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Characteristics of Oral Tradition in World Literature

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  • 0:03 Literature Without Books
  • 1:05 What Is the Oral Tradition?
  • 2:13 Oral Tradition and…
  • 3:03 Oral Tradition and Epic
  • 3:54 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: David Boyles

David has a Master's in English literature and is completing a Ph.D. He has taught college English for 6 years.

Before books and writing, cultures passed along their history and heritage through oral storytelling traditions. Many classics of world literature, from 'The Iliad' to 'The Epic of Gilgamesh,' were passed down orally before being written down.

Literature Without Books

When you hear the word 'literature,' what immediately comes to mind? Probably books. Today, when we encounter literature, it is almost entirely through the written word, but this has not always been the case. Before writing was developed, people still told stories and passed them down by telling them out loud, a process known as the oral tradition.

Many of the oldest and most foundational works of world literature, from Homer's The Iliad, to the The Epic of Gilgamesh, to the Indian epic The Ramayana, all began as part of the oral tradition before ever being written down. The same goes for the mythological stories of gods, like Zeus, Hercules, Thor, and Loki, as well as legendary heroes, like King Arthur.

All of these stories and works of literature were passed down, sometimes for hundreds of years before systems of writing were developed and they were put down on paper. As a result, the characteristics of the oral tradition are still present in these works and have influenced their form and content, as well as other literature that followed them.

What Is the Oral Tradition?

Simply put, the term oral tradition refers to a process by which any information about a culture, such as literature, history, medicine, etc., is passed down by being spoken instead of written. All cultures that now use writing have an oral tradition that came before writing, and many cultures around the world, such as many Native American groups, still transmit their culture through primarily oral means.

In most cultures that did not use writing, the responsibility for learning the oral tradition and sharing it with others fell to a specific group of people. These people went by different names, including bards in Europe and griots in West Africa, but had similar jobs. First, they would start, typically when very young, by being apprenticed to an older bard or griot from whom they would learn the stories. They often developed astounding capacities for memorization. Then, when they reached maturity, it would be their job to travel to different villages and towns telling the stories.

In most cultures, the stories could be told for entertainment, but that was not their primary job. The storytelling was often a key part of religious practices, and the stories often focused on the gods.

Oral Tradition and Poetic Style

In order to remember these stories, which were often thousands of lines long, the storytellers developed techniques to aid their memory, which included using rhythm, rhyme, and other repetitive techniques like alliteration, which is the repetition of a sound at the beginning of words. The stories were often accompanied by music and were sung.

Therefore, many scholars argue that the oral tradition is responsible for the birth of poetry, the form of writing that uses devices such as rhyme and rhythm to create an effect on the reader. It is argued that prose, the form of writing that has no rhythm or rhyme (such as the writing found in a novel, or in this lesson) came later, after the invention of writing.

Because of this, works of literature that started in the oral tradition often have heavy elements of rhythm and repetition, which can vary from the alliteration of Beowulf to the heavy rhythm of Homer's epics.

Oral Tradition and Epic

Most works in the oral tradition combined entertainment with history and religion, telling stories of the culture's gods, heroes, and important historical events. The most common genre that these stories took the form of is the epic, a long narrative poem about an important historical event or heroic deeds.

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