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
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.
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.
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
- 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:
- Say, do, feel
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 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
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
and finally, from David Bader’s One Hundred Great Books in
‘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