Characteristics of Oral Composition

The Iliad, Odyssey, and Theogony all originated in the oral tradition, in which a poet or singer, accompanying himself on the lyre or harp, sings traditional tales of heroes.  While the essential plot elements of a traditional story cannot be altered, a gifted poet can shape the material in complicated and interesting ways.  For example, in the Iliad, Homer centers his tale around the consequences of the quarrel between Agamemnon and Achilles.  The poet chooses not to tell other well-known episodes of the war at Troy (for example, how the war started and how it ended) because he wishes to concentrate on the issues of death, anger, and honor raised by the quarrel.  In fact, the Iliad, Odyssey, and Theogony exhibit such complexity and ingenuity of structure and theme that I believe they were both put together out of traditional materials by a single poet.

Rather than memorizing the whole song, the oral poet composes it as he sings, stitching the poem together from a vast repertoire of memorized phrases (called formulas) which fit the meter (called dactylic hexameter) of the song.  The Greek verb for such a singing-performance is rhapsoideo, "I rhapsodize, stitch song together."  Thus, the oral poet needs to remember two things:  1) the essential story, and 2) many formulas (examples:  "strong-greaved Achaeans" or "long-haired Achaeans").  Originally for this kind of poetry, "Singing, performing, composing are all facets of the same act" (Lord 13).  As he sings, the poet is guided by his years of practice and by his knowledge of the story.  A story-line, heroic type-figures, the song, the meter, and the formulas all help to keep the material memorable.

Because these poems were composed orally, they exhibit unique characteristics.  You should be alert to these features as you read.  With so many formulas, some parts of the poem will repeat.  For an oral poet, however, such repetition is not a fault, but a vital technique (Lord 367).  Repetition is a psychological necessity in oral discourse, which vanishes as soon as it is uttered:  "the mind must move ahead more slowly, keeping close to the focus of attention much of what has already been dealt with.  Redundancy . . . keeps both speaker and hearer surely on the track" (Ong 39-40).  Sometimes a whole series of lines will repeat, not because the poet is bored or uninventive, but because oral poets often describe similar situations in the same formulaic manner.  Also, the poet could cruise through these repetitive passages while thinking of what was coming up next in the poem.

Repetition is not only a psychological necessity, it also keeps the meter and the memory flowing smoothly.  For example, formulas will often repeat for metrical reasons: "Odysseus is polymetis (clever) not just because he is this kind of character but also because without the epithet polymetis he could not be readily worked into the meter" (Ong  58-59).  The word polymetis (also translated as "versatile" or "resourceful") is a special kind of formula called an epithet, an adjective or adjectival phrase which describes, in appropriate metrical form, characteristics of gods or heroes.  Examples:  "versatile Odysseus" or "Zeus the cloud gatherer."  Often, an epithet will substitute for a character's name, as when, for example, Prometheus is called "son of Iapetos," or Agamemnon is called "son of Atreus" or "Atrides."  (The Greek suffix "-ides" means "son of.")  The translator of our version of the Odyssey, Stanley Lombardo, has cut or varied many of the epithets that are in the original text. Lombardo has, however, retained many repeated passages.

Since an oral society possessed no written archives, lists, or books and had no libraries, computers, or videotape on which to store information, important cultural or historical knowledge was encoded into the more easily remembered form of a story.  The Theogony alternates stories (Creation, Rise of Zeus, Prometheus, etc.) with long catalogues or genealogical lists detailing which god gave birth to whom.  Catalogues are often narrated as a series of actions, which are more memorable than a mere list would be.  For example, the "wisdom" poems of the Norse tradition are often told as Jeopardy-like question and answer contests between gods.  (See Crossley-Holland, myths # 12, 15, 18, 27 and the note on p. 200.)  And since the oral poem was the repository of the entire cultural memory of a people, it also contains digressions, or breaks in the main story-line which describe the history of various props (such as a scepter or a weapon) or which relate the ancestry of a warrior in what might seem to us to be over-elaborate detail.  However, these details were prized by the original audience, some of whom might trace their ancestry back to characters in the story.  Digressions also gave the audience the sense of a full and living cultural background to the story.

Because poets' powers of memory were considered godlike, the ancients spoke of their songs as being inspired by nine goddesses called the Muses.  The Muses were the daughters of Mnemosyne ("memory") and Zeus.  By claiming that the Muses inspire their songs and know everything--"you are / Goddesses, and are present, / And know all things"--while poets know nothing--"we / Hear only reports and know nothing--" (Iliad 2.523-524), poets authenticated their individual utterance as the communal wisdom of gods and men.  One scholar goes so far as to say that the "formulas are the . . . words spoken by the Muses themselves:  they are recordings of the Muses who were always present when anything happened" (Nagy 272).  Although Rouse cuts out the very short invocation to the Muse at the beginning of the Odyssey, there are two such invocations in Hesiod, one long (Theogony 61-64) and one short (Works and Days 23).

Two other techniques of oral poetry are designed to make the poem immediate and exciting for listeners.  Having no wide screens, special effects, or Dolby© soundtracks, the ancient poets relied on "winged words" to keep their stories vivid.  For example, epic similes, or extended comparisons, help the audience visualize and feel scenes, actions, and emotions.  These similes are usually precise and often quite moving--check out the one about how Odysseus' hands looked after grabbing the rocks (Odyssey 71).  Oral poets may have also performed the speeches of the characters as a modern-day actors might.  Such emotional inflections and tones of voice are difficult to create on the printed page; later in the course, we will try to re-create the oral moment by listening to sections of a taped performance of the story of Inanna's descent into the underworld.  When recited, oral poem are events, performances--and reaction to oral poems is communal and physical rather than solitary and silent.  Since they are close to the lifeworld and not neutral signs on a white page, oral poems stress verbal and physical struggle over reflective thought and exterior action over interior psychology.  Thus speeches in oral texts may feature a lot of verbal name-calling or its opposite, the "fulsome expression of praise" (Ong 45).  For example, Hesiod blames his brother Perses and "bribe-eating lords" (24) for cheating him of his inheritance.  In the Norse tradition, such name-calling or verbal disrespecting is termed flyting--for two examples, see myths # 22 and 30 and Crossley-Holland's discussion on p. 232.

Though literate cultures often look down upon those who cannot read or write, Walter Ong reminds us that oral expression "can be quite sophisticated and in its own way reflective.  Navaho [storytellers] can provide elaborate explanations of the various implications of the stories . . . and are perfectly aware of such things as physical inconsistencies (for example, coyotes with amber balls for eyes) and the need to interpret elements in the stories symbolically.  To assume that oral peoples are essentially unintelligent, that their mental processes are 'crude', is the kind of thinking that for centuries brought scholars to assume falsely that because the Homeric poems are so skillful, they must be written compositions" (57).

Nor should we assume, Ong continues, that oral thought is somehow "prelogical" or "illogical" in any simplistic sense.  Oral folk "understand very well that if you push hard on a mobile object, the push causes it to move.  What is true is that they cannot organize elaborate concatenations of causes in the analytic kind of linear sequences that can only be set up with the help of texts.  The lengthy sequences they produce, such as genealogies, are not analytic but aggregative.  But oral cultures can produce amazingly complex and intelligent and beautiful organizations of thought and experience" (57).

Words are thought to have an almost magical power in oral cultures because they are events, not signs.  Ong writes:  "Without writing, words as such have no visual presence, even when the objects they represent are visual.  They are sounds.  You might 'call' them back--'recall' them.  But there is no where to 'look' for them. . . . They are occurrences, events" (31).  The Hebrew term dabar means both "word" and "event."  In contrast, written words on the page are inert, just objects.  Ong notes that the standard Homeric epithet "winged words" conveys a sense of "evanescence, power, and freedom" (77).

Works Cited

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