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How Do We Know That Epic Poems Were Recited from Memory? (jstor.org)
160 points by vo2maxer on March 3, 2020 | hide | past | favorite | 61 comments

I read some of the classic epics before learning about their mode of delivery and memorization, and was a bit perplexed at some of the repetitions and formulae.

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.

Reggae dancehall is similar. It's very much based around live performances and the deejays will usually have lines and verses they can use over riddims of differing tempos and keys or will adapt their own songs to whatever riddim the selector chooses.

Yep, all of the "wine-dark sea"s and "rosy-fingered dawn"s might have worked as filler while the poet was queueing up the next part of the narrative.

kennings, as this game is called in anglo-saxon, aren’t filler per se. Though they are also a memory aide (for the poet and the audience), they are primarily part of the way the skill of a scop (bard/epic poet) was judged was by how cleverly he could choose the right kenning for the mood and meter of where in the poem he was.

A saxon kenning for poet is “story-weaver”, and that’s actually very apt.

Yes, it reminds me of the "memory palace" trick that's taught for remembering e.g. numbers by associating them with a series of images. And similar tricks with "themes", audible or visual, are still used for particular characters in some modern media.

yes. and for long works like Beowulf that were told episodically, the repetition of events serves the same purpose as the 90-second “last time on dragon ball Z...” recaps of fight hilights.

That's interesting, where can I read more about this?

There's probably a lot of literature out there. I like the scholarly essays that accompany Chickering's translation of Beowulf -- maybe start there and follow the reference trail if you get sucked in.

ISBN-13: 978-1400096220

Wine-colored sea is a different story, I think. I've seen other languages also describe the sea as red, orange, etc. This is more of a situation with color naming: cultures separate colors on the spectrum into named categories in a more or less consistent way (e.g. blue and green come apart towards the end, and some languages still have the two merged). Red is one of the first colors to be named.

Apparently there is still scholarly debate around this topic: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Linguistic_relativity_and_the_...

yes, that could be true. but the point still stands, that the repetition of certain phrases, even if they understood colours differently than modern audiences, still served the purpose of aideing memory and familiarity among the storyteller and the audience.

The "bard" usually also had an instrument, so it's highly likely that if he was having trouble composing/recalling the next few stanzas, he may have stalled for time by performing an interlude on his lute.

Today, we attach error correcting codes to digital data. The first I learned about was the parity bit on RS232 transmission. The bits of each byte had to add up to a certain value, or the byte was wrong.

Another linguistic example would be the military phonetic alphabet, which intentionally adds extra syllables to each letter for the purpose of making them easily distinguishable even over noisy lines.

Alvaro de Menard wrote an excellent summary of the long debate surrounding the Who was Homer? question. In his article [1] de Menard describes how Parry’s hypothesis accounted for aspects of the Iliad and Odyssey that could not be explained cleanly by prior theories.

[1]: https://fantasticanachronism.com/2020/01/17/having-had-no-pr... "Having Had No Predecessor to Imitate, He Had No Successor Capable of Imitating Him"

Thank you, that is a much better article on the subject.

Yes, fantastic article! Should be submitted as such.

This is how the books of the Odyssey are structured:



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.

This is called a Chiastic structure (from the greek letter chi which looks like an X - i.e., the shape the chiastic structure makes if you indent each succeeding level).


"These often symmetrical patterns are commonly found in ancient literature such as the epic poetry of the Iliad and the Odyssey."

I've been thinking about this and Shakespeare's King Lear may be an example of this as well.

Also in Milton's Paradise Lost, I believe.

Charybdis (a whirpool) and Scylla (a multi-headed monster) was the same episode in Homer's Odyssey. That was the whole point of the episode: Ulysses had to decide whether to risk his entire ship and crew or definitely sacrificing a few for guaranteed passage of the rest. The classic trolley dilemma for an audience of bronze-age seafarers.

Or perhaps I read a completely different "Odyssey" by a different "Homer"?

Your memory is likely faulty, or you may have read an abridged version.

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.

You might have? Odysseus chooses Scylla, but then is punished by Zeus after his crew slaughters the Oxen of the Sun; his ship is destroyed and he is sent on its timbers back to Charybdis.

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'm unsure of your point here--isn't memorizing the text itself much harder than knowing this kind of high level structure, which I venture many people had/have no conscious awareness of anyway?

I don't know about this particular case, but I have some (weak, anecdotal) evidence that at least sometimes the high-level structure is harder to remember robustly than the details.

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.


1. n=1.

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.

compare learning a dozen songs to memorizing a particular order you want to perform them in.

I think that the oration of these poems might be akin to jazz playing, where a musician knows the broad, basic structure of a work and fills it in with improvisation.

So then, “the” canonical version of eg the Iliad is just one version that was recorded, and it would have actually varied across the different retellings?

Oh, yeah, we don't even have a canonical version of _Hamlet_, let alone for oral poems from the 8th century BC.

Also akin to freestyle rap, where the storyteller knows the beats of the tale they're telling, and comes up with a particular rhyme on-the-fly for each sentence by following the structure of the verse.

How very daring, comparing dear homer to freestyle rap.

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.

> Personally, I think this means the opposite of recitation.

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.

Is the the chronological order of the events? Because the Odyssey is told in a different order.

I don't think that I can correct the original post at this point, but I meant "episodes" not "books."

Yes, this is the order of the journey, not the book order.

A very important aspect that Parry and Murko uncovered is that _music_ was the thing that helped them memorize these incredibly long works. The guslari played a one string "gusle" (iirc) and recited the work along with a song.

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.

Did scholars really believe that verbal transmission of poetry/religious was rare? It's a well documented trait of tons of Proto-Indo-European cultures such as Celtic, Norse, Germanic, Greek, Iranian, and Indic.

Not to mention the fact that oral transmission never stopped[1][2]. But I think the point isn't that they didn't believe there were epic poems being recited from memory, only that this particular epic, the Iliad and Odyssey, was in doubt. Whether it was a single (or dual) oral epic, or it was a compilation of other poems that didn't come together until after it was written down.

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.

[1] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=i2Inv_zv6xQ

[2] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TCEglqZmQZc

No, traditions of oral transmission was well known at the time, especially for illiterate cultures. The question was if Homer was composed and transmitted orally.

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.

There's even a Platonic dialogue, the "Ion", in which Socrates converses with a rhapsode whose entire life career is reciting Homer. Seems unlikely that Plato would just make up something like that from whole cloth.

missing the mark by half a millenium at least though

It’s funny how much we limit our understanding of the past by our own current limits.

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.

I've always found Pathas fascinating-


> This also provides us with an elegant explanation for the Bellerophon story: epic poetry preserved the idea of writing even though the technology had been lost for over 500 years

Wait, what?

The ancient Greek civilization was one of the only ones to have lost writing. Linear A and Linear B were the original forms; the current Greek alphabet was adopted later based on the Phoenician one.

See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Greek_Dark_Ages

what? How can you speak of the civilization, as if them were unified at either of these points in times?

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.

God I love heroic epithets. I wish they would come back in modern life: “swiftly coding Dylan” or “ceaselessly refactoring Anna”

suchlike do exist in literature (Dennis the mennace?), and occosionally in artist names (Evil Knevil, Zedric the Entertainer, Slick Rick, Ghostface Killah, L[adies] L[ove] cool J.) and I'm sure some exist in the specific pattern you suggested though I don't remember any.

Reddit-memes are full of these, too, bad luck Brian for example.

And Jane likesbynames Doe is a known productive pattern as well.

"The Singers and their Epic Songs" Murko 1928:


I saw a documentary about 10 years ago featuring an older Irish speaker who could recite Gaelic-language epic tales from memory. Not sure if they were poems, but they were kind of sing-songy (and required a younger man, a professor of Irish literature, to serve as an interpreter on camera).

Some information here about the tradition:


Interestingly, AFAIK, when it was told the Finnish epic, the Kalevala, was not even memorized. Well, parts of it at least. Rune singers were improvising some/most of it as they were singing the story. And they were improvising lines that had to respect the meter. And it's poetry, so it had to use alliteration.

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.

The Homeric epics and Homeric Hymns were written down in a "public works" event by Peisistratos in 6th century BC Athens [1] -- for the new institution of the panathenic festival. Both the oral culture and literate transmission of Homer are worth celebrating!

[1] https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Peisistratos

ugh what's up with writing an article about a book without saying the name of the book? It's The Singer of Tales

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)

> Though saturated in corporate narratives and televisual plots, we evidently still make up songs about heroes.

Love this.

I see the article meant to educate readers in to put in a perspective. I'm not able to grasp it. Would you help me out

I’m assuming English is a second language for you, and I will piece together the author’s assumptions for you as best I can. Please forgive incorrect assumptions.

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.

Thanks for the details. I would like to chat more, I tried to type here but content were going out of context, if you are interested email me at svetrivel.91 @ gmail.com.

I’m just a translator, I don’t have any particular interest the subject. So don’t think I’m ignoring you when I don’t email. :-)

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