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History of Oral Literature and its Codification
The Textualization of Epics and Legends in their Historical Context
Korean Minjok Leadership Academy
Myeong, Do Hyeong
Term Paper, Medieval History Class, December 2011
Table of Contents
III. Analysis of Oral Literature
III.1 Characteristics and General Roles
IV. Codification of Oral Literature: History by Period
IV.1 Era of Settlement: Introduction of Writing Systems and the First Codified Literature
IV.1.3 Codification of Oral Literature in the Era of Settlement
IV.1.3.1 Gilgamesh Epics
IV.1.3.2 Homeric Epics: Iliad and Odyssey
IV.1.3.3 Sanskrit Epic: Mahabharata
IV.2 Era of Identity
IV.2.3 Codification of Oral Literature in the Era of Settlement
IV.2.3.2 Old Norse Myths; the two Eddas
IV.2.3.3 Memorabilia of the Three Kingdoms
IV.3 Era of Nationality
IV.2.2 Codification of Oral Literature in the Era of Settlement : Kalevala
The history of the literature probably dates back to the earliest human society; however early had they lived, people created stories,
sometimes to entertain themselves, sometimes to educate others, and sometimes for several other purposes. Before the introduction of
the writing system, such stories were transmitted orally from generation to generation. The term oral literature originates from here;
at the early stage of human history, all literary works were preserved by oral tradition. As writing systems were invented and literacy
replaced orality, such oral literature was also written down as fixed texts. The codification of oral literature, however, is not a
simple event in which a work of literature merely changed its form from one to another. Rather, it is an event which has to be understood
in historical context; not only its impact is of significance, but also how and why a work of literature was textualized provides us an
insight into the era and society in which the work was codified. Therefore, this paper would look into the history of the oral literature
and its codification from the Gilgamesh epics of 2500 BCE to Kalevala of 19th century CE, and would try to understand them in relation
to historical context.
This paper has certain limitations. First, it does not cover the entire time period between c. 2500 BCE and 19th century CE, because if
so the paper would be overly extensive. Rather, this paper takes certain specific eras in which the codification of oral literature was
active, and focuses on them. Second, this paper focuses on epics and legends, not on religious texts and historical accounts. Because of
this, this paper does not include some important codified works of oral literature such as the Vedas of India and the Old and New Testament.
In fact, all religion-related scriptures which are based on oral tradition are excluded from this paper.
This paper intends to deal with following topics;
General characteristics of oral literature and the socio-cultural role it played
The historical context each individual piece of oral literature was codified
The process how each work was codified - when, where, and in what language it was composed and codified,
The impact the codification of such oral literature had
Two ambiguous concepts frequently used in this paper would be 'orality' and 'literacy'. Orality, in other terms oral tradition, refers to a
dynamic and highly diverse oral-aural medium for evolving, storing, and transmitting knowledge, art, and ideas (1).
Literacy, on the other hand, refers to a medium which involves the usage of written script. However, the concept of orality and literacy do
not contradict each other; that is, both orality and literacy can co-exist about one work which could be both orally transmitted to others
and written down in a script at the same time. Thus, in this paper, reference to 'literacy' would mean the overall dominance of literacy
compared to orality, and the reference to 'orality' would mean the overall dominance of orality over literacy
The key terms, 'oral literature' and 'codification', also needs to be defined. The term 'oral literature' itself is a oxymoron because 'literature'
implies the usage of script. Nevertheless, just assuming that the term poses no internal paradox, it refers to a distinct conceptual field of
literature that is spread by word of mouth without recourse to writing, both the shorter forms (hutches, war cries, tongue twisters, proverbs etc.)
and the longer forms(stories, legends, songs, epics, etc.) (2). In this paper, the definition of oral literature would exclude
those who do not have any narrative structure (examples would be war cries and proverbs) and include the written extensions of oral texts.
Thus, the term oral literature in this paper would refer to a work of literature with narrative structure which has spread by oral-aural medium
and its textualized extension. The term 'codification' refers to 'textualization'; the two terms would be used interchangeably. Codification
should involve the usage of writing system. Any other attempts to record oral tradition without the involvement of writing system would not
be regarded as codification.
III. Analysis of Oral Literature
III.1 Characteristics and General Roles
There are several characteristics shown in the works of oral literature. First, because they had to be memorized and transmitted orally, their
composition often displayed exclusive use of the engram memorial. For example, many works of oral poetry before they were codified were
composed in specific metres in order to help their memorization. Many skaldic sagas were composed using court metre, also known as Drottkvaett,
and many pieces of the Sanskrit Vedic literature were recited in specific ways to aid the memorization. In some cases, memorization of a single
work of Vedic oral literature included eleven ways of recitation; the text was proofread by proofreading the different recited versions. This
method was so effective that the most ancient Indian religious text, the Rigveda, was preserved as a single text without any variants over 3500 years
Also, performance of the oral literature necessarily involves interaction with its audience. In contrast to written literature, where the author
is physically separated from his reader, the speaker of an oral literature is there with his audience, so he is able to modify the work, sometimes
omitting some details and in other times adding extra explanation, in consideration of the level of the audience and the time, place, and occasion
the work is orated. Because of this, oral literature is highly variable; it could be altered in detail or in content according to its speaker and
Another characteristic of oral literature is that it is often written down centuries, or sometimes millennia, after the original oral version
was created. In early societies before the invention of writing system or with a very limited use of scripts, it was perhaps natural that works
of oral literature were written down only long after they were first created. Also, some societies have strong favor towards orality over literacy.
People living in such societies tended to think that codification would damage the authority of the work. The best example of such society would be
India; in India, the codification of holy oral tradition(this term may be awkward, but it should nevertheless be used because the more familiar term
'holy text' already implies the textual form), both Shruti (Revelations) and Smriti (Composed by humans), was regarded as blasphemy for many
centuries. According to historian Michael Wood, it was not uncommon in India even until the late 20th century that "an illiterate Brahmin would
pop up at one of the temples in Varanasi and recite a holy scripture in Sanskrit, never reported nor codified ever before, for hours."
(4) It is also recorded, by Julius Caesar, in his Commentarii de Bello Gallico, that the Druids of Britannia regards the
codification of their beliefs as opposing to their principles. The reason for such tendency could be explained by considering that codification
of an oral tradition meant the increased accessibility of it; especially for religious texts, the authority of the former selected elite group who
were able to recite the work and take charge of the rituals would decrease if the text was codified and spread to people outside of their own group.
Although the literacy of those times were very low, there were still literate public outside the priest caste, especially the scribes and few others
involved in bureaucracy-the group who already had considerable power and authority in the society. If they were to freely access religious texts,
the balance of power would be broken. Thus the members of priest caste strongly refused the codification of oral literature, or the shift of
authority from themselves to the general public.
Oral literature served many roles in a society; it was used for the purpose of entertainment, education, and the preservation of culture and social
customs. The primary role of a work of oral literature differs according to its genre; historical accounts are to record history, religious texts
are to record the doctrines and rituals of a religion, and epics, legends, and mythologies to educate and entertain the general public. Almost
all oral literature is rich in cultural aspects. They reflect a society's history, religious bases, and value system. Such works of oral literature,
whether the educative aspects are conveyed explicitly or implicitly, play the role of educating and socializing a member of the society.
Some works of oral literature were also composed to convey certain messages. For instance, the Sanskrit epic Ramayana depicts the duties of
relationships, and Homeric epics illustrate the virtues valued in the time period, thus providing the role models for the society. Other works,
such as the Kalevala of Finland and the Kalevipoeg of Estonia, served to bring up the sense of nationalism among the people. Oral literature served
as an effective media to convey the ideas and messages to the audience.
There are various ways to categorize the works of oral literature; one may classify them by their genres (epic, myth, religious scripts,
historical accounts), by their regions, language, or by simply by the time period they belong to. In this paper, only codified works of
oral literature are categorized into three groups according to the degree how much of an editing process was taken when the work was
codified (uncodified works of oral literature are omitted because they are not the subject of this paper). For instance, some works of
oral literature were written down exactly as they were orally transmitted, whereas some works were totally re-created by the author
using the oral tradition for its basis; these cases should be distinguished.
The first group of codified oral literature, the simple record type, is the ones which were written down almost exactly as they were
recited; often these works are of very ancient era, and usually neither the name of the person who composed the work nor the person
who codified such works are unknown. The Old Sumerian Version of Gilgamesh Epics, or the Sanskrit epics such as Mahabharata or Ramayana,
would belong to this category.
The works belonging to the second group, the edited-compiled type, however, had undergone more of an editing process than the simple
record type of codified oral literature; the editors usually collected related, but separately transmitted, oral traditions, or
within a single work, different versions. Then they compared them, merged different versions of a story, edited incoherencies and
contradictions between related stories, and organized them into a single work. Although the names of the composers are often unknown, sometimes the
editors of such works leave their names. However, those two types still are similar to each other in that they are mainly the faithful
translation of a work from oral language to a written language.
In contrast, the third group, the re-creation type, consists of works literally re-created based on oral traditions; they are works of
fiction which took motifs, themes, characters, or events from oral traditions. These works differ from mere fictions in that such works
faithfully reflect the oral tradition of the society rather than only taking motifs from them. The third type of oral literature often
was written down by its composer from the beginning of its creation; because it was a creation of individual, it was codified directly,
often not having the period or orality. Nevertheless, because of the rich oral tradition which forms the basis of such work, it could
still be classified as an expanded oral literature.
IV. Codification of Oral Literature : History by Period
IV.1 Era of Settlement: Introduction of Writing System and the First Codified Literature
c. 2150-2000 BCE
Earliest codified version of Gilgamesh Epics (Old Sumerian Poem Version) codified (3rd dynasty of Ur); the date of composition is uncertain
c. 1800-1700 BCE
Earliest Akkadian version of Gilgamesh Epics (Early Akkadian Version) codified
c. 1300-1000 BCE
Standard Akkadian version of Gilgamesh Epics codified
c. 550-500 BCE
These Homeric epics were said to be composed around early 8th century BCE (Iliad) and late 8th century BCE (Odyssey) in Homeric Greek (Ionian dialect
amalgamated with aspects from other Greek dialects), the very language it was codified. It is widely believed that the canonical text of these
poems were codified in the era of Athenian tyrant Peisistratos (546-526 BCE).
c. 400 BCE
codification of Mahabharata (oral form originates back to 9th to 8th century BCE), in Sanskrit
c. 200 BCE
codification of the critical editions of the Iliad and the Odyssey by Alexandrian scholars Aristarchus and Zenodotus, in Homeric Greek.
The division of two epics in twenty-four books each originates from this edition
c. 29-19 BCE
Aeneid was written, in Latin
It is widely believed that the first writing system, known as the proto-cueniform (which later developed into cuneiform) in the history
of mankind was invented around 3000 BCE in the city of Uruk. This proto-cuneiform script was known to be used for keeping the record of
the quantity of sheep, grain, cloth, etc. The introduction of writing systems had substantial effects on the ancient society. A complete
system of metrology was developed to support the economical function of the script, and the semi-permanent recording of important matters,
such as the list of government officials or the amount of tax income, became available. Systematic organization of things and concepts
became possible since they were now written down and could be compared to one another more easily; the writing system organized the world
as a logical system that could be expressed through writing (5). Because only a few selected people were educated to
read and write, the difference between the literate and the illiterate granted the former an authority in the society, and the social
hierarchy was settled. The system of bureaucracy was established.
The usage of writing system, which were primarily of administrative use, gradually expanded to other areas; most importantly, it was used
to codify the oral traditions of the society. The codification of oral literature in this early period had various purposes. The first
and foremost reason, of course, was to aid the memorization of the work. Works of oral literature were textualized and used both as
references to look at to aid one's memory and also in the education of the literate class of younger generation. Libraries were established
in courts and temples to display the power and prosperity of the ruler (6). The transition from society based on orality
to one based on literacy was a process which occurred over millennia; even until the time of Plato, more than two millenia after the
invention of the writing systems, the resistance to the literacy was not unusual - for instance, Socrates did not leave behind any written
documents on his philosophy. Until the Roman Empire such conflict between orality and literacy went on, and then they gradually ceased.
Thus the era of settlement, in which the usage of writing system and the transition from orality to literacy was settled, begins with the
Gilgamesh epics and ends with the Aeneid.
IV.1.3 Codification of Oral Literature in the Era of Settlement
IV.1.3.1 Gilgamesh Epics
The epics containing the story of Gilgamesh are of the earliest known works of the oral literature (7). They are about
the adventures of hero Gilgamesh and his quest for immortality. The epic is believed to have originated from the old Sumerian legends
concerning to king Gilgamesh of Uruk, whose reign is estimated to be around 2500 BCE according to a Sumerian King List
(8). The legends were later put together as a longer epic, but the exact date of composition is unknown, and could not
be known, for date of composition of the very Sumerian legends differs from one another by centuries.
There are three major codified versions of Gilgamesh Epic. The earliest version would be the Old Sumerian Poem Version, which was codified
between c. 2150 BCE and c. 2000 BCE in the 3rd dynasty of Ur. This version, however, is considered to be records of distinct poems rather
than composing a single epic (9). The second version is the Early Akkadian Version, codified around 1800 BCE to 1700 BCE.
This Early Akkadian Version is the earliest version of Gilgamesh epics as a single epic, and is believed to be formed from the existing
Sumerian poems (10). The third version, Standard Akkadian version, was codified around c. 1300 BCE to 1000 BCE in 12
tablets. These tablets differ from the Early Akkadian Version in details and organization; they are believed to be originated from different
sources. The Standard Akkadian Version was edited by Sin-liqe-unninni, and was found in the library of Ashurbanipal in Nineveh
(11). Minor versions of the epic also exist, some different versions in Sumerian and Akkadian, and some versions
translated to Hittite and Hurrian. Note that the first version, Old Sumerian Poem Version, belongs to simple record type while the later
two versions belong to edited-compiled type.
The fact that the Gilgamesh epics were continued to be codified in minor versions after the Standard Akkadian Version indicates that the
process of oral tradition was not ended by the codification. Moreover, the difference between Early Akkadian Version and Standard Akkadian
Version, and various other minor codifications including Sumerian poems excluded from the epic, shows that the epic continued to be varied
even after its codification. Such phenomenon could be explained by the limited access to codification; only a few educated people could
access the codification, so the oral transmission of the epic was continued separately from the codified version among the majority of
population, and the epic was varied in the process.
The Old Sumerian Version was codified under the Third Dynasty of Ur, the golden age of Ur. Kings of the Third Dynasty sought to revive the
old glory of Sumer; great Ziggurats were built in the locations of old Sumerian temples in cities such as Uruk, Ur, and Nippur, and the
Kings called themselves as "king of the four corners (of the universe)" (12). King Ur-Namma, who started the
Third Dynasty of Ur around c. 2100 BCE, sponsored the collection and codification of the oral traditions concerning the ancient heroes
and kings who led the Old Sumer (13). Sin-liqe-unninni, the scribe who edited the Standard Akkadian Version of the
epic, belongs to Kassite era, in which the palace culture flourished in the ancient near east and the kings sponsored the codification
of literary works to show their wealth. It was in this historical context that the standard version of Gilgamesh epic was composed; the
edition and composition of literary works were encouraged to look back to the glory of the past and show that the country was stabilized
enough to care for the things other than military affairs and administration.
IV.1.3.2 Homeric Epics: Iliad and Odyssey
The two Homeric epics, Iliad and Odyssey, are said to be composed around early 8th century BCE (Iliad) and late 8th century BCE (Odyssey).
Both epics deal with the time around Trojan War (c. 1200 BCE); the Iliad deals with the last few months of the war, and the Odyssey portrays
Odysseus' journey back to his home in Ithaca.
There is an ongoing debate whether Homer existed, and if so, whether Homer is a single person or a group of people. However, if we interpret
Homer as a name for the person who compiled the numerous oral traditions into two epics Iliad and Odyssey, not as a name for the legendary
composer of those two epics, the debate becomes trivial; it is obvious that the parts of these epics were orally transmitted over centuries
before becoming one epic, and that somebody compiled these into two distinct epics around 8th century BCE in The two epics were composed in
Homeric Greek (Ionian dialect amalgamated with aspects from other Greek dialects), the very language it was codified. The reason that so
many dialects are mixed in one work is because the epics were orally transmitted by travelling bards from region to region (14).
The dates of composition of the epics are uncertain. While some part of the epic, such as the Catalogue of Ships in Iliad, accurately portray
the Greek world around the Trojan War, while other parts of the epics shows features from the later periods. Therefore, it is assumed that
the oral traditions which were the sources of the later compiled version originated from the very era the two epics are dealing with, and
the contents were added, deleted, and re-invented in performance through the process of oral tradition. Then the oral traditions were compiled
and edited in 8th century BCE, the Iliad in the early half of the 8th century and the Odyssey in the later (15). Such
compilation of the oral traditions into two epics coincides with the introduction of the alphabetic script into Greece, which happened in
8th century BCE among other Oriental influence on Archaic Greece.
The canonical text of these poems are believed to be codified in the era of Athenian tyrant Peisistratos( ruling period: 546-526 BCE), when
the epics were chosen to be performed in Panathenaic festival and had to be verified. Peisistratos established a Commission of Editors of
Homer to edit the text of the poems and remove any errors and interpolations, thus establishing a canonical text (16).
However, the process of oral tradition did not end with this codification; until Aristarchus of Samothrace, the librarian of the library of
Alexandria in the mid- 2nd century BCE, and his predecessor Zenodotus of Ephesus established the critical edition of the Iliad and the Odyssey,
various versions and interpretations of the Homeric epics were transmitted in different regions. It is Aristarchus who rejected the doubtful
lines, corrected the meters, and edited the epics into twenty-four books each (17).
The textualization of Homeric epics is a god example of the primary role of the codification; to verify the contents and correct the
possible errors which resulted from the long tradition of oral transmission. To take a further step, one may ask why such verification of
the text was needed, or why the work had to be standardized. The codification (and the following standardization) of a work of oral literature
means the gradual cessation, and eventually, disappearance, of the diversity of oral traditions. The Archaic period, from the 8th century BCE
in which the poems were composed to mid-6th century BCE in which the first known codification of the Iliad and the Odyssey occurred, was a
period full of changes and reactions. Note that this period starts with the introduction of Phoenician alphabet and the formation of Greek
alphabet, and ends with the emergence of new thoughts. In the Archaic Period the structure of city-states were re-organized and consolidated.
The aristocratic regimes were in the process of being replaced by tyrants and oligarchy. Moreover, the geographical spread of Greek population
due to the colonization (which again was caused by the political tension and overpopulation) caused the spread of Greek culture to many region;
such cultures gradually became regionalized by absorbing the aspects from local culture. Such diversion of culture also led to the need for
It is also notable that the standard form of the two Homeric epics was established in the Hellenistic Period. In the Hellenistic Period the
Greek culture was spread to many regions of Asia, Africa and Mediterranean. The states of the Hellenistic period were deeply fixated with the
past and its seemingly lost glories. Some of the colonized cities became central in Greek culture. Among such cities was Alexandria, in which
the critical version of the two Homeric epics was compiled. The Library of Alexandria is known for having been a research institution as well
as being the largest library of its era. The library was home for serious textual criticism. As the same text often existed in several different
versions, comparative textual criticism was crucial for ensuring their veracity (18). The critical version of the Iliad and
Odyssey was also compiled in this context.
IV.1.3.3 Sanskrit Epic: Mahabharata
Mahabharata is one of the two major Sanskrit epics of ancient India. Together with Ramayana, it composes itihasa, the Vedic narrative of the
historical past. Because the intense diversity of the Ramayana would make it irrelevant to consider any single version, even the most widespread
and ancient Sanskrit version, of this epic as representative of the Ramayanas, as A.K. Ramanujan suggested in his essay Three Hundred Ramayanas
(19), this paper will only deal with the other epic, Mahabharata, which is less diverse and differs only in minor details
between various versions.
The epic Mahabharata deals with the historical past of India in around 10th century BCE. The central event in the epic is the Kurukshetra war.
However, the composition of the story is estimated to 9th to 8th century BCE, and the oldest 'text' of the epic dates back to 4th century BCE.
Considering the strong tradition of favoring orality over literacy in India, the late textualization of Mahabharata is not strange. Like many
Vedic scripts, Mahabharata was also composed in specific way to aid the memorization, but unlike the Vedas, which had to be preserved
letter-perfect, the epic was varied, though only slightly, through the process of oral tradition (20). The attempts to codify Mahabharata
continued after the 4th century CE, when the epic reached its final form in Gupta period; however, those attempts were scarce before the early
modern periods in which the transformation of Hindi society from orality-based to literacy-based accelerated. Only after the late 19th century
such textualization became active.
The epic is of significant importance in Indian culture. It is one of the epics which portray the moral values to provide the role model for
people. Religious and social values are preserved in the work. In particular, Bhagavad Gita, a part which also has been read separately from
Mahabharata, provides the duties involved in human relationships and is considered as a guide to Hindu philosophy and the way of life it
encourages. Also, in modern times, the epic was used to inspire the independence movement of India as a national epic (21).
Aeneid was written by Virgil between 29 and 19 BCE in Latin. This epic deals with the story of legendary hero Aeneas, the Trojan who
travelled to Italy after the Trojan War and became the founder of Alba Longa, the mythical predecessor of Rome. The epic is based on the
Greco-Roman legends and myths on Aeneas, who is also a character appearing in the Iliad. Thus, even though the Aeneid was written down from
the beginning of its history, it could be considered as a work of oral literature, the edited-compiled type, for Virgil compiled the
disconnected stories of Aeneas' travel and the foundation of Rome into a single epic. The epic served as a powerful founding myth to connect
Rome to the legends of Troy and thereby legitimate the new dynasty as descendants of the founder of Rome (22).
The new Roman Empire experienced a major social and political change around the time of the composition of Aeneid; the fall of the Republic
and the formation of the Empire. Such changes threatened the faith of the Romans' belief in the greatness of their state. To deal with
this problem, the new government had to be legitimized; linking the founder of the Rome with the 're-founder', Augustus, was one way to
justify the legitimacy of the Empire. In the epic, the son of Aeneas is renamed as Iulius and is considered to be the ancestor of the
family of Julius Caesar (and thus his adopted son Augustus). Furthermore, old moral values of Rome were re-introduced to stabilize the society.
Aeneas in the epic serves as a role model for Romans; he is described as a man of loyalty and devotion to his country. Such portrayal was
intended to bring forth the patriotism and the sense of greatness which was declining. The composition of the epic Aeneid from oral traditions
reflects the social changes of the era.
The Era of Settlement was the period in which the process of transition from orality to literacy gradually occurred. Many of the earliest
works of oral literature were codified exactly as it was recited, and later, the codification process began to involve the comparison among
the variants and compilation of related works into one. Many works still continued to be orally transmitted even after the codification process.
One impact that the codification of oral literature had on ancient society was that it provided the "impetus for the transition from myth
and magic to science." (23) Social anthropologist Jack Goody suggested in his The Domestication of the Savage Mind
that the codification of oral literature made it possible to scrutinize the discourse by giving oral communication a semi-permanent form.
Goody says that the textualizations of oral traditions provided way to rationality, skepticism, and criticism; at the same time it, also
increased the potentiality of cumulative knowledge and the easy perception of abstract concepts (23a).It might be an
overstatement to say that the codification process of many works of oral literature led to the change "from myth to science",
since many societies remained orality-based long after the codifications took place, for there are many societies which remained close to
'myth' than 'science' even centuries after such process. However, the role of the codification of oral literature as providing the possible
basis for logical comparison and criticism should be acknowledged.
Works of oral literature were codified for various purposed during this period. However, the most obvious reason, to verify and correct the
text, shows the role of codification as enabling text criticism verification. Also, the codification of oral literature as a means to
glorify the past and stabilize the society shows that the codified text of a work were more effective in conveying the ideas by being
definitive and clear, while oral traditions were often variable and therefore had a less efficiency in conveying a social message.
IV.2 Era of Identity
Shanameh was written in early Modern Pesian (Samanid Dynasty)
c. 1220 CE
Prose Edda was written in Old Icelandic (Iceland)
c. 1270 CE
Poetic Edda was written in Old Icelandic (Iceland)
Memorabilia of the Three Kingdoms were written, in classical Chinese (Korea)
Between the 9th century CE and the 13th century CE, many societies experienced a transition from one culture to another. For instance,
the Christianization of Scandinavians and Slavs occurred through 9th and 10th century CE. In some regions which had been under Islamic
rules before, the power of caliphate declined and was replaced by the local dynasties; examples would be the emergence of Persian
dynasties in Iran and the Reconquista of Iberian peninsula by the Spanish countries. Confucianism emerged as a dominant ideology of
the ruling class in East Asian countries, for example in Korea (in Korea, the dominance of Confucianism was solidly established around
the mid-12th century CE), and gradually replaced the former Buddhism-based culture mixed with local shamanism, although the old culture
still remained popular in the general public. It was the period in which new ideas evolved and old ones ceased; the national 'identities'
of many countries were also established in this era.
IV.2.3 Codification of Oral Literature in the Era of Identity
The epic Shanameh was composed between 977 CE and 1010 CE by Ferdowsi. It was written in early Modern Persian. The work is a poetical
recast of the account of Iran's ancient history. Many of the sources already existed in prose; Ferdowsi merged other sources with his
main source, the prose Shanameh which he wrote earlier in his native Tus, and versified the work (24).
Prior to the composition of Shanameh in 10th century Iran, the long-lasting Muslim rule of the region discouraged the use of Persian,
and the Persian culture declined. However, by the late 9th century, the power of the Arabian caliphate had declined and the local
Iranian dynasties emerged. The Samanid dynasty, under which the Shanameh was composed, was one of these new Iranian dynasties;
the bureaucracy of Samanids used the Persian language for its administration, and encouraged the interest in pre-Islamic Iran.
Translations of Pahlavi texts (Middle Persian texts) into early Modern Persian were done under patronage of the rulers (25).
This had brought rise of the Persian literature during the 9th and 11th centuries. Such revival of the Persian literature inspired the
reconstruction of Iranian cultural identity which had been lost during the Islamic rule. Persian language became a sophisticated and
standardized literary language.
The Shanameh was at the very center of these movements to reconstruct the Iranian identity by compilation of Persian mythology,
historiography, and legendary narratives. As a national epic of Iran, it played a major role in developing Persian language from the
vernacular to the refined literary language and forming the identity of by causing a shift of society from Islamic-centered culture
to the revived local culture.
IV.2.3.2 Old Norse Myths; the two Eddas
The two Eddas, the Prose Edda and the Poetic Edda, were textualized in Old Icelandic in 13th-century Iceland. They are the collections
of Old Norse mythology and Germanic heroic legends. The elder of the two Eddas, the Prose Edda, is known to be written around 1220 CE
by Icelandic poet Snorri Sturluson. Poetic Edda is part of the Icelandic manuscript Codex Regius, codified in c. 1270 CE, and its
authorship is unknown. Both fall into the category of edited-compiled type. The dates of original composition of the myths composing
the two Eddas are unknown. Some of them state the period of origin in its context or title, but most of them are vague in the date
of composition. Their locations of composition are also vague; since Iceland was not settled until about 870 CE, poems prior to this
date would belong to elsewhere, while younger poems are likely Icelandic in origin (26).
The purpose of the collection was to enable Icelandic poets and readers to understand the subtleties of alliterative verse and the
meaning behind many kenningar, the literary trope, frequently used in Icelandic poetry (27); the primary intention
of the compilation of Eddas concerns the format rather than the contents. However, the contents of the two Eddas are nonetheless
important in understanding the importance of the codified work. Both the Prose and Poetic Edda are mostly based on oral traditions
rich in the elements from Norse paganism. The compilation of Eddas contributed to the preservation of the old values and religious
aspects which were discouraged by the Christianization of Scandinavia. Both the format used in the art of poetry and the old oral
traditions could be preserved by the compilation of two Eddas.
IV.2.3.3 Memorabilia of the Three Kingdoms
Memorabilia of the Three Kingdoms, or Samguk Yusa, was compiled by Korean Buddhist monk Iryeon in 1280. The text is written in Classical
Chinese and contains various legends, myths, songs, and episodes of famous people of ancient Korea; it deals with the period starting
from the 2333 BCE, the beginning of Gojoseon (the oldest dynasty of Korea) to 9th century CE.
In 1145, a century before the composition of this book, another account of the history of Korean peninsula, History of the Three Kingdoms
or Samguk Sagi, was published by king Injong's order. This book, however, had some obvious limitations. It omitted the periods before
the first century BCE, thereby excluding many ancient states from its account. Also, it took its sources only from the written
records of royal histories. In the process, Samguk Sagi excluded rich oral traditions of Korea from its source base, and emphasized
only on political history because of the selective bias of the original source. Moreover, this book shows a strong Confucian bias
in narrating the history of Korea, while the Confucianism was yet a new ideology in the era and most societies of historical kingdoms
it dealt with were rather based on Buddhism amalgamated with local shamanism.
To make up for the weak points of Samguk Sagi, Iryeon compiled the Memorabilia of the Three Kingdoms based on oral traditions. The late
Goryeo dynasty was the time in which the Korean society experienced transition from the Buddhism-based society to the Confucianism-based
society. Through the composition of the Memorabilia of the Three Kingdoms, Iryeon sought to preserve the disappearing Buddhist values
and the oral traditions of commoners which were 'too base' to be recorded in formal historical accounts. The book was written in the
historical context of the shift from an old society to a new one, to record the old ideas in danger of being forgotten.
The Era of Identity was the period in which new cultures were formed with the emergence of new religions, ideologies, and dynasties.
Works of codified oral literature in this are often belongs to the edited-compiled type. The need for the textualization of oral
literature emerged in this period, either to integrate the people under the new identity or to keep record of the traces of the
disappearing old culture. For example, the epic Shanameh formed the Iranian identity by reviving the Persian traditions after a long
Islamic rule, and the two Eddas of Iceland preserved myths and legends of Norse paganism in the era of Christianization. The Korean
Memorabilia of the Three Kingdoms also aided to preserve the disappearing values and folklores. These examples vividly shows the works
of oral literature, codified in the historical context of a shift of dominant culture within a society, served basically two roles,
either to create a social identity to integrate people in the newly formed society or to preserve the old ideas from their decline.
Such codifications helped in unifying the members of the society by creation/retelling of a common historical past, developing many
cultures by proving the possibilities of its oral tradition, and preserving of residual culture from extinction. The codification
or oral literatures in this era reflected the shift of dominant culture and led to the formation of new identities.
IV.3 Era of Nationality
The 19th century to the early 20th century was the era of nationalism; it was in this era that nation-states emerged, the sense of
national identity was stirred up, and many nation-statess sought for unification or independence. The revival of the national
culture which also occurred in this era should also be understood in this social context. Textualization of oral literature and
creation of national epics were among the efforts of the nationalism. They contributed to such movement by creation of a national
past and its treatment as an historical truth which is morally justified. The literary work which best represents this period
would be the Finnish national epic Kalevala, which is dealt with in the following chapter.
IV.3.2 Codification of Oral Literature in the Era of Nationality : Kalevala
Kalevala is a Finnish epic composed by Elias Lonnrot in 19th century CE. The first version of Kalevala was published in 1835,
and the common version in 1849. The epic takes its basis from Finnish and Karelian oral folklore and mythology; some of
them even dates back to 11th century BCE and the latest to 11th century CE, around the arrival of the Christianity in Finland.
The author, Elias Lönnrot, made eleven field trips, mostly around the rural areas of Karelia and Ingria, since 1828 to
collect the verses.
The notable characteristic of Kalevala is that it was not a mere reproduction of the surviving oral traditions; it was a work of fiction.
Kalevala was re-creation of the ancient history of Finland based on its oral traditions. More than 8000 verses collected from various
singers, most of them unknown, were compiled by Lonnrot; he created a single narrative structure in the epic by merging the poem
variants and characters, deleting the irrelevant verses, and composing his own lines to fill in the blank between passages and connect
them into a logical plot (28). Unlike the cases of the Homeric epics or Aeneid, there was no single oral tradition,
concerning to Kalevala, with complete narrative structure prior to Lönnrot. It was him who created the logic from vast fragments
of oral traditions; the process of organizing the verses into a single epic could be regarded as a re-creation of them. Thus, the
Kalevala falls into the third category of codified oral literature, the re-creation type.
Kalevala is considered to be a national epic of Finnalnd. It is believed that it has played a major role in the development of Finnish
national identity and Finnish literature, for it was a proof of the possibilities of Finnish language and culture (29).
The publication of Kalevala marked the beginning of the Finnish national culture; artists and musicians took motifs and themes from the
work, and encouraged the study of folklore research. Moreover, it became the basis of Finnish nationalism; the publication of Kalevala
was a manifesto of the culture of the people of Finland. It was an event which depended on the folklores and languages of the people,
thereby truly representing the 'national' culture of Finland in contrast to the cosmopolitan elitist culture which took its basis
from foreign language and traditions. The growing sense of nationality induced by Kalevala has ultimately contributed to the Finnish
Independence from Russia in 1917 (30).
According to historian Eric Hobsbawm, the connection between art and society was strongest in the societies which were undergoing the
struggle for independence or unification; the birth, or rebirth, of the national culture based on vernaculars often coincided with
the social atmosphere that emphasized the superiority of native language and culture over foreign-often that of the foreign power
which dominated the politics and economy of a (or yet unborn) nation-state-language and culture. The nationalistic art and literature
took its root from native language and traditions, the creative legacy of its people. Thus it could embrace almost every class of
the society, and thereby caused unity among people and became the spiritual basis for the nationalism (31).
The Kalevala, which was dealt as a representative of such nationalistic work of codified oral literature, clearly displays such
characteristics. Its content of ancient Finnish history evokes a purer sense of nation and ethnicity among its people, and the
superiority of Finnish language it displayed act as a proof of the cultural excellence of Finland. Although it was based on oral
traditions, the Kalevala was carefully composed to convey such messages; by reviving the ancient Finnish culture with emphasis on the
supremacy of Finnish traditions and language the epic brought forth the sense of nationalism, which eventually contributed to unite
the Finnish people and achieve the independence. Kalevala exemplifies the relationship between the codification of oral literature and
its social context.
Oral literature served as means to educate and entertain a member of the society as well as to preserve the cultural traditions of
the society reflected in its form and content. The codification of such oral literature was gradual, continuous process, not a set
of discrete events, through which literacy replaced orality as a dominant media of transmitting information in a society. Such shift
from orality to literacy signifies several changes. First, it could mean the shift of the authority from the small elite whose members
were able to memorize certain texts to the literate portion of the population, as in the case of Vedic literatures in India. Or
depending on the society it can mean the opposite, the shift of the authority of a text from general public who were able to recite
certain traditions to the few literate elites; the interpretation varies depending on the changes to the accessibility of the oral
literature before and after the codification. Also, it signified the possibility of the criticism to the text; the semi-permanent
form given to the former oral literature enabled people to compare the various versions and point out the illogic, contradiction, and errors.
The codification of oral literature often coincided with the important shift in a society. It was a process which has to be understood
in historical context, but it also had some impact on its society as much as it got influence from the society. Often the codification
of oral literature served to provide a role model for new (or revived) values, as in cases of the Homeric epics and the Aeneid. Moreover,
rulers sponsored the codification of oral literature to look back to the glory of the past and connect them with their own time. Many
codification of oral literature reflects the change of dominant culture in the society. Some works provided new identities to people
in accordance with the change, while others sought to preserve the old ideas from extinction. In some cases, codification of oral
literature occurred to stimulate the sense of nationalism among its people.
The impact such codification had on its society cannot be told separately from its historical context. When it provided a role model
or identity to people, it served as a mean to integrate the population by injecting common values; such sense of identity, and sometimes
nationality, induced by codified oral literature further contributed to the development of national culture and led to the independence
or unification movements.
The history of oral literature and its codification is not merely a list of dates in which this or that piece of oral literature was
codified; rather, it is a history reflected in the codification of oral literature, and the history influenced by the same process.
The insight into the society provided by the process helps to understand the work better and to look into its society in relationship
with a cultural phenomenon. Understanding the social background and need for the codification of a piece of literature and its impact,
one would be able to see beyond the surface of single event and look deeper into the era and society it reflects.
(1) Oral Tradition, Encyclopaedia Britannica Online
(2) Orature, Wikipedia (French ver.)
(3) Oral Literature, Wikipedia
(4) Wood 1999, p.71
(5) van de Mieroop 2004, pp.28-33
(6) Schniedewind 2006, pp.36-82
(7) Epic of Gilgamesh, eg
(8) Gilgamesh, Wikipedia
(9) Epic of Gilgamesh, Wikipedia
(11) van de Mieroop 2004,, pp.167-168
(12) van de Mieroop 2004,, pp.70-77
(13) Wood 1999, p.43
(14) Homer 2003, p.iv
(15) Ibid., pp.xii-xx
(16) Homeric Scholarship, Wikipedia
(17) Aristarchus of Samothrace, Wikipedia
(18) Library of Alexandria, Wikipedia
(19) Ramanujan 1991, pp.22-49.
(20) Brockington 1998, pp.153-187
(21) Mahabharata, Wikipedia
(22) Aeneid, Wikipedia
(23) Goody 1977 pp.35-38, quoted after Jahandarie 1999, p.98
(24) Shanameh, Wikipedia
(25) Iranian Identity, Encyclopaedia Iranica
(26) Poetic Edda, Wikipedia
(27) Prose Edda, Wikipedia
(28) Kalevala, Wikipedia
(29) Kalevala: The Finnish National Epic, this is Finland
(30) Vento 1992, p.92
(31) Hobsbawm 1996, p.473
The following websites were visited between October and Decembner 2011. Unless specified otherwise, they are in English.
2. Ong 2002: Walter J. Ong, Orality and Literacy: the Technologizing of the World,
Routledge, 2002 (first edition published in 1982 by Methuen & Co. Ltd)
3. Havelock 1963: Eric Alfred Havelock, Preface to Plato, Harvard University Press, Boston, 1963
4. Goody 1987: Jack Goody, The Interface Between the Written and the Oral, Cambridge UP 1987
5. Goody 1986: Jack Goody, The Logic of Writing and the Organization of Society, Cambridge UP 1986
6. Jahandarie 1999: Khosrow Jahandarie, Spoken and Written Discourse:
a Multi-disciplinary Perspective, Greenwood Publishing Group, Westport, 1999
7. Goody 1977: Jack Goody, The Domestication of the Savage Mind, Cambridge UP 1977
8. Wood 1999: Michael Wood, Legacy, BBC, London, 1999
9. van de Mieroop 2004: Marc van de Mieroop, A History of the Ancient Near East ca. 3000-323 BC,
Blackwell Publishing, Oxford, 2004
10. Homer 2003: Homer (c. 850 BCE), The Iliad (Revised Edition), translated and edited by E.V, Rieu et al.,
Penguin Books, London et al., 2003
11. Homer 2006: Homer (c. 850 BCE), The Odyssey , translated by Robert Eagles and edited by Bernard Knox,
Penguin Books, London et al., 2003
12. Hornblower et al. 1998: Simon Hornblower et al., The Oxford Companion to Classical
Civilization, Oxford UP 1998
13. Ramanujan 1991: A. K. Ramanujan, Many Ramayanas: The Diversity of a Narrative
Tradition in South Asia (edited by Paula Richman), University of California Press, Berkeley, 1991
14. Vento 1992: Urpo Vento, The Role of the Kalevala in Finnish Culture and Politics,
Nordic Journal of African Studies, Finnish Literature Society, Finland, 1992, pp.82-93
15. Hobsbawm 1996: Eric Hobsbawm, The Age of Revolution: Europe 1789-1848, Vintage Books,
New York, 1996
16. Brockington 1998: J. Brockington, The Sanskrit Epics, Leiden, Leiden, 1998
17. Diankonoff 1999: Igor M. Diankonoff, The Paths of History, Cambridge UP 1999
18. Anderson 2003: Rasmus B. Anderson, Norse Mythology: Myths of the Eddas,
University Press of the Pacific, Honolulu, 2003
19. Article : Oral tradition, in :
Encyclopaedia Britannica Online,
20. Article, Orature, at :
Wikipedia (French version), http://fr.wikipedia.org/wiki/Orature
21. Article, Oral literature at :
22. Article, Epic of Gilgamesh,
23. Article, Gilgamesh,
24. Le monde d'Homere,
25. Article, Iliad,
26. Article, Odyssey,
27. Article, Homeric Scholarship,
28. Article, Library of Alexandria,
29. Article, Aeneid,
30. Article, Mahabharata,
31. Article, Shanameh,
32. Article, Iranian Identity,
33. Article, Samguk Yusa,
34. Article, Ferdowsi,
Encyclopaedia Iranica, http://www.iranicaonline.org/articles/ferdowsi
35. Article, Prose Edda,
36. Article, Poetic Edda,
37. Article. Kalevala, Wikipedia,
38. Article, Kalevala: The Finnish National Epic,
this is Finland (official promotion board of Finnish Ministry
of Foreign Affairs), http://finland.fi/public/default.aspx?contentid=160078&contentlan=2&culture=en-US
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