Tag Archives: Oral Tradition

Oral Tradition and Myth: Cultural Connections.

20130621-151348.jpg While thinking about the origins of Mythology in the Oral Tradition I remembered a great example from Professor Michael D. C. Drout. A Philologist and presenter of a Modern Scholar audio course on fantasy literature, Drout suggests that the fantasy genre as we know it is actually a resurgence of Traditional Oral Epic. Fantasy literature uses elements borrowed from Oral Epic and, by association, Myth; allowing us to grapple with complex themes of cultural importance and communicate them effectively in a way that can be replicated.

One of the earliest serious studies of folk lore and Oral Tradition from the 1930’s by Milman Parry and Albert Lord, found a longstanding tradition in the former Yugoslavia of visiting coffee shops during Ramadan. In these coffee shops people would enjoy renditions of epic tales set to the music of a one stringed instrument known as a ‘Gusle’ (pronounced ‘goo-sla’)

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Parry and Lord studied the methods of the ‘Guslari’ and found that they had memorised a formulae which allowed them to recite the outline of a three to four thousand line story. This also meant that the stories where never quite told the same way, as the loosely improvised detail was added to this repetitive and formulaic structure. This is known as Oral Composition.

What is particularly relevant about this example as it relates to mythology, is that Parry and Lord identified that the Guslari made use of Hexameters, in a very similar way to the recorded works of Homer; ‘The Iliad’, and ‘The Odyssey’. However, when they examined the content of the stories they where able to identify other recurring motifs found not only in Homer but also other Epics of cultural and mythological significance such as Beowulf. From their work we can start to clearly identify connections between elements of Oral Tradition, Epic and Mythology, existing across a variety of cultures and representing a significant part of their development.

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References

Drout D C, 2006, ‘Rings Swords and Monsters:Exploring Fantasy Literature’, The Modern Scholar, purchased from http://www.audible.co.uk

Pictures From

http://www.emusic.com/book/michael-d-c-drout/rings-swords-and-monsters/10035120/

http://www.webmedjugorje.com/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&catid=167:croatian-musical-instruments&id=2372:gusle

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The Formation and Preservation Of Myth

20130618-162114.jpg The first ‘true’ alphabet was created by the Greeks in the eight century BCE and is predated by the oldest known forms of Greek writing known as Linear A and Linear B. The often cited “Father Of History”, Herodotus, recorded that this was an adaptation of the Phoenician alphabet (limited to only consonants), merged with elements of their own language.

As Myths existed long before the rise of documentation and literature, they where created and preserved in what is known as Oral Tradition. This is the tradition of storytelling performed by Bards, a very important and respected position within the culture of Ancient Greece.

Many Myths are truly epic in scale, making the task of the bards to memorise and recite them to an audience a formidable one. This is why we see much of Mythology preserved in the medium of Epic Poetry; a format which makes use of rhyme and rhythmic delivery, particularly Hexameters. Bards would also draw from a catalogue of stock phrases and descriptive names, or ‘Epithets’, which would be repeated throughout the telling of the tale. Memorising such epic tales in this way gave them structure and cadence, making them much easier to recall from memory. When people began to capture culture in the written word, these elements became characteristics of the classic mythological texts.

Professor Meineck points out that The origin of Myths in the Oral Tradition makes them “highly mutable”, meaning the details and plots of myths would change in the telling and in the hands of the many Bards acting as their custodians. Bards, and therefore Myths, would travel great distances over long periods of time and would adapt and change to accommodate their audience.

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Of course myth was also captured in other forms of Art. Literature may have become a foundation of civilisation, but reading and writing was not yet a skill available to everyone. The transcribed records of myths would serve as scripts performed as plays, allowing entire communities to enjoy them. Many cultures have unique artistic styles across various disciplines from paintings to sculptures, often inspired by that cultures distinct mythology. Archeological discoveries have often revealed less sophisticated examples of mythological art adorning even simple household objects.

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References

Blackwell C W, Hackney Blackwell A, 2002, ‘Mythology For Dummies’, Wiley, Indiana

Meineck P, 2004, ‘Classical Mythology: The Greeks’, The Modern Scholar, purchased from http://www.audible.co.uk

Pictures From

http://www.college.columbia.edu/core/content/herodotus

http://www.timetrips.co.uk/beginnings_of_greek_theatre.htm

http://www.shmoop.com/zeus-jupiter/photo-zeus-with-thunderbolt.html

http://www.ehow.com/facts_5757255_greek-mythology-pottery.html

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