The Oral Tale

By Sally Mallam
Contributing Writer

Bless me, Apollo, bless me, Artemis;
and greetings, all you girls!
Remember me
Whenever any poor and homeless stranger
Comes here and asks you,
“Girls, who is to you the sweetest of all singers?
Which one gives you most pleasure?”
All of you must answer him,
“He is a blind man and he makes his home in rocky Chios;
all his songs will be the best forever.”

Homeric Hymn to Delian Apollo 6th century BCE

For most of our human history, storytelling was oral. Myths were spoken or sung by diverse storytellers who could select and modulate their narrative to best suit a given audience, emphasizing some aspects and ignoring others.  In ancient Greece, for example, the aoidoi, or bards, created poems on traditional epic subjects when they performed; and at some point, professional poetry reciters, known as rhapsodes or “stitchers of songs,” would perform, stitching together a narrative of tales from ancient poets such as Homer or Hesiod. Sometimes accompanied musically by the lyre, their performances became part of the Panathenaic festivals, at which prizes were awarded; and inscriptions reveal that rhapsodes continued to perform through the third century AD.

The earliest of those myths most familiar to us are thought to stem from the Bronze Age Aegean civilizations that flourished for almost 2,000 years until about 1200 BCE. A disastrous period known as the Bronze Age Collapse followed in which, within 50 years, four major civilizations were destroyed. The Aegean islands were particularly hard hit. There the destruction was so severe it virtually obliterated any memories of the great Minoan and Mycenaean civilizations. Things were so extreme that the survivors fled to the hills, their buildings destroyed, their culture, including their writing system and literacy, lost. They were left with, at best, a dreamlike memory of their past. It is from the ashes of this past that an oral tradition survived to give us the myths and legends of Ancient Greece – the gods, goddesses, heroes, monsters, and nymphs that continue to captivate our imagination and inspire our dreams today, more than 3,000 years later.

Such tales explained all that was unknown: the origins of the world, birth, death and natural phenomena like meteors, earthquakes, and the change of seasons. And they played a vital role in the transmission of cultural, historical, and mythological knowledge, while providing a primary means of entertainment, education, and preserving the collective memory of the community.

Performers had to rely on memory, as well as maintain fluency, flexibility and creativity, so, unsurprisingly, repeated phrases, stories or tropes were highly valued. In the 1960s The Singer of Tales by the American classicist Milman Parry was published posthumously by his student Albert B. Lord. Parry’s task was to establish whether Homer’s epic poems had oral roots. In the process of his research, he found that oral storytelling from every culture he studied had certain distinctive features which enabled the oral poet to compose or recite at the speed of speech.

Parry noted that oral poets had traditional ways of describing everything and everyone who might appear in a heroic story. They would use consistent epithets to describe characters, natural occurrences, or objects. We can see this in Homer’s Iliad, where the Dawn is “rosy-fingered,” Achilles is “swift of foot” even if he has not left his tent in days, Zeus is “cloud-gathering” even when the sky is clear; Greek ships remain swift despite having been stuck on a beach for years;  elite female characters – mortals or goddesses – have white arms and well-braided hair. Because of the constraints of the epic meter, known as the dactylic hexameter, the poet would have these metrically-fitting phrases at his disposal when needed, and as a mnemonic aid to himself and his audiences.

Another traditional oral narrative technique that is prominent in the Iliad is the use of lists or catalogs. To evoke the massive scale of the war, for example, the poem reaches to encompass the world and gestures towards all the many people and events that are omitted from the narrative. For example, in Book 2, the poet laments his lack of ability to tell such a vast story:

“I could not tell nor name the multitude,
not even if I had ten tongues, ten mouths,
a voice that never broke, a heart of bronze …
I catalog only the captains and the ships they brought….

A very long, detailed list follows, describing numerous city-states and the lives and deeds of their eminent captains who come to Troy on their many, many ships.  

This brings us to what the classicist Emily Wilson describes in her recent translation of the Iliad as perhaps the most beautiful technique drawn from the oral poetic tradition — the extended simile. “Similes, like catalogs,” she says, “allow the narrative to contain far more worlds within itself than we might expect, including domestic activities in peacetime, vivid descriptions of animal behavior, and thrilling evocations of fire, snowstorms and winds. Often these images create a sense of shifting scales from small to vast or from the human to the divine.” When, for example, the Achaean troops rush to their ships:

“Just like huge ocean waves on the Icarian Sea,
when East Wind and South Wind rush down together
from Father Zeus’s clouds to whip up the sea,
the whole assembly rippled, like a large grain field,
undulating under the fury of the storm,
as West Wind roars in with force, all ears of corn
ducking down under the power of the gusts—
that’s how the shouting men stampeded to their ships.

Comparisons frequently bring together an action in the heavens or the distant past and a present phenomenon familiar to the audience listening to the poem.  Occurring throughout both Homeric epics, passages like these give the listener or reader a feeling of connection to others and to a cosmic order that author Angus Fletcher tells us “triggers our pituitary … prompting a rise in our blood oxytocin” even when reading silently and alone.  The Iliad calls upon our courage and gives us the “heated strength to stare down death.”

One can imagine that audiences became spellbound, when the bard began with the invocation:        

“Goddess, sing of the cataclysmic wrath
Of great Achilles, son of Peleus,
which caused the Greeks immeasurable pain
and sent so many noble souls of Heroes
to Hades, and made men the spoils of dogs,
a banquet for the birds, and so the plan
of Zeus unfolded – starting with the conflict
between great Agamemnon, lord of men,
and glorious Achilles.”

In a manner similar to the experience of a young child when she hears “Once upon a time …” on hearing Homer’s words, our brains prepare, we are alert to experience what a story can provide, and by listening expose ourselves to the sound of the language, allowing it to communicate to the tonally sensitive areas of our brain through the inflections and higher harmonics of the voice.

Fletcher compares the Iliad’s opening lines with those of Genesis:

“In the beginning God created the Heaven and the earth.
And the earth was without form, and void;
and darkness was upon the face of the deep.
And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.
And God said Let there be light : and there was light.”

He notes that both scripts “boom with God Voice.” However, “the God Voice of the Iliad is huge but human. It’s not a divinity aloof. It’s a vaster version of ourself, an ‘Almighty Heart’ that echoes our emotional response to the spectacle of war and death.”

In Homer, as in Greek mythology in general, the gods are seen to be intricately involved in human concerns; they come down to be part of the action, breed with humans, cause and often foretell what is to happen. Foreknowledge played a key role in Ancient Greek Theatre, too. Fletcher notes that putting the audience in “the position of foreknowledge stimulates a powerful sensation of cosmic irony in the ‘perspective taking network’ of our brain’s prefrontal cortex, giving us a God like experience of looking down on Oedipus’s mortal tragedy from above.  …It reduces activity in our brain’s deep emotion zones, acting as a neural shock absorber against the traumatic events before us. And it also does something else: it primes us to increase our self-efficacy – we have more confidence in our ability to reach our goals, and of overcoming aspects of ourselves, for example fear, that stand in our way.“

The two extant Homeric epics (there were originally ten) both concern the great defining moment of Greek culture, the Trojan War. Whether or not this war really took place, or occurred as the Greeks narrate it, we don’t know. A war did take place at the time around a city that quite likely was Troy, and that city was utterly destroyed, but beyond that we know little. Nevertheless, we know that the Greeks saw the Trojan War as the first moment in history when they came together as one people with a common purpose. This unification, myth or not, gave the later Greeks a sense of national and cultural identity. If you spoke Greek and had the same epic values, it meant that you were the same as all the other Greek-speaking peoples.

The Greeks had no sacred text but, for them, these epics took on a stature equivalent to it. Like the foundational literature we speak of in the next section, the epic poems of Homer were among the first things they wrote down around 725 BCE. The poems created a world connecting the Greeks to a heroic past and became the center of their cultural tradition and the basis of their moral behavior. They embodied who they were. Children were taught Homer, not history, and so through myth, memory and poetry the Greeks created a unique identity and culture. They told of heroes who were twice as strong, powerful and steadfast as any normal person and this ideal became the foundation on which a Greek youth would base himself. These epics established a code of honor based on shame – where valor and the adherence to duty in the face of overwhelming odds were all important. Heroism is all the greater because a Greek will fight until the end; even though he loses, he will not lose his honor. 

To these early Greeks, actions were of paramount importance. The world was a place of conflict and difficulty where human value and meaning were measured by effective action. Two very important words are repeatedly used throughout Homer’s epics: honor (timé) and virtue or greatness (areté). The latter term is perhaps the most reiterated cultural and moral value in Ancient Greece and means something like achieving, morally and otherwise, one’s greatest potential as a human being. The reward for great honor and virtue is fame (kleos), which is what guarantees meaning and value to one’s life. Dying without fame (akleos) is generally considered a disaster, and the warriors of the Homeric epics commit the most outrageous deeds to avoid dying in obscurity or infamy (witness Odysseus’s insistence on telling Polyphemos his true name, even though this will bring disaster on him and his men; or Hector insisting that he will face the enemy ahead of his soldiers, even though he expects that he will be killed, his son slain, and his wife Andromache taken captive.)