The Power of Orality

Deaf culture has become increasingly prevalent within the United States and abroad, empowering those hard of hearing or completely without it to stop viewing the loss of a sense as an impediment in life. As Kathryn Woodcock writes in Cochlear Implants vs. Deaf Culture?, “The “Deaf World” is where I find my friends, my recreation, and my only true sense of belonging. I appreciate (and exploit) the employment and commercial opportunities that the hearing world provides for me”. The earliest recorded people to educate the deaf were the Ancient Greeks. Ironically, the Greeks also viewed the loss of hearing as a loss of ability to serve the state, something that the city-state Athens viewed as reason to be put to death.

Although it seems a harsh punishment for something so supported comparatively in modern times, deafness was not something that could be culturally understood by the Greeks. The society of Ancient Greece was born out of an oral tradition, one that resisted the introduction of writing and highly valued oratorical skills.

In studying this oral tradition of Ancient Greek culture, I hope to find an understanding as to how the Greeks viewed sound, the preservation of knowledge purely through speech, and the use of speech throughout their culture. To do this, I will examine articles by scholars relating to the subject and look at translated primary sources from the philosophers themselves.

The strongest examples of the Greek’s incredible ability to preserve knowledge through time come from the Homeric epics, which, despite their length and specificity, passed down from one generation to the next completely orally for centuries until writing had spread throughout the region.

Although the Greeks wrote very little intentionally describing how they practiced keeping such a massive library memorized, some inscriptions survive to tell of the intense responsibilities and training of their law keepers. Keeping with oral tradition, these scribes of law (although not enforcers of it) were expected to have the entire code memorized and ready to be recited even after writing became widespread in the ancient world. The job was highly respected, as these men were in charge of ensuring that the general populace was informed of the current laws and did so by reciting the entire code without aids.

The techniques of such individuals are also described in descriptions of their training. Although this reveals the use of devices that were well practiced during the oral era, other techniques the Greeks may not have necessarily been aware of have been uncovered by intensely analyzing the ancient works of poets such as Homer. Comparing the oral tradition of Ancient Greece with that of modern, surviving oral traditions, certain techniques vital to the society become easier to observe. The proposed method of ‘spatial memory’ seems to be widely used in epic poetry, in which the verses are not only kept track of chronologically but also spatially. Looking at how a story progresses from point A to B gives an insight to a technique that allowed both the performer and the audience to keep track of the story with relative ease, even without training.

Although writing would become common throughout Greece, the transitional period between a purely oral society and that which used and relied heavily upon writing brought about many thoughtful works from the Greek philosophers of the time that evaluated both forms of expressing and storing knowledge. For the most part, these works all criticize the use of writing as a tool for recording knowledge, often through displaying a disappointment of the gods.

For all of their criticism and resentment for the increasing prevalence of writing within the society, however, almost all of the philosophers resorted to writing their ideas down to preserve their ideas and distribute them to the population. Amazingly, only Socrates is recorded as staying true to his opinions on writing, although it was his student Plato who wrote the records down.

The transition towards writing also showed profoundly within the community of Greek orators. These individuals were highly praised for their ability to move and influence the citizens with their speeches and were incredibly effective in the ancient courthouse. Usually chosen elite individuals, they were specially trained in oratorical skills and had to be able to project their voice. During the transition into writing, however, these orators and important figures struggled to find a balance of external knowledge and power in speeches. As recorded by philosophers of the time, many who resorted to writing down speeches, whether it was to have a copy of a speech being given or to aid in memory for giving a speech, found the results were incredibly less powerful.

Annotated Bibliography 

Hall, Edith. “Splitting images: communication in classical Athens.” History Today 44.7 (1994): 41-46

The author, a lecturer in Classics at the University of Reading, discusses how ancient Athenian politicians used assemblies, theaters and courts in a very similar way to how modern politicians use radio and television. She makes connections between the tactics of presentation and how these speeches were used to motivate a base of citizens, often for political goals. She demonstrates the ability of good orators from this era by using primary sources of law trials, in which defendants often made compelling, entertaining and beautiful arguments that lead to easy freedom if the accuser was not well prepared. Using lawsuits as self-promotion, many of the greatest speakers of the time were heavily praised. Oratorical skills and the ability to project one’s voice were highly prized, although typically only selected elite citizens were trained in these areas. Hall demonstrates the importance of orality in the Ancient Greek society, which, although not focused on poetry and song, brings a comparison to Yamagata’s article on Plato’s opinions of writing during the transition.


Minchin, Elizabeth. “Spatial Memory and the Composition of the Iliad,” in Orality, Literacy, Memory in the Ancient Greek and Roman World, ed. E. Anne Mackay, 9-34. Leiden: Koninklijke Brill NV, 2007.

Written for the seventh meeting of the international Orality and Literacy conference, this piece quickly establishes a solid definition of and platform for Spatial Memory, augmented by numerous sources from others in Classical studies. The author, a Reader in Classics at The Australian National University, then goes on to describe the functions of spatial memory in the composition and performance of the oral epic songs that are associated with the Ancient Greek author Homer. By comparing these Homeric epics to oral epics found in living traditions, the Minchin proposes that Homer used spatial memory as a way of mapping out these epics and keeping track where verses went. Spatial memory as a mapping technique is finally proposed as a unintentional memory technique used by the audience in such performances as well, allowing them to follow the long epic poetry. In contrast to writing being used as a form of remembering stories and speeches, this work provides the techniques and possible advantages to the oral tradition that existed before the introduction of writing.


Cambron-Goulet, Mathilde. “The Criticism – and the Practice – of Literacy in the Ancient Philosophical Tradition,” in Orality, Literacy and Performance in the Ancient World, ed. Elizabeth Minchin, 201-226. Leiden: Koninklijke Brill NV, 2007.

In this piece, Mathilde Cambron- Goulet, a doctoral student at the University of Montreal, discusses the views of ancient philosophers on the written word and their use of such. Written for the ninth meeting of the international Orality and Literacy conference, she begins by comparing the ancients’ criticism of literacy to their use of it, using recorded opinions of writing from authors in varying time periods. From her examination of the philosophical works, she comes to the conclusion that despite so much criticism the philosophers still resorted to writing to make their ideas known. Similar to other works presented at this conference, her work discusses the written word’s value to the philosophers of the day, emphasizing the idea that those very philosophers were heavily dismissive of writing. Research into the sonic community of Ancient Greece will deal with the views on the spoken and written word, and will deal with how the culture began its shift towards writing.


Yamagata, Naoko. “Plato, Memory and Performance,” Oral Tradition 20.1 (2005): 111-129.

This article evaluates Plato’s writings, especially Ion and Phaedrus, as part of the transition in the Ancient Greek society from a purely oral to a system including writing. By looking at how Plato represented the performance of poetry and speeches, Naoko Yamagata shows how performance was both memorized and written, and how the Greeks regarded the two forms. This article adds an additional perspective to the works of Hall and Cambron-Goulet, who focus on oration and criticism of writing, respectively, by revealing some of the opinions held during the transitional period between the oral and written eras in Ancient Greece.  Yamagata is a lecturer in Classical Studies at Open University, UK, where her research primarily focuses on Homer.


Carawan, Edwin. “What the Mnemones Know,” in Orality, Literacy, Memory in the Ancient Greek and Roman World, ed. E. Anne Mackay, 163-183. Leiden: Koninklijke Brill NV, 2007.

The author, a professor of classics at the University of Texas, starts off the article reviewing the multiple translations and restorations of a pillar of law that, while damaged, still provides a great insight to the writers and keepers of the laws of the Ancient Greek world. The different translations all differ slightly, although ultimately they all describe the roles of the Mnemones, individuals who were in charge of recording the law even before the introduction of writing. In the second part of the article, Carawan describes the techniques and training of the Mnemones pre-writing and afterwards with writing as an aid. He then continues with the roles of the Mnemones in the society, and the decree issued during the late written period that made the Mnemones essential in resolving civil conflicts. The techniques used by these scribes of law are attributed to the Greek poets of the time, connecting this article to the works of the poets and displaying how techniques so prevalent in the oral recitation of law slowly adapted with the introduction of writing.

One thought on “The Power of Orality

  1. This is very interesting given our recent study of deaf culture and the desire for it to be disregarded as a disability. Do you know of the role of deaf people in any other cultures? I’d be interested to know if their view about the deaf was mainly due to the Greeks’ stress on oration or something that was just generally practiced because of the time period.

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