Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 1999.05.07

E. Anne Mackay (ed.), Signs of Orality. The Oral Tradition and its Influence in the Greek and Roman World.   Leiden:  Brill, 1999.  Pp. x, 261.  ISBN 90-04-11273-1.  $85.50.  

Reviewed by Bruce Louden (
Word count: 4637 words


Miles Foley, Egbert J. Bakker, Elizabeth Minchin, Stephen A. Nimis, Ruth Scodel, Wolfgang Kullmann, E. Anne Mackay, Deirdre Harrison, Samantha Masters, Niall W. Slater, Michael Gagarin, Harold Tarrant, Merritt Sale, Elaine Fantham

This collection features revised versions of works presented at a conference entitled Epos and Logos, at the University of Natal, Durban, South Africa in July 1996. While all deal with various aspects of orality in the classical world, half of the papers address Homeric concerns, the other half exploring a gamut of topics ranging from vase painting to Greek oratory, from Virgil's formularity to types of orality in Pliny. Among this variety of topics, more specific concerns, such as ring-composition, thematically link various articles. Taken as a whole the diversity of topics addressed and techniques employed emphasizes, as Foley (whose contribution both serves as a general assessment of the current state of the field and introduces each paper) notes, the originality and sophistication of more recent developments in studies of orality.

Foley's "What's in a Sign?" describes the paradigm shift that has taken place since oversimplifications in the Parry-Lord South Slavic model became evident. The very term "oral" has proven more elusive than once thought. Recent studies show that cultures are not either oral or literate, but that performers and audiences employ a spectrum of communicative strategies, some associated more with performance, some with texts. Commentators are thus now more sensitive to differences between one culture and another, realizing that no one model can be generalized to account for all other traditions. The Parry-Lord South Slavic model, based solely on Moslem epic, cannot be used to gauge every other culture's products.

Foley thus argues that we need to fashion a poetics that matches the actual variegated complexity of the various oral traditions. For Foley such a poetics is rooted in increased attention paid to tradition in particular. A better awareness of the specific tradition which produced a particular performance is paramount because tradition "bypasses the work's external appearance ... and speaks directly to the fundamental rules that govern its composition and reception ... the idiomatic value of formulae, typical scenes, and story-patterns; the shared sense of implied meaning that serves as the basis for exchange" (14). With better awareness of a specific tradition, a formulaic phrase such as "swift-footed Achilleus" becomes a key that unlocks traditional realities and serves as an index to the tradition. "Swift-footed Achilleus ... summons the whole of the named figure to centre-stage ... the tradition at large" (7), and, if so understood, removes anxiety over the situational suitability of some of their occurrences.

Foley then offers five working proverbs, a tentative basis for a more flexible oral poetics, and proceeds to view the other contributors' offerings through them. His proverbs include recognizing that an oral tradition works like a language, and "Artis causa, not metri causa", addressing a further limitation of the original Parry-Lord model, which too often privileged form over meaning. If one has not kept up with Foley's later books, his essay here serves as a convenient short-form introduction to his recent works.

Bakker's "How Oral is Oral Composition?", also demonstrates that our model of orality needs adjusting. Noting that the idea of orality is itself rooted in literate media, which comes with its own set of associations and mentality based in literacy, Bakker would have us instead conceive of two parallel continua, allowing for a sliding scale of oral and literate features found in a given work,

conception: oral < > literate
medium: transcription < > composition
By "oral", he argues, we really mean the conception underlying a discourse, more than the ultimate form it may take or receive as a text. Hence we can more profitably oppose "oral" not to "written" but to "literate." Most discourses, in fact, display both oral and literate features, and can be positioned, then, at various positions left to right on his continuum. In terms of the medium in which a discourse is captured we can again envision a continuum whose extremes are marked from left to right by transcription and composition. Thus, as orality is itself a gradient quality, not a simple either/or dichotomy, so is writing.

Proceeding to revisit Lord in terms of these distinctions, Bakker finds that Lord's notion of "oral composition" can be seen as a conflation of the two extremes of his own two continua, a perspective rooted in the medium in which a discourse is captured, rather than taking into account the conception which governed its composition. Bakker then argues that contemporary Homerists, due to Lord's theories, often stake out opposing positions, oralists at one end, and those treating Homeric epic solely as text at the other, positions which are themselves "anachronistic and ill-taken ... both positions ask the wrong questions and seek the wrong answers" (35). Arguing that writing may well have played some role in the epics as we have them, he suggests, however, that "this writing was far removed indeed from writing in our sense of written composition, and has to be situated at the left-hand extreme of the scale mentioned above ... that writing in the Greek archaic period must have been so different from our notion of writing, so oral, in fact, that the simple dichotomy between orality and literacy breaks down" (36).

Bakker would reorient our focus, then, away from other concepts also rooted in a written, literate, conception of language, including the idea of sentence as the basic unit. Instead he argues for what linguists call the intonation unit as of direct relevance for the study of spoken discourse. Usually four to seven words long, and a complete syntactic unit, an intonation unit of ordinary speech, suggests Bakker, becomes the metrical unit of that special, enhanced poetic speech which is Homeric epic. Since Homeric epic is a text whose conception lies in being performed, the intonation unit offers us a means to investigate certain of its effects without imposing a literacy bias. He proceeds to analyze Iliad 6.390-403 breaking it up into intonation units, and observing enjambment from this perspective, rather than in the usual hexametric lines in a text. As with Foley's contribution, Bakker's can serve as a succinct introduction for those who have not kept up with his recent work.

Minchin's "Describing and Narrating in Homer's Iliad" analyzes the twenty some occasions, rarely more than eight lines in length, in which the narrator lingers over the description of a particular item. Discerning a five-item "description format" underlying most passages, she argues that, instead of seeing them as digressive, the poet thereby alerts his audience to a significant event associated with the item described, providing a moment of narrative cohesion. The descriptions prolong a dramatic moment and imply the significance of those scenes in which they occur. By better following the techniques employed in such descriptions we increase our understanding of the devices an improvising oral poet employs to engage his audience and make his story more effective.

The five-term description format are: 1. a summary description of the object, which often declares its beauty, 2. the material or workmanship of the item is then noted, 3. one remarkable feature of the item is distinguished as exceptional, 4. reference is made to its size, weight, or capacity, and 5. a history of the item. The history element can serve a dual function, telling more about the item's owner, or more about the situation in which he now finds himself. Minchin compiles a table (pp. 54-5) which delineates these five features in the 21 description passages found in the poem.

She concludes with an analysis of how the description of Achilleus' shield largely conforms to the five-item format but violates it through its extreme length, transgressing the usual economy expected in descriptions in oral poetry. What emerges as most unique against the established pattern is the account of the images worked onto the shield, which is at times descriptive, at other times narrative. Minchin argues that a poet working in an oral tradition is more at home in narrative, hence the occasional reversion in this exceptional description. She further suggests that the shield passage serves as an occasion for the poet's self-promotion, highlighting certain of his particular skills.

Nimis' "Ring-composition and Linearity in Homer" interprets ring-composition as based in the dynamic process of oral composition, as opposed to Keith Stanley's recent study of the Iliad which concludes the structures are evidence of a literacy-based style of composition (The Shield of Achilles). The model which Nimis then constructs, influenced by discourse analysis, seeks to explore ring-like patterns more as signs of the poet's habits of performance, rather than of what he means. Like Bakker, Nimis is primarily interested in viewing Homeric composition as a special form of speech rather than as a fixed literary text.

Where Stanley sees evidence of careful composition typical of a literate conception, Nimis instead sees symmetry naturally resulting from the performing poet's interaction with his audience. Nimis notes that discourse analysts, when analyzing stories embedded within larger narratives, classify initial stages as "involvement," a means by which speakers ensure their story gets a hearing, and similarly, classify the means by which the end of an embedded story will have an exit. Transitional entrances and exits thus naturally lead to ring-like structures, argues Nimis, which do not serve to focus attention on a central element but rather serve to clarify the links between successive textual units. The resulting symmetry is thus a byproduct of the manner in which units are integrated into the overall flow of a discourse rather than evidence of intricate artistic design.

Nimis applies his approach to several passages in the Iliad to demonstrate new interpretations thereby obtained. He suggests that several passages, of which 5.335-42 is representative, may be seen as instances of Homer correcting a mistake. Similarly for 2.761-70, he argues that Homer "stages" a self-correction in order to assert with greater drama that Achilles is the best of the Achaians. He closes with a sustained structural analysis of Book 8, opposed to Stanley's analysis of the same in Shield, reiterating that the symmetries do not serve to focus attention on a central element but are a secondary effect of the way the flow of discourse is interrupted to restate or reemphasize something.

Scodel's "Odysseus' Evasiveness and the Audience of the Odyssey" considers the narrative problem of why Odysseus goes to such great lengths to avoid disclosing his identity on Skheria. Arguing that his evasion is unmotivated to a degree unusual for the poem, Scodel first notes that similar behavior is motivated on Ithaka. Since oral narratives sometimes privilege theme over internal motivation, she briefly raises the possibility that the extensive thematic parallels between the situations on Ithaka and Skheria offer an explanation.

However, she is more interested in exploring realism or verisimilitude as factors, as well as the Homeric narrator's occasional preference for avoiding leading his audience along the more predictable path. The narrator creates several false expectations in the audience in this section, not only in Odysseus' evasion, but in Arete's surprising failure to answer his initial supplication. A further factor she explores is to what extent the poet relies on his audience's prior familiarity with the story.

Briefly reviewing explanations posited by previous scholars, including the suggestion that Odyssey fears his actual account would not be believed (!), Scodel notes that the Polyphemos episode offers reason for Odysseus to be cautious about his name. Central to her argument is the role prophecy plays in the poem. In his encounters not only with Polyphemos but also with Kirke Odysseus finds them in possession of prophecies predicting his arrival, but in each case they are unable to act on the prophecies until they encounter him. As the same motifs now enfold on Skheria, since they, too, possess an ancient prophecy which, though not naming Odysseus, applies to him, Scodel thus locates Odysseus' evasion: he is anxious about possible prophecies they may have about him.

Kullmann's "Homer and Historical Memory" attempts to classify and quantify how much of the information in the Iliad is historical. Distinguishing first between communicative memory (family traditions) and historical consciousness (awareness of relics and artifacts and written traditions), Kullmann argues that its historical core should be regarded as relatively small. Subscribing to the principle of homeostasis, which asserts that "in an oral society the tradition is always adjusted and assimilated to the conditions of the present by eliminating everything that is no longer relevant" (98), Kullmann argues that the historical memory underlying the poem does not go back much farther than 80 years.

As early Greek epic is fixated largely upon the Mycenaean period, much of its content is based on historical consciousness of the ruins of the palaces of Mycenae and Troy. Compiling various anachronisms, including the absence of most of the towns of Asia Minor from the Book 2 catalogue (which suggests awareness that Aeolians and Ionians immigrated to Asia only after the Trojan War) and the mention of the Heracleidae (taken as a reminiscence of the Dorian migration), which took place long after the destruction of the palaces at Mycenae, Tiryns and Pylos, Kullmann argues that the principle of homeostasis is valid for all secondary features of the poem. Finding occasional motifs in common with those in the Old Testament, he concludes that their presence reflects contact between the cultures dating from the time that the alphabet was taken over from the Phoenicians.

He further analyzes gaps between the poem's depictions and the historical record in additional respects, arguing that many of the poem's dominant portrayals are based on the situations of the poet's own time, projected into the past. These include the poet's sympathy with the nobility, which must, argues Kullmann, be based on the aristocrats of his own area. The loose coalition and occasional panhellenism depicted in the poem corresponds to the political situation of the poet's own time. The individualism of the Greek leaders is a further instance of the same tendency, as it conforms more closely to the striving for independence characteristic of the Greek nobility of the archaic period. He concludes by suggesting the poem's historical consciousness is rooted in three areas: 1. extrapolations based on visible ruins at Mycenae, Tiryns, and elsewhere, 2. speculations by Aeolian settlers in Asia Minor concerning the decline of Troy, and 3. memories of events of the recent past projected back into the time of the ruins. Consequently, the poem is neither fictional nor wholly invented, but extrapolated from relatively few remains.

"The Bystander at the Ringside. Ring-composition in Early Greek Poetry and Vase-Painting," by Mackay, Harrison, and Masters, argues that exploring common ground between poetic ring-composition and certain structural devices in early Greek art has the potential to inform both fields. Since symmetry and repetition are pervasive principles in art from the geometric through the archaic periods, analysis both of the arrangement of bands of motifs on monumental geometric vases, and of the motifs within a field, reveals patterns that can be seen as visual versions of ring-composition. A centrally-placed dominant motif is framed by matched pairs of subsidiary motifs.

Having first demonstrated extensive ring-compositional organization on a vase by Sophilos, and on the François vase, they select the products of the Athenian black-figure workshop known as Group E as a corpus of vases ideal for their inquiry. Their analysis suggests that the vase-painters, as oral Greek poets, thought in terms of basic theme-units, and often featured a central figure or figures, which could be elaborated by being bracketed or enclosed by pairs of other figures who are normally inward-facing, the most common pattern being A-B-C-B-A. These ring structures occasionally reveal careful manipulation of depth, as in the three planes evident in the Vatican amphora of the Dioskouroi.

The authors imply further parallels between development and innovation in oral poetry and vase-painting. Focusing on the palinopt figure, a marginal character who is earlier a standard bystander in scenes, they explore how the Painter of the Vatican Mourner recognizes the potential for conveying additional meaning by having the palinopt glance back over his shoulder as he is depicted walking out of the scene. Though he appears to be leaving the scene, he also connects it with the scene depicted on the other side. As they note, "Where development does occur in a traditional context, it generally takes the form of adaptation of existing elements to serve new purposes" (130). Further development of the palinopt's potential is seen in how it may be used to suggest the passage of time, to lead from past to future events. Somewhat as a Homer builds upon his inherited tradition, the best vase-painters seem to regard the traditional patterns they receive as a basis on which to build more sophisticated patterns that provoke their audiences into more complex perceptions and interpretations of their works.

Slater's "The Vase as Ventriloquist. Kalos-inscriptions and the Culture of Fame" argues that kalos-inscriptions, usually taken as personal declarations about the beauty or sexual attractiveness of the individual named, should be considered in terms of the types of audience and performance arena their existence implies. Somewhat as Bakker does, Slater argues that in a society where writing is a new phenomenon within a predominantly oral culture, the mechanics and process of readings operate quite differently from the ways in which we experience them today. He asserts that the inscriptions function primarily as scripts and occasions for performance at symposia, at which the honorand's fame is created and circulated.

He distinguishes them from other ancient inscriptions such as wall grafitti, naming labels, signatures, or dialogue represented on vases. Kalos-inscriptions differ since they are not attached to any particular figure on the vase, and lack a labeling or ownership function. Who then are the authors of the inscriptions? Third parties are an intended part of the audience, since the author clearly wishes his erotic pursuit to be known.

Noting two Aristophanic contexts in which kalos-inscriptions figure, Slater deduces that they typically take part in anonymous public debate of a sort. As such, it may be wrong to assume they need have an identifiable author. If, as in the case of funerary inscriptions, they function as scripts for performance, perhaps they are better understood as intended to perpetuate the name and fame of the honorand. If so, the symposion is the likeliest occasion for performance and perhaps for discussion of this "script." By putting words before the eyes of symposiasts and others who will pronounce them out loud and discuss them, the vase functions as a ventriloquist. Furthermore, some inscriptions could perhaps function as an opposite to ostracism, an attempt to create good will and admiration among the city's elite, for the rising scions of politically ambitious and prominent families at the end of the archaic period. A deliberate campaign to spread the name of a member of a patron's family might well explain the association of certain kalos-names with whole workshops of vase painters.

Gagarin's "The Orality of Greek Oratory" focuses on the orality of prose, which was often performed orally even if composed and transmitted with the aid of writing. Analysis of performance features of oral style suggests considerable differences between oratory written to be read and that written to be performed orally, especially in forensic oratory. Gagarin further suggests that oral debate and argument play larger roles in Athenian law than in other comparable legal systems.

The earliest speeches written down, those of Gorgias, and other sophists and logographers, were intended primarily for oral performance, which Gagarin terms "oral style." Aristotle's Rhetoric (3.12.2) delineates an agonistic style as hypokritikotate, or "most aimed at delivery" and less at precision, whereas precision is associated with speeches having more association with writing. Gagarin compares Gorgias' Helen and Antiphon's Second Tetralogy as both argue similar legal points but embody the two different styles. As features of oral style in the Helen Gagarin identifies "signposts, ring-composition, parallelism, parataxis, relatively simplified sentence structure, and, of course, the notorious Gorgianic verbal effects" (168). Antiphon, by contrast, proceeds largely without these features, using more complex syntax, more generalization and analysis, longer antitheses, sentences with an average of 30% more words, extreme hyperbaton, and avoids Gorgianic verbal effects, which Gagarin regards as developed in an oral context for an oral performance. As oral cultures tend to preserve traditional ways of thinking, Gorgias' argument is not new, whereas Antiphon's is fundamentally novel, blaming the victim.

Even more revealing is Gagarin's subsequent contrast between Antiphon's own court speeches and the Tetralogies. Though lacking some features of Helen, the nature of their arguments is closer to it than to the Tetralogy, using more signposts, more paratactic style, more normal word order, and somewhat shorter sentences. Instead of aiming at precision, their arguments and main strategy, designed to meet the needs of an oral performance, feature negative repetitions, and present a vivid narrative together with repeated suggestions of family loyalty. Lastly, Gagarin classifies oral and written characteristics of Athenian law. Aristotle classifies basanos with laws, contracts, oaths, and (free) witnesses as pre-existing, used, but not invented by the speaker. In contrast, the speaker himself creates his arguments, his portrayal of character, and his appeal to the audience. This second group, never subjected to objective proof, are indicative of a culture that remains broadly oral.

Tarrant's "Dialogue and Orality in a Post-Platonic Age" argues that the dialogue in antiquity should be understood in terms of changing oral practices with regard to story-telling. Tarrant posits a progression in Plato, who first delivered his Socratic stories as largely mimetic narratives, based on real-life imitation, but after expelling mimetic poets from the ideal state, presents the ideal teacher with ideal participants in a philosophic conversation. Nonetheless, argues Tarrant, there remained a link between the late dialogues and the actual discourse that took place in the Academy, and the narrated dialogue continues to provide a text for performance before an audience.

There is evidence in Plutarch that much of what he wrote in dialogue form was modeled on types of oral learned activity, from after-dinner discussion and entertaining narratives to the more serious philosophic debates. Travelers' tales formed the basis of an oral genre during this period. More challenging is the status of stories that virtually constitute a whole work, narrative of learned conversation interspersed with a certain amount of action. Plutarch's dialogic works thus emerge out of an intellectual background where the telling of long and detailed stories was routine, and in the dialogues of highest quality Plutarch models himself less on classic examples than on ordinary practice in the intellectual circles he belonged to. In effect Plutarch uses writing to refine story-telling, permitting a level of detail otherwise difficult to achieve.

In Lucian dialogue emerges from a background culture of story-telling and, for the most part, concludes in an orally-delivered performance. Where the emphasis within the story falls on the spoken words of others rather than a series of deeds, a dialogue-frame is a natural choice. This points to the prevalence among the learned of stories about great conversations on great occasions. While the comic dialogue was clearly something of a Lucianic invention, it emerged as part of the repertoire of one who was originally a rhetorical performer. Lucian himself sometimes delivered a carefully prepared story in the theater as an alternative to set speeches or dramatic sketches. He is an experimenter with both the written and the spoken word, untied by previous performance conventions. From the point of view of performance, Lucian is a rhetor whose story-telling and theatrical abilities led him beyond oratory to the telling of tales and the acting of imaginary scenes. While remaining indebted to Plato's more literary dialogues, his talks are more mimetic, depicting persons of their own era conversing in a manner typical of that era. The capturing of shades of character in both text and oral delivery was a goal that those with literary ambitions strove to achieve.

Sale's "Virgil's Formularity and Pius Aeneas" argues that while Virgil is not an oral poet, he is a formulaic poet. Most of Virgil's formulas echo Homer's style but not his content. Virgil uses them, suggests Sale, not so much to imitate Homer as to tell the essential and traditional truths that formulas were thought to convey (a notion dating from Aristarchus of Samothrace).

Though some aspects of Virgil's formulaic economy are unhomeric (many different formulas have the same metre and syntax, some violating metrical economy), he does employ them with considerable consistency in other respects. Sale classifies many of Virgil's formulas as Multi-purposed Formulae, context-free expressions such as (et) pius Aeneas, employable wherever syntax and meter permit. Other categories include noun phrases (toto ... corpore), generic (magnanimus), and various types of "Hainsworth-alterations." Virgil tends to have far fewer occurrences of his specific formulas, though the total number of formulas actually surpasses that of the Odyssey (2296 to 2238). Virgil thus displays considerable mastery of Homeric formulaic technique. In some respects Virgil's selectivity reveals his most intriguing extensions of formulaic approaches. For instance, Turnus and Venus lack multi-purposed formulas, since Virgil "disowns the formulaic when formulae run the risk of affirming the value of romantic love and individual heroism, ideals inconsistent with the melancholy but necessary triumph of the pax Romana" (200).

Virgil's intention in being formulaic, argues Sale, is to sound traditional rather than individual. Since his subject-matter is mostly different from Homer's, his traditional-sounding formulas help construct a Virgil who has the same authoritative command over his subject matter, a teller of timeless truths for his heroes, as Homer is for his. He concludes with well-analyzed instances of infelix Dido and pius Aeneas.

Fantham's "Two Levels of Orality in the Genesis of Pliny's Panegyricus" places the work in the context of the new forms of oral performance developing in Rome. Improvised declamation became the main form of rhetorical training in the Augustan age. Typically a declaimer constructed a speech of persuasion for a historical character in a crisis or argued the defense of imaginary clients caught in some lurid crime. Consequently, a greater, if different, stress on orality comes into being.

In this milieu, Pliny, though not the first consul to give thanks to Trajan, began a new genre, converting what was a mere formality into something more, evidencing his concern both for the occasion of oral performance and the role played by oral utterance. He addresses and solves a number of problems through his use of formal ritual language (which constitutes the solemnity of the speech), and by so doing, restores meaning to courtly cliché. Each time Pliny mentions an act by Trajan, he marks it by recalling public speech, repeating formulaic ritual utterances in antiphony between the Emperor-Consul and Senate. He repeats oaths sworn by the Emperor to uphold the law with the gods as his witness. Since his entire audience had taken part in the ceremonies he now commemorates, through this reliving of the occasions Pliny prescriptively reinterprets them to put moral pressure on both the Emperor, by providing an example through which future Emperors would learn a path to glory, and on the Senate itself.

Pliny's focus on formulaic oral utterance allows him to restore faith and meaning to oaths meaninglessly mouthed to Domitian. The cumulative reiteration of formulaic oaths to the gods still carries a solemnity capable of overriding their past abuse when used in swearing loyalty to bad Emperors. Fantham concludes, "This transformation of a simple act of thanks into a lasting eulogy has also taken the fixed oral formulae of government and elevated them into quasi-biblical texts on which Pliny erects his sermon -- a sermon first delivered, then given recitation, then finally embalmed as a model text that would have many descendants" (237).

If one hasn't followed recent developments in oral theory as applied to the classical era, this handy collection will bring you up to date on much of the wide variety of current activity. The volume is quite intriguing in its considerable breadth and diversity, a partial microcosm of much of our profession.

Read Latest
Index for 1999
Change Greek Display
Books Available for Review

HTML generated at 13:26:20, Friday, 03 April 2009