Homo Narrans: The Poetics and Anthropology of Oral Literature

Homo Narrans: The Poetics and Anthropology of Oral Literature

Homo Narrans: The Poetics and Anthropology of Oral Literature

Homo Narrans: The Poetics and Anthropology of Oral Literature


An exploration of how human beings shape their world through the stories they tell. The author ponders the nature of the storytelling impulse, the social function of narrative, and the role of individual talent in oral tradition."


Only connect.

— E. M. Forster, Howards End

Oral narrative, or what we call storytelling in everyday speech, is as much around us as the air we breathe, although we often take its casual forms so much for granted that we are scarcely aware of them. It is also an ancient practice. The early Greeks called it mûthos, a word that we often translate “myth” but that encompassed storytelling in many forms. To judge from the cuneiform records of ancient Sumeria, the papyri of early Egypt, the earliest bamboo and bronze inscriptions of ancient China, and other records that have come down to us from the dawn of European and Asian civilization, oral narrative and the myths, legends, and heroic histories that it incorporates have been part of human experience for as long as verbal records exist. The oral basis of early literature can be inferred sometimes from its formal qualities, sometimes from the existence of parallels in modern folk literature, and sometimes by what is known of its means of transmission (as with the Vedic hymns, which have been transmitted memorially up to recent times). One thing that is remarkable about much of this literature is that it is composed with a firm and confident technique, as if it were already mature by the time it was written down. We can only guess as to how far back into prehistory the practice of oral narrative extends.

The purpose of this book is to investigate the poetics of oral literature, concentrating on its various narrative modes and taking “poetics” in the broad sense of “making” (as in Greek poiesis) rather than in the more narrow formalist sense that the word often bears in literary criticism. Since “oral narrative” has many different associations in the minds of different people, that term should be defined before I proceed further. By oral narrative I mean to denote people’s use of the elements of speech to . . .

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