epics and oral traditions

Allen Thrasher athr at loc.gov
Fri Jun 6 17:46:32 UTC 1997

Dan Lusthaus has given several excellent examples of the powers of human
memory to preserve compositions word for word.  He also accurately points
out that writing gives no guarantee of verbal fixity.  The problem remains
however that the verified examples of verbatim memorization of large texts
come from societies that are literate, and further from groups that are
quite intensely literate, although the memorization of compositions
with neither the teacher nor the pupil having a written text open in front
of him plays an extremely important part in their culture.  What we need
to know whether it is likely or not that the hymns of the Vedas or other
compositions supposedly first composed and then handed down for many
generations without the use of writing at all is examples of similar
things happening in modern times in illiterate cultures (or maybe
subcultures) in which one version was performed and transcribed (by
writing) or recorded (by electronic means) and checked against later
performances for verbal identity or at least something approaching it.
Ong and other students maintain there are no such examples, but perhaps
someone else has found them.

Feats of memorization in highly literate cultures are by no means
uncommon.  In Jesuit schools in the early centuries of that order a common
punishment for misbehavior was to stay behind in the classroom until one
had learned a hundred lines of Latin verse.  My own great great
grandfather is said in family tradition to have known the King James Bible
by heart.  Contra Plato, writing does not weaken memory as long as one
takes pains to exercise memory.

Allen W. Thrasher

The opinions expressed do not represent those of my employer.

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