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.




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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Commonality and Repetition

After beginning ones college life, it is very easy to notice all that is perceived can be boiled down into two categories: that which is static, and that which is changing. Static perceptions can be seen as constant, but not in the sense that there is no break from their presence. These perceptions are, instead, repetitive and dull from achieving a label of ‘usual’. Even the most chaotic of environments, given time, can morph into background static. Taking from the work of Karen Bijsterveld, quoting Doron K. Antrim, “‘the ear tends to follow’ the agreeable ‘regular tonal pulsations’ of music and ‘ to forget’ the irritating and fatiguing ‘regular pulsations’ of noise” (Bijsterveld 156). The audiography I have assembled, Static, explores the constant sounds of my life and the way I listen to these sounds.

Tracks like “That Darn Alarm”, “Morning Shower” and “Genetics Homework” are examples of sounds that, while being heard and recognized, do not entirely register. The shower, the sounds of pencil on paper and the alarm, used solely by my roommate, are all sounds that I no longer pay attention to, simply because of their lack of importance and, in the case of the alarm, because I rarely get up when my roommate does. In the words of Set Horowitz, “[I] keep most sounds off [my] cognitive radar unless they might be of use as a signal” (Horowitz, 4). Static sounds that hold no importance to me often go unnoticed, even if they are heard.

There are two examples of ambiance included in my audiography, displaying two different settings that are experienced in similar ways. While the background noise in my room tends to be quiet at times, the Marche is loud and full of voices and music. As different as these environments are, I ‘hear’ similarly in both. The sounds of the radiator and wind outside are dimmed out just as the conversations and music are in the Marche. Both of the sounds experienced in these areas, heard on an everyday basis, have little significance and are diminished to give way to other sounds that I may cognitively find important.

The track “Suitemate Playing Guitar” is an example of a sound that is heard often in my suite. My suitemate likes serenades us with songs he has written (or like this case, songs we have requested) and often I have found myself semiconsciously using the character of his songs as an indicator for his mood. This act of using semantic listening, something Chion describes as listening for “a code or language to interpret a message” (Chion, 50), is one way the common sounds of my life and translated into something meaningful.

Practice” is a track capturing the work I do at the music center on a daily basis. The amount of time spent playing the instrument have left me familiar with it and the music, but unlike the other examples, the familiarity with the sounds has not left me unaware to what is being played. On the contrary, I often listen harder to understand what I am playing and what must be done to improve my interpretation of the piece. Another example of semantic listening, I often pull meaning from the emotions the composer is trying to convey through the music to try and better perform the pieces. Using causal listening, which Chion describes as“listening to a sound in order to gather information about its cause or source” (Chion, 48), I often have to identify what is being played wrong in order to fix it. The variety of listening methods used while practicing make practicing it something common but not off the radar.

The sounds that are heard on a common basis often go unnoticed, often existing in the background but given no thought. Some are continuous, others are repetitive, but most of these sounds are ignored to leave more room to focus on sounds that we are unaccustomed to. When we do listen to the sounds we have diminished in recognition, we employ a variety of techniques suited to analyze and process the sounds, in the hope that we may gleam meaning from the underlying patterns and repetitions.


Works Cited

Bijsterveld, Karin. “Listening to Machines.” The Sound Studies Reader. Jonathan Sterne. New York: Routledge, 2012. 152-167. Print.

Chion, Michel. “The Three Listening Modes.” The Sound Studies Reader. Jonathan Sterne. New York: Routledge, 2012. 48-53. Print.

Horowitz, Seth. “The Science and Art of Listening.” New York Times. 9 Nov 2012. Web.



Frederick Douglass Soundscape

Frederick Douglass’s “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass” describes the world of slavery through the eyes of a man who managed to escape his chains and become a part of the movement against slavery. Turning his narrative into a film, however, will require a detailed soundscape to augment the visuals. Taking from Douglass’s recollections, a soundscape can be constructed to view antebellum America through the eyes of a slave. This soundscape must convey the powerful characteristics of singing, pain, and the silence of free labor, all as Douglass portrays them in his work.

The opening of the film will take place when Douglass was younger and still living on the plantation. The first frames of the film will focus on swaying crops, with no evidence of the plantation itself. Sounds of the crops swaying in a gentile breeze will give a sense of calm. Sounds of the slaves in the fields, working and singing solemnly will fade in, followed visually by a scythe cutting through the crop. The singing, although completely new to the viewer, should embody the collective sadness of the slaves and stir emotion. Douglass’s recollection of his “first glimmering conception of the dehumanizing character of slavery” (Douglass, 8) should be evident in the singing, through the use of slow and labored tempo, of single voices to emulate loneliness, and of clear pain in the voices. The singing continues as shots of the plantation are showed, eventually focusing on the character Douglass as a child.

As we continue to follow him, the muffled sound of whip cracks and an overseer shouting slowly fade in, almost beyond the awareness of the viewer. As Douglass enters a kitchen, the painful sounds of his aunt being whipped are brought out from the filter and become obvious, to a painful extent for the viewer.  The earlier, peaceful sounds of the plantation fade behind this filter, focusing attention to the sounds of the whip, ”horrid oaths” from the overseer, and the shrieking aunt present the scene which Douglass calls “a horrible exhibition” (Douglass, 4). As the sounds of the “bloody scenes that often occurred on the plantation” (Douglass, 5) sink in, we hear Douglass as narrator enter with “His presence was painful; his eye flashed confusion; and seldom was his sharp, shrill voice heard, without producing horror and trembling to the ranks” (Douglass 13). Though this, Douglass can describe the pains of slavery.

Now later in Douglass’s life in New Bedford, Massachusetts, the camera displays the wharf, while the soundscape is rich with that typical of the setting: there is the constant sound of seagulls and people working and talking, and of the water as it splashes against the sides of the ships and the wharf. As the camera focuses on Douglass, new to the whole setting, the sounds of the wharf and the laborers become quieter, augmenting Douglass’s narration of “Almost every body seemed at work, but noiselessly so, compared with what I had been accustomed to in Baltimore” (Douglass 67). To Douglass, the lack of servitude and painful submission in these laborers makes their work comfortable and silent, without the sounds of desperation and anguish. As Douglass states, “Every man appeared to understand his work, and went at it with a sober, yet cheerful earnestness, which betokened the deep interest which he felt in what he was doing, as well as a sense of his own dignity as a man” (Douglass 67). Quieting the surrounding environment that Douglass finds himself in allows the viewer to experience the confusion of free sounds as Douglass did, lessening the world around him.

To accurately describe a work filled with painful and inspiring images through sound, one must recreate the emotions originally felt by the author. In doing this with Frederick Douglass, we construct a soundscape terrifying with its pain, sadness and cruelty, but uplifting with hope. The overwhelmingly negative sounds, from the whips to the solemn singing, lead way to a found silence in freedom, and from here we can see Douglass’s ability to shape a lighter path ahead.



Works Cited

Douglass, Frederick. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass. New York: Dover Publications, 1995. Print.