Online 'Odyssey'

John Foley,
a professor of classical
studies and English at MU, sees a clear connection between the ancient method of passing down formation and the Internet
Sunday, October 10, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 7:51 a.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008

For at least 400 years, Homer’s “Odyssey” was passed down through generations of ancient Greeks by poets and storytellers. By the time someone got around to writing it down, the epic comprised about 528 feet of papyrus scrolls, which, today, would make for a very large book.

Fortunately for today’s students and scholars, “The Odyssey” can be accessed instantly by the click of a computer mouse. But downloading Homer’s epic is different from hearing it from a poet or storyteller.

John Foley, however, doesn’t see it that way.

Foley, the Curators’ professor of classical studies and English at MU, has a unique theory that links perhaps the greatest technological advance of the 20th century to civilization’s oldest method of communication, the oral tradition. People routinely go to the Internet to find documents and archived information that are in book form, but Foley argues that they have more in common with those who listened to the ancient poets and storytellers than those who read “The Odyssey.”

“The primary currency for the trading of ideas and knowledge is not the item, but the pathway,” says Foley, a soft-spoken man with a thoughtful demeanor. “It’s not fundamentally, ‘What?’ but ‘How do I get there?’”

Books and texts, Foley said, offer a single version of a story or event. The Internet, on the other hand, is a connected “living” network of potential experiences that, in theory, aren’t that much different from the experiences that shape a poem or a story told orally.

Foley suggests that, just as each visit to the Web is different, so is each oral performance of a poem or story. In the oral tradition, it’s not what the poets remember to recite but the way in which they thread together a sequence of events for each performance. Likewise, information on the Internet can easily be altered and, Foley says, only exists if the user follows what could be an infinite number of pathways or keystrokes to find it.

“Our journey this evening will necessarily involve blazing some unexplored paths..."

The experience of the listener — or the Web surfer — also affects how an oral performance is heard and understood or where an Internet session leads. As culture changes, the stories or the technology will change along with it, something that can’t be achieved when knowledge is “written in stone.”

Foley, an internationally recognized scholar of oral traditions, has written several books, 140 journal articles and 250 lectures and academic papers. In September, he gave the inaugural lecture for MU’s 21st Century Corps of Discovery Lecture series, in which he proposed connections between the two “bookless” methods, the oral tradition and the Internet, for sharing knowledge and cultural experience. He began with a word of warning to his audience.

“Our journey this evening,” he said, “will necessarily involve blazing some unexplored paths, resetting our defaults, maybe even inducing a mild case of culture shock.”

In a world of Palm Pilots and e-mail, face-to-face communication by ancient cultures seems to have been replaced, first by primitive texts, followed by bound books and now the infinitely large and impersonal electronic network of the Internet.

Reading and writing are relatively recent developments in human civilization. To illustrate the point, Foley mapped a 100,000-year timeline of human existence, based on a calendar year starting in January. Employing some mathematical calculations, Foley put the invention of writing at Dec. 10; the first printing press and bound book between Dec. 27 and 30; and the Internet at a few ticks short of the New Year.

In other words, the significance of the spoken word in the history of communication cannot, even today, be understated. And for many cultures, the oral tradition is the only way to ensure that histories will be preserved. Although they are works of historical fiction, Homer’s “Iliad” and “Odyssey” were critical to the national identity and value system of ancient Greek society. Although they could neither read nor write, Greek bards performed the nearly 30,000 lines of the two epics from memory.

In his book “How to Read An Oral Poem,” Foley points to other important examples of the ancient oral tradition, such as the medieval English poem “Beowulf,” the Old French “Song of Roland” and the medieval Spanish “The Poem of the Cid.”

“And this is to say nothing of the Judeo-Christian Bible,” Foley wrote, “whose roots — both Old and New Testament — turn out to be firmly planted in the realm of the spoken word.”

Oral tradition

The modern oral tradition takes many forms, says John Zemke, a colleague of Foley’s and an MU professor of romance languages. Corridos, for example, are songs originating from late-19th-century Mexico and the southwestern United States. Yet hours after President John F. Kennedy died, Zemke says, mourners in Los Angeles sang corridos about the assassination. Similarly, modern narco corridos grapple with the issue of Mexican drug trafficking.

The oral tradition works its way into daily life more than we might realize. Jokes, children’s games, rhymes and songs are still a staple of modern communication.

“The oral tradition is a way of socializing people to impart basic beliefs of who and what we are,” Zemke says. “If you know songs or lullabies that you know from someone singing them to you, you are a part of the oral tradition.”

Foley says that, on a per capita basis, the oral tradition remains human civilization’s primary method of communication. In China, 35 out of 55 minority groups still have no system of writing, relying on a variety of oral traditions. Aboriginal Australians use the oral tradition, as Foley puts it, “to navigate across their landscape.” Apaches use memorized songs and stories to map their tribal history and preserve their mythology.

Foley’s passion for the oral tradition was sparked nearly 30 years ago when he was a student of medieval English. His fascination with epic poetry began with the English classic “Beowulf,” portions of which his professor would perform orally each day. Foley soon became an accomplished reader of ancient Greek and the epics of Homer.

In 1973, Foley went to the former Yugoslavia to research the thriving oral traditions of Orashats, a village 50 miles south of Belgrade in Serbia. Three years’ worth of field work netted several important observations, including the performance of genealogical, or family tree, stories of 10-syllable verses that spanned more than a dozen generations. Funeral laments, or poetic eulogies, were commonly performed by female relatives, using only eight-syllable lines.

What Foley learned related directly to the ancient text versions of Homer and others: Poems and songs were not memorized word for word but rather re-created slightly with each performance.

Moreover, the spoken word in the oral tradition is not so literally interpreted, but rather functions as a trigger of important information. The listener of a poem or song of the oral tradition does not only hear single words but also audio cues that provide context about characters, events and situations.

“People didn’t mindlessly spit out syllables, we discovered,” Foley says. “Instead, they were deeply fluent in their oral traditions.”

The oral tradition still flourishing in Orashats underscores the distrust that some cultures have for television and books.

“Many older people there had only a few years of school,” Foley says. “They can read postcards from their children who are working elsewhere, but they would not think of using this technology for themselves in the village.”

Oral tradition also depends heavily on idiomatic expressions and assumes audiences know some details of the story.

Take for instance, the phrase “it’s raining cats and dogs.” An audience without an understanding of the language and context would wonder why the speaker is talking about household pets falling from the sky. Similarly, Homer used the ancient Greek term for “green fear,” a phrase which his audience understood to mean a fear incited by a god or goddess.

“One of the things John Foley observed is that the audience in oral situations knew a lot more than just one poem that we have no record of,” said Dan Hooley, MU’s chair of classical studies. “So when a certain phrase or situation is used, it would call to mind other stories or poems.”

Today's oral tradition

So, how does the oral tradition even remotely resemble the Internet?

In addition to the dependence on links and pathways to transmit information, the oral tradition and the Internet rely upon specific languages, codes and rules that people are assumed to know already. Internet users need to know that a web address may require a “www” prefix. The site name requires one of several suffixes, such “.com,” or “.edu.” Get it wrong, and your journey ends abruptly. Likewise, in the oral tradition, poets, singers and storytellers must be well-versed in the language of the culture and the rules that govern it to carry their audience through a story.

Both the Internet and oral tradition require that the participant understand the larger meaning of words, terms and sound bites. Just as the Web surfer knows from experience that a hotlink is not physically hot, the ancient listener of Homer’s “Iliad” knew that the “swift-footed Achilles” was a reference to his identity and persona as a skilled warrior, not just to his speed.

Foley’s theory has the potential to prompt a whole new area of communications research. It could also raise a new set of questions regarding the implications of this research on the oral traditions of today. If, as Foley maintains, the Internet functions in much the same way as the ancient traditions of the spoken word, the question is raised of how the Web’s potential for sharing knowledge will impact the way storytellers and poets carry on the oral tradition.

“It might bring an increased number of stories into their awareness,” Foley said. “It might give them more models for performance than they have now.”

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