seem at first to fit the ancient Greek case. We learn in Homer of the singing of epic in the court of a king. One thinks of Demodocus in Alcinous’s palace in Phaeacia or Phemius, who sang for the suitors in Ithaca. [2] There is also Achilles, keeping apart in his tent before Troy, singing of the κλέα ἀνδρῶν, “the famous deeds of heroes.” [3] Yet I see no reason why what I have said about traditional performer and traditional audience cannot apply just as well to the singer in a small king’s court as to the singer in a neighborhood gathering. The kingdoms in ancient Greece were small, the number of listeners surely not very great.

Exceptions were occasions like the Ionian festival mentioned in the Homeric Hymn to Apollo, at which the maidens “sing a strain telling of men {2|3} and women of past days, and charm the tribes of men.” The singer says then, of himself, words that have become famous:

Remember me in after time whenever any one of men on earth, a stranger who has seen and suffered much, comes here and asks of you: “Whom think ye, girls, is the sweetest singer that comes here, and in whom do you most delight?” Then answer, each and all, with one voice: “He is a blind man, and dwells in rocky Chios: his lays are evermore supreme.” As for me, I will carry your renown as far as I roam over the earth to the well-placed cities of man, and they will believe also; for indeed this thing is true. [4]

It is important that the traditional group was generally homogeneous. [5] The kings and princes and those who gathered in the court formed the community; the singers and their listeners shared knowledge and had the same sense of values. They shared stories and myths. In short, they shared the tradition.

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Let me explain what I mean by “tradition” in respect to epic song. For any individual singer the tradition consists of all the performances of all the songs of all the singers he has ever heard. All the singers encompasses the worst, the best, and all in between. Homer was the best of the traditional singers of whom we know in ancient Greece. He was not outside the tradition or “making use of the tradition”; he was part of it, in it. A tradition is dynamic and ongoing. It lasts as long as there are singers and listeners.
The singing of epic songs is very ancient. It is clear that it began before writing was invented. The ancient Greek tradition was very highly developed by Homer’s time. Though traditions start in the distant past and retain the strength of their roots, they are not of the past, until there are no longer any truly traditional singers and listeners. Traditions are subject to change: the reforming of old stories, the telling of new ones that may seem much like the old. A really living tradition has no need of “preservation” because it is always being preserved with every truly traditional performance by a truly traditional singer.
There are several categories of traditionality, that is, of elements that may persist over generations. I suggest five aspects of oral tradition, which I shall first enumerate, later returning to enlarge upon the second, third, and fifth categories, which call for special emphasis.
First, the practice of storytelling itself, be it in prose or verse, be it spoken, {3|4} sung, or chanted, and of singing songs of various kinds, can be traditional. This means that for generations in a given community or culture people have found a time, a place, and an audience for such a practice. Telling or singing has long had a place in their social behavior patterns. Laments, for example, are sung or chanted as part of the rituals practiced at times of death, and this custom has been kept since time immemorial.
Second, the art of composing songs and stories is itself handed down from one generation of creator-transmitters to the next. This is a crucial category for distinguishing some oral traditional songs or stories from their later literary—that is, “written literary”—counterparts. The traditional process of composition and transmission of oral traditional poetry or prose varies from genre to genre and is treated in detail when we look more closely, for example, at lyric, nonnarrative songs in Chapter 2. In general, lines are constructed with the help of “formulas,” and poems, or stories, or songs, are made up of “themes.”
Third, there is a category of traditional content of traditional literature. Here we find traditional story patterns, traditional generic secular and mythic narratives, and traditional generic types of nonnarrative songs, such as lyric or ritual songs.
Fourth, there are the specific works, the specific oral traditional stories, songs, and short literary forms in all their variants. By that I mean the ballad of “Barbara Allen,” the epic of “Marko Kraljević and Musa the Highwayman,” the tale of “The Three Princesses,” and so forth. I do not believe that this category needs elaboration, but it is necessary to insist that it contain all variants, recorded or not, of each work, because we cannot point to any one of them as the “correct” or “original” text.
The fifth category of traditionality is oral traditional poetics. It may be that from the beginning, some stories and songs were simple, brief, and ephemeral. They consisted of loosely structured, short-lived anecdotes and songs with a limited frame of reference. Yet it is certain that there came into being, as time went on, well-structured narratives and songs of wider reference and deeper meaning told or sung by skillful creator-storytellers or singers. In short, there emerged eventually an “oral literature” in the qualitative sense of the term. We can suppose that repetitions of sounds and patterns of words put together to be imitative and to have the power of magic came to set models of duplication and of balance and proportion which had an appeal to an innate human aesthetic sense.
To retrace my steps and return to the second aspect of traditionality, the art of composing songs and stories, I shall illustrate the “formulas” and “themes,” by which songs are created. Formulas, in Milman Parry’s definition, consist of “a group of words which is regularly employed under the {4|5} same metrical conditions to express a given essential idea.” [6] A theme is a repeated passage with a varying, but fairly high, degree of verbal correspondence each time it is used. [7] In reality the formulas and clusters of formulas that have evolved in any particular culture over a long period of time make it possible for the singer to fit essential ideas into the metrical lines. The addition of an epithet to a noun, or of an adverb to a verb, can make it possible to use that noun or verb under a variety of metrical situations. Because singers, like other people, think in terms of sentences, that is, of ideas linked together, rather than single ideas, clusters of formulas have arisen to express one or more groups of ideas.

About Chinenye Nwabueze

Nwabueze is a communication researcher with several years of lecturing experience in Nigerian universities.

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