The Anthropology of Wisdom Literature

The Anthropology of Wisdom Literature

The Anthropology of Wisdom Literature

The Anthropology of Wisdom Literature


This unusual book examines definitions of the fable, apologue, parable, moral tale, etc. It then proposes the use of the term exemplum, used by medieval scribes, to define all types of wisdom narratives. It makes a cross-cultural structural analysis of the exemplum and identifies its tripartite structure composed of the promythium, the nucleus, and the epimythium. The book ends with an analysis of the reasons why grown men spent so much time writing and collecting these tales. It demonstrates that fables and related genres were not really meant for little children to learn moral lessons. They were used to teach complex religious and political ideologies, to safely ridicule tyrants and despots, to release tensions, and to give good or bad advice.


The application of the anthropological approach to literature is not a new idea. Franz Boas (1951), who considered literature to be an important part of culture, dedicated much of his research to the literature and folklore of North American Indians and Eskimos. Since then, the anthropological approach has been routinely implemented by the American school of anthropology and folklore, which views verbal arts and literature as manifestations and expressions of culture. However, most of these studies focused on oral rather than written literature since ethnographic work concentrated for a long time on nonliterate societies.

One of the most significant contributions of anthropology to literary criticism is the oral-formulaic theory elaborated by Milman Parry and Albert Lord in the 1920s and 1930s. Parry was influenced by the work of ethnographers Vasilii V. Radlov (1885), who studied the Karga-Kirghiz and their oral epics, and Gerhard Gesemann (1926) and Matija Murko (1929), who observed the South Slavs. These ethnographers were the first to note the existence of epic formulas and the importance of conditions of performance, two aspects of the epic to which Parry paid particular attention in formulating his own theory.

Parry postulated that the Homeric epic belonged to an oral tradition that must have flourished in Greece long before Homer's variants were recorded for posterity. All he needed was concrete data to support his theory. So, in 1935, he planned to carry out field observations in Yugoslavia in order to systematically compare the Homeric epic with an extant tradition. Unfortunately, he met an untimely death in an accident, and it was left to his pupil, Albert Bates Lord to carry out the project (Foley 1988).

Lord did not let his mentor down. He painstakingly recorded not only the South Slavic epics but also the conditions in which they were performed. Armed with a wealth of empirical data, he was able to draw a parallel between . . .

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