Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Expert Findings--Excavations of Ancient Greek Orality

NEEDED: An authority on ancient Greek oral traditions, preferably Minoan culture with a specialty in mnemonics.
The reigning expert? William Brockliss, professor of Classics 110 and Greek 301 (Classic Greek Poetry). His education comprises of degrees at both Oxford and Yale, and his research encompasses the interaction between Homeric epics and the environment.
Like I mentioned in my post last week, little is known about Minoan culture. What we do know of the civilization is seen through the lens of the Greeks because the Minoans do not have surviving artifacts or stories to represent themselves. And so I will broaden my topic to that of the ancient Greeks. Even then, Professor Brockliss said that Homeric poetry was composed in a specific dialect, making it like an archaeological dig to find the meanings and nuances of the text. And so we will dig! To better reflect the style of my oral interview with Professor Brockliss, I will reflect my findings in question and answer format, touching on a few of the subjects we discussed.

Question: What role did oral traditions play in society?
Answer: Because there was still a strong oral culture until the 4th or 3rd century B.C., recited poetry and storytelling was vital to society. Professor Brockliss said that the figure of the poet became interconnected with the figure of the prophet.  (interesting connections to General Conference) These poets would perform mostly at symposiums for the aristocracy. One such example is found in The Odyssey, Book 8 where a bard gets requests for stories from an educated audience. The medium of oral poetry was intended for performance and eventually trickled down to the lower classes in the 5th century. 

Question: What were certain mnemonic devices for these ancient orators?
Answer: Now as far as mnemonics go, these poets had several devices. Certain poems were sung in archaic Greece and the repeated pattern of notes aided in memorizing long passages. There was a certain meter of their poetry wherein certain formulaic lines were composed beforehand, but there was certainly an element of improvisation. There are many examples where there is interaction between the spectators and poet, which suggests spontaneity and tailoring to a specific audience.

Battle scenes from The Iliad
Question: What do the Homeric epics depict about ancient Greek society?
Answer: Brockliss mentioned first that the Greeks must have had a violent, male-dominated culture because killing is so explicit in the Iliad. However, the Iliad and the Odyssey were also used for moral and religious instruction, much like their Bible. It wasn’t just for aesthetics; it was used and interpreted for the need of the people in that age. For example, chivalry culture emerged during the Middle Ages through these texts. 

Question: Is there evidence of other civilizations’ influence on ancient Greek poetry?
Answer: As we discussed the ancient Greeks, Professor Brockliss mentioned many other stories that are similar to those in Greece. “How To Kill a Dragon” is a book that discusses the history of the heroic dragon tale across Indo-European cultures. This same type of heroic figure is found in different civilizations throughout Europe and Asia. In Homeric epics, there is the phrase “undying fame” which describes the hero Odysseus. This same idea of heroics is echoed across many different cultures of that time.  Specifically, Professor Brockliss mentioned The Epic of Gilgamesh and how its story contained many similarities to the heroic Greek epics. (There’s a really interesting article here that compares the two in depth)

Question: How have the oral traditions of ancient Greece changed through time and how are they reflected in our society today?
Answer: Professor Brockliss made a really interesting insight about our culture. He said that Western culture is mainstreamed and we are all very used to receiving sound, but not used to producing or reproducing it. However, he did mention that rap, as originating from African oral traditions, was an example of competitive oral poetry in society today. And so you see, there’s not that much to separate Homer and Snoop Dogg, except maybe a few thousand years.


  1. Summer, thanks for this post! This professor seems really interesting! I think the comparison with rap is a cool idea; from what I know of rap, you just need a beat and then, like having a structure to fill in, some pretty awesome rhyming skills. I wonder if because oral poetry was transferred through the ages, which would create a lot of different versions of one work (like people in different places playing "Do you Love your Neighbor?" with different rules), we really can say that one person was the author of something. What is Homer's claim on the Odyssey? I don't know if these are questions we can answer now or not, but I wonder: Is he the author because he first thought of the story, or because his version was the best?

  2. Those are very interesting questions that have sparked a lot of debate among historians. It is evident that these stories originated from an oral tradition that spanned before the time when Homer transcribed them. However, the time this occurred is debated and the validity of Homer himself has been challenged.
    As to your last question, I think there is probably not one true author to any story. When telling stories, whether orally or through text, we are influenced by the stories and tales of others. We consult other people and the story gets passed on so that there is never really one true author.

  3. Interesting how you point out how oral performances used to be reserved just for the aristocracy. Were the masses simply too dumb to appreciate the tales such as the Odyssey? Or were these epic poems too valuable to be shared with just anyone?

  4. I am guessing that there was a sharp division in their culture between the commoners and the aristocracy. The commoners did enjoy the professional performance of these orators, but Professor Brockliss said that the commoners had their own stories and performances, which is where Aesop's fables originated. So it's interesting to see how their stories differed because of their stratified society, but both have a rich heritage.

  5. That's a really good point. I think you're right about there being a lot of different people contributing to any story, written or not.

  6. Going back to what you said about the division between the commoners and aristocracy, today there are certain forms of media we associate with different types of people. For example we wouldn't expect a professor of philosphy at Oxford to be reading tabloid magazines, and we wouldn't expect many 13 year old girls to read a monthy scientific journal. So similar to the Greeks, we have obviously have different styles of entertainment marketed to different demographics.