• Oral Tradition and Internet Technology by John Miles Foley

The basic question

How do you begin an OT performance? Clearly it can’t be a matter of finding the title page, the table of contents, or even page one, since these familiar textual cues don’t exist in the oAgora. No identical copies of a singular tAgora artifact are to be found in the oral marketplace, either. What the performer and audience can access and share is a navigable network, a web of potentials that will produce a variant story-version each time. Operating within a rule-governed environment, oSurfers will co-create a unique experience that also involves – and is informed by – a much larger traditional context. The process yields related but non-identical products because it depends on a system rather than a thing.

Still, the question remains: just how do you get started?

Fieldwork on Homer

Instead of imposing a theoretical explanation from outside, let’s try another approach – consulting the ancient Greek epic poet Homer himself. Of course, we can’t contact him directly; more than two and one-half millennia have passed since our version of the Odyssey was committed to a written record (and then “Homer” is almost certainly an anthropomorphic legend rather than a historical author in any case). But even if we can’t personally interview the ancient Greek oral poet, we can investigate his handiwork. We can examine what Homer actually does as he starts surfing the story of Odysseus. Here are the first ten lines of that taletelling itinerary as it has survived:

Speak man in me, O Muse, that resourceful one who very many times
Was beaten back after he sacked the sacred city of Troy.
He saw the cities of many men and came to know their minds,
But he suffered multiple woes in his heart out on the sea,
Striving to win his soul and the return of his comrades.
But even so he did not save them, though desiring to do so.
For they perished by their own reckless deeds,
Childish ones, who consumed the cattle of Hyperion’s son Helios.
For this act their day of return was taken from them.
Of these events from somewhere, O goddess, daughter of Zeus, speak also to us.

Signals and pathways

Often characterized as a proem or prologue, this passage can certainly be understood as providing a general introduction to the Odysseus-Penelope story in a tAgora sense. But it also features a dense network of signals that serve as oPathways to the larger poetic tradition, the constellation within which story-performances take shape as singular and yet interconnected stars. These signals amount to URLs that Homer can click on, bits of code that dependably summon idiomatic meaning from the ancient Greek epic cloud and make it present to the emerging performance.

1. lines 1 and 10: Speak. Homer calls upon the Muse of epic poetry, Calliope, to speak the tale in me (line 1, see below) and then also to us (line 10, see below). Possession by the goddess and a request for her to communicate through the poet are conventional, as the opening to the Iliad also shows: “Sing, O goddess, the wrath of Peleus’ son Achilles.”

2. line 1: man. The first word of the Odyssey (in the original, “Man” or Andra precedes the verb) idiomatically announces the tale’s subject, although Odysseus is not explicitly named at this point. Compare the first word of the Iliad: “Wrath,” referring to Achilles’ anger, the subject of that epic.

3. line 1: in me. Homer identifies himself as the intermediary between the inspiring Muse and his soon-to-be-realized version of the Odysseus story. This portrayal harmonizes with his description of the oral traditional poet, or aoidos, as a master of Muse-taught pathways at Book 8, line 471 of the Odyssey.

4. lines 1 and 10: Muse. The appeal to a divine agency outside the human sphere – specifically, seeking her empowerment – is conventional, occurring in both Homeric epics. The terms “Muse,” “goddess,” and “daughter of Zeus” are equivalent oPathways to the source of inspiration.

5. line 1: that resourceful one. Translated from polutropos (literally, “many-turning”), this epithet is reserved solely for Odysseus in the epic tradition. A fluent audience will thus understand this adjective as effectively a URL to his character.

6. lines 1-9 (generalized): the Troy-story as the background and Odysseus’ role in the grand panorama. This telegraphic summary of the hero’s post-Trojan War struggles and unsuccessful attempt to save his comrades further identifies him, sketching the outlines of the story (as well as the story-type; see return below) about to start.

7. lines 5 and 9: return. The Greek concept of return (or nostos) has a double significance. It designates the immediate goal of Odysseus and his comrades (and of the other Achaean heroes) after the war is concluded, of course. But it also names the generic story-type, well attested across the Indo-European family of traditions, that chronicles what might be the world’s oldest and most widespread tale: namely, the hero called away to a grand battle who suffers in captivity before finally winning his way home, defeating his rivals, and restoring his marriage and community. At Book 24, lines 192-202 of the Odyssey, Agamemnon’s ghost describes the two ways in which this story can lead: either to a faithful mate (Penelope’s is a “pleasing song”) or to an unfaithful mate (Clytemnestra’s is a “hateful song”).

8. line 10: Of these events. This cue refers globally to the events of the Trojan War as embedded in the oral epic intranet.

9. line 10: from somewhere. The ancient Greek word hamothen designates the Muse’s resources, which remain unknown to and beyond the direct reach of the oAgora community. The oral poet is asking for transferral of her song through himself into the OT arena, so that he and his audience can undertake the collective ritual of performance.

10. line 10: also to us. A key phrase acknowledging that this particular performance – involving the co-creativity of this particular bard and audience – is one of the many that have already taken place and will occur in the future, each time with a different oAgora constituency and in a variant form. It amounts to code for distributed authorship, recurrence, and variation within limits.

A successful launch

With this introduction and, most crucially, via these embedded idiomatic signals, Homer is now ready to navigate the Muse-taught pathways and to realize his performance of the Odyssey. From this point onward, with the equivalent of his tradition’s “start page” engaged, he will follow the story-pattern of Return. In other words, he will be navigating through linked moments and events associated with the generic nostos tale. At the same time the poet will be focusing on the specific story of Odysseus and Penelope, all the while making serial choices that will distinguish this Odyssey (the one that has survived) from every other Odyssey—past, present, and future.

To answer our opening question, then, Homer starts his performance not by turning to the first element in a linear sequence, but rather by accessing a set of idiomatic signals that work by traditional convention. The first ten lines of the poem create a frame of reference that supports a particular kind of oAgora exchange, that brings both poet and audience online with OT. In that respect the so-called proem or prologue serves as a kind of start page that appears when Homer opens his epic browser. That highly recognizable, dedicated “page” empowers the oral poet to start navigating the narrative web, to convert potentiality into actuality and process into product. By in effect pointing his browser toward http://ancientgreekepic.org, Homer has initiated the ritual in the only way that he and his epic tradition can – by activating a linked network of oPathways to click on.