Rather than start with my thesis question, I am going to start my presentation by telling you how I developed my topic. I am showing you this painting by Herbert James Draper because to me it symbolises everything I love about the Odyssey and Homer. It is an image of Odysseus overcoming the Sirens, and it is symbolic of power and desire. I’ve always loved the Homeric epics, and initially I knew I wanted to do a topic that had a literary focus. Last year at uni I wrote an essay on women in the Odyssey, and my initial plans were to expand that argument. However, over the course of a very long drive from Bulgaria to Athens- Shawn, my supervisor, suggested that I do a comparative study of women in Homer and an epic from another society such as China or Africa. At this stage I was not too keen on the idea as I had no knowledge of either of these societies, however, when I came home, I did some research and discovered an African epic called Sundiata which I chose for my comparison. My original plan, then, was to write a comparative history that considered the accuracy of representations of women in the Odyssey and Sundiata. But then I encountered a problem, If I wanted to discuss the accuracy of the representations of women in these epics, I would have to have a precise understanding of the historical context for each one. To do this, I would have to know which historical time period each poem portrays. This issue is now the basis of my thesis, and my working title is Contextualising oral traditions: A comparative study of Homeric poetry and Sundiata. Before I get to my actual thesis question though, I am going to give you some background information on oral tradition and the poems that will help you understand why I’ve chosen this topic.
So what is Oral tradition? I am using Jan Vansina’s definition that refers to the transferring of cultural knowledge, material and traditions, from one generation to another. I like this definition because it stresses the importance of spanning at least one generation. An epic, on the other hand, may be defined as a “long narrative poem with an emphasis on the heroic" and does not necessarily have to be of an oral nature. Both epics I am discussing, however, are oral traditions that were passed down by specially trained bards.
When I talk about Homeric epics I am referring to the Iliad and the Odyssey. While we do not know when these poems were originally composed, we do know that they were crystallised in the late 8th century B.C. somewhere in Ionia. They were passed down by oral tradition and are attributed to Homer. These poems of course centre on actual historical events and people of the 12th century B.C., and refer to the Trojan Wars and Odysseus’s journey home after the fall of Troy. They have been the subject of extensive scholarly research, and the themes, values and stories from these poems have become a large part of Western society.
This is a roman copy of a Hellenistic marble of Homer from the 2nd century B.C. that is currently on display at the British Museum. From his facial hair and expression we can see that he has been represented as wise man, and from this we can gather that his poems have been appreciated for centuries.
This is a map of the ancient Mediterranean. Ionia, where Homer was from is the area on the coast of Asian Minor, south of Troy.
Sundiata on the other hand is not attributed to any particular poet or any particular date. We do know, however, that it was composed within the Mali empire in West Africa and that it was passed down by bards through oral tradition. It centres on the coming of age of the historical King Sundiata Keita, as well as his establishment of the Mali empire and is of course at least loosely based on the historical events of the 13th Century A.D. The versions that we have access to, however, were recorded 700 years after the events they purport to portray and unlike Homer, who has been studied for centuries, it was only when this poem was recorded by D. T. Niane in the 1960s that it was considered worthwhile of scholarly research.
This is an image of African Bard HabibSelemani (c.1929-1993) who performs Sundiata as part of his repertoire. Sundiata is still performed in parts of Africa today.
The black and white map is of course a modern map of Africa, and if you look to West Africa, you can see the landlocked country of Mali. On the coloured map you can see that the thirteenth century Mali empire actually comprised of parts of modern day Mali, Senegal, Guinea and Gambia.
Both of these poems claim to be detailing events that happened centuries before the versions we have access to were crystallised or performed. We know that the Homeric poems refer to actual people, places and possibly events that occurred in the Mediterranean in 12th Century, B.C., however, the poems were not crystlised until the 8th century B.C. In the case of Sundiata, the Mali empire was established by the historical Sundiata Keita in the 13th Century A.D. though our versions were not recorded by anthropologists until the late twentieth century. The gap between the historical event and the time of composition then is 4 centuries for Homer and 7 centuries for Sundiata. This got me thinking, if there is such a large discrepancy between the time of events an epic poem purports to portray and the time the poem is performed, which time period do the poems more accurately represent? Now there is a general consensus that the Homeric poems represent the time of the bard who performed them, therefore are more useful for historians studying archaic Greece than those studying the bronze age. What I am wondering is if this is also the case for Sundiata.
These thoughts are what lead me to my thesis question which is: What historical context does Sundiatamost accurately represent? And How can Sundiata be used by historians?
I plan on having three chapters in my thesis. Chapter one will discuss the nature of oral tradition and argue that despite limitations, oral tradition is a valuable historical tool if used responsibly by historians. The second chapter will consider the case of Homer, and synthesise arguments on the context of these poems to argue that they more accurately reflect the 8th Century B.C. than they do the 12th century B.C. The final Chapter will be used to discuss which period the Sundiata epic more accurately reflects. Essentially what I plan on doing is conducting a detailed textual analysis and using comparative theory to test whether or not the conclusions that have been made in regards to Homer, and consequently, many other oral traditions can also be applied to Sundiata.
In my discussion of Oral tradition I will argue that “the survival and thematic constancy of oral heroic song is tied to the continuation of the social conditions that produced it in the first place.” That is, if a society stays the same the oral tradition will stay the same, if there are massive changes to the society, these changes will materialise in that societies oral traditions.example.? I do plan on including an extensive discussion on the limitations of oral tradition as history. Some of which include the problems of memory, interpretation and translation, the notion of ‘Chinese Whispers’, and the presence of bias that can emerge from performance and audience.Given these limitations, I will be reading these oral traditions as representations rather than traditional historical sources, and I will conclude on a positive note,that “Comparisons between external evidence and the epics’ internal evidence permits us to perceive correspondences and differences and to establish general patterns.” That is if we use the information within these epics along with other sources they are of value to historians.
Another issue I am going to address in my discussion of oral tradition is what Jan Vansina refers to as the floating gap. Now he communicates this idea to us in about 7 pages of dense writing, however, I’ve decided it would be easier in a diagram. Essentially what this idea is, is that when one analyses an oral tradition there is usually plenty of information on the recent past, and that there is also information that concerns the period of origin, that is, the date when the epic was composed or crystalised. The floating gap, then, is the information that is missing from the middle period of time. This is useful model for me as it provides me with a framework for contextualising Sundiata.
This is a list of some of the other sources I will be using for my discussion of oral tradition that I have looked at so far.
Chapter two will discuss the case of Homer and make an argument for Homer’s poems reflecting the 8th century B.C. This idea came into fruition when Milman Parry developed a theory relating to a formula of pre-fabricated epithets that could be inserted into basic Greek dactylic hexameter. Epithets such as ‘swift-footed achilles’ or ‘red-haired menalaus’ could be easily placed within a semi-improvised poem if a bard had been trained properly. After Parry’s death, Albert Lord tested this theory with bards in the Balkans and concluded that the Homeric poems had not been memorised but were composed in performance. Skilled bards learnt these epithets as well as the poem’s basic narrative structure and constructed their version of the poem while performing it. Many criticised these works for devaluing Homer’s literary eloquance, however, more recently, Moses Finley’s ‘World of Odysseus’ pointed out some oddities and anachronisms that arise in the Iliad and the Odyssey. He says: “His arms bear a resemblance to the armour of his time, quite unlike the Mycenaean, although he persistently casts them in antiquated bronze, not iron. His gods had temples, and the Mycenaeans built none, whereas the latter constructed great vaulted tombs in which to bury their chieftains and the poet cremates his. A neat little touch is provided by the battle chariots. Homer had heard of them, but he did not really visualize what one did with chariots in a war. So his heroes normally drove from their tents a mile or less away, carefully dismounted, and then proceeded to battle on foot.” (Finley 1978, p.45)Finley’s text identified several instances where values, objects and procedures that were developed after the 12th century were included in the text, or where objects and values from the 12th Century were included but misunderstood. This indicates that the bard who performed this poem allowed his own context to manifest in his song.
To supplement the poems I will also be looking at other poems from the period including the works of Hesiod, as well as archaeological evidence from the periods between the 12th and 8th centuries B.C. Luckily there is quite a lot available. I will also be looking at a number of secondary sources.
The third chapter of my thesis will no doubt be the longest and the hardest to write. To determine which context Sundiata more accurately refers to I have already engaged in a detailed textual analysis of the poem, and looked at some secondary sources. I now need to develop my knowledge of each historical context it could possibly reflect.I plan to synthesise evidence from the Mali Empire, which, given a lack of archaeological evidence, mostly comprises of Arab sources from the 13th, 14th, and 15th Centuries A.D such as IbnKhaldun and IbnBattuta which I’ve looked at briefly.After trying to identify key developments in the ‘floating gap’ such as the widespread adoption of Islam as well as European colonisation, I will then gather information concerning the societies of the griot’s whose versions of the poems we have access to today, modern Guinea and Gambia. This information, though I have not started looking, will most likely come from anthropological studies. I will then make a judgement on which time period Sundiata more accurately represents by adopting the same strategy used by Moses Finley in his study of Homer. I will look for oddities and anachronisms that do not fit within a 13th century context, I will consider how many of these there are, and I will determine which time period they do indeed refer to.
I’ve put this image here to remind you all what happened to Achilles. It was foretold that he would die from an arrow to his foot, and to prevent this, his mother dipped his body into a magical river that was supposed to offer invincibility, however, she held him by his heel, and consequently it was not protected. Achilles grew up to be a hero of the Trojan war, but he was killed by an arrow to his heel. I hope that in my research and writing I am able to identify and correct my own weaknesses so that I do not suffer the same fate. I hope that I will be able to accurately address the limitations of using oral tradition as history. As I mentioned briefly, this is still highly debated.I hope that I will be able to overcome my lack of knowledge of West Africa. I have never really studied the region before and need to work on developing my knowledge if my thesis is to be successful.Finally,I hope I can come up with a sophisticated title- if you have any ideas let me know!
Contextualising Oral Traditions: A Comparative Study of Homer and Sundiata
What is Oral Tradition?• Oral tradition refers to the transferring of cultural knowledge, material and traditions, from one generation to another. (Vansina1985, p.27-28)• An epic may be defined as a “long narrative poem with an emphasis on the heroic" (Finnegan, 1977, p.9)
Homeric Epics• The Iliad and the Odyssey• Original composition dates unknown, crystallised somewhere in Ionia towards the end of the 8th century BC• Passed down through oral tradition by bards• Centered on the Trojan Wars (Iliad) and Odysseus’s journey home after the fall of Troy (Odyssey)• Based on actual historical events (12th Century BC)• Subject of extensive scholarly research
Sundiata• Composed within the Mali empire, date of composition unknown• Passed down through oral tradition by bards (griots, jeli)• ‘Our’ versions recorded in the 20th century A.D in Guinea and Gambia.• Centeredon Sundiata’s coming of age and his establishment of the Mali empire• Based (loosely?) on actual historical events (13th century AD)• Subject of minimal scholarly research.
Contextualising the Poems The Iliad and The Odyssey SundiataEvents depicted Mediterranean, 12th Mali Empire, 13th Century B.C. Century A.D.‘Our’ version(s) Ionia, 8th Century B.C. Gambia, Guinea, 20th Century A.D.Gap 4 centuries 7 centuriesPeriod poem(s)represent 8th Century B.C. (still ??? debated)
Thesis Question:What historical context does Sundiatamostaccurately represent? How can Sundiata be usedby historians?
Structure• Chapter One. The Nature of Oral Tradition: Despite limitations, oral tradition is a valuable historical tool if used responsibly by historians.• Chapter Two: The Case of Homer: Homer’s epics more accurately reflects the 8th Century B.C. than the 12th Century B.C.• Chapter Three: Contextualising Sundiata: Sundiata more accurately reflects ???? Methodolody: Comparative History, Textual Analysis
1. The Nature of Oral Tradition• “The survival and thematic constancy of oral heroic song is tied to the continuation of the social conditions that produced it in the first place.“ (Raaflaub, 2005, p. 65)• Limitations: Memory, ‘Chinese Whispers’, bias, interpretation, translation, performance and audience Oral traditions as representations• Oral Traditions as representations• “Comparisons between such external evidence and the epics’ internal evidence permits us to perceive correspondences and differences and to establish general patterns.” (Raaflaub, 2005, p.56)
Sources for Oral Tradition• Jan Vansina• Milman Parry&Albert Bates Lord• Walter Ong• John Miles Foley• Ruth Finnegan• Anne Chalmers Watts• Anthropological studies
2. The Case of Homer• Milman Parry developeda theory of pre-fabricated epithets, e.g. “swift-footed Achilles,” claiming that Homeric poems were semi-improvised. (1971) Parry and Lord tested these theories in the Balkans. (1960) Criticisms: theory devalues Homer’s literary eloquence.• “His arms bear a resemblance to the armour of his time, quite unlike the Mycenaean, although he persistently casts them in antiquated bronze, not iron. His gods had temples, and the Mycenaeans built none, whereas the latter constructed great vaulted tombs in which to bury their chieftains and the poet cremates his. A neat little touch is provided by the battle chariots. Homer had heard of them, but he did not really visualize what one did with chariots in a war. So his heroes normally drove from their tents a mile or less away, carefully dismounted, and then proceeded to battle on foot.” (Finley 1978, p.45)
Other Sources for the Homeric Epics• Hesiod and other Greek poets• Archaeological evidence (from the 12th and 8th Centuries B.C.)• Secondary sources: - Parry and Lord - Moses Finley - John Miles Foley - Ian Morris - Anthony Snodgrass - Jonathan M. Hall - Andrew Dalby - Robin Osborne - G.S. Kirk - Anne Watts
3. Contextualising Sundiata• Textual analysis of the poem• Synthesis of evidence from 13th Century A.D. Mali Empire (Arab sources, limited archaeological evidence)• Synthesis of evidence from the 18th-20th Centuries A.D. Guinea, Gambia (anthropological works)• Key developments in ‘floating gap’, e.g. Islam, colonialism• Make a judgement on which context the poem more accurately represents
Potential Problems• Accurately addressing the limitations of using oral tradition as history• Lack of knowledge on Africa• Coming up with a good title