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DiegoFerioli_Formulaic Alvissmal Havamal

DiegoFerioli_Formulaic Alvissmal Havamal



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Published by: Diego Ferioli on Feb 25, 2009
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On the Oral-Formulaic Theory and its Application in the Poetic Edda:The Cases of Alvíssmál and Hávamál
Diego Ferioli
For this invention will produce forgetfulness in the minds of those who learn to use it, because they will not practice their memory [...]. You have invented an elixir not of memory, but of reminding; and you offer your pupils the appearance of wisdom, not true wisdom, for they will read many things without instruction and will therefore seem to know many things,when they are for the most part ignorant and hard to get along with, since they are not wise, but only appear wise.
The aim of this essay is to make some considerations concerning theusage and the development of the Oral-Formulaic Theory since its initial stage inthe field of eddic studies. Doing so I will comment on the most relevant problemsand scholarly views I encountered while I was dealing with the subject, and insome cases give my own interpretation of them. In the second part of the paper Iwill then discuss more in detail the eddic poems Alvíssmál and Hávamál from anoral-formulaic point of view.First of all, I will give a short introduction to the Oral-Formulaic Theory,also referred to as ‘Parry-Lord Theory’, from the names of its two major – andfirst – proposers. Their approach to literature was a totally new one, and changedradically the questions literature scholars have asked themselves ever since. It wasoriginally intended to be a contribution towards the solution of the age-old
Homeric question 
: for centuries Homeric scholars had been debating over theidentity of Homer and the authorship of the Iliad and Odyssey, which now came tobe better understood as rooted in traditional oral poetry, and hence excluding anymodern-like one-man literary composition (at least
ex novo 
). The concept of 
originality, thus, had to be fully redefined, for there can be no real originalitywithout authorship. The term
, then, started being used referring towritten texts, and the
conceived as the sum of the contributions of singleexponents, or
singer of tales 
– who were the ones who kept it alive and dynamic –took over the role of the author.These conclusions move from a theoretical apparatus based on ananalogy, namely that the Yugoslav oral epic tradition as researched by Parry andLord in the first half of the 20
century could offer a model for reconstructingother – and even much older - traditions, such as the one of Homer, which wecannot know much about directly. Crucial was also the particular technique usedby the
singers of tales 
, which could be observed and understood in their naturalenvironment - possibly resembling previous stages in other cultures -, that is tosay, in a context very often lacking the knowledge of reading and writing. Singerswere expected to be fully illiterate, practicing their art by the only means of mnemonical techniques of learning and performing by recreating what they hadlearned; the performance was thus a
moment in the tradition 
, coinciding with thecomposition and the transmission, being handed over in that very moment to theaudience [Lord: 5]. To be able to compose while performing, the
singer of tales 
had to learn a specialised
poetic language 
whose mastery did not allow him to“move any more mechanically within it than we do in ordinary speech” [Lord: 36].Constituents of this language or
poetic grammar 
, as Lord calls it –, andconsequently essential features of oral poetry, are
.The concept of 
was probably the most revolutionary oneintroduced by Lord and Parry. Parry’s definition of formula as “a group of wordswhich is regularly employed under the same metrical conditions to express agiven essential idea[Parry: 80] supplanted once for all a huge amount of inadequate
modus appellandi 
for the Homeric “repetitions”, or “recurrent phrases”(such as “stock epithets”, “epic clichés” and “stereotyped phrases”, to name thosequoted by Lord [30]). Formulas are “the phrases and clauses and sentences” of thepoet’s specialised poetic grammar which he learns “by hearing them in othersingers’ songs”; the process of memorisation is thus unconscious, and “followsthe same principles as the learning of language itself” [Lord: 36]. Oral poetry cametherefore to be primarily conceived as
poetry, in that an extensive useof formulas building up a paratactic narration could allow the poet to shape asong while singing (any use of the term “improvisation” in this context – such asin Paul Acker [xiii] - does not take into account Lord’s distinction, albeit ratherobscure, between
composing while singing 
; see also Harris: 117),and - since it seemed somehow clear that poets’ memory was sometimes
inevitably likely to fail - to fill in the metre with pre-made words combinationswithout having to interrupt the singing to think.The ancient
was also thought to have been constructed in oralcomposition in relatively short episodes, each one of the same status, interest andimportance (this does not imply anything on the length of the performance itself though, which could be made up of many episodes in a row, for among theYugoslavs a poet could sing for
a whole night 
, Lord points out [14]). This wasdone by means of 
, being “the groups of ideas regularly used in telling atale in the formulaic style of traditional song” [Lord: 68].Now, if on one hand this theoretical system has revolutionised the way toapproach many different kinds of traditional literature, it has been widelycriticised and came to be adopted as a source of methodological material, ratherthan a method itself. The problem was not its content, which has been widelyaccepted, but rather its claim to be a valid term of analogy. As John Miles Foleysays in the article
Orality, Textuality, Interpretation 
(1991), “the standardParry/Lord approach to oral literature has significant but limited applicability tothe texts with which they are most familiar”; that is due to the fact that “ theYugoslav oral epic tradition – especially the Muslim tradition on which MilmanParry and Albert Lord founded their analogy – may in important ways reflect thedynamics of, for example, the Anglo-Saxon and ancient Greek traditions, but itdiffers in that it arose and developed in a nearly ‘textless’ environment”, whereas“all medieval and classical works have of course reached us only in writtenform” [34]. A text, according to Parry and Lord, does not really exist in purely oralcultures, but at the same time when someone transcribes an oral song into a
,it remains
. This can occur in different ways and degrees, and although thepoetic Edda is most certainly not a (direct) transcription, it is a shared opinion thattraces of some original orality can be found in the written text. Because of thisfeature shared by most of European (and not only) folk epics (and related genres),as Acker reminds (surprisingly within brackets, as if it were an irrelevantclarification!), “the term oral-formulaic now often refers not to the oralcomposition of a given work, but rather to its employment of formulas that arethe inheritance [...] of an oral culture” [xiv].This led to probably the most important modification of the theory: theconcept of (oral) formula, indeed, had been perceived as as much enlighteningand outfitted in the beginning as ill-suited or even improper straight afterwards.The problem was mainly its close reference to and dependence on oralcomposition, or, as Acker states, that formulas were initially seen “as a necessaryby-product of the improvisational composition of oral epic verse” [85]. Lord’s

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