Have I Ever Told You About?... Oral Tradition
Joel Eschenbach • December 18, 2016
"Have I ever told you about that time we went up to Tennessee and I got stuck in a tree at the top of the mountain?" He asked after sipping his cup of coffee after dinner. It was Thanksgiving and the kids were busy playing in the other room while the rest of us were still gathered around the table in a post-Thanksgiving meal comatose. "Yes, a hundred times!", said Jenny laughing with her mouth full of her last bite of pumpkin pie. "But tell us again!", she said, "It's such a good story!"
Is this scene familiar to you? It is to me. Even though this scene is fictional, my dad's side of the family loves to sit around after dinner to reminisce, re-live stories about shared adventures, talk about parents and grandparents that have long since passed away, and tell larger than life tales of people we've only met in our imaginations or seen in pictures. These stories get more exciting and heroic each time their told (depending on how much alcohol is involved), but they usually come back to a similar re-telling that brings a feeling so familiar that you swear you were there yourself.
This is Oral Tradition.
Wikipedia defines Oral Tradition as a form of human communication wherein knowledge, art, ideas and cultural material is received, preserved and transmitted orally from one generation to another.
You might think of Oral Tradition as something that was a part of the past, an ancient way of passing down history before things could be written down by the educated classes, or something that existed before the Printing Press. Today, history is well documented for future generations to research and study. Every word is literal and what matters most is the exact accuracy and details of events. Many even question the accuracy of Oral Traditions and there are debates about the historical accounts in the Bible and other ancient texts. But ancient cultures didn't take this form of "storytelling" lightly.
In Asia, the transmission of folklore and mythologies, as well as scriptures in ancient India were transmitted by oral tradition, preserved with precision with the help of elaborate mnemonic techniques. In ancient Greece, poetry was a dominant form of passing things down like the famous poems of Homer. The Hebrew scriptures are full of different writing styles that allowed the stories to be handed down for generations before they were ever written. Oral Tradition is a huge part of humanity's history and a reliable source of understanding the cultures, practices, and people of the past.
One of the primary tools that Oral Tradition makes use of is repetition. Repetition is an effective way to commit things to memory. Memory training expert Ron White says, "I stress repetition as one of the keys to improving your memory in my memory training courses. It reinforces the lesson in your brain and the more you repeat it the better you will remember. Once committed to memory it is not likely to be lost, even if that information is not utilized again for years."
So what does repetition and Oral Tradition have to do with us?
As a society we may document the present moments in a detailed manner, but in our families and friendships we still primarily share our experiences and the lives of those who came before us through the re-telling of stories. Even in the modern age of social media, where we virtually journal our lives, the most effective and memorable way to pass down the life and legacy of yourself or someone else is still by telling a story over and over!
So, the next time a friend or family member gets ready to tell that story you've heard way too many times, don't stop them or mentally check out. Instead, consider that you are participating in a tradition that has existed since the beginning of humanity. You are part of a legacy. You have the privilege of sharing the life, heroism, failures, successes, and humanity of the characters in that story. And who knows, maybe someday you'll re-tell that story to someone that desperately needs to hear it.
You may never find their stories in history books or documentaries, but the lives of countless amazing people continue to live on through the stories told around tables, over drinks, and across the ages.
Sounds like a tradition worth keeping.