Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2002.07.09

Jan Helldén, Minna Skafte Jensen, Thomas Pettitt (ed.), Inclinate Aurem. Oral Perspectives on Early European Verbal Culture.   Odense:  Odense Universitetsforlag, 2001.  Pp. 280.  ISBN 87-7838-680-2.  DKK 250.00.  

Contributors: Thomas Pettitt, Jan Helldén, Gregory Nagy, John Miles Foley, Lars Lönnroth, Ninna Jørgensen, Ann Moss, Kirsten Thisted, Karl Reichl, Henrik Lassen.

Reviewed by Reyes Bertolin, University of Calgary (
Word count: 2278 words

This volume comprises an introduction and nine papers presented at the international symposium on oral perspectives hosted by Odense University's Centre for Medieval Studies (12-13 Nov., 1998). There are three papers on Homer, four on the Middle Ages and early Renaissance, one on nineteenth century Inuit, and one on contemporary legends. The mixture of different approaches and material provides a very interesting debate on the coexistence of oral and written traditions. This coexistence is stressed in the introduction by Thomas Pettitt, who is also in charge of the edition. Pettitt explores the introduction of writing from a communicative perspective. Writing made verbal communication indirect and so eliminated the imbalance between oral and visual communication. Visual communication, predating the transformation of speech into visual signs, could be direct or indirect as a system of signs, for instance signs inscribed on a body or the landscape. In early cultures writing was conceived as a supplement to speech since it still necessitated a surrogate speaker to read aloud to the recipients who were listeners. Pettitt discusses how already in the Old Testament texts moved back and forth from oral to written transmission and exemplifies this in the books of Jeremiah, Ezekiel and Psalms. We can find there examples of the verbal origin of the communication process ("God said"), its textualization (the message was written down), de-textualization (the text was destroyed), and retextualization (the text was reconstructed from memory). Pettitt also alludes to the present debate on the poetics of oral and written texts.

The first essay, by Jan Helldén, "The Homeric Epics: Collective Memory or Collective Fantasy," starts with the question about oral and written poetics. Helldén contests that the shift from oral to written was parallel to the shift from truth to fiction. According to this author, fiction is not a consequence of writing. In order to support this claim he distinguishes between function and referentiality of the texts. In a society that possesses writing literature does not have to be fixed as the depository of collective memory; it can be freed to create and keep the collective fantasy. Although the function of oral literature is to preserve society's knowledge, this does not mean that oral literature cannot be fictional as well. That is why the concept of referentiality is important. The fact that there were different versions of texts and both the poets and the audience were aware of them illustrates how not all literature was necessarily conceived as referring to the "real world." If all the poets claimed that they were telling the truth, but they told different versions, someone must have been lying. In consequence, we cannot measure truth in the epic as an absolute value, but as depending on personal ability and credibility. Helldén proposes the existence of markers of truth and fiction that only the audience that was in the tradition could completely understand, and he makes clear that the Homeric epic were regarded partly as collective memory and partly as collective fantasy. This first paper presents the European and North-American oralist debates in a very productive dialectic. It is very much worth reading.

The second essay is Gregory Nagy's "Textualizing Homer." Nagy analyses the concept of humnos in Homeric poetry. Since humnos is related to huphaino "weave," he argues that humnos is also a metaphor for the art of the rhapsoidos "he who sews together the songs." Nagy finds parallels in other languages that developed the metaphor of weaving as the creation of poetry. For instance the word "text" comes from Latin textus, the participle of texere "to weave." Also in French the word for plot "trame" refers to the horizontal weft. But in order to have the plot developed it is necessary to have first a framework and a vertical warp. It is here that Nagy sees the concept of arkhe "beginning" as the "absolutizing point of departure" of a song (humnos) and as matter of authority. Nagy also connects the performance of the Homeric texts at the Panathenaia with the offering of the peplos to Athena "as if the entire corpus of Homeric poetry were the notional equivalent of a single continuous -- and gigantic -- humnos performed for the goddess Athena."

John Miles Foley's "Reading Between the Signs" is divided in three parts. The essay is a summary of his book Homer's Traditional Art, Pennsylvania 1999. This summary has the virtues and inconveniences of all summaries. Whereas conciseness is not so desirable when explaining Foley's theoretical concepts about how oral literature works, it is very much welcome in the two last parts of his article. The book gives a much more clear explanation of these concepts than the article, so I just give the headings for these concepts.

1) oral tradition works like language, only more so.

2) performance is the enabling event, tradition the enabling referent.

3) composition and reception are two sides of the same coin.

4) Artis causa, not metri causa.

5) Read both behind and between the signs.

6) instance meshes with implication.

The second part discusses the concept of sign and traditional referentiality in Homer, which for me is an expansion of the concept of kenning. Whereas a kenning works at the level of phrases, the sema is not limited to it and can work at the level of tradition. Foley explains the concept of sema, understood as a "key to an otherwise hidden reality." Semata "are always replete with significance, but become transparent only when one fluently understands their language." According to Foley, the sign finds its true meaning in traditional referentiality and that is why the sema makes full sense only to the properly prepared audience, hence it works as a kenning. The third part demonstrates practically the concept of sign in the analysis of the Anglo-Saxon poem Deor. This analysis is a good bridge to the medieval part of the book.

The next essay is Lars Lönnroth's "Heroine in grief: The Old Norse Development of a Germanic Theme." Poems of a woman lamenting the death of one of her relatives are common in the Old Norse tradition. The lament is a lyrical monologue in which the speaker expresses her loss, desolation and grief. Lönnroth analyses the First Lay of Gudrun and discovers here a mixture of traditional Old Norse and newer Christian elements. This combination is very important in the debate of the origins of the so-called Eddic elegies, which exist side by side with action-oriented poems about masculine acts of warfare. The traditional view, according to Heusler, proposes that there is an evolution from these male epic songs to the female lyrical songs through a stage of dialogic songs. Other theories explain the female songs as a later product for a female audience. But Lönnroth does not find any evidence for these two theories. He believes that the female lament is as old as the male "epic", since the lament is usually meant to spur the revenge against the person responsible for the death. The coexistence of "early" and "late" elements is to be seen as the result of changes in the transmission. This is a really interesting paper for all those interested in the female poetry and should be kept in mind by all Classicists pursuing interdisciplinary approaches on the topic.

Ninna Jørgensen's "Learning the Basic Word: Religious Instruction in the Late Middle Ages" discusses the causes and consequences of the expansion in the religious instruction in Europe around the middle of the 13th century. Christianity was taught orally through the repetition aloud of the Ten Commandments, the Apostles' Creed and the Lord's Prayer. Besides these basic formulas that everybody was supposed to know, confronting the Albigensians and other heretics made it necessary to create manuals for priests. These manuals, in spite of being written, reflect mnemo-technical rules, because learning was conceived as oral acquisition of knowledge, something that is still reflected in the catechisms. Ordinary people were not taught to read or write but rather "led to a strengthening of the oral commitment to the essential formulas." Orality was strengthened against growing literacy. The liturgy was enhanced through the repetition of beliefs and prayers during the service as part of this strengthening of orality. Although the scope of this paper lies a bit far away for Classicists, perhaps the attitudes towards orality and literacy associated with religion could be kept in mind for a comparative study in the ancient world.

In "Saint Ann: Story and Rhetoric, Orality and Print," Moss analyses the narratives of Saint Ann at the beginning of the Renaissance in the northern European countries. These narratives belonged both to the popular devotions and language of the people and to the Latin language of the learned. The continuous shifting between vernacular and Latin, oral and written, medium of the narratives makes them specially suitable for measuring the orality in Latin language production of that date. The iconography represents Saint Ann not only reading, but also teaching her daughter, the Virgin Mary, how to read. On the other hand, Saint Ann was the object of many vernacular hymns, which were to be performed orally at her festival. The interchange between oral and written media was also manifested in the fact that Antonius Bostius in 1497 organised a poetic contest in which people participated through letters. Moss argues that overall the narratives of Saint Ann are an indicator of the degree of orality in a certain sector of the society (namely the literati) and the diverse use of written Latin as authoritative text and data base from which vernacular texts were generated. Again, the scope of this paper lies a bit far away for the Classicist, but it also invites for comparison and reflection and opens our eyes to how the non-Classicist deals with the rich late Latin production, which we often ignore.

The seventh article, "The Impact of writing on Stories Collected from Nineteenth-Century Inuit Traditions" by Kirsten Thisted, deals with early representations of oral tradition in Greenland. Nineteenth century missionaries were confronted with the task of developing an orthographic system for the Inuit language as well as trying to translate the Biblical concepts into a very different natural environment. In the mid-nineteenth century, Hinrich Rink carried out the first systematic collection of Greenlandic stories and printed them. The article raises the problem of the right informants, since many Europeans thought that the stories were already forgotten by that time. However, Rink discovered that the oral traditions were very much alive. One of Rink's informants, Aron from Kangeg, was an accomplished painter and storyteller. Rink thought of the oral and written medium as opposites and tried to change the texts so that they might be more interesting to the readers. He wanted action instead of the leisurely style of the oral stories, whose power lay in the special wording. Rink's collection shows the evolution of his relationship with his informant Aron, as well as Aron's development as a storyteller. Although we could characterize this paper as a case-study, it certainly raises questions about informants and the clash of a literate society that considers itself superior with an oral society. It also opens the issue of the transfer from the oral medium to the visual, which could be applied to the similar change that is occurring nowadays in our society.

Karl Reichl's "Medieval Perspectives on Turkic Oral Poetry" compares the Old-English and Turkic epic traditions. For him, it is important to include a comparative perspective in the interplay of orality and written transmission in cultures that are neither purely oral nor purely written. The Turkic epic presents stories about the singer's calling or training. Dreams or visions command the future singer to sing the heroes, but an apprenticeship is also necessary, where a pupil lives at the master's household and learns from him. In some Turkic traditions the transmission from teacher to pupil is seen in genealogical relationship. The degree of variation of a story across linguistic and traditional borders can be attributed to memorization and the influence of a written tradition. We have to abandon the idea of a generative stemma. The many variants can be attributed to oral as well as written processes. From this paper the Classicist can derive some important comparative points to study the figure of the Greek epic poet and the concept of poetic creation.

The last paper, "A Regenerative Approach to Oral Traditions of the Past? Modern Contemporary Legends and their Medieval and Ancient Counterparts" by Henrik Lassen, discusses how the modern "urban legends" have essential narrative structures that turn out to be surprisingly stable from a diachronic point of view. Contemporary stories are only contemporary in the sense that they have been re-equipped to fit our own time; however, they are traditional stories. Although only a few legends have been analysed to find their ancient and medieval ancestry, they reveal a passage from the numinous to the more rational. The opponents are not anymore the numinous antagonists, but people with a foreign ethnic background. The continuation of motives from an ancient oral tradition until today is well reflected in certain stories; this in turn reflects the stability of the structure versus the fleeting details that cover it.

This very diverse collection of essays is a good example of how beneficial interdisciplinarity can be. This interdisciplinarity is not only present in the content of some papers, but most importantly as a common achievement of the book, whose success should encourage all of us to venture out of our department and start a dialogue with our colleagues in other areas. We can only be specialists in one area, but as the book shows the open dialogue with other specialists will bring forth true interdisciplinarity.

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