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Oral Tradition


ORAL TRADITION , which operates in all religious institutions, tends to be viewed by literate Western scholars as a defective mechanism for perpetuating tradition. Theologians, secular historians, and sociologists of religion, sharing a dichotomous view of oral and literate intellectual systems, have contrasted the fixity of belief in an immutable truth found in literate religious traditions with the variety and mutability of knowledge typical of oral traditions relying exclusively on memory.

However, recent research on the institutionalization of oral and written communication in different societies tends to undermine the dichotomy between "oral" and "literate" societies. It becomes increasingly clear that in both religious and secular contexts literary and oral methods of learning and teaching coexist and interact. The relative stability of knowledge in a given society depends in large part upon how these different methods are institutionalized as well as upon the educational goals and concepts of knowledge that accompany them.

In general, it seems that knowledge based on memory is not as ephemeral as previously had been thought, nor is written knowledge immutable in the actual conditions of social practice. Thus comparative research into the ways in which written and spoken words are organized and used in different societies at present tends to complicate the picture of what oral tradition is, and of how it is related to the presumed stability of written traditions. Overly simplistic models are giving way to less elegant, but perhaps richer, comparative views, which also offer a more accurate picture of the varieties of religious experience that are embodied in written and spoken words.

The two great questions underlying most of the scholarship on oral tradition in religion are those of historical continuity and communicative effectiveness. Up to the present, these two issues have tended to be addressed by different scholars using different methods. The issue of historical continuity has been prominent in the Western comparative study of religion since the late eighteenth century, when the survival of preliterate belief systems in modern European settings was first recognized.

In the twentieth century, one of the most provocative historical comparativists has been Georges Dumézil. Dumézil has gone back to the early literary sources of Indo-European mythology, history, and legend to reconstruct an ideological complex that, he contends, predates the dispersion of the ancestors of the present Indo-European linguistic groups from an original home in Central Asia into the Indian subcontinent, Asia Minor, and Europe. Dumézil argues that his ideological complex was represented in both the social organization and the cosmology of the preliterate Proto-Indo-Europeans, positing a tripartite division of both human and divine spheres of activity into priest-kings, warriors, and agriculturalist-herdsmen. For Dumézil, it is not tripartism in general (a worldwide phenomenon), but these three particular categories that characterize cultural configurations derived from a Proto-Indo-European antecedent.

Followers of Dumézil have examined more recent folk traditions in Europe, such as folk tales, legends, and sagas. In these orally derived traditions they have found evidence of the pre-Christian Indo-European tripartism, which in some cases underlies such overtly Christian subjects as the lives of the saints. Of course, the awareness of pre-Christian content in European oral tradition and its possible impact on Christian orthodoxy was noticed by the earliest Christian missionaries. Several of the nineteenth-century folklorists were clergymen who identified pre-Christian beliefs and practices among their parishioners. Dumézil and his followers, however, unlike many of their predecessors, have detected not mere isolated remnants of tradition, but a conceptual system that, Dumézil argues, informed Indo-European ideas of social and cosmic organization at diverse levels, with varying degrees of explicitness, from the explicit varna theory of the Vedic caste system in India to the cryptic reflections that Dumézil has traced in the legendary history of the Roman republic.

Dumézil's historical-reconstructive approach to the oral heritage in written traditions shares some of the weaknesses of its predecessors. A major problem is the variety of relationships between cosmology and social organization. Dumézil and his followers found the Indo-European triad in some cultures at the cosmological level, in others in the configurations of secular history, in yet others in sacred biography. In some cultures (in India, for instance), Indo-European tripartism can be traced in many contexts on a sacred-secular continuum. But as becomes apparent in the study of living religious rituals and scriptures in their social context (and as is painfully obvious to believers who take their sacred models seriously), the sacred order is often not realized in everyday social interaction, and indeed may even be systematically inverted. Anthropologists of religion such as Victor Turner and Claude Lévi-Strauss have based approaches to the study of ritual and myth on the assumption that inversions between sacred and secular discourse are systematic, and even necessary. Dumézil's style of comparison is exciting more for the possibilities it reveals for discovering the manifestations of a belief system in both sacred and secular contexts than for the particular comparative conclusions it can yield.

Although Dumézil and his followers only implicitly address the problem of oral tradition, the identification of traces of an originally oral ideology in societies where that ideology is no longer overt raises the question of the relative importance of self-consciousness in oral and literate intellectual traditions. Literacy is widely regarded by the literate as a facilitator of analytic reasoning and self-conscious intellection. It is believed to enable one to manipulate series of propositions, to reorder them, compare their implications, and identify inconsistencies that would be obscured if one could only consider them in the serial order and social contexts of their immediate presentations.

In the religious context, the writing down of tenets of belief is held to facilitate the development of orthodoxy and of internally consistent bodies of belief, which in turn may contribute to the centralization of religious institutions and religious power. There are paradoxical aspects to this set of assumptions, however, as will be seen below. In any case, Dumézil's comparative studies imply among other things that the development of complex categorical systems of sacred and secular order is possible even in preliterate societies. The continued unselfconscious operation of such conceptual systems can be traced into the literate era, in both the literate and the oral domains of different communities.

A comparative approach to the diverse manifestations of such inherited patterns leads to the question of how these patterns are transmitted and institutionalized. A second major approach to the problem of oral tradition has focused directly on the forms and processes of oral transmission. This approach was initiated by the Amerian classicist Milman Parry, whose examination of the style and structure of Homeric verse led him and his student Albert B. Lord to the study of a European oral epic tradition that still survives in the sectarian poems of border warfare sung in the Balkans. Through this study, Parry and Lord sought to identify mechanisms of oral composition and remembrance that could generate and perpetuate poems of the scale of the Homeric epics.

Francis P. Magoun and other medievalists then applied the Parry-Lord theory of oral stylistics and compositional techniques to Anglo-Saxon poetry. Soon a debate developed among medievalists and biblical scholars concerning the influence on early literary style of an oral rhetoric that was believed to reflect in various ways the oral composition and transmission processes that had been described by Parry and Lord. Arguments ensued about such questions as the relative debt of the Christian poet Cædmon to either the pre-Christian oral poetics of Anglo-Saxon or to the literary tradition of Latin devotional poetry. The organization of the Book of Psalms and the Gospels, among other Old and New Testament writings, was examined for evidence of oral composition in both style and structure. The simultaneous existence of variants, along with the presence of formulaic language, was taken as a hallmark of oral tradition. Stylistic studies that saw in the synoptic Gospels (Mark, Matthew, and Luke ), for instance, a series of variants of an original oral tradition of the life of Christ, raised once again the questions concerning the historical reliability of these texts.

In the case of Islam, by contrast, the oral substrate of the tradition was directly taken into account by the earliest Muslim theologians. The word qurʾān literally means "reading," and the sacred book of the Qurʾān was originally received through reading, despite the self-avowed illiteracy of the prophet Muammad. The first revelation came to the Prophet in the form of an angelic injunction, "Read!", to which the Prophet replied, "I cannot read." This altercation ended with the celestial voice dictating, "Read: And it is thy Lord the Most Bountiful / Who teacheth by pen, / Teacheth man that which he knew not." The Prophet, waking from a trance, remembered the words "as if inscribed upon his heart." Thus the authoritativeness of written scripture was established by explicit revelation.

The Prophet's oral recitations of subsequent revelations were transcribed by various followers. The great body of Muslim oral tradition supplementary to the Qur˒ān itself, embodied in the sunnah ("practice, custom") and adīth ("traditions, narration") of the Prophet, was codified by literate theologians in the century following the Prophet's death. A primary criterion for authenticity was the soundness of the chain of oral transmission by which each bit of information was preserved prior to being committed to writing. It was important to establish that the chain of oral transmitters (isnād, or "attribution") specified in each case was comprised of a series of individuals who were in fact contemporaries in direct communication with each other. Thus Islam, in its earliest period, confronted the issue of the reliability of oral transmission very directly. Spiritual authenticity in Islam has continued to be measured in part by the directness of verbal communication between living exponents of the faith, as for instance in the emphasis that the ūfī orders place on the necessity of a sound spiritual genealogy and on direct communication with spiritual guides.

A serious limitation is imposed on researchers' ability to understand the workings of oral transmission in biblical and other traditions by the fact that the compositional history of existing texts is often undocumented, and information about the traditions upon which they were based is scarce. Arguments for the oral origin of parts of the Bible, like similar arguments concerning devotional and secular medieval literature, proceed mainly on stylistic grounds, whereas the reconstruction of the actual process of oral composition remains inferential. In societies where literacy is the skill of a minority, verbal compositions intended for a general audience must be organized to facilitate aural comprehension, whether or not they are composed orally. Furthermore, in societies where literacy is new, the indigenous verbal aesthetic is by definition oral, and early literature might be expected to emulate it to some degree.

The ethnographic evidence available from contemporary societies, together with the scanty indications of the compositional process gleaned from early literary documents, tends to enforce the idea that different societies distribute oral and literary processes in different ways, that there are a variety of techniques of oral composition and transmission just as there are a variety of techniques of literary composition and dissemination, and that these communicative mechanisms interact in complex ways.

Looking at religious traditions in oral and literate societies today, it becomes clear that virtually all societies develop special languages or communicative styles for religious contexts, and that these are distinguished from everyday written or spoken language. It is perhaps best to regard writing not as more authoritative or powerful per se, but as one of several possible strategies for marking off religious language as particularly powerful. Societies with prophetic traditions embodied in written scriptures may develop popular ideologies that venerate all writing, by extension from the veneration of sacred writ. In folk Islam, for instance, taʿāwīdh are written formulas believed to have protective power that are worn as charms on the body. Other written charms may be consumed in dissolved form or inhaled as smoke. Their texts, which are specific to the protective function desired, may be derived from holy scripture, from books of prayers compiled for the purpose of taʿāwīdh writing, or from a series of numbers or words arranged in geometric patterns that are considered to be powerful.

This use of written words in charms forms part of a larger continuum of protective magical practices that includes the manipulation of other physical objects (such as strings, bits of cloth, beads, foodstuffs, and fragrant herbs). Thus those who use literacy for protective magical purposes are using but one of several strategies for physically embodying sacred power and directing it to human ends. The sacred power of language is no less likely to be embodied in spoken words, even in highly literate traditions such as Islam and Christianity. The invocations, prayers, and injunctions spoken over a written taʿāwīdh at its creation are no less important to its efficacy than is its written text.

Much recent research by folklorists and ethnolinguists favors the view that the meaning and power of sacred language emerges from the actual enactment of words by the living, whether the "texts" that serve as the basis for such enactment are written or oral. The dynamism of such oral enactment can often triumph over the professed fixity of a scriptural tradition and become a source of diversity within the tradition. This can be seen in several examples taken from New World Christian traditions.

Some Pentecostal churches in the United States, for example, while preaching the literal truth of the Christian scriptures, seek personal experiences of possession by the Holy Spirit. One group of such churches puts particular emphasis upon the verses of Mark 16:1718: "And these signs will accompany those that believe: in my name they will cast out demons; they will speak in new tongues; they will pick up serpents, and if they drink any deadly thing, it will not hurt them; they will lay their hands on the sick, and they will recover." To this end, and as part of their devotional services, they handle venomous snakes and drink strychnine in trance states induced by very intense rhythmic vocalization, clapping and dancing during sermons, personal testimony, group prayer, and song. Other Pentecostal groups take no interest in snake handling, but preserve the importance of glossolalia and other forms of vocalization in worship. Glossolalia, or speaking in "new tongues" (Mk. 16:17), is accepted as an outward sign of the conversion experience and is considered to be the Holy Spirit speaking through the body of the believer. Such "baptism in the Spirit," with its outward vocal forms, is believed to be necessary for salvation.

A debate arises within some fundamentalist congregations concerning the types of vocalization proper to men and women. The apostle Paul's injunctions (1 Tm. 2:11, 2:12; 1 Cor. 14:3435) that women should be silent in church are interpreted by some to mean that women should not preach but only give personal testimony, sing, and speak in tongues as the spirit moves them. Women who feel called to preach may frame their sermons more in the style of a personal testimony (or their testimonies more in the style of sermons), or they may defend their right to preach by alluding to points in scripture (e.g., Acts and Joel) where it is said that women will prophesy in the "last days," which are presumed to be at hand. Thus silence for women receives widely divergent interpretations in different communities. The literalist interpretation of scripture typical of such communities in no way inhibits the development of diversity, especially in the dimension of oral practice.

Diversity is no less apparent in Roman Catholic communities, which were until the 1960s restricted to a uniform Latin liturgy and scripture. Among the Tarascan Indians of Tzintzuntzan, Mexico, an elaborate, nine-day communal ritual of religious processions, feasts, and dances has developed around the single verse of Luke 2:7: "And she brought forth her firstborn son, and laid him in a manger, because there was no room in the inn." The theme of no room in the inn has formed the basis for communal processions, called posadas ("lodgings"), developed with varying degrees of complexity in many Spanish-American communities. Images of the Virgin are carried through the streets during the last days of Advent, begging for lodging. Although the basis is scriptural, the design and execution of these ceremonies are a matter of emergent oral tradition. In Tzintzuntzan, the ritual has developed into a pancommunal ceremony that entails elaborate cooperation within neighborhoods, performances of songs and recitations, and a complicated cast of male and female actors who carry out the roles of holy pilgrims and inhospitable innkeepers. Stanley Brandes suggests that there are extrareligious reasons for this community's elaboration of this particular detail of sacred biography at this time. In Brandes's view, the ritual reflects changes in relations between members of the community.

A distinction introduced by Gregory Bateson can help to clarify the value of orality in many religious traditions. Bateson distinguished between communicative and "metacommunicative" functions of language. While the communicative dimensions convey information and content, the metacommunicative level conveys a relation between speaker and listener. Bateson further observed that, while the literary mode is conceived as primarily communicative, it is the oral mode that is the dimension of metacommunication. Because a primary goal of religious devotion is precisely to establish or reassert a personal relation between the worshiper and the worshiped, Bateson's distinction helps provide an understanding of why the oral dimension is often critically important in both the embodiment and the propagation of religious belief and experience.

Even within a strictly oral tradition, however, the religious value of orality may be differently assessed, and values normally associated with literacy affirmed. In different traditions, the authenticity of religious utterance may be measured by reference to either an ideal of immutability (whether written or oral), or to an ideal of spontaneity. Wallace L. Chafe, distinguishing stylistically between oral and written English, pointed out that in Seneca, a nonwritten American Indian language, the ritual language of religion and recitations of mythic history achieve many of the same effects of depersonalization and grammatical integration that Chafe identified as markers of literary as opposed to colloquial discourse in English. In Seneca oral tradition, the ideal of ritual recitation is a fixed text, and a highly standardized vocal style and physical mannerisms accompany the recited words. According to Chafe, distinctions between oral and written style in English are thus analogous to distinctions between ritual and colloquial style in exclusively oral Seneca.

By contrast with Seneca religious language, some Christian Pentecostal groups in the American Midwest locate spiritual authenticity in religious utterances that entail possession by the Holy Spirit. A preacher in this tradition would never use any sort of written notes or outline to organize his discourse in advance. And yet this ideal of oral spontaneity in devotional practice in no way alters the conviction that the written scriptures are the verbatim word of God. Furthermore, stylistic analysis reveals a highly consistent structure and high level of formulaic language in such inspired spontaneous utterances, both in sermons and in personal testimonies. Other fundamentalist groups may tolerate or even encourage the use of written outlines by the prayer leader, as well as the use of hymnals, but the spiritual authenticity of the prayer or hymn is measured by the degree to which it is "raised up" by the group from the skeletal, written prototype into an embellished improvisational oral performance.

Similar paradoxical relations between oral and written standards of authenticity can be found in other traditions. William F. Hanks describes a shamanic prayer among Yucatec-Maya of southern Mexico, where the local religion is a complex syncretism of Christianity and pre-Columbian beliefs, largely reliant on oral tradition. In this community, the proper form of prayers is so completely dependent upon the context of oral performance that a shaman is unable to recall or reproduce the text of a prayer outside the setting of the ritual. Hanks persuasively argues that the oral text does not exist in any coherent form outside of the immediate curing rituals, for, as the shaman explains, "[It's] a thing [that] passes by you in your thought." In such an oral tradition, the role of rote learning is minimized (shamans learn how to address spirits primarily through personal dreams and visions), to say nothing of fixed texts in the form of written scripts. Nevertheless, in this same cosmology, there is a guardian spirit whose function it is to record in writing, for divine reference, the individual rituals performed by shamans.

These examples illustrate the diversity of relations between oral and literary traditions in different religious settings, and also the continuing, central importance of the spoken word as religious act. Writing has no doubt provided a mechanism to measure the mutability of ostensibly eternal oral traditions, but when scriptural traditions are examined in particular social contexts, their own mutability is equally apparent, at the level of interpretative enactment. It is in the consciousness and acts (verbal and physical) of living believers that religions manifest their meaning, and in that sense, living tradition is always oral tradition.

See Also

Folk Religion; Memorization; Tradition.


The departure point for a great deal of work on continuity and analytic functions in oral and literary traditions is the work of the British anthropologist Jack Goody, particularly his Literacy in Traditional Societies (Cambridge, U.K., 1968) and The Domestication of the Savage Mind (Cambridge, U.K., 1977). The best review and critique of the literature on literacy and its effect on knowledge systems is Brian V. Street's Literacy in Theory and Practice (Cambridge, 1984). An introduction to the work of Georges Dumézil is C. Scott Littleton's The New Comparative Mythology, 3d ed. (Berkeley, Calif., 1980), which includes references to Dumézil's writings, including recent translations. Victor Turner's ideas on ritual are developed in The Forest of Symbols (Ithaca, N.Y., 1967) and many other later articles and books. The best starting place for an understanding of Claude Lévi-Strauss's anthropological theories is his Structural Anthropology, 2 vols. (New York, 19631976). The key general formulation of the Parry-Lord oral-formulaic theory is Albert B. Lord's The Singer of Tales (Cambridge, Mass., 1960). John Miles Foley's Oral-Formulaic Theory and Research (New York, 1984), which offers a superb annotated bibliography, provides an encyclopedic review of the scholarship pertinent to the theory in both religious and secular traditions. Two excellent collections of essays on, respectively, the relations between oral and written traditions and the relations between oral and written religious language are Spoken and Written Language, edited by Deborah Tannen (Norwood, N.J., 1982), and Language in Religious Practice, edited by William J. Samarin (Rowley, Mass., 1976).

M. M. Pickthall's The Meaning of the Glorious Qurʾān (1930; New York, 1980) provides a reliable translation of the Qurʾān, together with a historical introduction, from which the quoted traditions about the Prophet's first revelation are taken. Annemarie Schimmel's Mystical Dimensions of Islam (Chapel Hill, N.C., 1975) and As through a Veil: Mystical Poetry in Islam (New York, 1982) contain much information on folk and orthodox Islam and vocal aspects of ūfī mystical practice. Information on taʿāwīdh is from my own ethnographic experience in Afghanistan. There is a burgeoning literature in folklore, linguistics, and anthropology journals on language in religion, from which the short ethnographic examples at the end of this essay are a sampling. Much relevant work has appeared in the Journal of American Folklore : Steven M. Kane's "Ritual Possession in a Southern Appalachian Religious Sect," vol. 87 (OctoberDecember 1974), pp. 293302; Stanley Brandes's "The Posadas in Tzintzun-tzan: Structure and Sentiment in a Mexican Christmas Festival," vol. 96 (JulySeptember 1983), pp. 259280; Elaine J. Lawless's "Shouting for the Lord: The Power of Women's Speech in Pentecostal Religious Service," vol. 96 (OctoberDecember 1983), pp. 434459; Terry E. Miller's "Voices from the Past: The Singing at Otter Creek Church," vol. 88 (JulySeptember 1975), pp. 266282; and William F. Hanks's "Sanctification, Structure and Experience in a Yucatec Ritual Event," vol. 97 (AprilJune 1984), pp. 131166. Other studies focusing on particular traditions include Wallace L. Chafe's "Integration and Involvement in Speaking, Writing, and Oral Literature," and Shirley Brice Heath's "Protean Shapes in Literacy Events: Ever-Shifting Oral and Literate Traditions," both in Tannen's Spoken and Written Language, cited above. References to Gregory Bateson's ideas are further developed in Tannen's introduction to that volume.

New Sources

Dewey, Joanna, ed. "Orality and Textuality in Early Christian Literature." Semeia 65 (1994): 1216.

Flake, Kathleen. "'Not to Be Riten': The Mormon Temple Rite as Oral Canon." Journal of Ritual Studies 9 (Summer 1995): 121.

Hauser, Beatrix. "From Oral Tradition to 'Folk Art': Reevaluating Bengali Scroll Paintings." Asian Folklore Studies 61, no. 1 (2002): 105122.

Jaffee, Martin S. "Oral Culture in Scriptural Religion: Some Exploratory Studies." Religious Studies Review 24 (July 1998): 223230.

Jones, Gayl. Liberating Voices: Oral Tradition in African American Literature. Cambridge, Mass., 1991.

Lord, Albert Bates. Epic Singers and Oral Tradition. Ithaca, N.Y., 1991.

McMahan, David. "Orality, Writing, and Authority in South Asian Buddhism: Visionary Literature and the Struggle for Legitimacy in the Mahayana." History of Religions 37 (1998): 249274.

Niditch, Susan. Oral World and Written Word. Louisville, Ky., 1996.

Okpewho, Isidore. African Oral Literature: Backgrounds, Character, and Continuity. Bloomington, Ind., 1992.

Silberman, Lou H., ed. "Orality, Aurality and Biblical Narrative." Semeia, no. 39 (1987): 1145.

Margaret A. Mills (1987)

Revised Bibliography

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