Oral Poetry Worldwide

Njal_saga_-_HestatingsholThe growing response to The Odyssey Club is encouraging, and we’ve heard some things from visitors that made us sit up and take notice. A reader in Reykjavik, Iceland, reminds us that Icelandic sagas are among the foremost oral literatures of the world, and invites us to include Reykjavik in our event horizons. Had a google at it and sure enough, there are some teriffic sites linked to that body of Homer-like material. For instance, there’s Hvolsvöllur to the southeast from the capital, with a “Saga Center” especially devoted to a dude named Burnt Njal (http://www.njala.is/en/ — as in other Germanic languages, the “j” is pronounced as a “y”, like the one in “Reykjavik”) , and one can go on a “Saga trek” around the whole island, visiting saga-related sites like Borgarnes (one hour north of Reykjavik) and Skagafjördur (on an inlet of the north coast). Most important for our purposes, one can arrange to hear real saga performers. After all, the Odyssey Club isn’t for trips to literary museums or lectures, but for trips to experience the literature itself! Have to bundle up, though! Average high temperatures in Bogarnes in July are 16 C (60 F), which is downright balmy compared to Reykavik, where they’re under 14 C. It must be why they’re such good storytellers! Anyhow, we have an offer from someone in Reykjavik who will help us organize this, so for those of you who are interested, speak up!


The same day, I got a tweet from my buddies at the BBC and the British Museum about a podcast called “Noise: A Human History”, created by sound curator David Hendy, and available as a free download . Episode 6, Epic Tales (http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b01rg1gp), is about oral literature, and provides a fascinating listen about some exciting places. Hendy tells how anthropologists Milman Parry and Albert Lord discovered the trick of how oral epic poetry is passed down, using, not Homeric material, but the south Slavic traditions in the Balkans, just north of Homer’s area, where the genre was still being practiced in the early 20th century. The “singers of tales” of the Balkans used “commonplaces”, fixed phrases or epithets that could be strung together in performance, so that each telling would differ slightly, put together anew every time, but with the same story-line and the same repertoire of commonplaces as constants. Turns out Parry and Lord were right, and that this method is one used by oral poets worldwide. It’s a good trick, because most oral poets, or “singers of tales” (to use Lord’s happy term) are not readers, but illiterate villagers — so from their point of view, why would one want to fix this lively tradition on an unchanging piece of paper? Of course, that’s just what was done by scholars of “Homer”, who was reputed to be blind as well as illiterate (and was probably a composite of many performers, rather than a single person anyway). Now some scholars are trying to get back to the original sounds: check out the online recordings of scholars attempting to recreate the original sound of Homer (http://www.oeaw.ac.at/kal/sh/). Wouldn’t it be grand to recreate the sounds of early Homer on a visit to a Homeric site! In a way one can do that by listening to singers of tales in other places, whether in Serbia, or Iceland — or anyplace!

Hendy ends this episode at the open-air Greek Theater at Epidavros (or Epidaurus – see http://www.epidaurustheater.org/), with a demo of its marvelous acoustics. I’m putting it on my list of places to visit for an encounter with literature.

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