Epic Singers and Oral Tradition

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2. Homer’s Originality: Oral Dictated Texts*

These are the latest words in Homeric scholarship and they demand our attention. Bowra has ranged widely in the field of oral epic, realizing full well the importance of the comparative method in scholarship. He has focused our studies now on the period of transition from oral to written technique, and he is right. It was inevitable that a solution to the question of whether or not Homer was an oral poet would be sought in a compromise that would make him both; that is to say, an oral poet {38|39} who wrote. The motivating force behind this solution is the reluctance to associate the greatness of Homer’s poetry, the unity of his poems, his originality, or individuality, with unlettered oral song.

At this point three questions present themselves as tests of this compromise {39|40} solution. Does the oral technique exclude originality, and if not, how can oral poets be “original” or “individual” or “great”? What do we know about the period of transition from oral to written technique? What occurs in the process of writing down an oral poem?


Parry wrote this before he had had any experience of oral singers, at a time when he was arguing deductively from his analysis of style. In his second article on the same subject, published in 1932, written before his Yugoslav trips, he made use of evidence from other poetries and from the reports of collectors. [7] It was because he was dissatisfied with both of these methods that he decided to conduct his own investigations of oral poetry. It is truly amazing that most of his conclusions in these early papers have proved to be completely accurate by field observation and experiment. If one places the controversial sentence quoted by Wade-Gery in the full context of the two articles, Parry’s meaning is put in perspective and not distorted. What he says in essence is that the question of originality of style means nothing to the oral poet, because he has at his command ready-made phrases which have been built up by generations of poets to express all the ideas needed in the poetry. In order for the tradition to have come into being and to have continued to exist, one must suppose that singers made changes from time to time, but these changes would have been slight and new formulas would have been modeled on the old ones. In Parry’s words, “An oral style is thus highly conservative; yet the causes for change are there, and sooner or later must come into play. These causes for change have nothing to do with any wish on the part of the single poet for what is new or striking in style.” [8] {40|41}

Thus the singer has scope for his creative powers on the formula level. And because the basic core of formulas is not necessarily the same even for singers from the same district or who have learned from the same man, these experiments provide us with a means of distinguishing individual styles among singers. We should eventually by this means be able to come to some reasonable answer to the question of whether the Iliad and the Odyssey are by the same poet.

Since songs are, therefore, only relatively stable in their content, they readily combine. They may be added to one another without difficulty, one being sung as a continuation of another. They may be easily intertwined. In Yugoslav tradition there are songs that tell of a son setting out to find a lost father, and there are songs recounting the return of a hero from captivity after many years to find his wife about to marry again. These two stories are combined in the Odyssey. By studying the combination and separation and recombination of themes and songs in the Yugoslav tradition we are learning the principles that these processes follow; we know that the processes are not merely haphazard. But what we need to point out for the present purpose is that the oral poet has a great degree of freedom in the construction of his song, if he wishes to be creative and to make use of that freedom. How else could new songs enter the tradition? Homer obviously used that freedom of combination in the Iliad and Odyssey.

On both the formulaic and the thematic level, then, the oral technique not only allows freedom for change and creation but aids in providing the means by which the singer may exercise his creative imagination if he so desires. His medium is not so restrictive that he is stifled by his tradition. An oral poet can be creative to whatever degree his inspiration moves him and his mastery of technique permits. A singer will show originality both in new phrases and in new combinations of themes, perhaps even in new themes. Even lesser oral poets than a Homer are original, particularly at that point when they first sing a song which they learned from another singer. Unwittingly perhaps, they recombine themes, or add and eliminate themes, using their own individual formulaic techniques.

Homer, then, I am certain, did not need writing to be a creative poet in his tradition. But it must be true that he lived in an age when writing existed and was developed to such a point that the Iliad could be written down. It was probably the age of transition from oral to written technique in literature. Our second question is, What do we know about this transition?


Wade-Gery presents us not with a transition but with a lightning-like metamorphosis. Bowra is infinitely more realistic. He is aware that the transition from oral to written literature does not occur overnight. Indeed, in the passage from his book that I quoted earlier, he has described the process very accurately, I believe. The oral artist comes to realize the possibilities that the leisure of the new medium permits for careful composition and for calculated changes different from the rapid changes forced by the speed of oral performance. To telescope the change from expert oral technique to a sophisticated use of literary technique into the lifetime of one individual, even granting that the singer is a genius, is, I am sure, not consistent with the facts.

There are in Yugoslavia a number of oral poets who can write. Their first attempts at writing were mere recordings of the songs that they knew. When they go beyond this and begin to break the formula patterns in which they have thought poetically all their lives, the results are not felicitous. They abandon such imaginative introductions as “Once in the days of old, when Sulejman held empire,” for such prosaic beginnings as “In the bloody year of 1914, on the sixth day of the month of August, Austria and all Germany were greatly worried. ” They become wordy and stilted to the point of being unconsciously mock heroic. The natural dignity of the traditional expressions is lost and what remains is a caricature. The literary technique takes several generations to mature. I cannot conceive of the author of the Iliad as semiliterate. The poem is too great, is done with far too much assurance, to be the first hesitating steps in a new technique. It seems to me rather that it is the product of a great oral poet in a rich oral tradition. The poems of a semiliterate oral poet are awkward in construction because they mix two techniques, one of which has not yet had time to develop, and the other of which the poet already disdains.

There is a further difficulty in the compromise solution of a literate oral poet that needs to be answered. Why should oral poets take to {43|44} writing down their songs? Since the oral technique does not hamper in any way those who practice it well, since in Homer’s period I do not believe that we can posit a highly developed literary technique that would make them dissatisfied with the older one, I cannot see why oral poets should even think of turning to writing. The rich possibilities of the literary technique are not apparent at its inception, especially to those who already have a technique that is rich in known possibilities.

Someone may suggest that it would be a mnemonic device, but this too is unrealistic. The singer has no need of a mnemonic device in a manner of singing that was designed to fill his needs without such written aids. A mnemonic device implies a fixed text to be memorized, a concept unknown to the oral poet. A written text would be useful to the reciter or rhapsode of a later period who is no longer an oral poet, but simply a mouthpiece.

Another suggestion might be that the singer wishes to preserve his song for posterity. This too is invalid. His song will be handed down to younger generations, even as he received it and other songs from his elders. It would never occur to the singer that his song would be lost. That is why he sings, that the glories of the past might not be lost to memory. Perhaps the singer wanted to have his song preserved in the exact words and form in which he sang it. But we must reject this also; for one must remember that in the oral manner the singer has no idea of a fixed, word-for-word form of a song.

It would seem, then, that the idea to write down an oral song must come from an outside source, not from the singers themselves. A question of prime importance for the dating of Homer must ask when the idea of writing down epic songs arose and under what circumstances. Possibly there was an early period of collecting from which only these two songs have survived and about which we have no other reference or record. We know from other traditions that writing has really arrived at that moment when it is used for artistic purposes; the first things written are the songs of the people. It seems to me that this is the question to which we should be turning our attention, because when we can answer it, we shall know when Homer lived and when the poems were composed. For they are unmistakably the product of the collecting of oral poetry. To this extent writing is indispensable to the composition of the Iliad and the Odyssey.

But this is not the only extent, I believe, to which writing is indispensable {44|45} to the Homeric poems as we have them. Bowra has stated that “it is almost impossible to believe that the Iliad and Odyssey were ever improvised, and the richness of their poetry suggests some reliance on writing. ” This statement is properly cautious. Allow me to rephrase it more precisely. It is impossible to believe that the Iliad and Odyssey as we have them represent exactly the songs as actually sung in normal performance by Homer; their length and consequent richness of content, the perfection of their lines, suggest some reliance on writing. We must now elaborate and explain this rephrasing.


The Homeric poems belong to the period of transition from an oral to a literary technique, a transition that takes at least several generations before it is completed, yet they are oral poems as their style indicates. Homer, then, was an oral poet living in an age of writing. Oral songs can be collected either by phonograph apparatus, which is obviously out of the question here; or by dictation to a scribe; or by a literate oral poet who has been asked to write down his song for someone else who, for some reason, wants it in writing. The last of these possibilities is highly unlikely, because the oral poet, if he is at all literate, can have only a smattering of writing, if he is to remain an oral poet. Had he enough facility in writing to record 21,000 lines of text, his style could not be that of an oral technique, which Homer’s demonstrably is. In my own mind there remains no doubt that Homer dictated the Iliad to someone else who wrote it down, because the Homeric poems have all the earmarks of dictated texts of oral epic songs. They are not the text of normal oral-traditional performance; without recording apparatus it is impossible to obtain such texts. They are not texts produced by written technique of composition, because such a technique had not been developed, and they do not show signs of a break in the formulaic tradition. They are not semiliterate texts in the sense of texts that occur at the beginning of the development of written technique, because they are too good. But they are oral dictated texts, a completely separate category that represents, from the point of view of the oral singer, an “ideal” text. To understand this we must look very closely at the moment of their composition; we must examine what occurs when the singer dictates his song to a scribe.

This moment has hitherto been ignored by Homeric scholars because they have not thought it worth their while to undertake field collecting. Milman Parry realized that the experience of being in the field was {45|46} necessary, that he could not simply read oral epics that had been collected by others and the accounts that those collectors had written. He had to relive the experience. Fortunately he collected songs from dictation as well as songs sung for the recording apparatus. I myself have written down songs from dictation, a process that I learned from a true master. To the best of my knowledge the only other Homerist to have the temerity to leave the comfort of his study and enter the field is J. N. Notopoulos.

An oral poet who is asked to dictate a song for someone to write finds himself in an unusual and abnormal position. He is accustomed to composing rapidly to the accompaniment of a musical instrument, which sets the rhythm and tempo of his performance. For the first time he is without this rhythmic assistance, and at the beginning he finds it difficult to make his lines. He can easily learn to do this, however, and he sets up a certain rhythm in his mind. He is also somewhat annoyed by having to wait between lines for the scribe to write. His mind moves ahead more rapidly than does the writer’s pen. This technique he can also learn, particularly if the scribe is alert and helpful. The singer is also accustomed to the stimulus of an audience, but again an intelligent scribe and a small group of onlookers can provide this stimulus. These are the disadvantages of the dictating technique, but they are not insurmountable. When they are surmounted, the singer discovers the advantages of the technique and proceeds to profit by them, as long as the scribe can mitigate the boredom of slow performance, and maintain the singer’s interest.

The chief advantage to the singer of this manner of composition is that it affords him time to think of his lines and of his song. His small audience is stable. This is an opportunity for the singer to show his best, not as a performer, but as a storyteller and poet. He can ornament his song as fully as he is capable; he can develop his tale with completeness, he can dwell lovingly on passages that in normal performance he would often be forced to shorten because of the pressure of time or because of the restlessness of the audience. The very length of the Homeric poems is the best proof that they are products of the moment of dictation rather than that of singing. The leisureliness of their tempo, the fullness of their telling, are also indications of this method. The poetic moments of the tradition, used perhaps sparingly in normal performance, accumulate to provide that richness of poetry which Bowra feels suggests writing. To the method of dictation one can also attribute the piling up of {46|47} similes in Homer and the extended simile. It is not that Homer goes beyond the bounds of the oral technique, but that he uses it to the full. It is interesting that when Parry asked singers when they had finished dictating songs for him whether they thought that sung songs were better than dictated ones or vice versa, their answers invariably were: “Sung songs are truer, dictated songs are finer!” I would paraphrase this as: “Sung songs are closer to what we have heard from others, but we can be better poets in dictated song!” [12] That dictated songs are indeed superior to sung texts can be seen in the first volume of the Parry Collection. [13]


There is a certain amount of originality in each performance of an oral epic. It has never been sung exactly the same way before, even by the same singer; it will never be sung exactly the same way again. It is unique. If each performance under normal conditions can be original, then the dictated performance allows for the greatest originality. It is, moreover, the kind of originality that still remains within the tradition, because the tradition is but the sum total of the singers and their songs. The oral poet constantly combines and recombines and adds and subtracts from what he has heard. And this combining and recombining, adding and subtracting, is the tradition. When a singer makes a new song, he is following the tradition.

The Homeric poems are what they are because they are the products of an oral technique with its abundant opportunities for freedom of creation, recorded by a method and under circumstances that bring to the fore the very best that an inspired poet can instill into them. Even as the moment of singing is the normal moment of creation of oral epic, so the moment of dictating is the moment of creation of our texts from the past. The more we know about that moment, the greater will be our understanding of those texts.

Addendum 1990

As I reconsidered very recently the stylization of a passage from Salih Ugljanin’s “Song of Bagdad” that was found in a dictated version but not in two sung texts, I was suddenly aware of the experience of listening {47|48} to Salih dictate. In my memory I could envisage a room in Novi Pazar on a series of rainy days, where I could see him sitting at the table at which Nikola Vujnović was writing and hear him speak the lines rapidly but with a deliberate tempo; a line, a pause, then another line, as he watched Nikola set it down on the paper. But the pause interrupted neither Salih’s thought nor his syntax. The measured delivery made the parallelisms in the following lines of the passage I just referred to almost inevitable:

Kad tatarin pod Kajniđu dođe,
Pa eto ga uz čaršiju prođe,
When the messenger came to Kajniđa,
Then he passed along through the market place.
When … to Kajniđa he came,
Then … along the market place he passed.

This kind of construction may emerge more clearly in the mannered dictating than in the necessary flexibility of composition in the hurly-burly of the live singing performance.

One might think that dictating gave Salih the leisure to plan his words and their placing in the line, that the parallelism was due to his careful thinking out of the structure. First of all, however, dictating is not a leisurely process; neither the singer nor the scribe has the patience for long pauses for deliberation. The hours pass and the lines accumulate as the song is set down. But more especially, a mood and a tempo, as I have suggested, are established that produce the balanced utterances of the poet. Not conscious planning but the rhythm of that particular process of composition calls forth the structures. I might add that not all singers can dictate successfully. As I have said elsewhere, some singers can never be happy without the gusle accompaniment to set the rhythm of the singing performance. {48|49}


[ back ] * This paper was first read at the annual meeting of the American Philological Association in 1952 and published in TAPA 94 (1953), 124-134. Although it is somewhat dated, I have chosen to leave it essentially unchanged except for minor editorial differences. I have added an occasional comment in the notes.

[ back ] 1. Bowra, 1952, 240-241.

[ back ] 2. Wade-Gery, 1952. L. A. Post, in his Sather Classical Lectures, similarly misinterprets Parry’s writings on oral technique and accuses Parry and myself of a non sequitur: “To conclude that, because the technique of modern Yugoslav epic is comparable to that of the Homeric poems, therefore no Homeric poet existed who was very different in capacity and achievement from modern oral poets, is a non sequitur” (Post, 1951, 274-275, n. 13). Neither Parry nor I has ever denied the greatness of Homer, or ever made any statement that would imply that there are no grades of distinction among oral poets. We have nowhere said or written that there could have been no Homer because “most or even all modern oral poets are comparatively unoriginal.” Our experiences on the contrary have shown us, as this present article indicates, that the capacities and achievements of oral poets, ancient or modern, have been unjustly minimized and misunderstood.

[ back ] 3. Wade-Gery, 1952, 13-14.

[ back ] 4. Ibid., 39, 40, 17.

[ back ] 5. Unfortunately, versions of these views are current in some quarters even today.

[ back ] 6. Wade-Gery 35-39, 41.

[ back ] 7. Parry, M., 1930 and 1932.

[ back ] 8. Parry, M., 1932, 9.

[ back ] 9. E.g., Karadžić, 1932-36.

[ back ] 10. Lord, A., 1951.

[ back ] 11. Combellack, 1950.

[ back ] 12. Cf. Parry, M., 1954, 263 and 416, n. 1.

[ back ] 13. Parry, M., 1954.