Storytelling and the Greek Oral Tradition

The gold burial mask of known as the Mask of Agamemnon, on display in Athens

Xuan Che / Flickr / CC BY 2.0

The rich and heroic period when the events of the "Iliad" and the "Odyssey" took place is known as the Mycenaean Age. Kings built strongholds in well-fortified cities on hilltops. The period when Homer sang the epic stories and when, shortly after, other talented Greeks (Hellenes) created new literary/musical forms—like lyric poetry—is known as the Archaic Age, which comes from a Greek word for "beginning" (arche). Between these two periods was a mysterious "dark age" when, somehow, the people of the area lost the ability to write. Thus, Homer's epics are part of an oral tradition which passed down history, custom, law, and culture through spoken word rather than written.

Rhapsodes: Generations of Storytellers

We know very little about what cataclysm put an end to the powerful society we see in the Trojan War stories. Since the "Iliad" and "Odyssey" were eventually written down, it should be emphasized that they came out of the earlier oral period, proliferated by word of mouth alone. It is thought that the epics we know today are the result of generations of storytellers (a technical term for them is rhapsodes) passing on the material until finally, somehow, someone wrote it. The specifics of this structure are among the myriad details we don't know from this legendary age.

Keeping Culture and History Alive

An oral tradition is the vehicle by which information is passed from one generation to the next in the absence of writing or a recording medium. In the days before near-universal literacy, bards would sing or chant their people's stories. They employed various (mnemonic) techniques to aid both in their own memory and to help their listeners keep track of the story. This oral tradition was a way to keep the history or culture of the people alive, and since it was a form of storytelling, it was a popular form of entertainment.

Mnemonic Devices, Improv, and Memorization

The Brothers Grimm and Milman Parry (and, because Parry died young, his assistant Alfred Lord, who carried on his work) are some of the big names in the academic study of the oral tradition. Parry discovered there were formulas (mnemonic devices, literary devices, and figurative language still used today) that bards used which allowed them to create part-improvised, part-memorized performances.