Oral Tradition is when a cultures history and traditions are passed down with story and song rather than in written form. This has many applications through out history. The american slaves used it for they were illiterate as did Native American tribes. Islanders of the South Pacific used it and still do today (e.g. the hula) and parts of Africa continue to utilize Oral Tradition.

An Oral Tradition is a group of stories that somehow define a culture, and have certain characteristics in common. Usually, there are groups of phrases that are repeated within the story to keep the person singing (usually, although it is possible that they may be speaking) if they forget what they’re talking about for a second. In essence, this common language lets the person memorize phrases, so while they’re keeping track of the whole story, they can add these phrases to fill out a line, or just explicate an item further. In the case of the so-called Homeric Greek, which exists only in the epic poems of Ancient Greece, epithets like “Farshooting Apollo” or “Grey-Eyed Athena” are metrically suited to dactylic hexameter and are therefore perfect for filling out a Homeric line. In Old English, Beowulf includes similar repeated phrases, such as: “Beowulf, the son of Ecgtheow, spoke:”. The example from Beowulf is much more specific, as it can only be used before one of his speeches (although that occurs quite frequently in that poem), the examples from Homer are far more versatile, and so if Apollo is speaking, or fighting, or hurtling pestilential arrows, the epithet could be used (although in Homer, that doesn’t usually happen, but I digress)

The point is, an Oral Tradition is basically that, oral and a tradition. Almost all discussion of oral traditions came following the work of Milman Parry, who died before his book was finished, giving every scholar with an opinion a chance to put their two cents in. The fact that his thesis was left unfinished is both a curse and a blessing, as scholars didn’t have to refute his argument first, because he hadn’t actually made one. But there are innumerable volumes of work to sift through if one is mildly interested in the analysis of a modern (or post-modern, or post-post-modern, or now) oral tradition that Parry found in what was then Yugoslavia. Since then, people see evidence of oral traditions everywhere. My personal favorite place is in hip hop, and if you think about it, you can see formula and repetition all over the place there.

The genre of epic storytelling in a pretextual society tends to focus on heroes and quests and glory. The “Homeric World” is an era before literacy: “The world where bards sing the fame of heroes and celebrate the actions of war is not a literate world—and the dichotomy between cultural education through heroic songs and the cultivation of civilized literacy is not accidental. Epic poems have nothing to do with poetry in the literary, or written, sense. They have everything to do with a closely knit band of people trying to preserve their spirit by passing on songs of idealized heroic action” (Heim 52).

The system of production in oral storytelling is one that has only recently been understood: previously, it was easier to generalize and assume that stories of that era were masterminded efforts of genius creators in the same way literary texts are understood as being produced. However, classical studies has revealed the existence of a fundamental system beneath these works as they looked for an explanation for great similarities between the works of Homer and the works of other less acknowledged storytellers. A new understanding has been reached: “We now know that densely plotted, encyclopedic works like the Illiad and the Odyssey were produced not by a single creative genius but by the collective effort of an oral storytelling culture that employed a highly formulaic narrative system…which relies on what we in a literate era devalue as repetition, redundancy, and cliché, devices for patterning languages into units that make it easier for bards to memorize and recall” (Murray 188). In essence, these works rely on a system of rules, clichés, and precedents that all individual storytellers and creators are working within their own production process.

Why is this model so troubling to a student of literature in a traditional context? Murray documents this resentment on the part of critics: “In the 1930s, Greek scholars were distressed when literary analysis revealed that Homer (and other epic preliterate poets) created through a process that involved fitting stock phrases and formulaic narrative units together. Critics at that time resisted the thought that the great artist Homer was not original in the same way that modern print-based writers are expected to be” (Murray 153). In large part the difficulty arises from the literary model of “The Author,” a figure of imposing intellect and genius who is behind the production process of every creative text. In works in the oral tradition, it is easy to try and assign the role of author to a perceived primary speaker. However, speech does not exist for all practical purposes without an audience: “…in speech we tend to react to each situation that occurs, reacting in tone and gesture even to our own act of speaking. But writing tends to be a kind of separate or specialist action in which there is little opportunity or call for reaction. The literate man or society develops the tremendous power of acting in any matter with considerable detachment from the feelings or emotional involvement that a nonliterate man or society would experience” (McLuhan 79). Works of writing are thus more easily understood as the process of the lone genius, whereas works of speech can only be experienced as part of a collective—feedback and participation are built into the model. They must be understood as part of a group dynamic and tradition. These are stories for consumption and public participatory gatherings, not stories meant to be consumed while sitting alone by the fireplace. There is similarly no expectation of originality: the speaker is drawing upon established tradition and reproducing it to fit his audience and context.

Understanding the rules that govern the oral tradition requires first acknowledging the rule of the ear. What is spoken must be memorable to be powerful. Familiar mythical frameworks and cliché offer the oral tradition the objects for manipulation. Everything is planned for recall: “In the state of mind of an orally based culture, significant language is memorable language, and memorable language is characterized by highly emphatic acoustic shapes, by clearly etched and simple images, by a style of (nonliterate) composition that employs music for the ear and parallels for mnemonic recall” (Heim 53). Thus, stories will by necessity take a certain form, the hero will go on his journey, the same gods and epic monsters will wreak havoc on his path, the same message of victory and loyalty and the return home will be echoed over and over again. Can these stories be seen as both rules governed and original?

Works Cited

Heim, Michael. Electric Language: A Philosophical Study of Word Processing. Yale University Press: New Haven, 1987.

McLuhan, Marshall. Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. MIT Press: Cambridge, MA, 1964.

Murray, Janet H. Hamlet on the Holodeck, The Future of Narrative in Cyberspace. The Free Press: New York, 1997.

When we hear the term ‘oral tradition’, most of us will think about Homer, and picture elderly Greeks reciting poetry for days on end, fanatically memorising every last line of Odysseus’s life, twenty years of it (longer if you stop for toilet breaks).

We literate people have got it sooooo wrong.

An oral tradition belongs not to an illiterate society, but to a non-literate one. As such, everything important must be remembered and passed down. Accurately. That doesn’t mean word-for-word.

Have you ever read any Homer? It is very quickly obvious that whoever wrote this down was recording a very different type of ‘poetry’ to what we are used to. All those stock phrases repeated over and over – whole verses that get thrown in and repeated every so often – the lists of information that sound incredibly boring. Some parts might remind you of the older books in the Old Testament, the ones full of Begats. And if you are lucky enough to read something without translation – say, Beowulf, in one of those nice editions with the old and the new side by side – you will notice a lovely lot of luscious alliteration.

If you don’t understand why it is written so, you will probably find it incredibly dull. These are not the signs of a bad poet; they are memory aids developed to assist the poet.

There’s a loaded word: poet. In the modern, literate sense, a poet is someone who writes – meaning, composes – poetry. But all those bards who travelled around singing songs of Beowulf were poets of a different kind. They often weren’t making up their own unique songs. They were memorising existing songs and performing – interpreting – them for their audience.

In Ancient Greece, they held competitions for poets. Picture them, the poets, taking turns performing tales from the great Homeric stories. They weren’t being judged for their skill in memorising the Iliad exactly, like a class of students learning a monologue from Hamlet. They were being judged for their skill in performing and interpreting the stories.

What were they doing, if not reciting?

A new picture now. A rap battle, with half a dozen skilled rappers. Each of them is improvising – creating something new and fresh as they go – responding to the day, to the weather, to their opponents, to the audience. And yet – they aren’t going in, as it were, empty-handed. Each of them has practised, practised for years. They have a head full of rhymes and phrases, words that go together, stock phrases they use. A refrain they can use to fill the moments while they think up the next verse. These rappers are the closest we have to the poets of pre-literacy.

When you read Homer, or Beowulf, or listen to some rappers improvising, you will hear some common techniques. Each technique has about a dozen uses and purposes, and this is typical in oral traditions and non-literate memory techniques. Everything serves multiple purposes.

One you will notice is the ‘epithet’. People and places are described using several standard phrases. We all do this – let’s take the city of New York. How many ways do we describe New York? New York. New York, New York. The city that never sleeps. The big apple. The city so nice they named it twice. Empire City. The modern Gomorrah. City of Dreams. Five Boroughs, New Amsterdam, Gotham, NY…

First, this helps remind you of a lot of information about the city. Second, if you were putting the city of New York into a poem, it gives you a lot of options to fill in a line and make it scan or rhyme. Third, it’s easy for everyone to remember things with nicknames.

In modern writing, we usually strive to avoid using clichés – John Marsden recommends you write down the first ten descriptions you think of, then cross them out and think of something original. But in the oral tradition, a cliché is a good thing. In our fine examples of the oral tradition, in Homer and Beowulf and the Old Testament, we see this a lot.

Another technique you see is a sort of repeated scene. Now, I’m pretty unforgiving on this front normally. I don’t care for books that repeat themselves. But in the oral tradition this is not laziness, it’s important. Things have to happen in the right order, and they have to happen the right number of times. Branching away from Homer into another sort of oral tradition, we can see how this works in fairy tales.

All the better to see you with, my dear,” said the blonde.

All the better to hear you with, my dear,” said the brunette.

All the better to EAT you with, my dear!,” said the red head.

When one reads a repetitive novel, one is able to achieve boredom by – in my experience – around second breakfast. By elevenses, one is wanting to stuff the author’s head in the oven put everyone out of their misery. But in a story that is told to us, like a fairy tale, we react differently. We need that repetition.


At this point we need to put aside Odysseus’s epic battle with the monster Grendel, and think about memory aids. You may have heard a little about these: perhaps you have marvelled at those clever clogs who can memorise the order of cards in a shuffled deck in less than five minutes, for no better reason than to show they can. Or you might enjoy hearing Buttercup Wimbledontennismatch describe the Mind Palace of Sherlock Holmes. These techniques, now in use only by extreme nerds and fictional detectives, were once used by nonliterate people everywhere to record all sorts of really vital information.

There are so many different methods for memorising huge amounts of information both accurately and meaningfully. The ‘mind palace’ is a popular method. It generally involves mapping physical locations into your mind (hence the ‘palace’) and associating pieces of information with certain objects that you mentally ‘place’ into a room in your palace. I might, for example, remember a 5 of hearts and an 8 of clubs as follows: a red beetle is chased by a black turtle in the pantry. By assigning a colour and animal to each card, and pairing them into a little story, and then putting each story in a room of my ‘palace’, I can memorise a deck of cards into a series of little stories in their own locations. To recall the deck of cards I picture myself walking through the rooms of the palace, watching each story take place. Easy!

I have chosen to describe this particular technique because it is so easy to demonstrate how quickly a set of data can become a story. Instead of memorising decks of cards, what if you were to memorise something more useful, like a history of your own people? If you are in a nonliterate society, the only way to know your history is to remember it, and you can remember it more easily by turning it into stories. Instead of a 5 of hearts, what if you were remembering the 5th president of the USA and his party, or the 5th element in the periodic table? Those little stories and locations remain useful, and you can build the stories to include more information.

There are two really good reasons for looking at memory aids in connection with oral tradition. The first is that you can see how an oral poet might use certain memory techniques to encode important information into stories that can then be told again and again. Maybe your story has information about how to travel from point A to point B a long way away, with details about the weather, local people and food. Maybe your story tells you when to plant your crops. Whatever the information, stories can help you remember it.

The second really good reason is that when you use this memory technique, and many others, the information you are encoding has a tendency to turn itself into stories. You saw how easy that was back there – the red beetle being chased by a black turtle in the pantry. What were those cards again?


I am a trainer, and one of the subjects I have trained is crisis counselling skills. This involves two days of talking to a roomful of people, and a lot of roleplays. Without ever setting out to, as a trainer you develop certain techniques to use so that you don’t have to spend two days reading from your notes. I’d be asleep by elevenses if I did that, never mind my poor students! So the challenge is to keep things fresh, but to make sure you cover all the information. Students are interjecting with questions, or the mood in the room might be different, or a hundred other things happen to stop you from presenting the information exactly the same way each time. But it is vital that each student not only gets the message, but is able to understand it and hopefully remember the important parts for later. These are similar problems faced by an oral poet, as it happens. Here are some of my techniques:

  • Mnemonics – I always think it’s better to make up your own mnemonics. Lovely CD, Mum. 1 female cooks pancakes.
  • Patterns – even more primitive than a mnemonic, but even more effective. Like holding out your hands and putting down one finger to work out your 9 times tables (9x3 = put down your 3rd finger, what’s left, 2 and 8 = 28).
  • Movement – which is easier to remember: the words or the actions? Can you type your name faster than you can spell it? How about your e2 handle?
I use movements like a mnemonic of sorts. I can memorise a complex piece of music by using my hand position at the start of each section as a memory aid. If you ask me to name the sharps or flats in order I will be moving my fingers as I speak. If you ever used the konami code, I bet your thumbs twitch slightly when you say it.

Movements are a great option when you won’t necessarily be doing things in the same order every time. Let’s say I’m teaching you about How to get off the phone. I know I need to cover each item in the list of 'reasons you are finding it hard', but the order doesn’t matter. I can assign a movement to each item: scared = ‘I am’ = hand on chest; reflecting = mirror = wave hand beside face; being quiet = downward stop motion… and so on. Once I know my hand movements, I can easily check if I have ‘done’ all the movements – and that will tell me if I have covered each item on the list.

  • Drawings – what are whiteboards for? For the teacher to remind herself what she’s talking about, of course! A series of drawings or diagrams is a brilliant memory aid. Here is my whiteboard list for a 2 hour session on suicide awareness:
  1. Iceberg
  2. Number
  3. Reasons
  4. Say, do, feel
  5. Scale
  6. Help

I haven't even delivered this session for about four years. As you can see, it wouldn't take me long to study up and deliver it again. I might need to check the fine details, but this is essentially a story - an interactive story - that I can tell, from memory, using simple memory aids. Imagine what one might achieve by dedicating a lifetime to memorising the lore of one's culture?


I suppose I ought to get back on track here: the oral tradition. A few examples would illustrate all this. You might want to pop across to the node The Siren Hos and have a look at how two different noders interpreted a part of the Odyssey.

There, wasn’t that illuminating?

And finally, a set of extracts for you. They aren’t exactly improv, nor are they in the oral tradition. But I hope they will be a good example of a familiar bit of story told in different ways to suit the expectations of different audiences.


The original (Hamlet, Act III, Scene I)

To be, or not to be: that is the question:
Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
And by opposing end them? To die: to sleep;
No more; and by a sleep to say we end
The heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks
That flesh is heir to, 'tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wish'd
. To die, to sleep;
To sleep: perchance to dream: ay, there's the rub;
For in that sleep of death what dreams may come
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
Must give us pause: there's the respect
That makes calamity of so long life;
For who would bear the whips and scorns of time,
The oppressor's wrong, the proud man's contumely,
The pangs of despised love, the law's delay,
The insolence of office and the spurns
That patient merit of the unworthy takes,
When he himself might his quietus make
With a bare bodkin? who would fardels bear,
To grunt and sweat under a weary life,
But that the dread of something after death,
The undiscover'd country from whose bourn
No traveller returns, puzzles the will
And makes us rather bear those ills we have
Than fly to others that we know not of?
Thus conscience does make cowards of us all;
And thus the native hue of resolution
Is sicklied o'er with the pale cast of thought,
And enterprises of great pith and moment
With this regard their currents turn awry,
And lose the name of action.--Soft you now!
The fair Ophelia! Nymph, in thy orisons
Be all my sins remember'd.


Hamlet, a novel – by John Marsden, a noted writer of novels for and about teenagers

‘Can we live? Can we live at all?’ she asked. Her voice echoes, bouncing off the brick-line walls.

‘Yes, it comes down to that. And to what comes after.’

‘To what?’ She didn’t understand him.

‘Why, whether we are to live or not to live. To dance or to die. To breathe the painful air, or to sleep.’

‘To sleep?’

‘To stand in the shallows with a sword to fight the surf, or to let the waves wash you away.’ He took her by the elbow and leaned closer to her ear and whispered into it. ‘To be or not to be.’…

…’It would be easy,’ he said. For a moment he sounded almost bored. ‘So easy to do it. It’s what happens afterwards, that’s the thing.’

She put her hands to her ears and tried to say ‘stop it’, but could not.

‘If it was my father, if he told the truth, if he twists in fire, if he the murdered one twists in fire, what’s there for the one who murders himself? No sleep for him I think, no peace, not for a long time. Torment for him, I think.’


Hamlet (Part IV) from Texts from Jane Eyre by Mallory Ortberg

first of all
she’s not my girlfriend
second of all
Denmark is a PRISON


maybe if you left your room
it wouldn’t seem so much like one
maybe if you went outside
or just came down to dinner maybe


stop telling me what to do
you’re a fascist
everything is such bullshit
the sky
such bullshit


and finally, from David Bader’s One Hundred Great Books in Haiku


William Shakespeare

‘His mother wed his
dead murdered father’s brother!’
Next Jerry Springer.



References and further reading:

Hamlet, by William Shakespeare, accessible at http://shakespeare.mit.edu/hamlet/full.html thanks to the kind people at MIT

The Odyssey, by Homer, accessible at http://classics.mit.edu/Homer/odyssey.html

Beowulf, by some really kickass ancient poets, accessible at https://www.gutenberg.org/files/16328/16328-h/16328-h.htm thanks to the kind people at Project Gutenberg

Classical Mythology: Images and Insights, 4th ed., Stephen L. Harris and Gloria Platzner (2001)

The Memory Code, Lynne Kelly (2016)

Hamlet: a novel, by John Marsden (2008)

Texts from J*A*N*E E*Y*R*E, by Mallory Ortberg (2014)

One Hundred Great Books in Haiku, by David Bader (2005)

several partial essays by Nemosyn circa 2001-2003

associated reading bricks, slightly fire-damaged and otherwise incomplete, also circa 2001-2003


reQuest 2018

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