Then I learned that, for example, some characters would have multiple epithets (grey-eyed, neat-ankled, all-seeing, etc) that in Greek would be selected essentially not because they were the best descriptor, but because they were the ones that would complete the line within the meter! So if there were two extra syllables, the reciter would use one of these, but if there were three extra, they could use one of the other two.
There are a bunch of these formulaic sayings, lines, or even entire little episodes, that could be recited to gain a little time to remember the next part, or speed up the action if the audience was flagging, and so on. The entire form was structured around live performance and improvisation. That was really revelatory for me.
Naturally they lose something in being recorded in static form - retaining other forms of natural beauty and (as hnaa points out in another comment) their symmetry, symbolism and meta-construction. Still such a pleasure to read!
> In the folk tradition, there are many traditional blues verses that have been sung over and over by many artists. Blues singers, who include many country and folk artists as well as those commonly identified with blues singers, use these traditional lyrics to fill out their blues performances. Artists like Jimmie Rodgers, the "blue yodeler", and Big Joe Turner, "the Boss of the Blues" compiled virtual encyclopedias of lyrics. Turner reputedly could sing the blues for hours without repeating himself.
> Although many blues songs, such as "Jelly Jelly" or "St. Louis Blues" are composed in the usual fashion with lyrics focusing on a single theme and telling a story, many others, like "Roll 'Em Pete" or "T for Texas" combine one or two new verses with a flock of traditional ones.
> Traditional blues verses are most common in twelve bar blues with the characteristic repeated first line (indicated here by x2).
> See that spider crawlin' up that wall (x2)
> He's crawlin up there to get his ashes hauled.
> If you see me comin', heist your window high (x2)
> If you see me goin', baby, hang your head and cry.
Similar problem, similar solution.
A saxon kenning for poet is “story-weaver”, and that’s actually very apt.
Apparently there is still scholarly debate around this topic:
: https://fantasticanachronism.com/2020/01/17/having-had-no-pr... "Having Had No Predecessor to Imitate, He Had No Successor Capable of Imitating Him"
1. Kikones (innocent city is ambushed)
2. Lotus Eaters (temptation, delay)
3. Cyclops (monster)
4. Aeolus (greedy crew delays journey)
5. Laestrygonians (monster)
6. Circe (temptation)
8. Sirens (temptation)
9. Scylla (monster)
10. Cattle/Sun (greedy crew delays journey)
11. Charybdis (monster)
12. Calypso (temptation, delay)
13. Phaecia (innocent city is ambushed)
The episodes make a perfect reflection across the Hades episode; Circe and Sirens are both forms of temptation, Scylla and Laestrygonians are both monsters, etc. Also notice the smaller reflections inside of this large one: Scylla and Charybdis are similar monsters in the same way that the Cyclops is similar to the Laestrygonians.
It's perhaps easier to remember a number like 12140904121 than it is to remember a series of random digits.
"These often symmetrical patterns are commonly found in ancient literature such as the epic poetry of the Iliad and the Odyssey."
Or perhaps I read a completely different "Odyssey" by a different "Homer"?
Odysseus first has to choose between Charybdis and Scylla. He and his (surviving) crew pass Scylla and reach the isle of the sun-god. There, the crew kill and eat the cattle, angering the gods. When they depart, a storm pushes their foundering ship back to Charybdis, which only Odysseus escapes, drifting while clinging to the remains of his ship's mast.
I wonder if there's a good term for when people confuse what an element in a popular work is most famous for for the actual details of that work. Call it the "Play it again, Sam" fallacy.
I saw an amateur pianist sit down to play (a solo piano version of) Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue". He took from his pocket a bit of paper containing, not the actual score of the piece, but a lot of things of the form "Starts in Bb major", "Modulates to F major", "twiddly bit", and so on. Having put that in front of him, he proceeded to play the whole piece. Correctly, so far as I know.
2. "Rhapsody in Blue" is probably an extreme example of a piece where this sort of thing would be useful. Here's a wonderful quotation from Leonard Bernstein: "The Rhapsody is not a composition at all. It's a string of separate paragraphs stuck together. The themes are terrific, inspired, God-given. I don't think there has been such an inspired melodist on this earth since Tchaikovsky. But if you want to speak of a composer, that's another matter. Your Rhapsody in Blue is not a real composition in the sense that whatever happens in it must seem inevitable. You can cut parts of it without affecting the whole. You can remove any of these stuck-together sections and the piece still goes on as bravely as before. It can be a five-minute piece or a twelve-minute piece. And in fact, all these things are being done to it every day. And it's still the Rhapsody in Blue."
3. This was years and years ago -- either 1987 or 1988 -- and my memory may be unreliable.
4. The amateur pianist in question was a teenager; maybe memory develops and/or degenerates with age in ways that would make this less relevant for adults.
5. Music versus poetry.
But it seems plausible to me. I have never memorized anything within three orders of magnitude of the length of the Odyssey or the Iliad, but e.g. when I was a stupid child I learned ~100 digits of pi, I learned them in 10-digit chunks, and right now I think I can remember what all the chunks were but I wouldn't want to place any bets on getting them in the right order. Of course digits of pi are more or less random and epic poems have narrative structure -- but making use of that narrative structure is exactly what GP is talking about doing.
I don't disagree, but have to say freestyle is ideally song-writing in real time. Personally, I think this means the opposite of recitation. In practice, it is just-in-time and thus very repetetive (I'm happy I managed to make this comment HN on-topic! Thoughts?).
Therefore, it's as variable as any writing, though the constraints may require certain techniques and methods. I don't know, there's a reason freestyle battles aren't hugely popular. Many battle shows are pre-written. One can easily tell the difference. I won't say that's cheating, but will judge it according to expectations.
It's practically no different from regular discourse, ranging from repetitive, casual or formulaic small talk over thought out hacker news comments--I made a draft of this one in my head and am anxious I forgot something, or add too much--or a team meeting with the boss at work, up to legal procedures where the "oral" statements are frequently read out from paper, drafted by a team of experts, or even just submitted as briefs in congress to be bundled with the plenar protocol.
The only difference is the meter, which is not even rigidly up-held in modern poetry slams, nevertheless prosody is an important part of natural language (for lack of a better word).
Prosody in writing should be an interesting topic. Perhaps that's why my writing tends to be hard to read, as I'm a second language learner without much oral experience these days.
Possibly true, but my point was that Epic Poems would not have been transmitted merely by recitation of exact learned words, but by a rhapsodist learning the story and internalizing it.
Then it would be conveyed as a mixture of repeated learned verses and freestyle improvisation of parts of the story; that would explain how completely new sections appear in the different versions of epic poems.
Some of the guslari bards could not perform the recitation without their instrument.
And, fwiw, I recall that some assert that the guslari bards were all illiterate. It has been asserted (not by me) that literacy interferes with the guslari activity of memorizing and replaying enormous epics.
Check out Ted Goia "A Subversive History of Music" for an overview - but there is a lot of other scholarship on this.
If there was indeed someone spreading a myth that ancient people weren't smart enough to recite a poem like the Iliad, I doubt it was said in an academic context and was instead ideology. An arrogance akin to the oft repeated claim that people once thought the world was flat.
The question is valid for Homer because a lot of works from antiquity was composed in writing. E.g the Histories of Herodot was composed in writing by a single person, and transmitted by reading aloud from text.
If the different narrators riffed and improvised based on the formula, then there might never have been a single "Homer" at all. These questions are far from settled.
Back in the days I had quite old teachers who knew few dozens long poems by heart and most of them learnt in their youth.
I think that the way we manage our memory and the context as well as the ratio short/long term memory demands scoped to that context is totally different and is diverging from old times.
As for the writing, there are many instances of long novels where the author radically changes the style even nowadays.
Last but not least, we have inherited a disfigured version of those epics. The originals sung by their authors are long gone. Thus the iterative divergence by the following generations of bards in terms of style and even in addition/deletion is inevitable.
Koine probably marked unification at least in writing, not earlier than 300 BC if I recall correctly.
On top of that, Linear A is not even clearly identified yet.
A very interesting topic.
Reddit-memes are full of these, too, bad luck Brian for example.
And Jane likesbynames Doe is a known productive pattern as well.
Some information here about the tradition:
They could memorize thousands of lines of poetry, and improvise it on the go, all while singing to a melody. I think that's pretty badass, quite frankly.
Also how do you write this article without using the word 'epithet'? The whole book is about epithets
Best modern oral work using epithets is Brad Neely's wizard people (listen to it without the video, the video only detracts)
It had been assumed that Homer’s “writings” were indeed written down by whoever was Homer. Whether Homer was one person, or a collection of writers collectively named Homer, is the subject of debate. But it has been widely assumed that it was initially written down, and not passed orally, because no one can remember that much. Turns out...
So one dude makes recordings of more modern oral traditions, and concludes that Homeric writings very well could have been initially oral. And then the dude dies young and under mysterious circumstances.
As personal commentary, the argument against passing the story orally forgets that just about all Buddhist writings started out as oral and not written (as one example).
I hope that is helpful for you.