The Oral Tradition of Ancient Greece

The oral tradition found in Ancient Greek culture is related to a theme of belonging and identity in that for centuries it was how the Greeks retained both their wisdom and distinctive society.  Although my research will also look at the techniques used by the Greeks for remembering so much, it focuses on the great esteem that orality was held to. The way orality was viewed both before and after the introduction of writing displays just how important it was to the Greek culture, which is shown in the writings of philosophers like Socrates and stone inscriptions found within the ancient courthouses. The great Homeric Epics that were passed down for generations through the oral exchange of ancient minstrels reflect the Greeks ability to remember great amounts of data, and how such data can change its meaning through centuries of playing telephone.

Coming from two Austrian classics professors, this audio file exemplifies how Homer’s epics would have likely been performed. Although very little survived to show us how exactly the poems were meant to be performed, this clip displays their work figuring out the likely instrumentation, melody and pronunciation of the works that are central to the idea of Greek oral tradition. The painting The School of Athens, by Raphael, also demonstrates the idea of knowledge and identity within the Ancient greek culture. The work depicts the great minds of Greece, with the central figures of Plato and Aristotle.

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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.

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