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Sharing Oral Traditions

TellingGenres In Oral Literature

Scholars working with orally transmitted information have identified a number of broad genres. Scholars define the genres by both function and form. Not every society has each of the genres. Scholars often approach these genres as different types of oral literature (a seeming oxymoron that acknowledges the creative energy involved in the preparation of oral texts), so different are they in form and function. Genres of oral literature include epics and sagas, panegyrics, prose stories, lyric poems, ritual songs, and genealogies. While all transmit knowledge, the genres do have different but sometimes overlapping functions.

Epics and sagas.

More narrow definitions of oral tradition often limit it to epics and sagas. Epics, defined by the use of poetics, and sagas, prose, serve as foundational texts for societies. They tell the stories of the culture heroes who create society, of the origins of civilized behavior, of the creation of heaven and earth and the people who populate it. Epics (used hereafter for convenience) sometimes tell history. Other times they reveal God's or the gods' design to humans.

Perhaps the epics best known to Western readers are the Iliad and the Odyssey, which date in their recorded form to about the eighth century B.C.E. Classical Greek authorities named a bard called Homer as their author. They exhibit, however, characteristics that define them as oral literature. They are recorded as verse with many elements of repetition. While they are historical, as opposed to sacral, they serve as foundation texts for ancient Greek ideas of civilization and culture. They focus on the deeds of "great men" and the ways the gods intervene in the affairs of people. The structure of the Odyssey—the plight of a "wanderer" and his spouse who must wait for him—follows a structure found in many other epics in other cultures and times. The question for these epics comes from their transcription. Were they the production of one or two authors who worked with oral literature but made the finished products their own (given, of course, the possibility of changes to the texts in later copies)? Or are the epics in their present form truly composite examples of oral literature in which no guiding author can be seen in form as well as narrative? Such debates have also animated scholars when they consider sacred texts such as parts of both the Old and New Testaments as well as texts from India and China. Clearly, many of these texts, for example the Torah or first five books of the Bible, began as oral literature, functioning as creation myths that define the proper relationship between God and humanity.

Understanding the nature of the question of authorship requires understanding oral traditions, and especially epics, not just as texts but as performances. Over the centuries since Homer and the codification of the Torah, records have come down on the transcription of oral performances and the preparation for them by performers. Each time the song is sung, the tale told, the epic performed, it changes. Bards often served as more than just entertainers. Telling the tale, singing the song involved making a link with the audience, and giving the audience what it came to hear or admonishing the audience for what it has failed to do.

Tellers and performers usually plan such variations in advance to make their point or curry favor with their audience. Jan Jansen tells of witnessing the preparations for the performance—which happens once every seven years—of the Sundiata epic of the Mande people at the shrine of Kamabolon at Kangaba in the Republic of Mali. The epic tells of the founding of the Malian empire in the fourteenth century. The Diabate griots, or bards, members of the clan that supplied Sundiata with his griot, perform the full epic in the sanctuary as it has a new roof placed on it by a newly initiated age group. The only others present in the sanctuary are members of the Kieta, or royal, clan of the old empire. Outsiders may not see or record the actual ceremony. Griots tell the epic itself throughout the region, but the people hold the version told at Kangaba as the orthodox version, filled with secrets. Jansen, an outsider, attended the many practice sessions for the performance, as did almost anyone who wanted to. He reports that the griots debated quite intensely the wording and arrangement of the performance and the significance of its message. At the performance itself, Jansen noted that the griots cut it somewhat short. The performance, for a collection of royal clan members who had all heard it before, lacked the immediacy of the rehearsals, which featured the necessity both of working out the correct version of the epic among the professionals and of getting it right for the visitors who had come out of interest.

Even in cases where the performer is clearly subordinate to the intended audience, the performance of oral tradition creates a social persona for the performer. In most cases the performance creates society and social norms through linking people, communities, and institutions together. Whether the recitation of the Mansa Jigin, the Mande "gathering of kings," that confirms the centrality of the empire of Mali for the far-flung Mande peoples in diaspora all across West Africa (and in the early twenty-first century, New York and Paris), or the recital of a clan history at a funeral in central Tanzania by the heir to the deceased that recreates the ties of kinship and marriage linking people together across the region, oral traditions as performed generate community.

While epics and sagas are foundational documents akin to scripture in preliterate societies (and indeed scribes have sometimes converted them into scripture), they have component parts that bards stitch together (a direct translation from the ancient Greek of the bard's art). These components comprise some of the other genres of oral tradition. Bards can often recombine or condense or elaborate using these elements in the telling, combining them in different ways to fit audience and occasion. Taken as a whole, an epic is often no more than the most expansive collection of such components held together by the unity of theme and sometimes character.


One of the most interesting and historic of these genres is the praise poem. This type of poetry, the panegyric, is found in a wide variety of societies. These poems are often composed for specific occasions, as happens among the Xhosa people of southern Africa. However, while the metaphors and similes used in them may sometimes be tropes of deep cultural significance, in particular cases praise poems become linked to particular historic figures, and hence become an important part of a culture's historic memory. The following quote comes from the praise poem of Shaka, the founder of the Zulu kingdom in South Africa in the early nineteenth century:

Shaka went and erected temporary huts
Between the Nsuze and the Thukela,
In the country of Nyanya son of Manzawane;
He ate up Mantondo son of Tazi,
He felt him tasteless and spat him out,
He devoured Sihayo.
He who came dancing on the hillside of the Phuthiles,
And he overcame Msikazi among the Ndimoshes.
He met a long line of hah-de-dahs [ibis birds]
When he was going to destroy the foolish Pondos;
Shaka did not raid herds of cattle,
He raided herds of buck. (Owomoyela, p. 15)

These lines tell of several of the peoples and rulers Shaka conquered. Praise poems can then become one of the building blocks of epics, but in many cases they themselves become the most important form of historic memory. Cases where the elements of oral tradition do not coalesce into epics are more common than those where they do.


Stories, whether called folktales, fables, or even oral history, often serve the function of oral tradition. People use them to impart moral lessons and to promote a feeling of group solidarity through a sense of common history. They can be told in formal situations, such as initiation rituals or informally, such as around the hearth. Stories often tell moral tales, and sometimes they use structures, plots, and motifs spread quite widely across different cultures. However, with the addition of appropriate cultural detail, they also can refer to very specific episodes in local historical memory. As tellers tell and retell the story, it changes to provide a community with an agreed-upon explanation for the topic of the story. For example, in central Tanzania among the Gogo people, elders tell a story of something they say happened during the most serious famine in their history during World War I. A group of people fled hunger in their village to seek food from the newly established British administration in the wake of the East African campaign. They received no food at the administrative headquarters nor from the merchants in the small town along the rail line. They decided to camp for the night in a dry gully under the railroad tracks before trying to find food again the next day. That night a rainstorm filled the gully, and they all drowned. This author collected twenty-five versions of this story from throughout the region in Tanzania. While some details varied, all but one agreed that it occurred sometime between 1917 and 1919. The one outlier came from an elder who had been a colonial-era chief. He said he had known the people to which this tragedy had occurred and that it had happened not during World War I but during a famine several years later. As he was adamant, knowledgeable, and could name names, this author believes the former chief's oral history is "true." But the oral tradition created by the people out of this event encapsulates a complete explanation of colonial rule in the region. The people were conquered and ruled by Europeans who fought among themselves during World War I and killed many. They were exploited by an ever expanding market economy. Given these disruptions to the social order, they were abandoned by the forces of nature that first brought drought and then killed them with too much rain. Hence, the story became part of an agreed-upon explanation for colonial rule, and in memory they moved it back in time to the worst famine of their history.

As with panegyrics, some societies stitch such stories together to form epics. Stories such as this, though, often stand alone; and many societies never develop full-blown epics. Groups within societies often have their own sets of stories that emphasize their own particular place within society and relationship to other groups in it. Often, for example, women tell stories markedly different from those told by men, and they often tell them in contexts reserved for women alone. These stories, which may emphasize gender solidarity or debunk the claims made for well-known characters in other stories, are often labeled by men or other dominant groups as fables or as untrue. Just as much as stories told by men or dominant groups, though, they represent an agreed-upon explanation for why the world is the way that it is.

Ritual songs and lyric poetry.

Songs and lyric poetry function much like stories in that they focus on particular events or situations. Like stories, they are sometimes historic but often fabulist. They change as bards and singers change them to fit audiences and circumstances. While they are often individual performances, groups can also perform them. The demands of meter and music impose a certain stability on them, especially those performed by groups. Work songs and ritual songs fall into this category. Work songs can consist sometimes of little more than a few lines repeated rhythmically for as long as the task lasts, but they can also impart moral or historic lessons. They can recall individuals or events associated with particular activities.

Ritual songs likewise can impart both historic and moral lessons. Songs performed at sacrifices, at celebrations of life passages, at healing rituals, at divining sessions all can serve the function of oral tradition. Songs or chants used in rituals can call upon historically important people or groups as intercessors with the divine. People often use music and dance to compliment the words of the songs. Dance in particular can act out, as well as act as a mnemonic device for, the story.


Genealogy is the final genre of oral tradition considered here. Genealogies quite literally link the past with the present by charting the ancestors to those still living. Genealogies usually contain more than mere lists of names. Tellers usually include both stories and praise poems for the ancestors as well as often detailed descriptions of relationships between different kin groups. Genealogies, like other forms of oral tradition, change as conditions change. In the long run, genealogies telescope with generations and relatives lost over time. Often, founders remain in the story, but the number of generations between the founder and the present may remain constant. Sometimes genealogies expand, as with king lists that proclaim consistently long reigns. Genealogies also often regularize relationships between generations, especially for holders of positions of authority. Usurpers become legitimate heirs. Inheritance through the female line gets changed to the male line in patrilineal societies and visa versa in matrilineal societies. Finally, genealogies in performance change to fit the circumstances. Social networks become embedded in genealogies as fictive kin relations. Such is the case in central Tanzania, where the principal heir recites the clan genealogy at a funeral. As with other genres, genealogies often make up an important part of epics, with bards stitching them into the narrative to highlight the proper relationship between groups.

Additional topics

Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Octadecanoate to OvenbirdsSharing Oral Traditions - Telling - Oral Tradition, Genres In Oral Literature, The Modern Study Of Oral Traditions, Oral Traditions And The Modern World