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Oral Traditions: Telling, Sharing

Oral Traditions: Telling, Sharing

For the vast majority of human history, the only way people could transmit information has been by speaking, listening, and remembering. Indeed, the capacity for speech and the connected capacities for learning and remembering might be thought of as the defining elements of human consciousness, shared perhaps with other, now extinct, members of the hominid lineage but not shared with any other existing species. Through speech, humans did more than coordinate cooperation necessary for individual and group survival; they transmitted knowledge. They taught new generations techniques and ideas. They developed the ability to use abstract and theoretical thinking that allowed them to adapt to new circumstances. They created moral codes that regulated behavior between genders, between generations, between ranks, and between communities, and devised elaborate justifications for these codes. They speculated about the sublime question of the reason for the existence of it all and made up great cosmological explanations that usually placed humanity at the center of some sort of creation. For the vast majority of the at least 100,000 years that Homo sapiens has walked the earth (and perhaps longer if earlier hominid species had the power of speech), humans transmitted all of this orally. It would seem then that speaking and listening are the "natural" way humans learn.

Humans used several techniques to help them remember what they had learned. They created objects that served to remind them of the spirits that watched over them and needed succor. They made images of those that had gone before. They portrayed their fears on available rock surfaces. Perhaps most importantly, and in some ways seemingly universally, they used meter and rhyme in language, pitch and syncopation in sound, noises created by the ingenious noisemakers they devised, and the movement of bodies in time to music to remind them of what was important to know.

What they needed to know and to remember, though, changed over time. Humans learned to forget that which seemed no longer important. Knowledge flowed seamlessly from past to present, from the ancestors to the living, from God or the gods to the mortal. What was told always sought relevance with what the hearers of the words lived.

Sometime about five thousand years ago, in Mesopotamia and Egypt, some human societies began to use symbols etched in clay tablets, painted on papyrus scrolls, or carved into stone to record at first basic data. Eventually people developed the ability to use writing to capture the most complex of abstractions and the most beautiful of poetic expressions. Gradually literacy developed in other places and spread to still others. Almost everywhere it was associated with power. Those in power wielded the written word as one of the tools of domination. They determined what was truth, what was history, what God wanted people to do or be. While the struggles among the literate over these issues are the stuff of literate history, for most people knowledge continued to be transmitted orally. Even with the development of printing, the rise of mass literacy, and the spread of "universal" education, many elements of culture and community remain expressed primarily if not wholly in oral form. Especially among communities in some way or another disempowered by the apparatus of literate knowledge, oral tradition remains an important means of transmitting knowledge and maintaining social solidarity.

Oral Tradition

The introduction above sketches an expansive definition of oral tradition, using the term to refer to any form of knowledge transmitted in a regular way between generations verbally. This definition, while broad, does distinguish between oral tradition and oral history. Researchers (who need not be professional historians or scholars) elicit oral history by interviewing informants. Oral history is information about the past that is spoken only in the context of personal memory. Generally, it includes life histories and personal recollections. It can include information told to an informant by others, such as parents. In the context of collecting oral histories, though, the research may also collect oral traditions.

While the expansive definition also allows for the existence of oral tradition in societies with literacy, oral traditions are usually associated with "preliterate" societies. In such societies, information can be passed on only through oral means. All known societies have oral texts that validate a moral order. Many have texts that depict the proper relationships between groups within a community and often with those outside a community. To the extent that social divisions exist, component groups often have their own form of traditions. In particular, women quite often have a distinctive body of oral texts circulated only among themselves. In addition to traditions that bind a community together, some types of traditions celebrate hierarchy and power. In particular, praise songspanegyricsnot only signify power and prestige during the honoree's lifetime but often become eulogies remembered long afterward. Finally, great narratives, epics, and sagas served to tell the story of heroes and founders, of creators and minions.

Even when literacy emerged and spread, knowledge often continued to be transmitted and developed orally. Only elites often had extensive literacy in large parts of the world for long periods of time. While they might codify the epics into scripture and history, oral traditions often remained alive as folk wisdom and oral literature. Sometimes, oral traditions served as ideological justifications for counterhegemonic movements among subject classes or communities. Often, a complex interplay developed between oral and literate traditions. Even after the rise and spread of mass literacy, oral tradition has continued to play an important role in helping create popular, folk, and subaltern identities; however, the interaction between oral and literate in those cases often becomes more intimate and immediate.

The broad definition of oral tradition used here does not deny that there are sharp differences between situations where the only means of transmission of information is through oral communication and those where oral transmission serves as a refuge for a group in some way marked different from the rest of society. This definition, though, sees the differences more in terms of genre and function, than in terms of oral and literate societies or oral and literate people.

Genres in Oral Literature

Scholars working with orally transmitted information have identified a number of broad genres. Scholars define the genres by both function and form. Not every society has each of the genres. Scholars often approach these genres as different types of oral literature (a seeming oxymoron that acknowledges the creative energy involved in the preparation of oral texts), so different are they in form and function. Genres of oral literature include epics and sagas, panegyrics, prose stories, lyric poems, ritual songs, and genealogies. While all transmit knowledge, the genres do have different but sometimes overlapping functions.

Epics and sagas.

More narrow definitions of oral tradition often limit it to epics and sagas. Epics, defined by the use of poetics, and sagas, prose, serve as foundational texts for societies. They tell the stories of the culture heroes who create society, of the origins of civilized behavior, of the creation of heaven and earth and the people who populate it. Epics (used hereafter for convenience) sometimes tell history. Other times they reveal God's or the gods' design to humans.

Perhaps the epics best known to Western readers are the Iliad and the Odyssey, which date in their recorded form to about the eighth century b.c.e. Classical Greek authorities named a bard called Homer as their author. They exhibit, however, characteristics that define them as oral literature. They are recorded as verse with many elements of repetition. While they are historical, as opposed to sacral, they serve as foundation texts for ancient Greek ideas of civilization and culture. They focus on the deeds of "great men" and the ways the gods intervene in the affairs of people. The structure of the Odyssey the plight of a "wanderer" and his spouse who must wait for himfollows a structure found in many other epics in other cultures and times. The question for these epics comes from their transcription. Were they the production of one or two authors who worked with oral literature but made the finished products their own (given, of course, the possibility of changes to the texts in later copies)? Or are the epics in their present form truly composite examples of oral literature in which no guiding author can be seen in form as well as narrative? Such debates have also animated scholars when they consider sacred texts such as parts of both the Old and New Testaments as well as texts from India and China. Clearly, many of these texts, for example the Torah or first five books of the Bible, began as oral literature, functioning as creation myths that define the proper relationship between God and humanity.

Understanding the nature of the question of authorship requires understanding oral traditions, and especially epics, not just as texts but as performances. Over the centuries since Homer and the codification of the Torah, records have come down on the transcription of oral performances and the preparation for them by performers. Each time the song is sung, the tale told, the epic performed, it changes. Bards often served as more than just entertainers. Telling the tale, singing the song involved making a link with the audience, and giving the audience what it came to hear or admonishing the audience for what it has failed to do.

Tellers and performers usually plan such variations in advance to make their point or curry favor with their audience. Jan Jansen tells of witnessing the preparations for the performancewhich happens once every seven yearsof the Sundiata epic of the Mande people at the shrine of Kamabolon at Kangaba in the Republic of Mali. The epic tells of the founding of the Malian empire in the fourteenth century. The Diabate griots, or bards, members of the clan that supplied Sundiata with his griot, perform the full epic in the sanctuary as it has a new roof placed on it by a newly initiated age group. The only others present in the sanctuary are members of the Kieta, or royal, clan of the old empire. Outsiders may not see or record the actual ceremony. Griots tell the epic itself throughout the region, but the people hold the version told at Kangaba as the orthodox version, filled with secrets. Jansen, an outsider, attended the many practice sessions for the performance, as did almost anyone who wanted to. He reports that the griots debated quite intensely the wording and arrangement of the performance and the significance of its message. At the performance itself, Jansen noted that the griots cut it somewhat short. The performance, for a collection of royal clan members who had all heard it before, lacked the immediacy of the rehearsals, which featured the necessity both of working out the correct version of the epic among the professionals and of getting it right for the visitors who had come out of interest.

Even in cases where the performer is clearly subordinate to the intended audience, the performance of oral tradition creates a social persona for the performer. In most cases the performance creates society and social norms through linking people, communities, and institutions together. Whether the recitation of the Mansa Jigin, the Mande "gathering of kings," that confirms the centrality of the empire of Mali for the far-flung Mande peoples in diaspora all across West Africa (and in the early twenty-first century, New York and Paris), or the recital of a clan history at a funeral in central Tanzania by the heir to the deceased that recreates the ties of kinship and marriage linking people together across the region, oral traditions as performed generate community.

While epics and sagas are foundational documents akin to scripture in preliterate societies (and indeed scribes have sometimes converted them into scripture), they have component parts that bards stitch together (a direct translation from the ancient Greek of the bard's art). These components comprise some of the other genres of oral tradition. Bards can often recombine or condense or elaborate using these elements in the telling, combining them in different ways to fit audience and occasion. Taken as a whole, an epic is often no more than the most expansive collection of such components held together by the unity of theme and sometimes character.


One of the most interesting and historic of these genres is the praise poem. This type of poetry, the panegyric, is found in a wide variety of societies. These poems are often composed for specific occasions, as happens among the Xhosa people of southern Africa. However, while the metaphors and similes used in them may sometimes be tropes of deep cultural significance, in particular cases praise poems become linked to particular historic figures, and hence become an important part of a culture's historic memory. The following quote comes from the praise poem of Shaka, the founder of the Zulu kingdom in South Africa in the early nineteenth century:

Shaka went and erected temporary huts
Between the Nsuze and the Thukela,
In the country of Nyanya son of Manzawane;
He ate up Mantondo son of Tazi,
He felt him tasteless and spat him out,
He devoured Sihayo.
He who came dancing on the hillside of the Phuthiles,
And he overcame Msikazi among the Ndimoshes.
He met a long line of hah-de-dahs [ibis birds]
When he was going to destroy the foolish Pondos;
Shaka did not raid herds of cattle,
He raided herds of buck. (Owomoyela, p. 15)

These lines tell of several of the peoples and rulers Shaka conquered. Praise poems can then become one of the building blocks of epics, but in many cases they themselves become the most important form of historic memory. Cases where the elements of oral tradition do not coalesce into epics are more common than those where they do.


Stories, whether called folktales, fables, or even oral history, often serve the function of oral tradition. People use them to impart moral lessons and to promote a feeling of group solidarity through a sense of common history. They can be told in formal situations, such as initiation rituals or informally, such as around the hearth. Stories often tell moral tales, and sometimes they use structures, plots, and motifs spread quite widely across different cultures. However, with the addition of appropriate cultural detail, they also can refer to very specific episodes in local historical memory. As tellers tell and retell the story, it changes to provide a community with an agreed-upon explanation for the topic of the story. For example, in central Tanzania among the Gogo people, elders tell a story of something they say happened during the most serious famine in their history during World War I. A group of people fled hunger in their village to seek food from the newly established British administration in the wake of the East African campaign. They received no food at the administrative headquarters nor from the merchants in the small town along the rail line. They decided to camp for the night in a dry gully under the railroad tracks before trying to find food again the next day. That night a rainstorm filled the gully, and they all drowned. This author collected twenty-five versions of this story from throughout the region in Tanzania. While some details varied, all but one agreed that it occurred sometime between 1917 and 1919. The one outlier came from an elder who had been a colonial-era chief. He said he had known the people to which this tragedy had occurred and that it had happened not during World War I but during a famine several years later. As he was adamant, knowledgeable, and could name names, this author believes the former chief's oral history is "true." But the oral tradition created by the people out of this event encapsulates a complete explanation of colonial rule in the region. The people were conquered and ruled by Europeans who fought among themselves during World War I and killed many. They were exploited by an ever expanding market economy. Given these disruptions to the social order, they were abandoned by the forces of nature that first brought drought and then killed them with too much rain. Hence, the story became part of an agreed-upon explanation for colonial rule, and in memory they moved it back in time to the worst famine of their history.

As with panegyrics, some societies stitch such stories together to form epics. Stories such as this, though, often stand alone; and many societies never develop full-blown epics. Groups within societies often have their own sets of stories that emphasize their own particular place within society and relationship to other groups in it. Often, for example, women tell stories markedly different from those told by men, and they often tell them in contexts reserved for women alone. These stories, which may emphasize gender solidarity or debunk the claims made for well-known characters in other stories, are often labeled by men or other dominant groups as fables or as untrue. Just as much as stories told by men or dominant groups, though, they represent an agreed-upon explanation for why the world is the way that it is.

Ritual songs and lyric poetry.

Songs and lyric poetry function much like stories in that they focus on particular events or situations. Like stories, they are sometimes historic but often fabulist. They change as bards and singers change them to fit audiences and circumstances. While they are often individual performances, groups can also perform them. The demands of meter and music impose a certain stability on them, especially those performed by groups. Work songs and ritual songs fall into this category. Work songs can consist sometimes of little more than a few lines repeated rhythmically for as long as the task lasts, but they can also impart moral or historic lessons. They can recall individuals or events associated with particular activities.

Ritual songs likewise can impart both historic and moral lessons. Songs performed at sacrifices, at celebrations of life passages, at healing rituals, at divining sessions all can serve the function of oral tradition. Songs or chants used in rituals can call upon historically important people or groups as intercessors with the divine. People often use music and dance to compliment the words of the songs. Dance in particular can act out, as well as act as a mnemonic device for, the story.


Genealogy is the final genre of oral tradition considered here. Genealogies quite literally link the past with the present by charting the ancestors to those still living. Genealogies usually contain more than mere lists of names. Tellers usually include both stories and praise poems for the ancestors as well as often detailed descriptions of relationships between different kin groups. Genealogies, like other forms of oral tradition, change as conditions change. In the long run, genealogies telescope with generations and relatives lost over time. Often, founders remain in the story, but the number of generations between the founder and the present may remain constant. Sometimes genealogies expand, as with king lists that proclaim consistently long reigns. Genealogies also often regularize relationships between generations, especially for holders of positions of authority. Usurpers become legitimate heirs. Inheritance through the female line gets changed to the male line in patrilineal societies and visa versa in matrilineal societies. Finally, genealogies in performance change to fit the circumstances. Social networks become embedded in genealogies as fictive kin relations. Such is the case in central Tanzania, where the principal heir recites the clan genealogy at a funeral. As with other genres, genealogies often make up an important part of epics, with bards stitching them into the narrative to highlight the proper relationship between groups.

The Modern Study of Oral Traditions

Over the course of the last two centuries, scholars have developed three distinct approaches to the study of oral traditions. One, the oldest, sees oral traditions as "oral literature" or "folklore" and promotes analysis on literary and humanistic elements, often focusing on comparative analysis. The second sees oral traditions as expressions of cultural values and norms. Anthropologists, especially ethnographers, analyze such traditions as functional promoters of group solidarity or structuralist explanations for the workings of society. Scholars working in both of these approaches focus little on the historical veracity of traditions and sometimes argue they contain no historically valid information. Historians, particularly of preliterate societies, on the other hand, attempt to derive from oral traditions historically valid evidence. All three approaches complement one another. Understanding the cultural and historical context of an epic enriches the appreciation of it as literature. Ethnographic analysis requires historical grounding and an understanding of the importance of performance. Historical analysis must take into account both the performative aspects of oral tradition and the cultural structuring that occurs in it.

Two issues, however, often divide students of oral traditions. One is the perceived difference between oral and literate societies. Some scholars argue that literate societies promote entirely different ways of comprehending the world than do those without or with only limited literacy. Oral traditions transmit knowledge in metaphor and ahistorical essences. Critics of this approach maintain that it minimizes the creativity and logical ability of people in preliterate societies. The second main issue dividing scholars is the historical validity of oral traditions. Many suggest they have none, that oral traditions are so attuned to the present that all information about the past is structured beyond relevance. Other scholars argue that properly understood oral traditions do transmit historically valid evidence.

The first field that developed around what is now called oral traditions was that of folklore. Folklorists sought to collect oral texts both from societies perceived as nonliterate as well as from among marginalized groups in literate societies. In the nineteenth century the field became tied with the Romantic project of recovering the "true" culture of the nations of Europe. In its less politicized form, folklore turned to the comparative method, seeking to show relationships between epics and tales found in different parts of the world. Early folklorists tended to work in Western societies, although by the middle of the twentieth century many had begun to work with non-Western oral literatures, bringing their emphasis on textual analysis to oral literatures hitherto the domain of ethnographers.

Folklore studies became the study of oral literature as the works of Milman Parry and his student Alfred Lord dramatically transformed the field in the first half of the twentieth century. Parry and Lord collected epics and songs among the Muslims of Bosnia. Their work, most famously elaborated in Lord's Singer of Tales, generally saw epics as literature composed in performance but based on a formula that used meter to string together episodes and clichés from a common fund of such tales. Each performance, then, is different, and performers do introduce innovation, often to fit a particular audience. Epics, however, retain a broad stability over long periods of time. Lord, in particular, used the Iliad and the Odyssey as models for epics, and the great questions they sought to answer concerned the actual "authorship" of such epics. Later scholars, such as Walter Ong and Werner Kelber, brought this approach to biblical studies.

Later scholars have criticized this oral literature approach for emphasizing textual analysis over context. The explicitly comparative approach minimizes the cultural and historically specific circumstances that have called forth the production of oral literature. They have charged that the importance placed on the difference between orality and literacy in the remembrance and performance of oral literature reduces it to a "formula" that denies the creativity of performers and the ways in which oral historians generate their histories.

Anthropologists, especially those engaged in ethnography, have also long used oral traditions as sources for their analyses of cultures and societies. Like folklore, anthropology originated as the study of a phenomenon outside the perceived mainstream of "Western civilization" in the nineteenth century. It began as the study of "primitive" societies. During the twentieth century, it quickly evolved into the study of culture broadly defined. As such, ethnographies have continued to draw heavily on a variety of genres of oral traditions in their efforts to portray culture.

Like folklorists, anthropologists have deemphasized the historicity of oral traditions. They have seen them functionally as means of promoting group solidarity and defining social norms. As such, they have seen them as entirely flexible, altered to suit changing circumstances. By the 1960s, the work of Claude Lévi-Strauss came to dominate such views. His argument that much of culture itself, as well as the expressions that defined and underpinned it, was structurally determined led to such important studies as Luc de Heusch's The Drunken King.

Starting in the late 1950s, the rise of new fields of historical studies led to a movement among historians to reevaluate oral sources for history. In particular, historians engaged in trying to recover a usable past for African societies, as nations on the continent began to emerge from colonialism, turned to oral traditions to recover a precolonial past often derided by colonial sources. Jan Vansina pioneered the collection of oral traditions, by which he meant mostly epics. In addition, the widespread epic tale of the founder of the kingdom of Mali, Sundiata, also attracted scholarly attention. The epic, performed by casted bards, griots in French or jeli in Mande, among many of the Mande-speaking peoples, tells of the founding of the empire in the thirteenth century and yet continues to be performed as a living oral tradition in the early twenty-first century.

Over the 1960s and 1970s, historians scoured Africa for oral traditions and produced works of incredible subtlety and incredible naïveté. While very few historians argued for the literalness of oral traditions as history, some took a more critical look at the context of the production of oral tradition than others. Ruth Finnegan, a leading folklorist, felt compelled to take historians to task for such naïveté. By the 1980s, historians had refined their approach to oral traditions. Some, such as David William Cohen, had moved close to a structuralist position. Vansina himself reworked his position on the collection of traditions, and many of his students showcased their work in The African Past Speaks, edited by Joseph Miller. Many scholars focused on the range of ways that historical information passed from generation to generation and the uses to which it was put. Since many African societies lack epic traditions, scholars have learned to use historical anecdotes, songs, stories, and life histories in innovative ways to answer questions about the past. These innovations have gone on to inform oral historical approaches in other areas and general historical debates about popular memory and history.

Oral Traditions and the Modern World

In a narrow sense, the rise of mass literacy and its spread (although still incomplete) across the globe has transformed the role of oral traditions in society. Just as happened in ancient Greece around 800 b.c.e., so it has happened repeatedly that when an epic is reduced to writing, it ceases to change. Written versions, with their stability, become orthodox, canonical versions. Yet, to see the gradual decline in importance of oral epics as the end of oral tradition takes much too narrow a view of the importance of the field. In some places, epics retain important functions and continue to be performed. The descendants of the royal griots of Mali who perform the full epic of Sundiata in a ritual reroofing of his shrine every seven years remain adamant that only they know the full version and that the transcriptions made over the years by many writers and scholars are pale glosses on the fullness of the epic.

More to the point, oral traditions in many parts of the world, including many communities in Western, wealthy, and industrialized nations, remain vibrant ways of expressing group solidarity. Oral traditions in the form of stories and songs continue to circulate widely in many communities as alternative takes on the world and its workings. They often express counterhegemonic tendencies and sometimes focus on communalism. They exist in situations where literate and especially formal discourse is dominated by state power.

Oral traditions have served to place humanity in the universe and to explain the workings of the world to humanity. The narrative mode of explanation embodied in the epic is a big part of what makes us human. But also the other genres of oral literaturethe song, the riddle, the praise poem, the proverb, the genealogyhelp delineate social relationships that define human society. Oral tradition remains the most immediate, the most "natural" way for humans to bring past and present together.

See also Genre ; Language, Linguistics, and Literacy ; Reading .


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Gregory H. Maddox

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