The Generic Nature of Oral Epic Poetry

(Second, Revised Edition)

D. E. Bynum

In 1875 the Ottoman Empire was still an unfamiliar and forbidding realm to Europeans, and its possessions in the Balkans were still, as they had always been, a disturbing intrusion in Christian Europe. No matter what their nationality, Europeans seldom had any desire or reason to travel in the Balkan provinces of Turkey, and few ever did, although educated Europeans were often interested to read news of happenings there. But in the summer of that year, two adventurous young Englishmen made a journey into the northernmost parts of Turkey-in-Europe, going more than two hundred miles across the vilayet of Bosnia and Hercegovina southward from the Austrian frontier in Croatia to the southern Dalmatian coast of the Adriatic.

    Armed with a letter of permission from the Turkish governor, Derviş Paşa, the two insisted upon traveling the whole distance on foot, thinking they would learn more of the country by walking through it than they could by using any vehicle. Their eccentric eagerness to walk when they might have ridden alarmed the local authorities along their route and occasionally exposed the two men to personal danger because of political unrest in the vilayet, but it also did bring them within reach of some unique features of Bosnian culture which they could not otherwise have seen. Not least among these was a modern custom of singing epic poetry.

    The two travelers in European Turkey that summer of 1875 were brothers, Arthur and Lewis Evans, and they were very young. Arthur, the elder brother, was only twenty-four. Still it was not their first visit to Turkish Bosnia, for they and an older friend had spent a day together in the Turkish border town of Kostajnica during a tour of Austria four years earlier, in 1871. Destiny held great things in store for Arthur Evans, who later in his life founded Minoan archaeology by excavating the ruins of a certain very old palace at Knossos in Crete.1 But although he had still not even come of age in 1871, and did not begin his work at Knossos until 1900,2 Arthur's destiny had already snared him in her web that day in Kostajnica.

    Between the summers of 1871 and 1875, he had seen much of Europe: France, Venetia, Germany, Hungary, Roumania, Bulgaria, Serbia, and even Sweden, where he crossed into the Arctic Circle to visit Lapland. But of all the places he had seen, Kostajnica meant most to him. As his younger sister and biographer Joan Evans later explained it:

    The romance of the distant and the unfamiliar had always a peculiar charm for Arthur Evans; and in the curiously primitive town of Costainiča (sic) he for the first time encountered the enchanting contrast and blend of east and west, Turkey and Europe: an enchantment that was to hold him for the rest of his life. He bought a complete Turkish outfit and donned it in triumph, and spent all his remaining money in a bazaar where the shops held hardly anything he had ever seen before. It was a visit of a single day, and a case of love at first sight. Thereafter Arthur Evans set the Balkans before any country in the world.3

Turkish postal couriers on the river-bank at Kostajnica
(from an engraving printed in the Allgemeine illustrirte Zeitung, Stuttgart, 1875).

So Arthur and his brother came to Bosnia again in 1875 for a deeper excursion into those colorful, mountainous, and culturally unexplored districts of the Ottoman realm. Striding southward from the Sava River toward Travnik and Sarajevo, Arthur in a larger sense was taking the first steps along a way that would lead him on to his work in Crete nearly a quarter-century later.

    Arthur was a first child in a prosperous family that had ridden the tide of nineteenth-century British industrialization to a position of comfort, security, and fine personal accomplishments by the time of his birth in 1851. His mother had died when he was a small boy, and from his earliest childhood his mind had been shaped to the mold of serious antiquarian, historical, and political interests, first by the companionship and constant example of an expert and resourceful father, and later by Harrow and Oxford. He had grown up tuned to react in a lively and sober way to excitements of the kind his journey through Bosnia would give him.

    Although such walking trips as his enjoyed a certain Victorian, not to say Byronic, vogue, Arthur Evans's walk through Bosnia to the sea was an uncommon experience even for a man of his character. Few westerners and fewer natives ever chose the northern Balkans as the scene for this Romantic sport, for while it was sometimes a warmly hospitable land, it was also a land mined with fierce xenophobic suspicions that demanded more endurance of the mind as well as of the legs than most men would steel themselves to.4 Thus the brothers Evans were generally mistaken for spies and provocateurs by Christians and Moslems alike everywhere they went in Bosnia, a country divided against itself in its religions as well as its political hopes. More than once in the few weeks they traveled there the Evans brothers were physically threatened by hostile Moslems and were glad they had firearms to defend themselves. It was an exceptional journey not only because Arthur Evans made it, but because it happened at all.

    1875 was almost the last moment to see the vilayet of Bosnia while it was still Turkish, as it had been for four hundred years. Under the Treaty of Berlin, Austria occupied the province in 1878 and introduced far-reaching changes in it. But when Evans was there, it still had the reputation of being the most stubbornly conservative and traditionalist corner of the Turkish Empire.

    Arthur Evans kept a journal of his adventures with his brother in Bosnia, and, after some rewriting of it, he published it in 1876.5 The historical moment when it was written is enough by itself to make the journal an entertaining and useful document; but Evans was no ordinary nineteenth-century journalist, and he wrote of things other men would not have noticed. A substantial part of his journal is a kind of ethnography, often startlingly accurate and detailed even by twenty-first-century standards. If no native Bosnian or Turk living in Bosnia could credit Evans's political detachment or understand rightly why he was in their country, nevertheless his purposes really were disinterestedly intellectual, even scholarly. He was a keen and thoughtful observer despite his youth. With the sharp eye of a classicist searching out ancient reliques and monuments, Evans recognized many cultural remnants of Roman Illyria in both material objects and in the customs of Bosnia, and he even noticed some of the archaic features of Bosnian life which link it to the culture of mainland Greece and the Peloponnesos reaching back in time well into the pre-Christian era.

    Evans had been walking in the country hardly a week when he accidentally discovered a curious rural festival celebration taking place on an uninhabited mountaintop near Komušina in the northern Bosnian uplands. It was the fifteenth of August, Assumption Eve, and a festival of the local helot-like Christian population, or raya. Evans recognized the Christian occasion of the festival, but he had never seen anything like the form it took. He described it thus in his journal:

    Beyond here we forded the Ussora, and now began to fall in with long trains of Bosnian rayahs, a troop of small Bosnian horses laden with bales and human beings, all streaming in the same direction as ourselves. It was evening when ve began to ascend a small wooded mountain, escorted by this motley troop; the women and children mostly on foot, the men usually on horseback, and with their bright red turbans - worn about here by even the poorest classes - forming a brilliant foreground to the surrounding foliage. We followed the current, and an hour's winding ascent brought us to the summit of a mountain, normally lonely and devoid of habitation, but now thronged to overflowing by a gorgeous array of peasants from the uttermost recesses of Christian Bosnia, and some even from beyond the Serbian frontier. The summit of the mountain formed a long flat neck capacious enough to accommodate many thousands, and rising to its highest point towards its north-western extremity. As each detachment of peasants arrived they tethered their horses, and made straight to the summit of the ridge, which was surrounded by a rude shrine. This was the central point of the vast assemblage, and the reason of this great Christian gathering....

    As the night drew on the whole neck of the mountain was lit up by cheery bonfires, round which the peasants clustered in social circles. Our Zaptieh provided us with blazing logs for ourselves, over which we performed our own culinary operations, supplemented by a generous haunch from a sheep, roasted in the usual Bosnian fashion.... A goodly portion of the assemblage seemed determined to make a night of it, and what with carousing, dancing, singing and playing, I will not deny that they succeeded.

    The first dance I saw was of a comic kind, performed by two men, and there were so many varying figures that one fancied they must improvise them as they went on. The accompaniment on a ghuzla, the one-stringed lute of the Serbs, was of the dolefullest.... The Kolo, however, or round dance of the Sclaves, was more elegant, and chiefly danced by the girls, who formed themselves in a ring and danced round and round, sometimes in a very spirited manner.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

    We heard much playing of ghuzlas and double pipes and flutes, and much vocal accompaniment with lyric songs and long epic ballads.... One of the many minstrels was enchanting an audience of Bosniac maidens with a lyric, whose measure, unless my ears deceived me, was identical with that of Anacreon's song. . . . the long expenditure of breath renders a pause a physical necessity for the recovery of wind at the end of every two lines, so that the lays were generally divided into couplets. Much that looks Procrustean, and many apparently capricious full stops in classic metres, might, one would think, be referred to similar causes. Nearly a minute would sometimes elapse after one couplet before the singer had recovered breath to continue.

    But what carried one back into epic days at once was a larger gathering, forming a spacious ring lit up by a blazing fire, in the middle of which a Bosniac bard took his seat on a rough log, and tuning his ghuzla began to pour forth one of the grand sagas of his race. Could it have been an unpremeditated lay? Without a book or any aid to memory he rolled out the ballad for hour after hour, and when I turned to rest, not long before sunrise, he was still rhapsodizing. I do not pretend to know what was the burthen of the ballad.... The hearers of the bard to whom I was listening seemed never to grow weary. Every now and then an ecstatic thrill would run through the whole circle, and find utterance in inarticulate murmurs of delight.6

    Arthur Evans's lucky encounter with Bosnian festival poetry is a typical example of the European discovery of oral poetry in the nineteenth century. There were not many affluent, intellectual Europeans like Evans who went to the distant places such as the Balkans, central Asia, Sumatra, or the extreme north of Russia where long narrative oral poetry could be found. Nor were the difficulties of travel and the political hazards of those places always so easy to overcome as they were for the Evans brothers in Bosnia. Moreover, men who made such journeys did so for any other reason than to observe or record oral poetry; and if they did meet with it in the course of other business, the meeting usually surprised them no less than it did Arthur Evans.

    Arthur's self-imposed mission in Bosnia was to collect sealstones. His comments on them are among the longest and most knowledgeable in his journal. By contrast, his description of the festival poetry on Assumption Eve is an exercise in innocent imposture; in this too he was typical of his era. The festival was a high point in his journey - one senses that plainly in reading his travelogue - yet he found it hard to say exactly why it so impressed him. This educated young Englishman's mind was an almost perfect marriage of alert curiosity and unlimited confidence in his own understanding.7 It was a rare moment when the two qualities were at odds, as they were on this occasion. While he never for a moment faltered in reliance on his English literary upbringing to provide a sufficient explanation for what he had seen, still there was something vaguely wonderful and baffling in the Bosnian poetry ("Could it have been an unpremeditated lay?") which he would not simply dismiss as a pointless anomaly. Instead, the strangeness of it moved him to write as circumstantial an account as he could of an actual performance of what he took to be oral epic poetry. It may seem a slight and faltering account by twenty-first-century standards, but in 1876 it was unusual for its fullness of detail.

    By Evans's time, the existence of oral poetry in the Balkans and elsewhere in the East had been known in western Europe for decades. There were even a few translations into English from the Serbo-Croatian tradition that Evans witnessed for a moment in Bosnia.8 But while bits and samples of that poetry circulated abroad like pinned and lifeless specimens of some exotic fauna, the manner of its performance (and hence its real nature) remained an unbreached mystery outside the remote regions where it was sung. Natives invariably knew the institution of epic singing in their own countries and could with some embarrassment describe the rudiments of it to interested western Europeans, but they generally considered it a homely and unnoteworthy fact of their culture; and since, as one can see in Evans's own account, epic singing was an intimate social custom and not a public spectacle staged for strangers, the rare foreigner who came to these lands had little systematic opportunity to observe it, even if he wanted to.

    The accuracy of Evans's description of oral poetry in the Bosnian hinterland a century ago has been amply confirmed by the work of collectors who have recorded texts and other ethnographic information in those regions since his visit. Their confirmation of the facts he reported gives assurance that the detailed studies of Balkan oral epic singing in later decades do in general faithfully portray a traditional form of art, and not a recent innovation or a late, epigonic deformation of some older form.

    During the past century and a half, others like Arthur Evans have found other oral traditions of long narrative poetry in various parts of eastern Europe, Asia, and Africa. Like Evans, they too have usually been followed by still others who have confirmed their observations and written down further examples of the poetic traditions concerned. Thus a considerable number of oral metrical narrative traditions have been collected in modern times during two or more successive generations. Partial inventories of these modern oral traditions are easily accessible in the comparativist writings of Cecil Bowra and Albert Lord.9 But no full catalog of them has ever been compiled, and there are at least three good reasons why that has not yet been undertaken.

    As might be expected, the amount and the character of the oral poetry that has been accumulated by different hands at different times and from widely separated modern traditions are highly various from one part of the old world to another. Even superficial comparison reveals such a diversity among the modern oral poetries conventionally called "epic" that the name no longer clearly means any one thing, if it ever did. In what sense, for example, is this modern Balochi poem of twenty-one verses "epic," as its editor calls it, and is it indeed comparable to the Moslem epics in Uzbek or Serbo-Croatian10 that run to several thousands of verses?


Mir Chakur, son of Shaihak, sings: the King of the mighty Rinds sings: in reply to Gwaharam he sings.12

O my bay! eat your grain from your nosebag; make your neck and legs as stout as those of an elephant; swiftly, giving you the reins to mount the cliffs, I will return from Sibi. For you I have stored in my tents the sweet camels' milk. Stand in your stall with six pegs, eat of the wheat and satisfy your heart. Strengthen yourself for the enemies' mountains, for right or wrong, I will come back again. The folk are displeased that you should be tied up in that land where I see the brave.

I swear on my head and hair and turban, once I get free I will lay many low; lives will be overwhelmed among the spears and lances. Let the man come on, whose hour is come, the cup of whose reckonings is full! I too ask from my King and Creator victory for the true Rinds at Sevi, rather than for the slender-footed thin-beards. Hereafter the Mughat youths and maidens will receive enlightenment!

    Mr. Dames, who knew a good deal about the oral poetry of the Balochi, placed the short poem just quoted among the "heroic or epic ballads" of this Iranian-speaking people in central Asia. Yet whatever local validity his judgment may have had, the poem is surely not a narrative, but rather more akin to the so-called praise poetry of Bantu Africa, which also has sometimes been called epic.13

    Thus what is called epic poetry in the oral tradition of one region is not necessarily commensurate with other poetry scholars call epic elsewhere. The specialists working with each modern tradition have devised their own procedures independently of each other and decided for themselves what their generic nomenclature would be. No one man or group has been arbiter among us in these matters because no one has been so well acquainted with enough of the many modern traditions to speak persuasively enough about their universal likenesses. There has been no conscious community of oral epic scholars comparable to the diffusionist school of folktale scholarship.

    Although the differences of form and substance among well-recorded modern oral poetries make it difficult to give them names with common, universal meanings, that difficulty by itself might not be too great to overcome. But it is compounded by others. Some modern oral traditions of so-called epic poetry have been so remote from the knowledge even of specialists that no one presently could render a satisfactory description of them in their own terms, much less classify them comparatively with oral poetry in other parts of the world. In some cases this difficulty is one of inadequate collection; in other cases it is merely neglect.

    Finally, a third and even greater obstacle everywhere hinders progress in comparative studies of oral epic poetry. This is the barrier of languages, which sets stricter limits on the ambition of a comparative epicist than it does on practically any other branch of folklore scholarship. More than any other genre of folklore, modern oral epic poetry is typically so massive and so elaborate a form both thematically and in the techniques of its composition that translations and synopses in learnèd languages can rarely be extensive or detailed enough to support sound judgment about traditions in languages one does not himself know. So every scholar who would range beyond more than a very few modern narrative traditions must to some extent share Arthur Evans's imposture in writing about an oral poetry whose language he could not understand. Cecil Bowra admitted the same fault in his comparison of oral poetic traditions in his book Heroic Poetry:

In some cases, where no texts have been available, I have used information about them from books of learning, though I have not often done this, and then only when I have had full confidence in the trustworthiness of the author. I fully realize that this is by no means a perfect method. It would certainly have been better to work only with original texts in every case and not use translations at all. But a work of this kind would require a knowledge of nearly thirty languages, and not only am I myself unlikely ever to acquire such a knowledge, but I do not know of anyone interested in the subject who has it. So I must ask indulgence for a defect which seems to be inevitable if such a work is to be attempted at all.14
    Sir Cecil's caveat notwithstanding, his own book makes plain how hazardous the method may be. But we must all at least confess the same limitation, with only the further extenuation that today, without cutting ourselves off from a sizeable part of our subject as Bowra did in limiting his interest to heroic poetry (which he supposed to be only a subcategory of epic), the number of germane languages one may be ignorant of should be numbered nearer fifty than thirty.

    To some extent, then, every comparative epicist may sometimes have to proceed as Arthur Evans did on his mountaintop above Komušina. Guided only by the ideas of poetry he had gotten in study of the Classics, he listened and watched closely and could confidently propose some distinctions of genre in Bosnian oral poetry solely from the dissimilarities in its various performance. And once he had recognized a narrative in the long, concentrated singing of a "Bosnian gleeman," he called it epic (what else could be so long?).15 Admittedly, he also called it saga, ballad, and heroic lay, mixing nomenclature in a chaotic manner that shows as much uncertainty of exactly what the names mean as of the precise nature of the poetry he heard. But his first impulse and his later uncertainty both were perfectly contemporary. When he noticed differences of kind in Bosnian poetry, which he did not understand, he did not hesitate to classify the kinds by reference to the genres of a literature he did know, ancient Greek. So too modern collectors generally have appropriated the words `heroic' and `epic' from ancient Hellenic learned tradition to designate long narrative in verse wherever it has been discovered in Eurasia in modern times and regardless of the peculiar features of particular modern traditions.

    So the name "epic" is only a more or less metaphorical expression as applied to oral poetry in many parts of the modern world. Under these circumstances, it would not be helpful to attempt yet another imperfectly informed synthetic description of epic as a universal class of modern oral poetry, and I shall not. Indeed, the best hope of progress in that grand task seems to be rather in reaching a more exact understanding of individual modern traditions than has been attained in most cases. As the great age of collecting draws toward its inevitable end, the paramount need is to determine the processes of each tradition itself, the dynamics of its thematics and composition. The older critical preoccupation with historical, social, and psychological implications of oral traditions has been productive and still deserves every encouragement. But the hope of comparative studies rests in a better science of oral poetics, the analysis of oral poetry from an internal point of view rather than in relation to various other learnèed disciplines.

    Amid the wide array of modern oral poetries, where does one begin? Any reasonably well-recorded tradition will serve, but so-called epic oral poetry has been collected most fully in modern times from three regions of the Old World: northern Russia, central Asia, and the Balkan Peninsula.

    In the case of northern Russia and central Asia, most of the collections were made in districts that belonged at that time to the Russian Empire or the Soviet Union, and they consist mostly of texts in Russian, Turkic, and Mongolian languages. A large portion of the Russian collections have been published, but many of the Turkic, Mongolian, and other Siberian traditions have been published only in small specimens. Very extensive unpublished manuscripts and sound-recordings particularly of the non-European traditions are nevertheless extant at various places in Europe and Asia, and may in due course be of great value to comparative studies of oral epic poetry. Profitable collecting was still possible and was still going on in central Asia as recently as the last decade of the twentieth century. Despite the burden of learning little-known and remote languages which their use imposes on western scholars, these resources deserve much more attention in the West than they have been given.16

    The third great district of epic collection in the Old World is the one Arthur Evans visited in 1875. From the Turkish Conquest until the nineteenth century, the Balkans remained as shut off and as little known to Europeans as other eastern lands thousands of miles farther from Europe. But for all its isolation, Turkey-in-Europe was not enormously distant from the literary centers of the West. Of all the Orient, it remained among the geographically most accessible places that were attractive to Romantic tastes for rare things such as oral poetry. As the alien presence of Turkish political and military power gradually retired from Europe in the nineteenth century, western Europe's best information about flourishing oral poetry came from the Greek and Slavic peoples of the Balkans, and the interest that information stimulated in western literary circles gave incentive to the new emulative intelligentsia of the post-Ottoman Balkans to value and collect the folklore of their own nationalities.17

    There was never a large, organized effort to collect folklore in the Balkans, but many individuals of diverse backgrounds have worked separately at different times during the post-Napoleonic era to gather whatever each could discover and thought good. Many of the separate collections have in time found their way into larger archives, and today the material that has thus accumulated in South Slavic, Roumanian, Modern Greek, and Albanian recordings and manuscripts constitutes the fullest documentation of traditional oral literature from any one region in the world. In this large body of material, oral epic poetry is the most prominent genre both in amount and by virtue of the technical excellence of the many singers represented in it. The study of oral epic tradition in this region presents some of the same problems as the traditions of Asia (unpublished collections in remote languages and obscure dialects), but it rewards its students with an unexcelled geographic density and historical range of recorded data. For these reasons, Balkan epic tradition is presently a court of review for hard issues in oral epic studies, because it is the court where the fullest brief can be compiled for most arguments.

    With regard to the question of what oral epic poetry essentially is, whether in a local or comparative sense, the study of Balkan tradition offers yet another estimable advantage. This is the only region where the name "epic" is not merely metaphorical or a simile, because in the first instance epic poetry means the poetry of Homer in archaic Greek. If epic poetry is any one thing, it is a genre of folklore belonging to the peoples of the northeast Mediterranean basin, where it has been indigenous from before the age of literature.

    Without understanding the Slavic poetry he heard on the crest of a mountain in northern Bosnia, Arthur Evans could not rightly make any more exact comparison between it and Homer's Iliad or Odyssey than he did implicitly in calling it epic. But today, there is no longer any reason to doubt that the performance he saw was a fair analogue of the poetic performances that once produced the original sung versions of the Homeric epics in Greek the better part of three millennia before Arthur Evan's time. After Milman Parry, Albert Lord, and their Oral Theory, poetry made in this manner18 is called Oral Traditional Epic Poetry, and it is a recognized genre of folklore. The name of the genre distinguishes it from all of written literature on the one hand, and from all other kinds of oral composition on the other hand. Moreover, it makes those distinctions not once but twice over, because the name Oral Traditional Epic Poetry is a tautology made necessary in modern times by the peculiar history and doubtful authority of the older, simpler name, Epic Poetry.

    The word epic is the eldest component in the present-day name of the genre, and it is derived from Greek ἐπικόϛ, "that pertains to (ϝ)ἔποϛ: an utterance, something said." The word therefore originally meant neither more nor less than "oral," except that ἔποϛ was Homer's name for spoken words and "oral" is our later expression.

    In Homer's time and earlier, when his tradition of poetry was formed, any utterance was unmistakably oral and writing had no part in its creation because writing was not used for that purpose. When writing was used in Homer's age, it was to keep records, not to compose any kind of speech, narrative or otherwise. So Homer himself (whoever or whatever he might have been) had no occasion to differentiate between speaking and telling a story. For him, each was an inseparable aspect of the other, and ἔποϛ meant just spoken words in general.

    Thus the word ἔποϛ is found first in the poetry of the earliest recorded oral epic poet in lands contiguous to the northeast Mediterranean basin. But, whereas Homer used the word rather frequently, he never used it to mean a specific kind of poetry or genre of literature, and he never used the adjective ἐπικόϛ at all. Nor is there any other evidence that epic ever meant a form of poetry in ancient Greek oral tradition. Indeed, there are practically no words to designate poetic genres in all that survives of the Homeric lexical stock: not in the Iliad, nor in the Odyssey, nor in the several small poems and fragments that were in antiquity commonly attributed to Homer as the eponym of ancient Greek oral tradition. But the reason for the lack of such words is not far to seek.

    Just as writing was not used to make poetry in archaic Greece, neither was there any writing of literary criticism when `Homer' dictated the Iliad and Odyssey to someone who used his writing skill to make a record of Homer's poetry. In Homer's time there was hardly anything even analogous to criticism that was not a part of ἀοιδή, Homer's and his fellow singers' own art of minstrelsy. But the ancient Greek minstrel's criticism of his own art was confined within close bounds. Homer was interested in the problem of choosing stories that people liked and in telling them well. Like any good singer, he also commented in his songs on the sense of things in them, as in Penelope's speech to Medon in the Odyssey (4:686-693):

Congregating here ever and anon, you keep ravaging masses of sustenance
which is the rightful property of skillful Telemachos, nor have you
paid any attention to what your fathers used to tell you when you were children,
what kind of man Odysseus was in your parents' time,
who neither did nor said anything remiss in the community,
although it is the custom of those whom the gods have made lords
to hate one man whilst being kind to another;
but Odysseus was never reckless at all of any man.

    Here Penelope's remarks on the nature of kingship represent a class of obiter dicta in the traditional Homeric poetry that is itself nothing other than purely traditional comment on the meaning of details in the narrative. But this was the limit of criticism in Homer's day. For the ἀοιδοί there simply was no branch of criticism like our modern interest in genre classification. Men who make poetry in an oral tradition are not concerned with choosing one poetic form or another in which to compose, nor are they bothered by generic distinctions between their own poetry and anyone else's. The generic categories of their poetry are perfectly determined for them by the pre-existing forms of tradition when they learn it, and any changes in the tradition which they may make while they practice it are accomplished solely through their own traditional manipulation of traditional forms and ideas. When there is no writing, those who are poets make poetry as tradition dictates, and those who are not poets are not concerned with poetics.

    Arthur Evans's "many minstrels" at a Bosnian festival in 1875 are a case in point. Their selections of meter, music, and things to sing about were not matters of their own choosing. The minstrel who "was enchanting an audience of Bosniac maidens with a lyric" used a lyric measure because he was singing to women. That circumstance or context of his performance validated the meter, tune, and subject of his song and invalidated any others not customary in that context. As an oral traditional poet, he could not have chosen to do otherwise, and his audience of Bosniac maidens otherwise could not have been "enchanted." Similarly, Evans's singer of long narrative used the bowed gusle and sang a long song in decasyllabic meter with a rapid recitative delivery because singing to a peer group of adult men could be done only that way. So there was no more problem of genre for Evans' Bosnians than there was for Homer. For them, the selection of one poetic form or another was perfectly governed, like everything else in their traditional life, by contexts of propriety. Only the outlandish stranger seated among them, only Arthur Evans, had any reason to think of genres, because he could not compose such poetry himself, nor could he understand the contextual propriety that invisibly governed each performance he heard. We should not look to oral tradition of any age for words to name its genres, because the literary idea of genre has no true counterpart in oral tradition.

    So to Homer epos meant "oral utterance," or simply "speaking," and was not a word to designate genre in the earliest recorded Balkan oral tradition. But once Homer's poems had been written down, they took on an entirely new character - they became literature, and as literature they long outlived remembrance of their author's age, even in ancient Greece. In the heyday of classical Greece, the orality of Homer's poetry was first ignored and then forgotten. Thus by the time of Aristotle, four centuries after Homer, the Homeric poems had assumed a very different function in Greek culture than they had when Homer sang them. By that time writing had replaced ἀοιδή as the usual means of poetic composition, and the Iliad and Odyssey together with other oral poems in written form had become cornerstones of civic education and literary tradition. For the sake of helping the young and their tutors to understand and emulate certain putative qualities of Homeric poetry, it became important to characterize and classify its genre with respect to the other kinds of poetry at large in the Greek polity. In fourth-century Greece, it was the content of the Homeric poems in writing that was important and memorable, not the oral poetic tradition that had originally produced them. So Aristotle gave them a name, ἐποποιίαι (epic poems), and then examined their fixed texts to determine what he meant by "epic" and how it was different from other kinds of literature. Criticism in the sense we know it had begun.

    Aristotle (or someone emulating him) set forth in the book Poetics what he thought distinctive of Homer's poetry. His well-known and problematical theory of imitation need not detain us long. In regard to Homer, it was a typical post-Platonic attempt to understand things of pre-Platonic origins, and not a perfectly consistent attempt either. His comments on epic show Aristotle uneasy in discussing it, not sure of its exact nature nor of his own analysis of it. Four centuries had been a long time, and he plainly knew nothing firsthand about Greek oral epic tradition.

    In the Poetics, Aristotle said that people commonly called any hexametric poem epic (Poetics 1:8-11). He rejected that careless, vulgar usage as inaccurate and said that meter alone is not enough to denote poetry. Aristotle revealed that he did not know the oral origin of Homeric poetry when he included it among the arts that imitate only in words, or meter (Poetics 1:7). That is indeed true if epic exists, as it did for Aristotle, only in fixed form. But had he like Arthur Evans ever heard an oral epic performance, he would surely have placed it too among the arts that imitate by rhythm and perhaps also harmony (Poetics 1:13-14). For Aristotle, epic, together with the genre of tragedy, was "a metrical representation of heroic action," but he thought it different from tragedy in being unlimited in the duration of the action imitated in it and, more importantly, in using narrative, which he thought foreign to tragedy (Poetics 5:7-11).

    Philosophers were not better critics of literature in ancient Greece than in modern times. Aristotle wrote that "narrative imitation excels all others,"19 then later asserted the superiority of tragedy over epic as a form of literature (Poetics 26:9-15) despite its lack of narrative (Poetics 6:2). And if that were not inconsistency enough, he also said that while the elements of epic are all found in tragedy,not all the elements of tragedy are in epic (Poetics 26:9 and 5:10-11); in this instance he seems to have been thinking of tragedy's many varieties of rhythm and its tunes or song (Poetics 1:13), which he did not know as rightful parts of oral epic tradition, which of course they are.

    Although it is thus mainly unrewarding to a modern folklorist to follow Aristotle's reflections on epic poetry, nonetheless two items of information in his Poetics deserve particular attention. The first is the popular usage which Aristotle reports from his era, whereby epic meant simply poetry in epic meter, namely Homer's hexameters. The second bit of information is in his intriguing reference to some epic poems as pathetic. He cited the Iliad as an example of such epics, whose plots center on grief-provoking disaster (Poetics 24:1-3). The same idea attaches to some modern Balkan oral epic tales, whose singers designated certain of their best songs žalosne in a comparable sense. This notion may in fact be one of the few real glimpses of ideas from oral tradition concerning genre in all of Aristotle's treatise on poetry. It is, at any rate, an idea about varieties of story that is found in the minds of many persons actually in modern oral storytelling traditions, even as far from the Balkans as North America. Morris Opler quoted a Jicarllla Apache informant on this subject in the preface to his excellent collection Myths and Tales of the Jicarilla Apache Indians:

The winter was the time when stories were told most, for then the nights were long and the people got tired of lying around. The story of the emergence can be told any time, day or night, and during any season, but it was most often told during the long winter nights. It is not dangerous to tell it at any other time, however. The story of the killing of the monsters by Killer-of-Enemies or stories about the bear, snake, any monster, or any of the evil ones can be told during the winter only, for then those dangerous ones go high in the mountains and are not where the people live. And those stories are always told at night. The stories are of different kinds. Some make you happy, some make you sad; some frighten you. They have a little feast when stories are being told...20
    Thus Jicarilla Apache storytelling was governed by certain seasonal and temporal contexts of propriety relating to the local economy and the Jicarilla system of beliefs. But within those contextual determinants was a peculiar scheme of genres based not on the poetic form nor on the social function of stories, but rather on the attitudes their performance traditionally evoked, or was supposed to evoke. In this connection one remembers again Evans's enchanted "Bosniac maidens" and the ecstatic thrill that ran through the whole circle of the "Bosnian gleeman's" listeners, and their "inarticulate murmurs of delight." One remembers too the famous scene of Odysseus weeping at the Phaiakian court (Odyssey 8:83-99):

Such were the things the famous singer was singing; but Odysseus,
taking the big purple mantle in his strong hands,
drew it over his head and hid his handsome face,
for shame lest the Phaiakians see the tears running down his cheeks;
and whenever the divinely inspired singer would leave off singing
he would brush away the tears and take the mantle off his head,
and laying hold of a two-handled goblet would pour a libation to the gods;
but every time he would start up again - since the noblest of the Phalakians
would urge him to sing, because they enjoyed his stories -
Odysseus would again cover his head and mourn.
None of the others noticed his weeping there;
Alkinoos alone perceived it and understood what he was doing,
because he was sitting next him and heard him sighing heavily.
He spoke out forthwith to the oar-loving Phaiakians:
"Listen to me, leaders and rulers of the Phaiakians!
Surely we have now sufficiently satisfied our appetite for the equally shared feast
and for the lyre, which is the rightful complement to bountiful dining.
    The epic singer whose tale causes Odysseus to weep is Demodokos, who sings a narrative Aristotle would have called "pathetic." Odysseus weeps not only because the narrative tells of his own deeds and the sufferings that attended them at Troy, but because it is a tale that should sadden its hearer, whoever he is. The idea of "a story that should sadden its hearer" is essentially a category of criticism, even though it may happen to have no special terminology to express it in an oral traditional culture and may therefore appear to be no more than an emotional or (even worse) a merely sentimental reaction to poetry.

    But it should not be forgotten that in an oral traditional culture even sentiment and the emotions are subject to the law of contextual propriety when custom demands them. Oral traditional storytelling is nothing if not a custom, and, like our own solemnity in church or temple or at a flagraising, reactions of pity or delight may be no more than proper in the context of hearing one traditional tale or another. Any folklorist who has tried to collect oral traditional narratives and failed to react to them in a proper mode of appreciation knows the consequences, no matter how generous an allowance for his outlandishness his informant may be willing to grant him. And in a deeper sense too, without emotional reactions dictated by custom, even literature as we know it would be only the empty folly Tolstoy said it is in his essay "What Is Art?" Tolstoy's argument for an ethnically religious dimension in literature is a self-evident proposition in oral-traditional cultures, and the contextually conditioned, customary emotions that go hand-in-hand with that religious dimension of oral tradition may be far more exact and far more universally applicable as criteria of genre than they appear to be to us in our modern secular tradition of literary criticism that began with Aristotle.

    The notion of pathos as a generic distinction within epic poetry is so briefly stated in Arisotle's Poetics that it is really only a suggestion. In fact, the idea had not come to him in connection with epic at all, but rather it was something he borrowed from his earlier, much fuller analysis of the genre of tragedy (Poetics 10 and 11). In doing this, Aristotle was at least true to himself, for his whole discussion of epic poetry is only a species of appendix to his remarks on drama. Aristotle's evident uncertainty in dioscoursing about the generic nature of epic and his marked preference for tragedy may be the reasons why his treatment of epic is so brief. It occupies only a few lines in the shortest of all his treatises that have survived (although some parts have been lost from the book during its long history). But whatever the reasons for it may be, the Aristotle we know is actually a rather slight critic of ancient Greek epic poetry despite all the weight his opinions have subsequently come to bear.

    Homer had made no distinction between the art of epic singing and the songs themselves. His word ἔπος meant both. In an oral tradition there is no difference between them. To Homer ἔπος was even less definite; it meant words in general. Probably partly out of respect for great Homer, Greeks after him called any hexametric poetry epic. But whatever else ἔπος and ἐπικός may have meant to Greeks in the four centuries between Homer and Aristotle, after Aristotle the words were permanently charged with two more-or-less exact meanings: epic poetry had simple (i.e., single) meter and consisted of long (i.e., unlimited) narration.

    Aristotle's literary confinement of the meaning of the words epic and epos brought about their metamorphosis into genre designations and launched them on a long career of literary and philosophical re-interpretation that has not yet ended and that probably will not end as long as we have literature. But through the whole long history of the words' peregrinations since Aristotle, his legacy has remained in the central sense: long verse narrative sharing qualities of the Iliad and Odyssey.

    With this meaning, the genre-designation "epic" (and its congeners in other languages) was ready-to-hand when modern collecting began in living oral traditions. Yet the name came so loaded with the burden of long literary reinterpretation that it could not be used to designate any folk tradition of long verse narrative outside of literature without summoning to mind myriad irrelevant and misleading literary associations. This was unobjectionable so long as the Romantic idea of folklore as gesunkenes Kulturgut prevailed. But as the collections of oral tradition piled up through the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, it became necessary to distinguish between literary epic and the accumulating evidence of something like it yet different, namely the folk genre of epic that Arthur Evans found in a northern Bosnian manifestation.

    To make this distinction, the word `oral' was prefixed to epic as a delimiting term. Originally, it did not name the genre of folk epic more precisely than the word epic alone. Its value was only to strip away from epic the heavy encrustation of literary implications that had gathered around it and to denote a nonliterary kind of epic whose real nature was in fact unknown. In the twentieth century, Milman Parry and Albert Lord made two important steps forward from that position. They dispelled the mystery of how oral epic could be maintained in tradition over long periods of time without any use of writing, and defined it accordingly as verse narrative of unlimited length, (re)composed at each telling, and having certain characteristic structures of words and ideas (called formulas and themes) in its composition that betray the processes of traditional poetics.

    To indicate the difference between oral transmission of poetry that has been made in writing, with its telltale lapses from traditional poetics, and poetry recomposed at every performance from traditional formulas and themes, Parry first and Lord after him added the further delimiting word `traditional' to the name "oral epic," and so the modern designation of this genre of folklore came into being: Oral Traditional Epic Poetry.

    The revolution in criticism wrought by the Oral Theory has irreversibly made the study of oral epic poetry a study of entire epic traditions, in which individual texts derive their importance chiefly from their service as testimony about the processes and meanings of a whole tradition of metrical storytelling. No matter how grand it may be in itself, no separate text, not even a text so magnificent as the Iliad or Odyssey, can be thought to carry more than a fraction of the significances in the tradition that formed it. Literary tradition consists more in its masterpieces, which shape its changing character from age to age. But the masterpieces of an oral tradition typically vanish no sooner than they are made, and the tradition changes less because it consists more in poetry than is usual. That understanding has been hard for literary people to reconcile with conventional habits of literary thinking, whose mighty authority has yielded slowly and often only very grudgingly to such changes.


1. Sir Arthur Evans, The Palace of Minos: A Comparative Account of the Successive Stages of the Early Cretan Civilization as Illustrated by the Discoveries at Knossos, 4 vols. and index (London: Macmillan & Co., 1922-1936).

2. Arthur Evans first visited Crete in 1893 on the same business that was most rewarding to him in Bosnia and Hercegovina in 1875 - collecting seal-stones. He might never have gone to Crete hadthe Austrian authorities in Dalmatia not reacted as they did to certain political indiscretions of his youth and banished him from Ragusa in 1882, thereby effectively ending his intended career as journalist, activist, and general connoisseur of Yugoslav lands and peoples. Between 1893 and 1900 he was on Crete several times but did not begin to excavate there until 1900, "when local political conditions made it possible"; see J[ohn] D[evittl S[tringfellowl Pendlebury, The Archeology of Crete (London: Methuen, 1939), p. 18, and chapter 14, "Paradise Lost," in the biography of Arthur Evans by his half-sister, Joan Evans, Time and Chance: The Story of Arthur Evans and His Forebears (London: Longmans, Green & Co., 1943), pp. 239-258.

3. Joan Evans, Time and Chance, p. 166.

4. Arthur Evans himself knew about the trying moments of a journey in 1634 by another Englishman, Sir Henry Blunt (Blount), who had "stayed a day or two in `Saraih,' the metropolis of the kingdome of Bosnah": Sir Henry Blount, A Voyage into the Levant: A Briefe Relation of a Iourney lately performed by Master Henry Blunt, Gentleman, from England by way of Venice into Dalmatia, Sclavonia, Bosnah, Hungary, Macedonia, Thessaly, Thrace, Rhodes and Egypt, unto Gran Cairo, 3d ed. (London, 1638). The desire to visit these places had been nurtured in the Evans family for generations; Joan Evans tells of the legacy to young Arthur from his grandfather (Time and Chance, p. 165): "One of Arthur Benoni Evans' favorite books of travel had been Walsh's Overland Tour from Constantinople to Vienna, which he had bought in 1835. This had survived to inspire his grandson as a boy with an interest in Turkey in Europe." The book was by Robert Walsh (1772-1852), published at London, 1828 (3d ed. 1829, and again in 1831). For an account of a native's journey on foot in Bosnia written by himself, see Matija Mažuranić, Pogled u Bosnu ili kratak put u onu krajinu učinjen 1839-40 (Zagreb, 1842; 2d ed., Zagreb, 1938). The motives of this journey too were Romantic, and in many ways like Evans'; but unlike Evans', Mažuranić's travelogue became a literary monument.

5. Arthur J[ohn] Evans, Through Bosnia and the Hercegovina on Foot During the Insurrection, August and September, 1975, (London, 1876). It contains a number of valuable drawings by the author.

6. Arther J. Evans, Through Bosnia, pp. 130-139.

7. Joan Evans had much more material at hand by which to judge the young Arthur than just the journal of his first trip into Bosnia. Although she was a lady of level judgment as well as a most sympathetic biographer, she wrote of his conceit even more strongly than I have: "Arthur Evans at twenty-four was a fantastically conceited young man who knew better than anyone how great were his especial gifts; and he had to set about using them, and making the world value them, as best he could." (Time and Chance, p. 163).

8. Arthur derived his opinions about the substance of Bosnian oral poetry from the translations of John Bowring, which he cited: Narodne srpske pjesme: Servian Popular Poetry (London, 1827). Bowring was somewhat an impostor. He tried to give the impression that he had translated from Slavic, when in reality he had only translated from other translations in German, whose authors he cites but does not credit in his Introduction. In their nearly total ignorance of Slavic, Bowring and Evans were birds of a feather; but Bowring, the less candid of the two, gulled Evans no less than he did many another Englishman in the nineteenth century, imposing on them a view of Balkan oral poetry colored almost beyond recognition by the dense filter of German Romanticism. Evans faithfully reflected that Romantic view in his journal when he ventured beyond the evidence of his own senses into thoughts about the putative content of Bosnian oral poetry. No doubt the most disastrous single mistake men have repeated throughout the annals of oral epic scholarship is just such reliance as Evans' upon the distorted view of a previous commentator with doubtful credentials, which in turn is derivative from a succession of previous misconceptions going back into the very abyss of aboriginal confusion. The root of the fault is, of course, in the hardship for men of letters of learning the exotic - and, except for studies in oral poetry, the rather useless - dialects that are indispensable to sound judgment in this branch of learning.

9. Cecil M. Bowra, Heroic Poetry (London: Macmillan & Co., 1952). A[lbert] B[ates] Lord, "Homer and Other Epic Poetry," in A Companion to Homer, ed. Alan J. B. Wace and Frank H. Stubbings (London and New York: Macmillan, 1962), pp. 179-214. Albert B. Lord, "Epic Poetry," in Collier's Encyclopaedia.

10. Concerning the length of composition in these traditions, see V. M. Žirmunskij and X. T. Zarifov, Uzbekskij narodnyj geroičeskij èpos (Moscow: Ogiz, 1947), p. 24 and passim; and David E. Bynum, "Themes of the Young Hero in Serbocroatian Oral Epic Tradition," PMLA 83 (October 1968): 1296-1303.

11. The Balochi text and English translation of this piece are from M. Longworth Dames, Popular Poetry of the Baloches, 2 vols. (London, 1907), I, 24-25; II, 29-30.

12. This is a prologue in mixed meter which Mr. Dames printed as though it were prose. The first two lines are formulaic, but short:

13. H. F. Morris, The Heroic Recitations of the Bahima of Ankole (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1964), and Trevor Cope, James Stuart, and Daniel Malcolm, Izibongo: Zulu Praise-Poems (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1968).

14. Bowra, Heroic Poetry, p. vi.

15. Evans, Through Bosnia, pp. 139 and 141.

16. Concerning the Russian tradition, see Vladimir Jakovlevič Propp, Russkij geroičeskij èpos (Leningrad: Leningrad University Press, 1955). See the essays on Asiatic and Caucasian traditions in: I. S. Braginskij, A. A. Petrosjan, and V. I. Čičerov, eds., Voprosy izučenija èposa narodov SSSR (Moscow, 1958).

17. See the splendid account of these facts in Miodrag lbrovac, Claude Fauriel et la fortune européenne des poésies populaires grecque et serbe (Paris: Didier, 1966).

18. The description is in Albert Bates Lord, The Singer of Tales (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1960, and later editions).

19. περιπὴ γὰρ καὶ ἡ διηγματικὴ μίμησις τῶν ἄλλων. The Greek is a clause of consequence, meaning that "narrative is best of all imitation" in regard to those particular features of it enumerated in the preceding sentences.

This is a good example of the difficulty of interpreting the Poetics.

20. Morris Opler, Myths and Tales of the Jicarilla Apache Indians, American Folklore Society Memoir Series, no. 31 (New York: American Folklore Society, 1938), pp. viii-ix.

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