During the past few years a network of scholars interested in oral epics and their implications for more general, comparative studies on great epics has become established under the sign of “FF in Oral Epics”. As reported in the previous issue of FF Network, this network organized a panel as part of the 11th Congress of the International Society for Folk-Narrative Research held in Mysore in January 1995.

The panel was well attended, the papers were informative and the ensuing discussions vivid. The advantage of this type of conference work is that the six sessions of the panel provided a thematic coherence which is often difficult to achieve in large congresses. The panel also selected its core audience, which stayed together on three afternoons and was able to knit an expanding web of discussion.

The following is a quick run through the papers presented and thoughts provoked by them.

The oral/literary transition

The first session tackled the problem of transition from orality to literacy. For epics research the problem has more strategic importance than for many other oral genres because the composition of long epic forms may be dependent on writing, compilation and editing, also in the case of originally oral source materials. The relation between oral and written in our documentary sources on epics is problematic because we tend to perceive this relation as a “mixture” of both without being able to postulate a “pure oral” and a “pure written” discourse as the starting points. We may wish to speak of a mixture of oral and written discourses, both identifiable in a given text. Or we may speak of a mixture of performance styles, i.e. an oral style in a written text or a written style in an oral performance. In a diachronic perspective we may observe a continuous interaction between not only the contents but also the textures of oral and written sources. In more than one respect our published epics may be viewed as transitional texts.

Minna Skafte Jensen (Odense) introduced the problem in her paper on “A. B. Lord’s Concept of Transitional Texts in Relation to the Homeric Epics”. The concept of a pure, clearcut difference between oral and written composition was Lord’s starting point, but he compromised it later, somewhat unnecessarily, says Skafte Jensen. According to her, Homeric epics were successfully composed just because of their oral rendition, not in spite of it. The documentation method was dictation and took perhaps a couple of months. Without the support and stringency of oral tradition and relying only upon written discourse, the work would have changed radically into something more individualistic and might not have been completed for many years (cf. the slowness of works by Herodotos, Thucydides).

Skafte Jensen maintains that Homeric scholars have not yet recognized the vast possibilities of oral composition, partly because they feel it must be inferior to written. She calls for better examples, model studies on good oral materials, which would fertilize the thinking in Homeric studies.

One should add that the paradox of the oral-formulaic theory was that it took inspiration from fieldwork and oral performance but remained basically a narrowly textual approach. It was handed over to philologists and historians of literature who were not fieldworkers and never intended to continue that line. If five percent of the intellectual power devoted to pure speculation around fragmentary text corpuses had been directed at empirical studies on oral composition and the textualization of oral epics, we would certainly have more and better models than the South Slavic. A wider register of model studies in orality and textualization, unwritten and written would, as Skafte Jensen seems to assume, provide new combinations of factors which are at play when different oral traditions, different modes of performance, different levels and types of audiences join forces in the making of an epic.

John Miles Foley (Columbia, MO) expanded a similar line of thought in his paper on “The Rhetorical Persistence of Traditional Forms in Oral Epic Texts”. The key problem is textualization: what happens when performances become libretti? What is lost when an oral performance is encoded in a written text? Obviously, the “enabling event” or the full contextualization of the performed “text” through instant experience and relevant oral traditions presumed to be known by the audience can be sadly lacking.

Foley refers to methods like Dennis Tedlock’s “ethnopaleography” on the basis of audio-recordings and Dell Hymes’ ethnopoetical editing of texts noted down in longhand long before the time of the tape recorder. The aim of these methods is to restore the voice/sound of oral performance and make the oral poetics at work visible. Foley agrees with Hymes in that old texts without full contextual documentation can indeed retain much of the oral forms and that they should be recognized as such and used as guidelines in the reading of the texts. He uses the term “word-power” to signify the element which is not totally lost when oral becomes written.

Lack of contextual information can and should be compensated by prior experience of similar performance situations to which the text probably belongs. In other words, good oral models or case studies can be used when reading written documents as if orally influenced.

For Homer and Beowulf the model of dictation was not realistic as the only possibility. A long chain of written manuscripts presumes a written composition of parts at least. Yet the oral word-power has not been lost. Texts which have come to us through several written renderings without much certainty about their performance functions and contexts may be called “transitional”, i.e. between orality and literacy.

Just as Jensen, Foley also calls for good oral models as analytic aids in the reading of purely textual epic heritage. Both seem to defend the persistence of orality in written documents, even if one of them believes in dictation and the other perhaps not.

A taxonomy of epic

Heda Jason (Jerusalem) concluded the first session with her paper on “Indian Epic Tradition and its Relationship to the Euro-Afro-Asian Epic Tradition”. Jason offers a taxonomy of epics, oral and written, a synthesis which permits the inclusion of every epic. She defines the genre with the help of a confrontation of human and/or fabulous (divine, demonic) protagonists, and singles out four sub-categories of the epic: 1) Historical: a struggle between humans connected with real events; 2) National: a national/tribal struggle in superhuman proportions, no linkage to real events; 3) Universal: a struggle of man and divinities friendly to man against demonic monsters, the champion defends humanity in toto; 4) Mythic: struggles between deities, between good and evil on a very general level.

Jason distinguishes between “overt” and “covert” layers in the epic, the latter being in certain societies and performance traditions the special knowledge of the performer, not known to the audience. She also claims that in the overt layer the confrontation is always between humans, whereas in the covert layer the struggle is between fabulous beings, deities and demons. Interestingly, Jason argues that the ethical element of epics becomes visible only when both overt and covert layers are explicitly voiced to the audience.

As to the main topic of the panel, Jason makes the point that the content units of oral and semiliterary epics are not radically different because multiple rewriting and fresh orality provide the same content types.

Jason distinguishes between “episodic” and “biographical” as the two main types of epic. Based on detached units, the episodic epic has a closed plot, whereas the biographical epic shows a chain of generations and an open plot. Detached-unit epics do not connect with other plots or heroes but tell just one story with its complication and solution, whereas the biographic form may be expanded by adding and integrating elements “before” and “after” the main protagonist’s lifestory. Between these main types there are, however, transitional forms, such as the “quasi-biographical” (incomplete biographies of divine and human beings) and the “culminating-battle chain” (biographic elements converge toward a grand battle after which the biographic interest is lost).

In this wide perspective, Indian epic traditions contain all the main types. They do not constitute a group, not one but many traditions.

The quest for formulas

Formulaic elements have been generally attributed to oral discourse. The more a text has formulas, the more likely is its oral origin. Many texts which have lost their oral background have been analyzed by using the frequency of oral formulas as an index of orality. Even percentages have been counted to define the degree of orality.

John Brockington’s (Edinburgh) paper in the second session on “Formulaic Expression in the Ramayana: Evidence for Oral Composition?” posed a question mark to this habit. He finds large numbers of formulaic expressions in the Mahabharata (M) and Ramayana (R), the commonest being “a personal name plus a standard epithet”, thus a classic Parryan case of formula. Other types include: introductions and conclusions to speeches, formulas expressing emotion or emphasis, certain descriptive and hyperbolic phrases, stock expressions for battle scenes, phrases of time, place and number, proverbs and similes.

Brockington classifies formulas according to three text categories: 1) those found both in M and R, 2) those found in M but not in R (except in its later parts), 3) those found in R but not in M (except in late passages). The largest group is the first, i.e. the common formulas. The astonishing finding is that the frequency of stock formulas is highest in the later parts of both M and R. This raises the question whether formulas can be regarded as an index of orality. Rather it seems that their use was increasing at the time of decay of the genuine oral tradition, perhaps as a means to create an impression of authenticity.

The conclusion comes close to the resolutions of Foley’s paper. The traditional phraseology does not disappear immediately when writing is employed and the diction of a written work continues to show formulaic patterns.

Intergeneric interaction

The paper by Mary Brockington (Edinburgh) on “The Relationship of the Ramayana to the Indic Form of the wo Brothers’ and to the Stepmother Redaction” shows by the example of one folktale how epic traditions and folktales have been in contact and interacted. The interaction has resulted in elements being borrowed in both directions, from the “Two Brothers” to the Ramayana and vice versa. Interaction continued over a long period of time. An example of a later date is the penetration of the tale into later vernacular literary or folk versions of the otherwise dominant Ramayana (Show-me-how -motif, attempted deception of the sage with a substitute pair of brothers).

The Stepmother redaction of the tale shows the impact of R. The hero defends his half-brother and turns against his mother, who favours him strongly. This is as odd as if Cinderella and the Ugly Sisters were friends, not rivals. The model here is Bharata’s affection for R»ama. The epic has been able to turn the tide of folktale logic.

The paper provides interesting examples of the distribution and adaptation of folktales. In India, the pauper son had to be elevated and made a prince in order to make him able to marry a princess. This cultural adaptation of the tale brought about problems which had to be accommodated by further new developments of the plot.

The lesson gained from the interaction between R and a folktale is that the content elements of both traditions have been in the same pool of narratives in some storytellers’ repertoire. In composing a narrative, both sources could be utilized. This is shown by the borrowing of not only central motifs but also rather trivial and inconsequential features.

What are multiforms?

The secret of epic composition lies not in formulas but multiforms, according to Lauri and Anneli Honko (Turku), who in their paper develop the idea of multiforms on the basis of their fieldwork in southwest Karnataka among the speakers of Tulu, a Dravidian language. Multiforms are “repeatable artistic descriptions and expressions of variable length” which account for the fact the epic singer can adjust the length of his epic within a very wide range of lines. A particular description which may take well over 100 lines in its elaborated form may be condensed into 4-5 lines in another performance or into something in between if not, as is possible in many cases, omitted totally. In old Indian poetics some 1200 years ago the concept of “eighteen descriptions” was developed to denote “compulsory or optional” tools in the crafting of epics, descriptions of milieux and events like City, Sea, Mountain, Seasons, Moonrise, Sunrise, Wandering in a forest, Swimming, Drinking party, Sexual pleasure, Departing, Birth of a son, Strategic consultation, Mission of a messenger, Successful travel and Success of a hero. The list may not be representative as such but the idea is. The important thing here is to refrain from the fixity of formulas which also exist in the epic and adopt a more flexible approach to descriptions through repeatable and variable multiforms.

The singer of the Siri epic (collected in 1990 by a team consisting of the Honkos, Chinnappa Gowda and Viveka Rai from Mangalore University), Mr. Gopala Naika uses a fourfold set of terms in his emic analysis: sandi – kate – katte – accara. Using etic terms we may say that sandi refers to a sung epic or sub-epic as a whole, kate denotes the plot of the epic or sub-epic, katte refers to “stages in the story”, i.e. descriptions and episodes, and accara, actually “letter”, denotes “words and sentences”, i.e. formulas and shorter units of poetic texture in general. The idea of applying the concept of multiform in this particular setting is to let it mediate between text and texture and between emic and etic on the levels of katte and accara. The task is to elucidate Mr. Gopala Naika’s system of multiforms, first in one of his epics, later in others. Multiforms should not be conceived as merely structural units; on the contrary, it is possible to find common textural features in the varying occurrences of a multiform.

The purposeful use of multiforms creates authentic epic discourse and makes for the adaptation of the epic story in a particular situational context with a particular audience, a limited time frame and certain collateral action, such as possession ritual or planting paddy seedlings. The singer’s performance strategy is based on these contextual factors, which were presented in a videofilm “Multiforms in Three Contexts”.

Chinnappa Gowda (Mangalore) presented in his paper “A Comparative Study of the Dictated and Taped Versions of the Siri Epic” information on Mr. Gopala Naika’s comments on the two documentations of his Siri epic, the first in 1986 by dictation during six months resulting in about 8 000 lines and the second in 1990 by free singing lasting seven days and resulting in about 16 000 lines. The main difference between the two is that the first one which Gopala Naika characterizes as kate-type lacks the lengthy descriptions abounding in the taped version called sandi-type by the singer. Otherwise, there are only very minor changes in the plot except in the introduction and conclusion of the epic.

The study of illiterate singers’ conscious poetics has often been neglected, probably because of the difficulty of creating a meaningful dialogue between the singer and the collector/analyst. In the Siri project it seems possible to enter the singer’s world and let him, not the analyst, lecture on the finesses of epic composition. In Gowda’s paper, ample evidence was given to the fact that Mr. Gopala Naika is keenly aware of the plot structure, the stock descriptions and the system of multiforms and formulas. To quote him: “The incidents and characters in the kattes of the Siri sandi have specific functions. Each of these functions can be detailed either in one or several accaras. When I detail the incidents like Marriage, Feast, Betel-leaf chewing, I feel like using a single accara in the kate-type and several accaras in the sandi-type. Further, the number of accaras used for the detailing of an incident depends on my personal experience of that incident. A singer who is well-versed in the customary celebrations of marriage, rites of passage and agricultural operations, etc., can detail incidents connected with them. The Siri sandi did not have its present length at the beginning. The knowledge of tradition determines the sandi’s length.”

What Gopala Naika refers to in the end, is no less than the second secret of epic composition. If the use of multiforms largely explains the technique of composition-in-performance, there is the ongoing editing of a mental text in the singer’s mind which explains the composition-out-of-performance.

Indian oral epics in adaptation

Peter J. Claus (Hayward, CA) opened the fourth session with his paper on “A Folk View of Variation in an Oral Epic Tradition”. He reported on his long-term fieldwork among the Tulu-speakers of Karnataka. The focus was on one good female singer of paaddanas or epic poems.

Claus hopes to create a possibility to delineate “ethnoaesthetics” by comparing the attitudes of one experienced performer toward variation in oral epic with his own tenets as a folklorist. The viewpoint of his female collaborator he characterizes as typical of an “artist” and a “believer”. She was interested in the “manipulation” of common tradition elements by other singers. She was critical of them when the changes went against the cultural context and expectations concerning the standard succession of daily activities. As a believer she held deities as the principal subject of the narratives. The stories acquired the nature of revelation and together they constituted a body of knowledge about spirits. The story about people is more “incidental”.

B. A. Viveka Rai (Mangalore) spoke on “Adaptation and Decline in Tulu Oral Epics”, exploring the role of “adaptation” in Tulu epics. Their ritualistic contexts of performance are Bhuta and Siri festivals which take place at given temple sites. The epic serves the enhancement of the local identity. Thus it is composed in performance to contain familiar names of gods, families and places. The name of the actual temple site where the ritual takes place is mentioned as a culmination of the long list of place-names which depict the origin and wanderings of a Bhuta-hero/saint/god.

Modernization has brought about adaptation which Rai characterizes as “decline”: the costumes and other paraphernalia are not prepared on the spot but bought ready-made, the epic singing becomes more marginalized, partly because the preparatory phase apt to lengthy singing is about to be eliminated and partly because new, colourful decorations and visual feats steal the show. Time and space for the festivals are expanded, but to no gain of traditional performances. Commercialization of the feasts is well under way.

The worksong context of epics is also in decline, partly because the performers are shying away from epic singing in the paddyfields, afraid of laughter and criticism. The old ritualistic fundament of work is evaporating.

Susan S. Wadley (Syracuse, NY) based her paper “Creating a Modern Epic: Oral and Written Versions of the Hindi Epic Dhola” on long-term fieldwork in northern India. How close to each other can oral and written performances of an epic be? One easily visualizes a predominance of one of the two, preferably the oral, if that is the criterion of originality. This predominance makes the other discourse subservient or even imitative of the other.

Not so, says Susan Wadley. Her materials on the North Indian Dhola epic provide a multifaceted history of strongly diverging versions of both oral and written origin. There are different troupes with their oral and musical performance traditions, there are literate writer-singers capable of modifying their version separately for written and oral performance.

A case in point is Matol, who died 1991 in the age of 62. He composed in writing an entirely individual interpretation of the three sub-epics which constitute Dhola, proceeding from the best known episodes to less familiar. There he drew on local poetic styles but also created much on his own, including metre and plot. On the oral side, he led a troupe of four, himself playing a harmonium. The contrast between written and oral is stark indeed: the written versions are philosophical, adhere to metre and rhyme containing well-hidden verbal games by the author, whereas the oral versions are dominated by humour instead of philosophy, musical elements instead of metre or rhyme, and hidden verbal games replaced by overt jesting.

India’s long epic traditions of both the written and oral performance of narratives might also be studied from the point of view of multicontextual differences and almost totally separate discourses incarnated in one singer/author. Examples may be there through centuries, with modern technology creating new venues for this vivacious adaptation and recomposing of traditions.

History and poetics of epics: China, India, Finland, Ireland, Greenland

The third day with the two last sessions of the panel offered a kaleidoscopic view on the history of epic traditions from tropical India to arctic Greenland. The main topic of the panel was kept alive peppered with remarks on developments in the history and what could be called the regional poetics of epics. The first speaker, Jia Zhi (Beijing), in his paper “On Oral Tradition and Half-Literary Epics” divided Chinese epics into two main types: epic of origin and heroic epic. The former relate on the origin of the universe and human beings, immigration and creation of culture, also battles against other tribes and demons or monsters. The heroic epic emerged during the disintegration of primitive society and the formation of slave society. It reflects tribal alliances and conflicts and a struggle for existence. To this type belong the three greatest epics: the Tibetan Geser, the Mongolian Jangar and the Kirghiz Manas.

Most of the 57 national minorities of China do not possess writing of their own. Thus their epics are dependent upon oral circulation. There are, however, examples of notebook traditions supporting oral performance as well as written copies of epic texts. A good example is Geser, which was handed down in the form of handwritten copies. Many a folk artist based his performance on such a copy. Yet the traditions of about 140 living singers of Geser must be considered richer in content than the handwritten copies and woodcut texts preserved in temples. The written copies and manuscripts are important mainly because they have a long history illustrating the evolution of epics and the relations between epics and religion.

Alf Hiltebeitel (Washington, D.C.) spoke on “Indian Classical and Folk Epics: Problems of Comparison and Classification”. The paper was inserted in the programme later than the others and could not be included in the preprint volumes of congress papers. Hiltebeitel problematizes the relationship between classical and oral epics of India by scrutinizing most typologies of Indian epics offered during past two decades, e.g. those presented or reflected in the Oral Epics of India (1989, edited by Blackburn and Flueckiger). He is critical of their usefulness as well as of the concept of “epic” in general which he nevertheless wants to retain as a tool of classification and comparison. Since the manuscript is stamped “not to be quoted”, I must refrain from going into detail.

Lauri Harvilahti (Helsinki), in his paper on “The Poetic ‘I’ as an Allegory of Life” examined the regional aspect of intergeneric relations between epic and lyric poetry. In Finland, Karelia and Ingria the female song genres often display the singing “I” as the main protagonist. This is common not only in lyric songs and laments but also in wedding songs and even in epic poetry. Harvilahti shows that especially in the southernmost tradition area Ingria (around St. Petersburg) the poetic “I” has penetrated into several poem categories, even into mythical poems about the origin of the world. This expansion in a way creates networks of unrelated poems and raises the question: Does this “I” relate to real-life situations of the singers, and if yes, in what way? In other words, the same genre may turn out to be rather different in different, mostly regional poetic cultures. Seeking factors which may have promoted a development of this kind, Harvilahti seems to assume that the female dominance in singing occasions – in the south the epic and mythical poetry is in the hands of female performers whereas in the northern tradition areas the performers of these genres are men – has proliferated the singing in the 1st person sg. Harvilahti also studies the reliability of sources and finds them scanty on contextual information and the social meaning of songs.

Doris Edel (Utrecht), in her paper “Mental Text, Landscape, Politics and Written Codification: The Irish Epic Táin Bó Cúailnge”, studied two problems, (1) the longevity of an epic and (2) the means of integrating its loose elements, on the example of Táin Bó Cúailnge or the Cattle-Raid of Cooley, documented in manuscripts dating from the 11th to the 19th century. The contents of this 4-5 000 line epic refer to a period from the 10th to the 15th century. The longevity of this epic is explained by its political function. Cattle-raid or crech was not only an epic theme but was used as a political weapon up to the 16th century, actually a predominant form of warfare until the consolidation of the English power around 1600. Another underlying factor for the continued interest was the historical antagonism between Ulster and the rest of Ireland. The main factors keeping together the loosely knit epic were the landscape in which the epic’s action was situated and the toponymy, i.e. milieu-morphological factors and place-names.

Kirsten Thisted (Copenhagen) brought us back to the general topic of the panel with her paper on “The Collection of Greenlandic Traditions – Oral and Semiliterary”. Western Greenland provides a rare example of oral traditions codified into writing by storytellers themselves, in this case literate Greenlanders who had been asked to put down their memories by Danish collectors of folklore and oral history. Thisted studies this transition from orality to literacy through examples of which Knud Rasmussen, the famous reteller of Greenlandish narratives and belief is widely known. She rates, however, Rasmussen much lower as an authentic informant than certain other scribes. Rasmussen also bought material, stories written down by Greenlanders, without mentioning it in his books.

An interesting detail is the “editing out” of certain features in the narratives harvested during the second wave of collecting in the 1860s. These included disclaimers of pagan beliefs, Christian interpretations and references to modern tools and concepts. Thus the chronologically later narratives were much more archaic than the earlier ones. Greenland is then one of the few places where people could very early (in the mid-19th century) go public with their oral tradition printed in small booklets intended to create and enhance a feeling of cultural identity.

When one adds the discussions, formal and informal, which cannot be described here to the intellectual harvest of the panel, what remains is satisfaction that the invisible college of active epic scholars could for a fleeting moment turn names into faces and become visible. Hopefully there will be other occasions for this.

Lauri Honko

(FFN 10, May 1995: 1-6)

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