Not only are stories communicated this way, oral traditions include passing down knowledge about one’s culture and history, ideas, and art. Usually, the information is transmitted from one generation to the next. For example, a grandson speaks to his son about what it takes to live a good life.
Stories passed on through this method have no fixed form or standardized written format to refer to. This means that each time the story is told, it’s going to be slightly different.
Explore Oral Tradition
Oral Tradition Definition
The oral tradition is the practice of sharing information orally, rather than writing it down and passing it around that way.
By sharing the information through words and across generations, one can be sure that the stories retain their impact, but it does mean that they may change from telling to telling. Lore is particularly subject to this.
What is Oral Literature?
Oral literature is the passing down of stories orally from one person to the next. This tradition is an old one, dating back to pre-literate societies where even if the stories were written down, the majority of people couldn’t read them. Some stories that may be passed down in this manner include epics, folk narratives, drama, proverbs, and folk songs. These stories are integral parts of the cultures they originate from, as is the practice of sharing them orally.
To this day, there are some societies that continue this tradition and are without written records of their stories. This could be an entire group of people who know local legends or a family who shares a memory of an exciting event from their shared past. Bedtime stories are a great example.
Long pieces of epic poetry have also been transmitted this way. Often, they are subject to a particular rhyme scheme and metrical pattern. These features should help storytellers remember the words and find the right ones if they’ve forgotten.
Originally, religious texts were preserved and transmitted orally, for example, in Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism.
Examples of Oral Tradition
The Hindu Vedas was transmitted orally. It can be traced back to the second millennium BCE. The works, as described by scholar Michael Witzel, were composed and transmitted orally. They did not use a script or any kind of guide to remembering the works. But, they were preserved “impeccably.” They were passed from teacher to student in an unbroken form. Even the tone, Witzel states, was perceived. That is the cadence with which the words are spoken. Here is a quote:
One should performed karma for the benefit of humanity with an unbiased approach because bias gives birth to evil, which creates thousands of obstacles in our path.
These incredible feats of memorization were taught in Ancient India in schools called Gurukul. Pierre-Sylvain Filliozat notes that when learning, students worked on the recitation of words according to the phonetic combinations, recited with a conscious pause after every word, and paired words together in a hymn.
The Works of Homer
Famously, Homer’s Odyssey and Iliad were transmitted orally for generations. These epic poems were passed down by the use of “Oral-formulaid composition.” This process, as described in L’epithèt traditionnelle dans Homère, uses stock formulations or phrases that are repeated regularly with the same metrical pattern. Homer’s works are not the only ones to use this formula for memorization. Here is a quote from the Iliad:
Like the generations of leaves, the lives of mortal men. Now the wind scatters the old leaves across the earth, now the living timber bursts with the new buds and spring comes round again. And so with men: as one generation comes to life, another dies away.
Homer himself is an interesting study. Some scholars have suggested that Homer was not one person but a group of people who wrote and passed on the Iliad and the Odyssey. Others have suggested that different people actually penned the two works. Here is a quote from the Odyssey:
Men are so quick to blame the gods: they say
that we devise their misery. But they
themselves- in their depravity- design
grief greater than the griefs that fate assigns.
The Beowulf epic poem had been in circulation, through oral storytelling, for many years before the Beowulf poet put the words to paper (around 700 AD). This means that the original storyteller has long since been lost. The Anglo-Saxons believed in the importance of the oral tradition, as did cultures from around the world. Here is a quote:
It is always better
to avenge dear ones than to indulge in mourning.
For every one of us, living in this world
means waiting for our end. Let whoever can
win glory before death. When a warrior is gone,
that will be his best and only bulwark.
Folk stores, beliefs, proverbs, music, songs, and more have all been passed down orally. Personal stories are often shared orally among family members for generations without anyone writing them down.
It’s theorized that the gospels were first shared orally before being written down. Many other stories about Jesus were shared orally as well.
Oral history dates back to pre-literature societies. Since humans have been on the planet, stories have been transmitted orally. But, the study of oral history began in the mid-1900s.
Related Literary Terms
- Epic Poetry: a long narrative poem that tells the story of heroic deeds, normally accomplished by more-than-human characters.
- Narrative Poem: contains all the elements of a story and is normally longer than average.
- Narrator: the voice that tells the story, whether that story is in the form of a poem or novel.
- Alliterative Meter: a type of verse that focuses on alliteration as a way of creating a metrical structure. Alliteration is used rather than accents or rhymes.
- Bard: is used to describe a professional story teller. They could also be a musician, oral historian, genealogist, or another writer.