Orality, a term used in anthropology to interpret the performances of “verbal art,” was not a term created or defined by anthropologists for their particular use. It is a very old concept, formulated as the opposite of “literacy,” and has a long history in the humanities. It is encrusted with many beliefs and ideas that apply mostly to verbal art in Western societies with alphabetic writing systems. Thus, the tools used by anthropologists were created for one purpose, while anthropologists in the field must try to use them for another. A brief examination of the term’s history will clarify why “orality” as currently understood is a problematic notion.
Orality was framed as the opposite of literacy, not by modern authors but by Roman scholars active during the first century B.C.E. The virtues and characteristics of written texts had been molded earlier by Alexandrian scholars between the third and first centuries B.C.E. Scholars and researchers hired by the Greek pharaoh Ptolemy I to fill his libraries were confronted with a high volume of scrolls. In order to cope, the scholars were forced to become critics (lit.: “choosers”) and to select, to emend, and to create exemplary texts fit to belong to the “first class,” or “classics.” Discussions always revolved around the Homeric texts; many scholars of the time wrote learned commentaries, now mostly lost. Textual fixity (i.e., unchangeability) turned into the norm, not the exception. Cicero (1st century B.C.E.), the famous Roman orator, argued that the Homeric poems were a collection put together by the Athenian statesman Peisistratus during the fifth century B.C.E. The 1st century C.E. Jewish author, Josephus, living in Rome, pointed out in his Against Apion (a famous Homer scholar) that the Homeric texts (the Iliad and Odyssey) probably were recorded quite recently: “[Homer’s] date…. is later than the Trojan war; and they say that even he did not leave his poems in writing. The scattered songs were at first transmitted by memory, and not united until later; the numerous inconsistencies of the work are attributable to this circumstance.” Josephus contrasted the famous epics with the Hebrew texts, whose origins were known to be very old (2,000 years, he claims), transmitted in writing from father to son. Josephus’s goal was to discredit the high esteem in which all things Greek were held by the Romans. He did not achieve this goal, but his (and Cicero’s) claim that the Homeric poems were a collection of fragments put together during the fifth century B.C.E. became part of common knowledge. There are numerous references to Homer in earlier Greek authors, but none state as clearly as Josephus that the poems must have been orally transmitted (although many modern scholars read this into these texts).
After the fall of the Roman Empire, the invasions of the Barbarians, and above all, the conquest of Christianity over paganism, the Homeric poems fell out of use in the West. The epics were copied and preserved in the East, in Byzantium. The Renaissance brought them back, but few people knew Greek, so their difference in style and content did not immediately strike readers. But during the late 17th century all that changed: scholars began to comment that the Homeric poems were very unlike the Latin ones with which they had grown up, and the “oral origins” of the poems once again came to the fore. The 18th-century Battle of the Ancients and the Moderns in France (which spread to all European intellectual centers) was provoked by some authors defending Homer and his style, whereas others believed him to be outmoded. A few generations later, the Romantic reaction allowed the poems back into polite society, but under a different banner: now, they were considered to be similar to the primitive poetry of the natural peoples whose lives and ways were just being discovered in the Americas, except, of course, that the Greek poems were more complex and lengthy. The final connection between “primitive and oral,” and “civilized and literate” had been made.
As in antiquity, classical scholarship and biblical scholarship remained closely connected: many scholars, afraid to work on the Bible, worked on Homer instead. Methodologies and interpretations were borrowed; for instance, the arguments made by Spinoza in his Tractatus Theologico-Politicus (1670) about the interpretation of biblical texts are echoed in the 18th by Gianbattista Vico, whose oeuvre, La Scienza Nuova Segunda (1744), examined the Homeric texts for similar information and conclusions about human societies and their relationship to the divine. In the second half of the 18th century, a German biblical scholar, Johann Eichhorn, worked on the text of the Old Testament, separating out the “original” sayings of the prophets and their meaning and purpose from what he believed to have been added at a later date. His methodology, “higher criticism” combined with exacting philological analysis, was borrowed by Friedrich August Wolf, a German Homerist who carefully (in Latin) in his Prolegomena ad Homerum (1795) laid out all the “evidence” from the ancient texts to prove that Homer was an oral poet. During the 19th century, more evidence about orality was gathered from the new worlds and populations. Each new population provided more evidence that “the illiterate sang” whereas the literate and civilized composed in writing. Meanwhile, Homerists spent their time eliminating verses and stories that they assumed to have been added to the epics at a later date. Very quickly, “literate” and “civilized” always came to mean alphabetic literacy and Western civilization. Homer, however, was never fully labeled as primitive; he remained a genius, the ancestor of Western literature, equal to the prophets of the Bible.
When, during the last half of the 19th century, anthropology slowly established itself as an independent and separate discipline, assumptions about orality and literacy were not reconsidered or recalibrated, possibly because they were so deeply ingrained in the worldview and belief system of the time. In addition, many of the early anthropologists had received a classical education and had internalized Greek and Roman classificatory systems and concepts.
During the 1920s and 1930s, orality and the oral origins of Homer once again were brought to the attention of scholars. Again, the impulse came from classics. An American classicist, Milman Parry, moved to France to obtain his Ph.D. In Paris he came into contact with the structuralist scholarship of Saussure, with its emphasis on spoken language. He similarly was influenced by the work of Levy-Bruhl and his studies of the primitive mind. One of his mentors put him in contact with a Yugoslav scholar, Matthias Murko, a professor of linguistics at the University of Prague and a member of Jakobson’s Linguistic circle. After his return to the U.S., Parry proceeded to compare the style of the oral performances of Yugoslav illiterate performers with that of the Homeric poems. The use of formulas, themes, meter, and so on appeared to confirm the earlier hypotheses that Homer’s poems were oral poems. The oral characteristics, Parry argued, had been preserved by a recording in writing shortly after their (oral) composition by a master singer (Homer?). It was generally believed that oral characteristics would be lost after the arrival of literacy, an event thought to have occurred in Greece between 800 and 750 B.C.E. The comparison of ancient Greek poetry of uncertain provenance with the productions of illiterate performers of early 20th-century Yugoslavia was grounded in the evolutionist belief that human societies move through different phases, and in the unity of the human mind: pre-literates function in one way, literates function in another. It is thus that ideas stemming from antiquity received a modern blessing and confirmation. Initially, the Parry/Lord hypothesis seemed to solve many conundrums, such as the origins of the Chansons de Geste, or poems such as Beowulf, all created during the early Middle Ages, when writing was a skill limited to clerics and some bureaucrats.
Increasingly, however, it is becoming clear that the verbal art of other (non-Western) peoples cannot be made to fit into an “oral theory” derived from two millennia of Homeric and Biblical scholarship. The most telling counterexamples come from areas such as India and Southeast Asia, where literacy has coexisted for a long time with oral improvised performance. The advent of literacy does not seem to have affected the “orality” of the millennia-old epics, the Ramayana and Mahabharata, which continue to flourish and expand, both in written and in oral forms, while textual fixity is nonexistent for either poem. To accommodate such cases, anthropologists have attempted to represent orality and literacy as points on a continuum rather than opposites, but even with such adjustments, the underlying evolutionist line of reasoning still seems to suggest that the oral mind works one way, and the literate in another, and that all oral works eventually will achieve fixity due to their being written down. Anthropologists working in oral societies (i.e., where alphabetic writing is slowly introduced, usually by Christian missionaries) report a different set of problems, whereas scholars in South and Central America, where indigenous writing systems were systematically destroyed by the Catholic missionaries during the 16th and 17th centuries, present another. The oral performances of Native Americans as well as those of African singers are also difficult to fit into the oral theory as currently defined.
- Blackburn, S. H., et al. (1989). Oral epics in India. Berkeley: University of California Press.
- Finnegan, R. (1992). Oral poetry: Its nature, significance and social context. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
- Scribner, S., & Cole, M. (1981). The psychology of literacy. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
- Street, B. (1993). Cross-cultural approaches to literacy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.