• Oral Tradition and Internet Technology by John Miles Foley

Oral traditions cannot stand alone and apart. The oAgora ecosystems in which they live and thrive provide two essential dimensions: a nourishing cultural-performative context and a continuing site for interaction between and among different OT species. But because we have too often seen fit to transport OTs into the tAgora, in the process converting them from systems into things, we have usually failed to recognize the delicate, sustaining ecology in which they exist and from which they draw their meaning and efficacy. Let’s briefly explore these cognitive errors.

Cultural-performative context

What do we lose when we forcibly remove an OT from its ecosystem in order to mount a display of its textual remains in the Museum of Verbal Art? At least three aspects of oAgora reality perish in the transition. For one thing, multimedia becomes mono-medium: vocal and instrumental music and rhythm, intonation, gesture, setting, and material items are deleted, along with their implicit cultural coding. All that’s left is tWord ghosts of oWords – silent, dramatically reduced shadows of what was once embodied communication. Second, there’s the crucial matter of the role of the audience, a full and enabling partner in the ongoing event. Audiences come to OT performances with experience and background that translate only clumsily to textual representation, if at all. Texts generate their own audiences, of course, but text-reading cannot imitate the trademark chemistry of co-created OT performances. Third, migration from ecosystem to static museum exhibit means moving from rule-governed variability to a single, static object. oPathways are severed, and weblike navigation becomes textual trekking.

Insights gained during fieldwork on Serbian charms for curing skin diseases can highlight these losses. The OT performer, called a bajalica or conjurer, speaks the healing magic in a low whisper and extremely rapidly, with a strange and anachronistic vocabulary and heavy sound-patterning (rhyme, alliteration, and so on). She thus signals her purpose by using the appropriate type of specialized language for the designated speech-act and social function. In addition, she sometimes manipulates a knife, a coal scuttle with a live ember, and a piece of silver, a selection of material objects associated with cutting or burning out the disease and with restoring spiritual and somatic purity.

The conjurer also resorts to quite an array of verbal strategies to banish the illness, summoning a horse and rider, a cow and calf, a chicken and nine chicks, three curiously named co-agents, and a mythical wolf. “Reading” the cultural-performative code, the audience recognizes these figures as, respectively, an epic-like hero charged with taking the disease back to its world of origin; two maternal helpers whose mothering paradigm the bajalica will imitate with her patient; three magical characters whose names encode verbs of stopping, halting, or killing plus the goal of mir (peace); and a wolf whose body will serve as the conduit for sending the illness back to the other world. Finally, her successive performances will vary within limits, and not only to allow her to treat a particular one of the nine diseases this charm can cure (coded red for erysipelas, yellow for jaundice, etc.). Rule-governed morphing also accommodates different physical settings and performer-audience combinations; any single, unique instance always derives from and remains embedded in a networked and recurrent idiom.

Interacting species

In many instances, and even when cultural-performative context has been taken into account, OTs have suffered another kind of unnatural and reductive isolation: as the sole species in an oEcosystem. Especially in the case of oral epics, scholars have regularly concentrated exclusively on one particular OT, with no attention whatsoever to the other viable and interesting species that populate the oAgora. Biologists avoid this simple error by considering all aspects of the environments they study – not only the physical and climatological characteristics of the mountainous, arid area where mountain lions roam, for example, but also all of the other animals, competitors and prey alike, that interact with and influence one another. Once again, the built-in tAgora reflex has caused many fieldworkers to assume that an OT could be studied in and for itself, that it was unitary and separable – just like a text, of course. But a moment’s reflection on the complexity and interactivity of the oAgora life-world will make the true situation only too evident: each and every OT species is part of a larger, dynamic whole.

We can glimpse the multi-species nature of the OT ecosystem in three diverse examples. The same Serbian village tradition that produced healing charms also supported several other oral traditions, among them lyric or women’s songs, funeral laments, genealogies, proverbs, folktales, and epics. While all of these forms served specific social functions of their own, they also intersected in various ways, with shared expressive strategies such as meter, rhyme, and oWords. The Siri Epic from the Tulu people in the Karnataka province of southern India is performed at great length by the spiritual leader of the religious group that venerates the goddess Siri, but it also exists alongside nine additional genres that treat linked mythological ideas. To understand the epic performance in isolation from these other forms is to sever important oPathways and destroy the Siri ecology. Even the oral-derived texts from the Anglo-Saxon period, which depend on oWords and their connections, reveal inter-species influence. Language from the _Riddles_ is repurposed to portray the riddle of Christ’s conception in the Advent Lyrics, for example, and heroic oWords for warriors, battle, and reputation are deployed to help narrate Biblical saints’ lives. In all three traditions, any given performance is suspended in a web of implication, an ecosystem of oAgora communication.


Elsewhere in the Pathways Project we have emphasized the necessity to earn citizenship in multiple agoras, to learn to appreciate the expressive advantages and disadvantages of each marketplace. This is the only way to move past culture shock, to understand the real nature of accuracy and the empowering aspects of contingency, and to conduct responsible agora-business. Now, by understanding the oAgora as the highly dynamic ecosystem it is, we can avoid isolating OTs from their cultural-performative environment and from disabling their interactivity with their ecological partners. In short, we can avoid the ideological misstep of converting a living species into a museum-quality artifact devoid of pathways.

In the world of oral tradition, ecology-based interaction, driven by rule-governed morphing, is all.