1. The Nature and Kinds of Oral Literature

Epics, ballads, prose tales, ritual and lyric songs, as genres, existed orally before writing was invented. We do not have a special word to designate them before they were manifested in writing, so we are left with the paradox of "oral literature." But if literature can be defined as "carefully constructed verbal expression," carefully structured oral verbal expression can surely qualify as literature. This is common sense. People did not wait until there was writing before they told stories and sang songs. Moreover, when these genres first appeared in writing, their metric base, their poetic and compositional devices, were already fully developed and none of them could have been invented by any one person at any one time. They are too complicated for that. Oral literature, then, consists of the songs and stories, and other sayings, that people have heard and listened to, sung and told, without any intervention of writing. The creator or transmitter did not write the song or the story but sang or told it; the receiver did not read the song or story but heard it. These stories and songs are, therefore, not only oral but also aural; they are not only told, they are also heard.
Beginning with oral traditional epic, I should like to focus on the "performance," at the moment of performing in a traditional setting and with a traditional audience. The word traditional is important in the phrase oral traditional epic (or literature), implying, as it does, a depth of meaning set into that literature, from its origin, by previous generations. Text and context are inseparable. Without a sympathetic knowledge of context, the text may be misunderstood. Yet it is not sufficient to study performance and contextuality without an understanding of the tradition underlying them.
I prefer the term listeners instead of "audience," because "audience" seems {1|2} to imply a more formal type of event. I want to think of the place and times when a truly traditional singer ordinarily sings epic songs to traditional listeners in his community who ordinarily listen to his and others' singing of epic. [1] They have listened to him before, and he has sung for them since he first began to sing; some of them are also singers and he has listened to them; they know him and his songs and vice versa; they like to listen to him and he likes to sing to them. They form a small and intimate group; they are the ideal "traditional" group.
The circumstances will be different to some extent in each traditional culture, but speaking for the one that I know best, that of the Slavic Balkans, I would find one of the most normal places for singing to be the house in a small village where neighbors gather for an evening and sit and talk and listen to a singer. Epics are sung also at weddings and to help celebrate the Slava, the family feast for its patron saint. Another informal setting is the coffeehouse in Moslem communities, where men gather, especially during Ramadan, and listen, after a day of fasting, to epic songs that may continue for a whole night. The singers and the listeners are all "insiders"; that is, they are part of the same tradition.
Perhaps these settings do not seem at first to fit the ancient Greek case. We learn in Homer of the singing of epic in the court of a king. One thinks of Demodocus in Alcinous's palace in Phaeacia or Phemius, who sang for the suitors in Ithaca. [2] There is also Achilles, keeping apart in his tent before Troy, singing of the κλέα ἀνδρῶν, "the famous deeds of heroes." [3] Yet I see no reason why what I have said about traditional performer and traditional audience cannot apply just as well to the singer in a small king's court as to the singer in a neighborhood gathering. The kingdoms in ancient Greece were small, the number of listeners surely not very great.
Exceptions were occasions like the Ionian festival mentioned in the Homeric Hymn to Apollo, at which the maidens "sing a strain telling of men {2|3} and women of past days, and charm the tribes of men." The singer says then, of himself, words that have become famous:
Remember me in after time whenever any one of men on earth, a stranger who has seen and suffered much, comes here and asks of you: "Whom think ye, girls, is the sweetest singer that comes here, and in whom do you most delight?" Then answer, each and all, with one voice: "He is a blind man, and dwells in rocky Chios: his lays are evermore supreme." As for me, I will carry your renown as far as I roam over the earth to the well-placed cities of man, and they will believe also; for indeed this thing is true. [4]
It is important that the traditional group was generally homogeneous. [5] The kings and princes and those who gathered in the court formed the community; the singers and their listeners shared knowledge and had the same sense of values. They shared stories and myths. In short, they shared the tradition.
Let me explain what I mean by "tradition" in respect to epic song. For any individual singer the tradition consists of all the performances of all the songs of all the singers he has ever heard. All the singers encompasses the worst, the best, and all in between. Homer was the best of the traditional singers of whom we know in ancient Greece. He was not outside the tradition or "making use of the tradition"; he was part of it, in it. A tradition is dynamic and ongoing. It lasts as long as there are singers and listeners.
The singing of epic songs is very ancient. It is clear that it began before writing was invented. The ancient Greek tradition was very highly developed by Homer's time. Though traditions start in the distant past and retain the strength of their roots, they are not of the past, until there are no longer any truly traditional singers and listeners. Traditions are subject to change: the reforming of old stories, the telling of new ones that may seem much like the old. A really living tradition has no need of "preservation" because it is always being preserved with every truly traditional performance by a truly traditional singer.
There are several categories of traditionality, that is, of elements that may persist over generations. I suggest five aspects of oral tradition, which I shall first enumerate, later returning to enlarge upon the second, third, and fifth categories, which call for special emphasis.
First, the practice of storytelling itself, be it in prose or verse, be it spoken, {3|4} sung, or chanted, and of singing songs of various kinds, can be traditional. This means that for generations in a given community or culture people have found a time, a place, and an audience for such a practice. Telling or singing has long had a place in their social behavior patterns. Laments, for example, are sung or chanted as part of the rituals practiced at times of death, and this custom has been kept since time immemorial.
Second, the art of composing songs and stories is itself handed down from one generation of creator-transmitters to the next. This is a crucial category for distinguishing some oral traditional songs or stories from their later literary—that is, "written literary"—counterparts. The traditional process of composition and transmission of oral traditional poetry or prose varies from genre to genre and is treated in detail when we look more closely, for example, at lyric, nonnarrative songs in Chapter 2. In general, lines are constructed with the help of "formulas," and poems, or stories, or songs, are made up of "themes."
Third, there is a category of traditional content of traditional literature. Here we find traditional story patterns, traditional generic secular and mythic narratives, and traditional generic types of nonnarrative songs, such as lyric or ritual songs.
Fourth, there are the specific works, the specific oral traditional stories, songs, and short literary forms in all their variants. By that I mean the ballad of "Barbara Allen," the epic of "Marko Kraljević and Musa the Highwayman," the tale of "The Three Princesses," and so forth. I do not believe that this category needs elaboration, but it is necessary to insist that it contain all variants, recorded or not, of each work, because we cannot point to any one of them as the "correct" or "original" text.
The fifth category of traditionality is oral traditional poetics. It may be that from the beginning, some stories and songs were simple, brief, and ephemeral. They consisted of loosely structured, short-lived anecdotes and songs with a limited frame of reference. Yet it is certain that there came into being, as time went on, well-structured narratives and songs of wider reference and deeper meaning told or sung by skillful creator-storytellers or singers. In short, there emerged eventually an "oral literature" in the qualitative sense of the term. We can suppose that repetitions of sounds and patterns of words put together to be imitative and to have the power of magic came to set models of duplication and of balance and proportion which had an appeal to an innate human aesthetic sense.
To retrace my steps and return to the second aspect of traditionality, the art of composing songs and stories, I shall illustrate the "formulas" and "themes," by which songs are created. Formulas, in Milman Parry's definition, consist of "a group of words which is regularly employed under the {4|5} same metrical conditions to express a given essential idea." [6] A theme is a repeated passage with a varying, but fairly high, degree of verbal correspondence each time it is used. [7] In reality the formulas and clusters of formulas that have evolved in any particular culture over a long period of time make it possible for the singer to fit essential ideas into the metrical lines. The addition of an epithet to a noun, or of an adverb to a verb, can make it possible to use that noun or verb under a variety of metrical situations. Because singers, like other people, think in terms of sentences, that is, of ideas linked together, rather than single ideas, clusters of formulas have arisen to express one or more groups of ideas.
A few examples clarify these generalities. I take the first from the collection of Russian byliny made by A. F. Hilferding in 1871. [8] Trofim Grigor'evich Rjabinin began four of his eighteen songs in Volume 2 with the description of a feast held by Prince Vladimir. The first line in three of them is a bona fide whole-line formula, the essential idea of which is Prince Vladimir himself:
No. 76 Slavnyja Vkdymir stol'ne-kievskoj
            Glorious Vladimir of the capital Kiev

No. 80 A Vladymir knjaz' da stol'njo-kievskoj
            Prince Vladimir of the capital Kiev

No. 81 A Vladymir knjaz' stol'ne-kievskoj
            Prince Vladimir of the capital Kiev.
He uses a different construction at the opening of
No. 84 A j vo slavnojom vo gorodi vo Kievi
            Slavnogo u knjazja Vladymira

            In the glorious city Kiev
            At the glorious prince Vladimir's.
but Vladimir keeps his epithet slavnyj 'glorious' and his title knjaz' 'prince'. In Nos. 76, 80, and 81, Vladimir also has the compound epithet stol'ne-kievskoj 'Of the capital Kiev'.
The second line of the "theme" of the feast (which I shall analyze as a theme shortly) is another well-established formula: {5|6}
No. 76 Sobiral-to on slavnyj pochesten pir,
            He assembled a glorious, honorable feast,

No. 80 Zavodil pochesten pir da j pirovan'ice,
            He held an honorable feast, and a feasting,

No. 81 Zavodil on pochesten pir pirovan'ico,
            He held an honorable feast, a feasting,

No. 84 Zavodilsja u knjazja pochesten pir.
            There was held at the prince's an honorable feast.
The "feast" at Vladimir's is always "honorable." Pochesten pir 'honorable feast' is clearly a common formula for Rjabinin (and for others), and one of the commonest verbs used with it is zavodil 'held' or, in the passive, zavodilsja 'was held'. In No. 76 another verb is used, sobiral 'he gathered', and to pochesten 'honorable' is added for the sake of the meter another epithet, the ubiquitous slavnyj 'glorious'. And in Nos. 80 and 81 an appositive is added, also for the sake of the meter, pirovan'ice 'feasting'. These are clearly formulas, and taking two (or three) lines together, as one must, one has a cluster of formulas as well.
Some of the above lines are not limited to the theme of a feast at Vladimir's court. Rjabinin's version of "Il'ja Muromec and Car' Kalin" begins with the line
No. 75 Kak Vladimir knjaz' da stol'njo-kievskoj
            As Prince Vladimir of the capital Kiev
and continues:
Porozgnevalsja na starago kazaka Il'ju Muromca,
Zasadil ego vo pogreb vo glubokii,
Vo glubokij pogreb vo holodnyi
Da na tri-to godu pory vremeni.
A u slavnago u knjazja u Vladymira
Byla doch' da odinakaja,
Was angered at the old Cossack Il'ja Muromec,
He put him in a deep cellar
In a deep cellar, a cold one,
For three years' time.
The glorious prince Vladimir
Had an only daughter.
Other examples of those two lines can be easily found.
At this point No. 84 parts company with the other three songs by telling that at the feast there were two widows, and the activity centers on their conversations and the results of them. But No. 76 continues with Nos. 80 and 81 for two more lines before diverging in its turn: {6|7}
No. 76 Na mnogih knjazej on i bojarov
            Slavnyh sil'nyih moguchiih bogatyrej;

            Many princes and boyars,
            Glorious, mighty, powerful bogatyrs;

No. 80 Na mnogih knjazej da na vsih bojarov,
            Na vsih sil'nih rus'skiih moguchih na bogatyrej.

            Many princes and all boyars,
            All mighty, Russian, powerful bogatyrs.

No. 81 A j na vseh-to na knjazej na bojarov,
            Da j na rus'skih moguchih bogatyrej,

            All princes and boyars,
            And Russian, powerful bogatyrs.
The princes and boyars are "many" or "all," and the bogatyrs are slavnyj 'glorious', of course—though only once—sil'nyj 'mighty', rus'skii 'Russian', and moguchii 'powerful'.
The formulaic style is well illustrated in the foregoing lines, both in respect to individual formulas, such as pochesten pir 'honorable feast', and clusters of formulas, namely, this group of lines itself, which consists of formulas frequently associated with one another. No. 76 now leaves the other texts to recount that Vladimir did not invite to the feast the old Cossack Il'ja Muromec, and the story develops from that fact. [9]
I now move from formula to theme, using the remainder of the theme of a feast in Nos. 80 and 81 from Trofim Rjabinin to illustrate an example of that form of the theme in which a messenger, or ambassador, is chosen to undertake a dangerous mission. One is reminded of the council theme in The Song of Roland in which Ganelon is chosen to carry Charlemagne's answer to Marsile.
But first the description of those invited to the feast continues for one more line: {7|8}
80 81
Aj na slavnyh poljanic da na udalyih.

Glorious, bold warriors from afar.
Na vseh slavnyh poljanic na udalyih.

All glorious bold warriors from afar.
At this point the two stories begin to diverge, but they both present a speech from Vladimir. There is further setting for it in No. 81:
A sidjat-to molodci na chestnom piru,
Vse-to sidjat p'jany vesely

The fine, brave fellows sit at the honorable feast,
They sit drunk and merry
80 81
Na chestnom piru Vladymir stai

At the honorable feast Vladimir began to
walk up and down the room.
Vladymir knjaz' po gorenki pohazhival,
Poslovechno gosudar' vygovarival:

Prince Vladimir walked up and down the room.
The lord began to speak carefully.
The speeches are, of course, different in each song. In No. 80, Vladimir needs someone to collect tribute; in No. 81 he wants someone to find him a wife. The reaction, however, is the same.
80 81
Vse bogatyri za stolikom umolknuli,
Vse umolknuli i priutihnuli,
Kak bogatyri za stolikom-to prituljalisja,
A bol'shaja-to tulitsja za serednjuju,
A serednja tulitsja za men'shuju,
A ot men'shojoj ot tulicy otvetu net.
Iz-za tyh li-to za stolichkov dubovyih,
Iz-za tyh li-to skameechek okol'nyih
Vyshel staryja Permin da syn Ivanovich,
Stal po gorenke jon Permin da pohazhivat',
A Vladymiru knjazju da stal jon pogovarivat':
"Ty, Vladymir knjaz' da stol'njo-kievskoj!
Blaslovi-tko gosudar' mne slovce vymolvit'.
A 'shche znaju ja kogo poslat' poehati
A j vo dal'nie-ty zemli v sorochinskii."
Vse bogatyri za stolikom umolknuli,
Vse molodci da priutihnuli,
Za stolom-to sidjat zatuljalisja;
Bol'shaja tulitsja k serednjuju,
Serednjuju tulitsja za men'shuju,
A ot men'shoj tulicy otvetu net.
Z-za togo [z] za stolichka dubovago,
Iz-za tyh skameechek okol'niih
Vyshel staryja Permin syn Ivanovich,
Ponizeshen'ku knjazju poklonjaetsja:

"Vladymir knjaz' i stol'ne-kievskoj! {8|9}
Blagoslovi-ko gosudar' mni slovce vymolvit'.
A 'shche znaju ja tobi suprotivnichku:"
All the bogatyrs at the table were silent,
They were silent and hushed,
As the bogatyrs sit at the table hiding,
The bigger hide behind the medium-sized,
And the medium-sized hide behind the smaller.
And from the smaller there was no answer.
From behind the oak tables,
From behind the surrounding benches,
Came old Permin Ivanovich.
Permin began to walk up and down the room,
And he began to speak to Prince Vladimir:
"You, Prince Vladimir of capital Kiev,
Give me your blessing, lord, to speak.
I know whom to send to go
To the distant lands of Sorochinsk."
All the bogatyrs at the table were silent,
All the fine, brave fellows were hushed.
They sit at the table hiding;
The bigger hide behind the medium-sized,
The medium-sized hide behind the smaller,
And from the smaller there was no answer.
From behind the oak table,
From behind the surrounding benches
Came old Permin Ivanovich.
He bowed low before the prince:

"Vladimir, prince of capital Kiev!
Give me your blessing, lord, to speak.
I know a wife for you."
At this point, each song develops its own story in the respective speeches of Permin. In No. 80, Permin suggests that Vasiliij Kazimirov is the person to send on the mission to Botijan Botijanov, and in No. 81 he says that he knows a good wife for Vladimir, namely, Opraks’ja, daughter of the king of Lithuania. Thereupon, Vladimir asks the company whom to send to the king of Lithuania, a question like that in No. 80, whom to send to Botijan Botijanov. At this juncture there is in No. 81 a repetition of the two lines:
Vse za stolom sidjat umolknuli,
Vse molodci priutihnuli.

All sitting at the table are silent,
All the fine, brave, fellows are hushed.
depicting the reaction of the company to the request for a messenger on a possibly dangerous mission, which we have seen before. And once again appears: {9|10}
Staryja Permin syn Ivanovich,
A po gorenke Permin jon pohazhivaet,
Poslovechno knjazju jon vygovarivaet:
"Ty Vladymir knjaz' stol'ne-kievskoj!
Blagoslovi mne gosudar' slovcjo molviti,
A j to znaju ja poslat' kogo posvatat'sja."

Old Permin Ivanovich,
And Permin walked up and down the room,
He began to speak to the prince carefully:
"You, Vladimir, prince of capital Kiev!
Give me your blessing, lord, to speak.
I know whom to send as wedding broker." [10]
It is to be noted that within the verbal repetitions there is a subtle kaleidoscopic mutation and recombination of elements.
Now the two songs are on the same level again and the choice of messenger or ambassador is made for the separate undertakings. There is no need to follow in detail the ceremony of choice and acceptance with which the full theme is concluded. It is clear that the singer has a store of verses repeated more or less exactly to describe a feast at which a question is asked by the prince, messengers are proposed, and they are chosen with due ceremony. He needs only to fill in the specifics peculiar to each story. The process of composition of oral literature by using formulas and themes constitutes a traditional art, which one generation passes on to the next.
The theme of the feast at which a messenger or ambassador is chosen for a dangerous mission, which is a large theme, particularly if it is described fully, may contain smaller themes within it. If a section of a larger scheme can be found as a discernible unit elsewhere, either independent or as part of another large theme, it constitutes a theme in its own right. This is a principle worked out by David Bynum. [11] Thus it could be argued that the beginning lines of the four songs from the Hilferding collection form an independent theme, because they are a discernible unit in three distinct forms of the theme of a feast at Prince Vladimir's court.
Tradition, that is to say, all singers before and around him, bequeathed to {10|11} each singer/performer, including Homer, a technique of composing songs in performance which is not improvisation, if the latter is understood as impromptu, extempore creation. Let there be no more misunderstanding on this point. [12] What I have just described is not improvisation on the spur of the moment but a very special type of composition in performance made possible by the singer's command of formulas and themes. They are not mastered by a conscious process of rote memorization, but they are remembered from frequent use and practice. Formulas do not exist to make memorization easier, but rather they make memorization unnecessary.
The aspect of traditionality I develop next is category three, the content of traditional literature. If a singer has not memorized a fixed text—there is no fixed text to remember—what does he hold in his mind? One should reply, I believe, "First the story." That is what the performance is about; the tale or the narrative, is at the center of the performance. A specialist in Arabic epic, Dwight Reynolds, who has collected oral epic in the Nile Delta, in a lecture at Harvard helped explain the importance of the story. He told how in that tradition an older singer, while walking along with a young boy who was learning to sing the epic, would say to him, "Now tell me what happened at such and such a point in the story." The boy would then have to tell him that part of the story. This was the first thing he had to absorb to the point of being able to tell it himself. [13]
Traditional story patterns reside in the stories themselves but can be distilled for purposes of research. There is a pattern consisting of (1) absence of a powerful figure (or disabled elder), (2) devastation, (3) arrival (or return) of a powerful figure, and (4) justice or restoration of order. This pattern fits parts of Beowulf, the Iliad, and the Odyssey. In Beowulf, for example, (1) Hrothgar is powerless to handle (2) the depredations of Grendel, until (3) Beowulf arrives and (4) overcomes the evil Grendel and his mother and restores order to Hrothgar's kingdom. Or, to use an illustration from living epic tradition, in the South Slavic song of "The Captivity of Ðulić Ibrahim," (1) while Ðulić is in prison his wife despairs and (2) is about to marry again, when Ðulić hears of this and contrives to be released to collect ransom, (3) returns home for that purpose, and (4) (a) either brings revenge on the suitor—if he be a bad one—and on his wife—if she be a bad one—or (b) is reunited with his wife while the suitor is married to Ðulić's sister. The story pattern consists of these elements, and the generic story is the story without names of specific individuals. I believe that the pattern I have chosen for an example is a mythic {11|12} pattern, representing the absence of a god, such as a god of vegetation, the calamities and death that result, and the restoration of life on the god's return from the land of the dead. [14]
Oral traditional epic is not merely entertainment but has a serious function in its society. [15] It contains the ideals and values of the society, as well as a concern for the basic problems of both the community and the individual, and how to solve them or to become reconciled to those that are insoluble. These are embodied in the myths with which, in my opinion, epics, including Homer's and others in ancient Greece, originated.
The Iliad and Odyssey depict the valiant actions of heroes, their prowess in combat, their courage in facing the unknown and the supernatural, their skill in overcoming obstacles. These are "the best of the Achaeans," to quote the title of a distinguished book by my colleague Gregory Nagy. In war and in council they were preeminent. Most of them were mortals like the rest of us, but some, like Achilles, had one divine parent; and some, like Odysseus, had a god or goddess "on their side," a divine protector. These connections with gods and goddesses may in part at least account for their being able to accomplish what they did. They should, however, be credited with being of the caliber to merit the assistance of the deities. Sometimes the heroes found themselves in narrative patterns created for gods and later assumed by humans—or half-humans. The god Marduk in the Babylonian creation epic fought with the primeval dragon Tiamat and with the help of supernatural weapons overcame her and created the universe from her carcass. Zeus subdued the monster Typhoeus. In the next generation or so in Mesopotamia, Gilgamesh, two-thirds god and one-third man, killed—with the help of his friend Enkidu, a fully human being—the monster Humbaba. The Greek hero Heracles, a son of Zeus and Alcmena, a mortal woman, was a famed monster slayer. Odysseus, with no immortal parents, had a loyal and powerful protector in Athena. It is not surprising that heroes, like the gods, came to have cults of their own.
Myth, a narrative in the "sacred" realm (using "sacred" in Mircea Eliade's sense of the opposite of "profane") is a strong force in oral traditional epic. [16] I {12|13} venture to say that its role is stronger than that of history, because, in my view, epic was born with myth, whereas history entered it at a later stage. It is clear, for example, that the Trojan War provides the background of the Iliad of Homer, but not its subject.
Yet it is important to be aware that not all story patterns are mythic; some are secular. Jesse Byock has pointed out a completely secular traditional pattern of narrative dealing with the way in which feuds were conducted in medieval Iceland. [17] He calls the elements "feudemes," and the pattern consists of the series (1) conflict, (2) advocacy, (3) resolution. What is common to both the mythic and the secular patterns is that they present a significant problem in the society, be it that of mortality or the basic legal contract that binds the group together and makes it work. The pattern dramatizes a fundamental anxiety or need of its culture.
To illustrate further the content of traditional literature, I wish to mention lyric or ritual songs such as those in which a lover asks his beloved a series of riddles, or those incantations that are counting-out rhymes. These are separate "classes," as it were, of lyric and ritual songs respectively. There is a group of lyric songs known as "dawn songs," in which lovers bewail the coming of day. [18] Laments are clearly a distinct and important class of traditional ritual songs. [19]
The fifth category of traditionality, the poetics of oral literature, requires particular attention. In attempting to trace the unfolding of oral traditional aesthetics, one realizes that some storytellers or singers were more talented than others and that they influenced the way in which stories were told and songs sung by introducing what have later been called figures of speech, thus establishing artistic norms and enriching the tale or song. Rhyme, both end and internal; alliteration; and assonance were repetitions of sound which were soon appreciated for their own sake and became regular features of many oral styles. This was true also for such tropes as anaphora and epiphora, for example, which involve repetitions of words at the beginning or end of lines and are much beloved in Slavic oral traditional poetry and elsewhere.
It is to these gifted tellers and singers that we owe also the elaboration of descriptions of heroes and maidens, of horses, and their trappings, of assemblies of men, of catalogs of chieftains, and of detailed accounts of battles. And they too over the centuries were responsible for working out what we know of as "ring composition" and "chiastic arrangement," or chiasmus, for which they themselves, of course, had no terms. By "ring composition" is meant a {13|14} structure that can be diagramed as abcba; the elements a and b lead to a central element c, after which elements b and a recur in one form or another, but in reverse order, thus closing a "ring." Ring composition differs from "chiastic arrangement" in that it "revolves" around a center, whereas in chiasmus there is no center, no c, but only abba. Such structures could be used within a single line, in a couplet, in a larger theme, in groups of themes, or in an entire song, forming ever expanding circles of relationships. In practice, chiasmus tends to be more common in short compass, especially in a single line, but ring composition belongs to longer passages.
An example of chiasmus on the level of the line is found in the following from one of Murat Žunić's songs from northern Bosnia collected by Milman Parry:
Pa ćeš vidit' što vidijo nisi.
Then you will see what seen you have not. [20]
The auxiliary is a and the verb "to see" is b.
Although Murat's song as a whole can be analyzed in terms of ring composition, it is sufficient merely to outline a single series of episodes that converge in a center. In "The Capture of Temišvar" the serfs complain to the viziers in Buda that King Rakocija is oppressing them. The viziers write to him, asking him to desist. He replies that he will not do so but will gather the seven Christian kingdoms and drive the sultan from Stambol. The viziers write to the sultan, but their letter is intercepted and never reaches him. Now a "ring" begins (within a larger ring):
a. King Rakocija gathers his forces.
b. The viziers write again to the sultan and this time make sure that the letter is delivered to him in person.
c. The sultan recalls the grand vizier, Ćuprilić, who has been removed to Konya.
b. The sultan executes the traitors.
a. The sultan gathers his forces.
The recalling of the "exiled" grand vizier is the center of the ring, because this action is the turning point against the traitors. Their doom is sealed. In the first b, the exposing of the traitors is set in motion, and in the second b, the judgment on them is executed. The outer circle that frames this ring consists of the gathering of opposing forces in both as. {14|15}
Thus, in the course of time, developed the high quality of oral traditional literature which in the end was bequeathed to written literature; for all these elements came into being before writing was invented.
The stories and songs thus created were not only oral; they were also traditional. Young people learned from their elders how to tell stories and sing songs skillfully and with a sense of the special style that was theirs alone. One generation passed on to the next the technique, or art, of composing tales and songs, together with the appropriate story, ritual, or song material. Writing was not needed. The art was perfected without it and was never dependent on it. It is vastly important that this be understood. It is a technique that preserves essential patterns and associations and presents them in such a way as to make them most meaningful, most effective, and at the same time in a manner both pleasing and suitable, which happens also to be easy to remember.
Oral traditional poetics has some special characteristics because of the way in which it was created from the matrix of oral tradition. The opening lines of Hilferding No. 76 with their repetition of slavnyj 'glorious' would not be considered as good style in the poetics of written literature, but they are natural and right in the poetics of oral traditional literature:
Slavnyja Vladymir stol'ne-kievskoj
Sobiral-to on slavnyj pochesten pir
Na mnogih knjazej on i bojarov,
Slavnyh sil'nyih moguchiih bogatyrej;
Glorious Vladimir of the capital Kiev
Held a glorious, honorable feast
For many princes and boyars,
Glorious, mighty, powerful bogatyrs.
Written literature can, of course, easily imitate this usage of noun-epithet formulas, which arises from the necessity of being able to use the needed noun in a variety of metrical circumstances, but it would be imitation of the oral traditional style. No poet in a written literary style would create such lines. Were he to do so, he would be severely criticized. We cannot employ the criteria of written poetics to such a passage without doing an injustice to the oral traditional poetics that formed it and that finds it normal and "right."
Almost every time Vladimir appears, he has the epithet as above stol'ne-kievskoj 'of the capital Kiev'; and Il'ja Muromec is always the 'old Cossack' (staroj kazak). Poets in written literature do not favor even more or less fixed, "stereotyped," epithets. It is a different, oral, special poetics that does favor such epithets, understanding their necessity and feeling their appropriateness.
Moreover, to indicate another characteristic construction in Slavic oral traditional poetry, when in the same song Rjabinin sings: {15|16}
A j krichit-to ved' Il'ja on vo vsju golovu
Vo vsju golovu krichit on gromkim golosom:

And Il'ja shouted with all his might,
With all his might he shouted in a loud voice.
the repetition of the words at the end of one line at the beginning of the next would seem unnatural in written poetics. It is, however, an accepted, even preferred, device in oral traditional poetry, to which it is special, because it was created to allow three ideas to be expressed in two lines, namely, (1) 'he shouted' (krichit), (2) 'with all his might' (vo vsju golovu), and (3) 'in a loud voice' (gromkim golosom).
These are some of the devices of oral traditional poetics that are different from the poetics of written literature and stem from the method of oral composition by formula and theme. Associated with these peculiar differences is the impression that the oral style was inferior to the written. The examples given above indicate differences in devices but not in quality, although the critic of written literature might disagree.
Evidence for appreciation of the difference between oral traditional poetics and written literary poetics has come from an unexpected but very important source, an editor of oral traditional South Slavic epics. One of the finest collections from northern Bosnia was made by Luka Marjanović in the last quarter of the nineteenth century. His collection is among those in the Matica Hrvatska in Zagreb. The Milman Parry Collection was graciously allowed to microfilm the unpublished texts in the Marjanović collection. [21] In some cases we have the manuscript as it was edited by Marjanović for publication.
Marjanović made many changes in the manuscript. He left out lines and added lines; he left out blocks of five to ten lines. He changed all eleven-syllable lines to ten syllables, and sometimes he combined two lines. His edited texts do not represent the exact words of the singer who dictated them. Marjanović brought to the editing criteria different from those of the singer. Sometimes he omitted "awkward" lines, such as "Then you should see Beg Mustajbeg," lines the singer used frequently in performance and, interestingly enough, continued to use in dictating the text for a scribe. This fact, incidentally, speaks eloquently for the high quality of collecting involved. Marjanović's collection is one of the most scrupulously gathered ones that I have seen. {16|17}
The changes Marjanović introduced as editor in order to make the text conform to "written poetics" are instructive. For example, in Salko Vojniković's song Janković Stojan udaje posestrimu Turkinju djevojku za Kurtagić Hasana, "Janković Stojan Weds His Blood-Sister, a Turkish Maiden, to Kurtagić Hasan," [22] he made the following two lines into one:
Jer vid' dere Uzeira sina,
Uzeira Korlatova sina!

Then see son Uzeir,
Uzeir, Korlat's son!
They became:
Vidi dere Korlatova sina!
Then see Korlat's son!
The construction of the two lines, repeating Uzeira from the end of one line at the beginning of the next, is characteristic of Slavic oral traditional poetics, as we saw above in a Russian example, and arises from the fact that it is impossible to say "See Korlat's son Uzeir" in one line. The repetition is necessary, but from necessity has come an approved and favored poetic device. The editor has eliminated the element that is characteristic of oral traditional poetics, transforming it into something more ordinary, more compatible with his notion of written poetics.
In the next example, also from Salko Vojniković, [23] the editor has omitted a line as superfluous; yet its presence gave a typical rhythm to the expression of the ideas. Here is the setting:
  Editor's changes
Vid'im age starca Ćejvanage!
Otišće aga u džepove ruke,
Iz džepova knjigu izvadio.
A kad aga knjigu izvadio,
On je imam' pruži efendiji.
Kad je uze imam efendija,
Jer razmota, a niz nju pogleda.

On otišće u džepove ruke,
Iz džepova knjigu izvadio.
[line omitted]

Razmota je, a niz nju pogleda. {17|18}
See the old man, aga Ćejvanaga!
The aga put his hand in his pockets,
He took the letter from his pockets.
And when the aga had taken out the letter,
He held it out to the imam.
When the imam had taken it,
He opened it and looked at it.
Marjanović's changes are not many, but they are symptomatic. Line two above has eleven syllables; Marjanović made it into ten by omitting aga and adding on 'he' at the beginning of the line. He then omitted line four as superfluous; yet the construction is typical, reflecting the rhythm of the thought. It does no harm to leave out the line, but it does change the tempo of narration and the shape of the thought as the singer himself had expressed it. Strangely enough, the editor kept the same construction in the last two lines quoted: "When the imam had taken it, he opened it and looked at it." Perhaps he objected to having two instances of the construction so close together and omitted one. If so, he reflected the taste of a "written poetics," which seeks to avoid repetitions within such brief compass, whereas the oral poetics of the singer found no difficulty with the repetition of the construction.
Finally, the last line was changed by omitting jer 'because' at the beginning and adding je 'it' after razmota 'opened', literally, 'unwound'. This change is different from the other two, and its acceptability could be argued. The singer introduces many lines with jer 'because' quite ungrammatically and illogically. From the point of view of oral traditional poetics, his doing so could legitimately be held to be poor style. In short, oral traditional poetics has its own standards as well; it is not true that anything done by singers is necessarily good. But the criteria for making such judgments should be those of oral traditional poetics, not those of written poetics. We are in fact dealing with two separate poetics. It is our task to set forth the particulars of their differences and especially to describe oral traditional poetics as specifically as possible, as it is the less well known.
Yet because some of the elements of oral traditional poetics were inherited by written literature, the illusion was created that the poetics of both literatures was the same. [24] They do indeed share many figures of speech, which we can see in the following passage, sung by Sulejman Makić in his "Song of Bagdad" in November 1934. [25] {18|19}
Janjičari, veliki junaci,
Prifatiše malog Ibrahima.
Kod šeha ga. jadan, dovedoše.
Svečevu mu kapu nataknuše.
Svečevom ga hrkom ogrnuše.
Svečevu mu kapu nataknuše.
Odveli ga na mesto babovo.
Primiše ga boža amaneta.
Pukoše mu sto topova, kaže,
Pa je zemlja čula carevina.
Stari care đe je preselijo.
A sina mu malog nastavili.
Navaljiše carski komandari.
E dodjoše. cara udvoriše.
The Janisseries, great heroes,
They took little Ibrahim.
To the priest, poor boy, they led him.
The ceremonial cap they put on him.
The ceremonial cloak they placed on him.
The ceremonial cap they put on him.
They led him to his father's place.
They received him under God's protection.
For him a hundred cannon were fired, 'tis said,
And so the whole empire heard.
That the old sultan had died.
And that they had invested his little son.
Then the imperial commanders thronged in.
They came and waited on the sultan.
The anaphora in lines 4-6 of the passage can be matched in written literature, of course. Such figures of speech, however, are not the property of written literature alone, nor did they originate in written literature. They were used in oral literature long before writing was invented. This passage of investiture, moreover, shows a typical traditional pattern of positioning of verbs and of alteration of a group in final position with one in initial position. The close of the passage is marked, again traditionally, by internal rhyme. I have underlined the verbs to make this patterning clear. Makić put those words in those positions following a traditional poetics, not an individual one of his own making. The configurations in the passage are part and parcel of the formulaic style and are learned together with the art of making lines and clusters of lines and the technique of moving forward from one line to another. The poetics Makić was using was that of the traditional process of composition. Therefore, though the two literatures, oral and written, share many figures of speech, each has its own particular characteristics.
Notable also in the above passage is the paratactic construction. The necessary enjambment between lines one and two is followed by a series of twelve independent lines, each containing a complete thought. It is the whole constellation of elements found in the lines quoted, their combination into a special structure, that constitutes the particular quality of oral traditional poetics. {19|20}
It is now time to turn to the genres themselves: oral traditional epics, oral traditional ballads, oral traditional lyrics and ritual poetries, oral traditional praise poems, oral traditional wisdom poetry (for example, proverbs and riddles), oral traditional verse and prose used in games, and oral traditional prose stories, such as folk tales. In some of these genres the poem or tale is conceived of as a more or less fixed entity, with its own wording, and in these cases the poem—more rarely also a story—is itself transmitted as a verbal entity. This applies particularly to wisdom poetry and prose, but it is also applicable to ritual, lyric, and game songs. There may be variation, and generally there is, but there is also on the part of the singers or reciters themselves a sense that such poems have, or should have, a given set of words. These poems, of which there are many, are ordinarily comparatively short and consist primarily of oral traditional nonnarrative songs. It is worth repeating that these poems are transmitted from one generation to another in a traditional society as verbal entities with a certain distinctive verbal content; each has its own more or less stable set of words, its own identity, and, if this be true, it would be perfectly correct to say here that songs, meaning texts of songs, are transmitted.
With epic, ballad, and prose narrative the situation is different. The oral traditional narrative genres transmit stories and story materials together with the art of creating a text, that is, of making verses, themes, and songs. In these cases what is remembered is a story and/or themes. In this context a poem, or song, means a story, not a given set of words, not a given text. It must be admitted that these characteristics apply especially to epic and to prose narrative. Ballad seems to partake of something of both categories in respect to what is transmitted. [26]
It may seem superfluous to insist on reminding ourselves at this point that memory does not always involve conscious exact memorization of a text fixed in only one form. In the world of everyday communication we remember with many degrees of exactness; we even say, "I could not repeat it word for word, but I can tell you the gist of it." That means that we did not bother to memorize the exact words of what was heard or read, but we remembered its essential meaning. It also means that we had a way through everyday speech of expressing what we had heard. I pay considerable attention to this phenomenon in the realm of the forms of verbal art in which oral literature is couched, attempting to define as precisely as possible and as specifically as possible what the "more or less" means.
Questions about such concepts as textuality, fixity or fluidity of text, and {20|21} memory demand that we consider the composition of nonnarrative genres in some detail. By textuality I mean that awareness, on the part of the composer, of the words he is using, of a text as such—as against content. One of the important concerns that arises is the "span" of textuality. How many lines, for example, how much text, does the composer's sense of textuality cover? In stanzaic poetry does it go beyond the stanza, or can it embrace several stanzas? Is it, perhaps, limited to couplets? The only way to answer these questions is to look at specific examples of repeated texts in lyric poetry.


[ back ] 1. I refer to the epic singer by the masculine pronoun because the epics discussed in this book were sung by men. For Homeric bards one can cite Phemius and Demodocus in the Odyssey. In Beowulf we hear the Anglo-Saxon scop reciting tales of Sigemund and Heremod. The minstrel who performs the lay of Finn likewise provides entertainment in Heorot. The byliny, Russian folk epics, were regularly sung by men, although some women were performers, especially in the period of the tradition's decline. The South Slavic heroic songs are performed by men. The poems are stichic and, among the Moslems, are long and are sung in the coffeehouses by men for men. The so-called women's songs, as distinguished from epics, can be performed by men as well as women. They are stanzaic and usually short and either lyric, or, when narrative, classed as ballads.
[ back ] 2. For more on epic singing as depicted in the Odyssey, see A. Lord, 1962, 182-84. This reference includes mention of a former South Slavic tradition of Moslem singers at the courtly circles of beys and pashas.
[ back ] 3. Iliad 9.189.
[ back ] 4. Homeric Hymn to Apollo, ll. 166-76, Evelyn-White, 1943, 337. For the great Panathenaean festivals at which rhapsodes recited the Homeric poems, see Nagy, 1990b; consult the General Index under "Festivals" and "Panathenaia." [See also Janko, 1992, 30-31.]
[ back ] 5. See Chapter 2 for the circumstances of the performance of Latvian lyric poems, the dainas.
[ back ] 6. Milman Parry, "Studies in the Epic Technique of Oral Verse-Making, I, Homer and Homeric Style," 1930, in Parry, 1971, 272. See also A. Lord, 1960, chap, 3, "The Formula," 30-67.
[ back ] 7. For an earlier treatment of the theme, see A. Lord, 1960, chap. 4, "The Theme," 68-98. See also A. Lord, 1991, 84-93.
[ back ] 8. Hilferding, 1938.
[ back ] 9. The following example from medieval poetry may also be instructive. In Anglo-Saxon, Beowulf maðelode expresses the idea "Beowulf spoke" in the a verse, the first half of the line. If one does not wish to introduce a new idea in the b verse, the second half of the line, one can simply use the common alliterating patronymic for Beowulf, and the line then reads Beowulf maðelode / bearn Ecgðeowes 'Beowulf spoke / the son of Ecgðeow'. Each verse is a formula, and the whole line is also a formula, because they are regular ways of saying "Beowulf spoke." See A. Lord, 1991, chap. 9, "The Formulaic Structure of Introductions to Direct Discourse in Beowulf and Elene,” 147-69.
[ back ] 10. I am indebted to Professor Vladimir Alexandrov of Yale University for checking, correcting, and improving my translations from Russian.
[ back ] 11. Bynum, 1964.
[ back ] 12. For more on the question of improvisation, see A. Lord, 1991, 76-77.
[ back ] 13. See Reynolds, 1990 and 1995.
[ back ] 14. See A. Lord, 1960, chap. 9, "The Iliad," 186-97, for an elaboration of the story pattern of absence, devastation, and return; see also M. L. Lord, 1967. Chapter 3 below, at n.5, contains a discussion of mythic patterns inherent in the episode of Achilles' fight with the river Xanthus, Iliad, bk.21.
[ back ] 15. In The Singer of Tales, I may have given undue emphasis to the element of entertainment when I spoke of epic poetry in Yugoslavia "at the present time, or until very recently, as the chief entertainment of the adult male population in the villages and small towns" (A. Lord, 1960, 14). Yet I tempered this statement with the observation that "this poetry would seem even from its origins to have belonged to serious ceremonial occasions, to ritual, to celebration" (ibid., 6).
[ back ] 16. See Eliade, 1961.
[ back ] 17. Byock, 1982.
[ back ] 18. See Hatto, 1965.
[ back ] 19. See Alexiou, 1974.
[ back ] 20. Parry, 1979, Uzimanje Temišvara, "The Capture of Temišvar," 246, l. 384.
[ back ] 21. The Milman Parry Collection of Oral Literature, Widener Library, Harvard University, Cambridge, Mass.
[ back ] 22. Marjanović collected 104 songs from Salko Vojniković Perić, including 11 women's songs. The text quoted is No. 38, and the edited line is 896. The text was never published.
[ back ] 23. No. 36, Sužanjstvo bega Mustabega u bana Zadranina; izbavi ga Ćelebijć Hasan, "The Imprisonment of Bey Mustajbey; Ćelebijć Hasan Rescues Him," ll. 20-25.
[ back ] 24. For the view that "oral" and "written" poetics are alike, see Finnegan, 1977, 126-33.
[ back ] 25. Parry, 1953, No. 26, Pjesma od Bagdata, ll. 243-56.
[ back ] 26. See Chapter 7 for a discussion of stability and variation in the text of ballads.