Oral Tradition: The Western Fascination with Homer

In thinking of oral histories and their political uses, I am reminded of perhaps one of the greatest authors in ancient literature, Homer. Famed for works such as the Iliad and the Odyssey, Homer is an example of the oral traditions that has since been recorded. The question of the validity of Homer has long been debated, was he the originator of these epics or was he only one in a larger web of oral traditions. Many have longed struggled to put meaning to Homer’s works.

Alessandro Portelli in What Makes History Different highlights the ways in which oral sources should be read and understood.  “The importance of oral testimony may lay not in its adherence to fact, but rather its departure from it, as imagination, symbolism, and desire emerge.” (68) Portelli argues that even though the work itself is not ‘true’ there is still truth in the telling of the oral tradition. That it is less about events but their meaning. This is moreso the way Homer is read in literature courses as a series of symbols and metaphors that highlighted classical beliefs.

The transition of Homer from an oral to textual medium highlights a period of history in which Homer was deemed ‘true.’ The oral narrative provided by Homer has long been taken as factual.  The history of Rome crafted by Virgil follows the tradition of the Trojan War with the belief that grounding the Aeneid in conversation with Homer’s Trojan War validated Rome’s mythic past.  In more recent context Troy is still being sought after by archeologist beginning in the 1860s with Heinrich Schliemann.  These examples show the western world’s desire to find something more in Homer’s works, that there is an inherent desire to prove them.

Homer’s tale represents both the positive and negatives of oral tradition. In studying Homer’s text for, as Portelli suggest, imagination, symbolism, and meaning, there is a background in ancient Greek society, beliefs, and social structure. But the inherent fault of oral tradition in which many seem to point to is the desire to find the facts. The works of Homer is the best example of the recorded oral traditions that has since become defining texts in western culture.


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