Re: On oral traditions

Gary Goodman (sap@TANK.RGS.UKY.EDU)
Thu, 16 May 1996 17:41:20 EDT

For everyone but Mike>> See reposting below.

MS>Personally, I blame it all on Gilgamesh. More specifically, I think the
MS>Old Testament account of Noah's flood looks like a distorted version of
MS>the flood story in Gilgamesh because that is what it is-- a distorted and
MS>exaggerated version of a commonly known tale in the Middle East, the
MS>sort of tale a hospitable illiterate nomad might tell to amuse a guest. I
MS>find that a lot easier to believe than a ten thousand year old folk myth.

But where did that COMMON story come from Mike? That is the whole
point. Where really did the Gilgamesh Epic story itself really come
from in the first place? I know the standard explanations but are they
adequate to explain the coincidental details in the many other Flood
myths around the Med? Just how wide spread was the GE? Is there a
common source for the Flood Myths?

Once again, we use 100's of thousands of years old customs and language
units every day. They survived. Why not an event that literally

Oh heck Mike, if I had to lay a bet I'd bet 50-1 against the Semitic
Flood Myth coming from the Med. Basin Flood. But should we so
out-of-hand dismiss the possibility?

MS>> Interesting question here. Just how much "noise" does enter the oral
MS>> historical data-stream over the years?.

MS>Much, I'm convinced. (As for my family history, the story seems to be a
MS>conflation of 1848 events -- "the Kaiser" is an anachronism that must
MS>have krept in when my grandfather heard the tale, back when the Kaiser
MS>was still on the German throne-- and earlier ones, probably confusing
MS>several individuals).

MS>I don't think the problem is "mental laziness and lack of memory
MS>training." I think the problem is that ancient memories are almost
MS>always useless memories. How would the average Mexican farmer be
MS>benefited by remembering the precise details of the fall of the
MS>Aztecs? Very little, I suspect. There's no incentive for people to
MS>remember details which don't touch their day to day life, so they

Agreed What is important to us is the garbage to be build-over for
others. Yet some peoples' stories seem to be passed on in excellent
detail. One story my family did tell was one about one of my
great-great grandfathers' particular adventure in the Civil War that
directly contradicted the standard version of the battle in the history
texts but was latter confirmed by an archaelogical dig. I wish I had
enough details to write it up. I have a friend who tells stories passed
down from Colonial times that seem reasonably accurate. Never written
down to my knowledge.
MS>> How long CAN events be pasted on orally in a recognizable form?
MS>> How much does (if it does) the written word reduce the oral traditions
MS>> of lore preservation?
MS>> Are there consistent changes, alike vowel-shift in language, that occur
MS>> in oral traditions per generation?
MS>> And if we cannot trust oral traditions past a few decades, what does
MS>> that do to not just anthropology but history?
MS>Interesting questions. Why not post them and see what kind of ansers
MS>they draw?

Thought I had?

Didn't they take?

Opps! Sorry 'bout that!

For everyone else the original post (I'll get the hang of this in a few


MS>On Tue, 14 May 1996, Gary Goodman wrote:

MS>> Personally I think also that the Med. area Flood Myths are just perhaps
MS>> distant echoes of when the Gilbratar dam broke and flooded what would
MS>> have fit very well the description of Paradise, allow for thousands of
MS>> years of oral distortion.

MS>I'm awful skeptical of the notion that oral tradition is going to
MS>preserve any memory of catastrophe for very long-- a few centuries or
MS>less is probably the limit.

But in truth Mike, how do we really know? Perhaps the wide-spread
impact of such a major event over the many hundreds of years it took to
fill the basin may have made this stick. After all units of language
and cultural behavior have been passed along over thousands of years.
Interesting question here. Just how much "noise" does enter the oral
historical data-stream over the years?. Let us not underestimate the
power of recollection of early man. Look at how lore is preserved among
peoples without written language for hundreds of years, or just
possibily as some have suggested besides myself, even thousands, about
that which we are fairly certain DOES reflect real events.

I ain't making a big campaign for this notion, but it does solve some
vexing coincidences.

MS>My first reason for thinking this: I've heard anecdotes from some of my
MS>very own professors-- honorable people all!-- that turned out to be
MS>garbled accounts of events transpiring with the last century. I've also
MS>heard accounts of my own family's history that make no sense at all-- I
MS>have distant ancestors, it seems, who fled to America after an
MS>unsuccesful attempt to assasinate the Kaiser (1870?) brought on by a potato
MS>famine (1848?) and who then fought on the British side in the
MS>Revolutionary War (1776). This in an age when writing is commonplace!

Once again, this is misleading since we are talking about a culture
that has lonf since turned over long-term history-keeping to written
records. THAT may be the problem! Mental laziness and lack of memory

It may also be your ancestor was a Hessian, forced to become a
mercenary because of one of the numerious famines (including potato
crops too BTW) that did occur in the Germanic states (and, if I am not
mistaken, many persons as a result became soldiers, and German princes
often had then to supply troops in tribute to the Emperor -- some after
attempting to unsuccessfully become independent -- these formed the
bulk of the mercenaries supplied to all sides in various wars), and
thus rented out to the British. And like most of the German mercenaries
in the Revolution, deserted to become Americans.

Then it got all mixed up with the Irish Potato famine and WW1. Yet at
core may be true.

MS>My second reason: I've known a fair number of Hispanics over the years,
MS>and not a one has a family story to tell that involves the fall of the
MS>Aztec Empire. I've never met a Phillippino with stories about the Moro
MS>Insurrection. I daresay they learn about it in school and see it
MS>replayed endlessly on television, but as a personnaly felt event, it's
MS>gone. I probably had ancestors in the Civil War-- but the facts are
MS>gone, and I doubt that I'm unique. Memory doesn't last.

Then again, maybe you have and didn't recognize it. Or they never
bothered to tell you. OR, since they became part of a literate
civilization (however marginally) there was no need to preserve the
stories orally. Or they were from families that lived only in the
moment, and did not seek to preserve the past -- like amny families of
Hispanics and Filapinos and others. Or many of our own. I never heard
the stories of Civil War adventures of my ancestors (who WERE in it),
like is true in many Southern families today, and I know people telling
stories of their COLONIAL ancestors and even OLD COUNTRY
pre-Revolutionary ancestors like certain Scot and Scot-Irish clans! Or
they repressed it. Lots of alternative explanations Mike.

Seems we have several questions here:

How long CAN events be pasted on orally in a recognizable form?

How much does (if it does) the written word reduce the oral traditions
of lore preservation?

Are there consistent changes, alike vowel-shift in language, that occur
in oral traditions per generation?

And if we cannot trust oral traditions past a few decades, what does
that do to not just anthropology but history?

Gary D. Goodman


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